Networking is a necessary part of a professional career today. The data tells us that the majority of people searching for new jobs find the best positions through their network connections. It’s also how we learn about new opportunities, expand our world view, and see new possibilities. Networking is also the best way to get things done inside an organization. The most effective professionals develop key contacts willing to share their expertise and help us cut through red-tape. No one can know everything; we need others to successfully complete complicated projects and intricate research. Good networks help us identify key partners for innovative collaboration and productive team work.

Having trusted advisors and colleagues means we don’t have to go it alone and it increases our chances to establish relationships that can help us in ways we can’t possible anticipate. Networks help us develop as professionals, grow as people, and function more efficiently day-to-day. They help us learn, they help us grow, and they help us navigate life’s difficulties. Networks are a vital part of life and very often they can help us achieve our long-term goals. But if networks clearly provide value and are such an essential part of today’s complex world, why doesn’t everyone have one? Simple – it’s because building a vital, useful network and maintaining it long-term is really, really hard work.

Successful networking is all about building relationships – something that takes time, courage, and commitment. It requires you go out into the world, meet people, speak with people, listen to people and share yourself. It requires you take risks and open yourself up to new ideas; prepare yourself to respect difference; and position yourself to consider undiscovered possibility. Professional organizations, mentor programs, volunteering, team projects, work groups, discussion groups, book clubs, conferences, workshops are all viable options.

In addition, in today’s world there are multiple virtual options that allow you to connect with a global audience you may not meet in person. You can join on-line communities related to your interests, comment on blog posts, participate in online discussion groups, or seek advice on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or a myriad of other venues. Choose things that appeal to you, fit your lifestyle and your personality – try them out and if they don’t suit you; seek others that do. If you really can’t find something that works, you can always start something yourself. Write a blog, start a community, launch a discussion group, or form a dinner club. There are so many options.

Getting start can seem intimidating if this sort of thing is new to you. Here are a few steps that have helped us get organized:

1. Determine what you want from your networking efforts – while networks can serve multiple purposes overtime, it’s best to identify your main objective to give you focus.
2. Do a bit of research – don’t let this become such a distraction that it prevents you from getting out there, but identifying potential networking venues inside and outside your organization is helpful.
3. Ask your friends and your colleagues – they share your interests; know you as a person; and you trust them. It’s a natural place to start.
4. Jump in and try it – don’t over think it, attend with an open mind and give it a fair chance. Don’t go just once, go at least 3 times. You need data to make an informed decision and no one feels comfortable the very first time they attend something.
5. Go prepared – bring business cards and establish a goal (e.g. I will meet two new people before I leave tonight).
6. Keep an open mind – don’t judge until you have the facts to make an informed decision.
7. Don’t expect too much – relationships take time, don’t expect to accelerate the process, be realistic.
8. Participate – ask questions, show an interest, partake in the discussion, and raise your hand.
9. Converse with the intent to get to know someone – exchange conversation with the objective of getting to know someone a bit. When you see them a second time, be sure to pick up where you left off.
10. Don’t ask for things right away – it’s impolite to ask someone you barely know to help you find a new job. You can let everyone know you are looking, but let them decide if they want to offer help.
11. Be prepared to help – people are more inclined to help you if you have shown your willingness to help them. Be the first one to offer help and it is a lot easier to ask for help later.
12. Follow-up – after the event, send LinkedIn invitations to new contacts (if you had a conversation and you exchanged business cards this is perfectly appropriate).
13. Technology can help, but it is not a substitute for a relationship – whether you are connecting with people face-to-face or connecting online, trusted relationships are the key to productive networks.

Creating a connection with people using technology is possible, but it does pose interesting challenges. Our experience tells us that any relationship develops over time. Following a blog or a discussion group and commenting often (in a substantive way), starting discussions yourself and connecting with people who comment helps you to establish your reputation as a serious professional. Offering help, connecting through LinkedIn, commented on someone’s status updates are natural moments that strengthen relationships. Having a picture on your LinkedIn profile also helps – it humanizes you.

Finally, networks work best when you start building them before you are in crisis. It’s easier to look for a job when you have one; apply the same principle to networking. Build it before you need it so you can leverage it when you do. Establishing a robust network inside and outside your organization is smart and professionally necessary. Maintaining it even when everything is going great is even smarter so you are fully prepared for the life changes that are sure to come tomorrow.