(This column was originally published in SNEWS, the most trusted outdoor and fitness industry news source since 1984. www.snewsnet.com)

As the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, a large number of Americans are seeking jobs, and networking has become a critical skill.

There are about 6.3 people competing for each job, the U.S. Labor Department reported in October, so job seekers face plenty of competition. But they must also deal with the fact that many open jobs are not posted publicly. Often, there is less competition for non-posted jobs -- so networking is key to discovering openings not listed on the Internet or in the newspaper classifieds.

But networking is a challenge for most unemployed people because it forces them to step outside their comfort zone. People can feel vulnerable and unsure of themselves as they ask for help or information that moves them toward their goal, whether it’s a new job, new project or the next phase in life.

Networking is less daunting if you break down the process into three parts. First, you should understand normal concerns that arise for those out of work, and how you can overcome those concerns. Second, you should consider basic strategies for success in networking. And third, you should learn certain tactics to create a successful networking campaign.
Concerns with being weak
The most common concerns come from feeling “less than” or weak. A person’s self-inhibiting inner voice might cause one to think, “I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m looking for work. It’s like I’m begging for a job. I don’t want people to think that I’m taking advantage of them.”

Well, looking for work or for the next project does not carry the stigma it did in the past. Studies show the average person changes jobs every five years. Your networking contacts will be much more sympathetic than you think.

Networking is not begging because, in fact, you ARE NOT asking for a job. You are seeking information that can lead to a job. Usually the contacts will not be potential employers, but rather people who know about potential employment.

Good networking creates and sustains a mutually beneficial relationship. Plan to give as much or more than you receive. You will be surprised at how willing people are to help. If approached correctly, people will feel honored that you value their input.
Strategies for success
Networking strategies range from basic to sophisticated. Here are some general ideas on effective networking techniques:

>> Initiate contacts for the sole purpose of networking. Do not just wait to bump into people. The best career self-managers always look to expand their contacts.

>> Develop a networking list. Make contact with each person on the list. Add names of people you meet or to whom you are referred. Update the list regularly.

>> Set networking goals. Write down specific goals for the number of networking contacts to make each day or each week, and then monitor your performance.

>> Set goals for each meeting. Meet with a purpose; don’t just “get together” to see where it leads. Express the goal when you set the meeting.

>> Come prepared. Know about the person you’re meeting. Do research. Have a list of questions to ask. While you are talking, take notes.

>> Ask for referrals. Ask the person if he or she knows someone else you should meet. Ask permission to use the person’s name when initiating contact.

>> Maintain networking files. Keep records of the meeting outcomes and note important information about the person. This will be helpful downstream.

>> Meet in person whenever possible. Telephone contacts are sufficient for most networking events, but face time is much more valuable.

>> Express appreciation early and often. Let them know you value the information and their professional opinion. Send thanks by email or snail mail.

>> Plan the next steps. If you are to follow up, make a note on your calendar. If you agree to do something, be sure to follow through. Set the right tone.
Campaign tactics
There are four basic categories of networking contacts. Each brings a unique value. A good campaign draws the best from each of the four categories.

1. People you know well.
These are the people closest to you: family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. They have the greatest interest in your success and are excellent networking contacts. Also, they are the people with whom you are most comfortable.

This is a good place to begin your networking campaign, because you can ask for the most assistance from this group. However, it is important to set clear goals and expectations. They might want to help more than you want. Remember to acknowledge their value and say “thank you” throughout the process.

2. People you see occasionally.
Examples might be acquaintances and business contacts. More than 25 percent of the people who find jobs through networking received the referral from someone they see once a year or less.

While you might be less comfortable with these people, they also have the greatest potential value. Ask this group for ideas and referrals. When making contact, you might need to reintroduce yourself. State your purpose, acknowledge their value and request a meeting.

It’s a good idea to set reasonable time limits like 20 or 30 minutes, and be sure to stick to your time limit. Come well prepared and be professional and organized in the discussion. This attitude will generate additional referrals.
3. Referrals from networking contacts.
Expand your network by meeting people who are friends, associates and acquaintances of your networking contacts. Remember to ask at each meeting if the person knows anyone else to whom you should talk. Sometimes these will be people with additional information, but they could also be potential employers.

At this point, most job seekers are out of their comfort zone. Simultaneously, this is where you can find the real action. You are getting closer to that next position or project.

When approaching the referral contact, introduce yourself with a lead statement that will get their attention. If given permission, use the name of the person who referred you. State your purpose clearly and request a meeting.
4. Cold calling people you do not know.
Through your research and networking, you will probably discover names of people with whom you should talk. This type of contact takes an additional level of confidence, but the potential is great. Take the initiative and you will discover these contacts can really pay off.

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