Back in the nineties, when I started a new coaching or outplacement engagement with a client, I would often have to educate them on the important role that networking plays in job search success — and then explain what the word “networking” actually meant, since at the time, this was a fairly new buzzword that was entering the marketplace!

Fast-forward a decade or so, however, and you’ll find the term “networking” firmly embedded in the lexicon of almost every professional, since it’s hard to imagine that any human being could possibly have avoided the onslaught of books, articles, websites, and news stories devoted to the topic in recent years.  Most professionals have also now finally come to appreciate and accept the fact, at long last, that the vast majority of all hiring (as well as most business transactions) takes place under the radar screen, driven by an invisible web of trusted referral relationships.

There’s trouble in paradise, however.  Now that the concept of networking has gained a status of “cozy familiarity” among so many of us, I’m starting to see a trend that concerns me.  What I’ve observed in recent months, and had brought into sharp focus by a few recent examples among my own client base, is that many people think they’re networking appropriately, and actively, but actually aren’t.  At least not in the manner most likely to produce results.  What I’ve observed is that many people now seem to treat the word networking as synonymous with “going to lots of events” and/or “having coffee with lots of people.”  I would argue, however, that this is a very imperfect and ineffective way to view the concept, since it completely disregards the volitional aspect involved in true quality networking.  In other words, you can’t simply hang around a bunch of people, passively, and pat yourself on the back for a “networking job” well done.  If you’re not getting out of your comfort zone and routinely requesting referrals, favors, and specific advice from people, on a daily basis, you’re likely cheating the process — and as a consequence, cheating yourself.

For example, when I watch true networking-minded professionals in action, these people always have a crystal-clear agenda in mind and are working some angle that they believe will help them get closer to their goals.  They call you not just to say hello and shoot the breeze, but to ask whether you can point them to any specific companies in town who are working on new robotics technology…or selling outdoor industry products…or offering web marketing solutions…or developing alternative energy technologies.  Or they send you a copy of their cover letter and say “would you tear this apart and let me know how you’d respond to it, if you received a note like this?”  Or they ask you how much you know about writing a business plan, and if you don’t know much, who you’d recommend that does have this particular expertise.  Or best of all, following the advice I’ve been spewing for years, they’ll whip out a list of specific local companies and say “Hey, I need your help.  I’ve done a ton of research lately to isolate the 25 companies in town I could add the most value to, given my background and expertise, and was hoping you could look through this list to see what you might know about these firms — or better yet, who you might know that could help me get a foot in the door.”

On the other hand, I also know hundreds of people who are simply milling around out there in the community, having pleasant interactions with people, but never actually taking the initiative to ask for what they want and need — or to figure out what these specific wants and needs should be, in the first place!  These are the people with whom you’ll have a nice chat over coffee, and with whom you’ll trade quips about the weather or the latest college basketball scores, but where you’ll leave the meeting wondering “what is that person actually trying to do?” or “what did that person actually want from me?”  These are also the people who are currently enrolled in as many as a half-dozen networking groups or clubs around town (including, admittedly, ones I host) where they’ll surround themselves with other supportive and well-intentioned job hunters, but fail to realize that there’s only so much tangible benefit to be gained within the comfortable womb of these types of environments.  Should such groups be part of one’s networking strategy?  Absolutely.  But I’m sure we’d all admit that there’s likely much more to be gained by participating in organizations where people come together to celebrate a shared passion — or where the other attendees are actually working and positioned more favorably to make introductions to actual decision-makers.

So if you’ve been out of work for a while, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart chat with yourself around this issue.  Are you truly engaged in an active regimen of goal-oriented “power” networking or are you simply going through the motions, attending a bunch of softball events and hoping that somehow, miraculously, another unemployed professional will drop a red-hot lead in your lap?  I’m afraid to say that I know many people who are drifting into the latter camp, as of late, and I’m quite concerned about how this will impact both the success and speed of their overall employment search…