Ah, the irony of it all.  In an age where everything is “digital this” or “digital that” it’s been fascinating to watch the importance of personal relationships increase, not decrease, in terms of the job hunting process.  It’s almost as if there’s now SO much access to talent — and so many zillabytes of content floating around the web — that hiring managers just don’t want to mess with it all.  Instead, when they’ve got a hiring need, they will frequently just ask around to their network (at least as a first step) to see if anybody knows any good people to recommend.  Or if they’re a larger company, bound by law to advertise their positions, they’ll at least give extra credit to those candidates who come through personal referrals or a networking connection of some kind.

In light of this, learning how to network effectively is an imperative step for most career-minded professionals.  And yet, for many of us, networking is not a competency we find enjoyable or that comes naturally.  I, myself, have had to struggle through a lifetime of introverted tendencies and shyness to learn how to engage in the process effectively — and to get better at building, managing, and maintaining the web of relationships needed to sustain my business and assist clients in landing new opportunities.

To this end, I thought I’d share eight key insights I’ve picked up along the way that I’ve found greatly helpful in increasing my own comfort level with networking — in the hopes that a few of these tips might help some of you out there, as well, in understanding and embracing this important process.

1) Accepting that talent is only half the battle.  When I first entered the job market, right out of college, I was under the mistaken notion that the hiring world was largely a meritocracy and that being good at your job — and talented in your field — was the #1 key to getting ahead.  Very quickly, however, after observing the kinds of people who tended to land the best jobs, it became clear that talent alone wasn’t the sole factor.  Having solid skills in self-promotion, networking, and relationship-building were equally as important — if not more — in advancing one’s career.  In light of this undeniable reality, I faced the choice of either to sit around moping, wishing the world worked differently, or to embrace the idea that networking was a distinct skill set that serious professionals needed to conquer.  So rather than grumble about those people who were good at self-promotion, I flipped my perspective, and now am largely in awe of them and try to learn as much as I can from those folks who just naturally thrive at tooting their own horn in an appropriate, effective way.

2) Networking isn’t synonymous with schmoozing.  Like many folks, my first impressions about the phenomenon called “networking” was that it was a superficial, manipulative, and self-aggrandizing activity.  That was my naivete talking.  I didn’t understand the process and, in hindsight, was likely trying to unconsciously demonize the activity as an excuse for not being good at it.  At some key point, however, I realized that at its core, networking is primarily a research process where you are simply working through relationships to get questions answered and obtain certain types of information.  Once I reframed the process in this manner, and thought of my networking efforts as a research project or treasure hunt — not a sales pitch — it made it much easier for an introvert like myself to get my head around it.

3) You’re not selfishly “using” people in one-way fashion.  Another huge part of my growth around networking was the realization that the people I asked for help, or approached for favors, weren’t walking away from these interactions empty-handed. While sure, I couldn’t immediately reciprocate their generosity with something tangible, I finally woke up to the fact that most people (including me, and hopefully you, too) like helping others for the simple, immutable reason that it makes them feel good about themselves.  When you allow people to lend a hand, they got a positive feeling out of it and the sense they’ve done something important, noble, and useful.  Once I realized this, and that networking transactions weren’t entirely one-sided, I felt a lot more comfortable approaching people and asking for help.  I just had to hold up MY end of the bargain, which was to ensure I showed proper gratitude, didn’t waste their time or act entitled, and actually took their advice, applied it, and closed the loop with them down the road.  Was I unique in this observation?  No.  In fact, Ben Franklin came to this same realization, as you can read here, almost 300 years ago…

4) You’ve got tools to help you.  You’ve got LinkedIn.  You’ve got Facebook.  You’ve got www.iloveseattle.org and www.meetup.com and www.eventbrite and a litany of other sites.  Simply put, there’s a universe of powerful tools available today that can help you find appropriate events to meet like-minded people, as well as strengthen ties with your existing contacts.  This is a godsend for introverts, since nothing is more existentially painful for folks like us than going to random “networking” functions, trying to awkwardly introduce ourselves and stumble our way into making a useful connection or two.  So the ability to use the above types of technologies to be more intentional and strategic about our networking efforts, and to work through existing “warm” relationships to make useful contacts, is a major advantage that simply wasn’t available in decades past.

5) You know more people than you think.  While I often hear exasperated job hunters exclaim that they “don’t know anybody” or “don’t have much of a network” around town, in truth, this is rarely the case.  According to most social scientists, the typical U.S. adult knows at least several hundred people in this world — or even as many as 624, according to one recent study.  So when you’re taking stock of your relationships, and trying to accurately assess the strength of your network, make sure you’re not accidentally leaving anybody out.  Don’t just focus on your immediate professional peers.  Chances are you know hundreds of friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, vendors, service providers, gym buddies, church acquaintances, and other types of people who might be able to provide assistance.  Avoid making assumptions about who might be able to help — and who can’t — and tap into the full slate of people that you likely know, giving them the opportunity to come through for you!

6) Out of sight, out of mind.  A corollary that follows from the above tip?  It’s not just about knowing lots of people, it’s also about maintaining healthy, top-of-mind relationships with them.  Just like with advertising campaigns, it often takes multiple impressions — or interactions with somebody — to develop a strong relationship and ensure they’re clear about what you do, what you’re looking for, and how to help.  So make a point to touch base with people on a fairly regular basis to keep them abreast of your activities, especially in terms of newer acquaintances.  Avoid the peril of undercommunication.  If you’re an active job seeker, for example, I’d suggest you touch base with most of your top contacts at least every 4-6 weeks to update them on your progress and keep them engaged in your effort.  Out of sight, out of mind, as the old saying goes — and if somebody doesn’t hear from you from a month or two, they might assume you’ve landed somewhere!

7) Be thoughtful.  Here’s a quick one.  We all have those moments when we suddenly think about somebody we haven’t seen in a while — or come across something (an article, a lead, an event, a potential introduction) that we know might be of interest to one of our acquaintances.  When these moments happen, don’t sweep them under the carpet or put them at the end of your to-do list, where they’ll likely never get accomplished.  Act on them.  It only takes a moment and tells your network you’re thinking about them, appreciate them, and keeping your eyes open on their behalf.  In fact, a very wise woman named Maya Angelou had something to say about this.

8) Managing your “social capital” should be a lifelong habit.  Last but not least, one of the big a-ha moments for a novice networker like myself, back in the day, was the realization that networking wasn’t something you did in those periodic moments when you suddenly needed a new job … or a sales lead .. or some other sort of favor.  It’s not an activity you “turn off” and then “turn back on” when circumstances warrant.  It’s a way of life.  Sure, the intensity will vary and there will times when you’ll need to be more active and engaged in the process than others, but at some level, your commitment to keeping your relationships healthy should never stop.

As the networking expert and author of “Never Eat Alone” once wrote:

“I can’t tell you how many times a friend has called me and said ‘Keith, I just became unemployed. I need to start networking, will you teach me how?’ My answer: “No. no. no. You need to start job hunting! You should have been building relationships for the past 5 or 10 years, so now that you need a job, you could make 20 calls and have 5 job offers waiting for you in a week…”

I’ll let Keith have the last word on this one — and again, hope some of these tips will prove helpful to those of you out there, like me, who are on the path toward improving their networking effectiveness!