Whether you’re a self-employed solo entrepreneur, a small business owner, or an executive who’s either looking for a new career path or who’s happily entrenched where you are, the key to keeping your “pipeline” filled, whether you’re looking for new projects, new sales leads, or a potential new position, is to network, Network, NETWORK!

I can’t say it enough: from job searchers, executives in transition, and small business owners looking to grow,  to high level marketing groups such as AMA (www.ama.org),  PRSA (www.prsa.org), MENG (www.mengonline.com),  and others, building a network of relevant contacts and leads can mean the difference between success and failure.

What do I mean by relevant contacts? Well, if I’m interested in becoming the best surfboard salesman in southern California, my network does me no good (no matter how many people are in it and no matter how well-intended they are) if it’s made up mostly of corn futures brokers from the Midwest. The point is, while the size of your network matters, the relevance of who is in your network to your needs, interests, and intentions trumps raw numbers. The best scenario is that you have many relevant contacts—people you can count on and who count on you for information, access, and leads.

Networks can also keep you up-to-date on industry and work place trends, can keep you connected and relevant, otherwise you might get old and musty like that suit you hung in the closet back in 2001 and have been meaning to wear one of these days! Attend those mixers. Establish those connections. Reach out and get engaged. Become known and visible so that when opportunities arise people think of you and reach out to you. That’s what networking is all about!

Just what the critical mass of your network needs to be—the point where its sheer size starts to churn out opportunities and leads seemingly on autopilot—is a bit of a mystery. I have painstakingly built a closed network of more than 1,000 people on LinkedIn. I am very protective of this network. Everyone in it has met certain criteria, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But do you need 1,000 contacts (or more), or do you need just 100, 250, or 500? There’s no way of really knowing . . . but trust me, when you hit that critical mass point, you will know that you’ve built something of substantial value. You will begin to experience more interaction and engagement with the people in your network. Information will flow and opportunities—some relevant, some not so relevant, but all very interesting—will begin to present themselves, and you will become part of that flow, part of the giving and taking.

At this stage, you are primed to begin enjoying the results of your networking efforts by mining it:

  • If there’s a job or industry niche that you are interested in, search your network and contacts for people at companies or in positions that align with your interests. Then engage in fact-finding by reaching out to them for information, leads, and suggested next steps. People generally enjoy being asked to share their expertise and experience.
  • If you find someone with experience in a certain field, industry, or position, strike up an electronic dialogue, pick up the phone, or meet face-to-face. Never discount the value of firsthand information or the personal touch.
  • Become better known to your network. Introduce yourself and your intentions online via email or forum postings. Better yet, seek out networking events and social gatherings where you know like-minded individuals will be. Bring business cards, a can-do attitude, and your best 30-second introductory speech. This will go a long way to assist in your mining efforts as well as nurturing (and even growing) your network.

Be mindful that networking is not a one-way proposition. Be sure to contribute as well as receive. The most effective networking is give and take: give when you can (share leads, information, experience, open doors for others) and take when you need to (get leads, receive guidance, learn of opportunities through others).

Remember that learning about opportunities and gathering information through your network does not occur by osmosis. Sometimes the easiest way to get what you want or need is also the most straightforward. If you’ve taken the time to build and qualify the right network for you, then you should have no trouble reaching out in times of scarcity (when you want or need something) or in times of abundance (when you have something to contribute or share). But take care to walk the fine line between someone seeking assistance and someone appearing desperate—and above all else, NEVER spam your networking list!

What is your networking experience? Are you still in growth mode, or have you reached critical mass where you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. Share your experiences here.