WASHINGTON There's an old adage, "it's not what you know, it's who you know."
That adage couldn't be more appropriate in today's competitive job market. And networking (especially when you're employed) can be the key to staying employed and staying on a clear career track.
But there's more to networking than shaking hands and exchanging business cards. Done right, networking helps you forge relationships with like-minded professionals to the benefit all.
While networking is often used to generate referrals and leads for new business, it's also extremely useful for finding a new job, discovering possible new hires, improving basic business practices, or changing career paths altogether.
The key is to get out there and connect. It's up to you to find and make the most of the opportunities presented.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Have a plan.
For every event you attend, make a commitment to yourself to connect with a specific number of people. Three to five people is realistic. Make sure the contacts are "new" and not people you've met before. This will help get you out of your "comfort zone" and you won't spend your entire evening chatting up old friends.
Dress the part.
Fifty-five percent of a good impression is based on how you look. If you want to be perceived as a professional you need to dress like one. Make sure your clothes are neat, fit well and appropriate to the time of day and event.
Remember to say hello and pronounce your name clearly and distinctly. Make sure your business cards are clean and not tattered. Shake hands firmly and make good eye contact with everyone you meet. Say the person's name when you say goodbye and tell the person how much you enjoyed meeting them and hope to see them again.
Make the ask.
Don't rely on other people to remember and reach out to you. It's your job to ask people for their business card and to maintain contact.
Stay in touch.
The biggest mistake people make in networking is not keeping in touch with the contacts they make. Find reasons to reach out and connect.
Perhaps send a link to an interesting news story related to the individual's industry. Or, if you've identified a common interest such as a love of modern art or music, let them know about an opening or event.
It's not necessary to make plans to meet at the event. Just reaching out is enough to help strengthen your connection and forge their sense of who you are.
Take a leadership role in your community and industry organization to build visibility. Join the Chamber of Commerce or, if possible, a more industry-specific organization such as the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.
Offer to speak at events and offer advice as an "industry expert." This will position you as a trusted resource and someone to turn to for answers.
While networking generally begins with a quick introduction, the actual benefits can take longer to cultivate. It's all about give-and-take and it may take a year or two but if you are diligent, eventually the phone will ring and there's no telling what kind of opportunity will be on the line.
(Pamela Eyring is the president of The Protocol School of Washington (PSOW), which provides professional business etiquette and international protocol training. Founded in 1988, PSOW is the only school of its kind in the U.S. to become accredited. Any opinions expressed are her own. PSOW's website is: www.psow.edu.)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)