How to improve your professional network in 12 days (before Christmas)

The holiday season is an ideal time for re-connecting, making new contacts and strengthening relationships. Networking is, in fact, the best job search method: It generates more than 80% of new hires.

Constantly nurturing existing relationships and strategically developing new contacts can put you on the inside track to plum job leads, whether you are an active candidate or just want to keep up with the market.

Remember that all jobs are temporary, but your network is lifetime career insurance. Contacts provide referrals, recommendations and invitations. Therefore you need to make time everyday to "network purposefully," as I say. The right contacts are relationships with hiring decision makers and good connectors.

So in the spirit of this holiday season, here are the 12 critical steps you should take to start (or re-start) building your career nest egg. Realize that many of the steps may require more than 24 hours' worth of work; however, each is a major milestone toward establishing a network of enduring value.

On the first day... Define your networking strategy. Focus on individuals and activities related directly to achieving personal and professional goals. Compile list of existing contacts and research targeted new contacts among thought leaders, authors, friends of friends, industry consultants and speakers.

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On the second day... Organize contacts into action groups: meet in person one-on-one, via telephone call, individual e-mails, print notes or by sharing a link or article; send a gift; connect two contacts; invite to a live event; recommend a virtual event or group discussion; or submit a proposal for a presentation.

On the third day... Select and prioritize in-person and virtual communities. Identify a few groups or organizations to focus your efforts because it's better to be an active participant or leader in a few groups and build strong relationships. So get involved: schedule virtual networking into your daily calendar; join LinkedIn groups in your industry, for your specialty or new field you want to enter; and participate in discussions among trade association members and within other affinity groups.

On the fourth day... Create a networking card. Show name, e-mail address and preferred phone. Put a descriptive, memorable headline on the front. Bullet your core competencies on back. Add signature block to your personal e-mail. Be sure to include name, headline, phone and e-mail.

On the fifth day... Connect with contacts now. Write cards and e-mail. Make phone calls. Attend or schedule a live event. Participate in an online discussion. Schedule time to network purposefully daily-e-mail a few names, have a phone visit, post a comment to an online discussion or attend a local chapter meeting. Important: Repeat this step daily.

On the sixth day... Launch your (new) network purposefully. If you are in transition or plan a change, identify prospective target employers. First define your requirements (geography, responsibilities, corporate culture, company size, market segment, competitive position, growth potential), then research companies that match your criteria. Identify appropriate hiring decision manager at each employer, and determine who in your network can connect you or how you are going to introduce yourself.

On the seventh day... Conduct due diligence. Find individuals with inside knowledge of target companies, including current and former employees, consultants. Also be sure to read print and online publications, visit professional association websites and check conference exhibitors and presenters. Refine your value proposition for employers based on their needs. Describe by success stories examples of how you will add to profits, reduce costs or improve process. You have to distinguish yourself as a first choice, go-to reliable expert. In addition, join additional groups to make more targeted contacts.

On the eighth day... Initiate inside contacts at each target company. You should already be members of the same organizations or groups. If not, join the groups where the people who need to know you are members. Ask questions and share relevant experiences and ideas. (Of course, you should not begin conversations asking about openings.)

Remember that it takes time to develop trust. You will not get much benefit from mere transactions; you are intentionally focusing on making new relationships. Being connected, you should hear of potential opportunities first before public announcements. You can also volunteer and be the preferred candidate when you identify a need before a new position is official. This is the hidden job market; you have penetrated it. Stay on the insider's radar and be present for the right time to suggest ideas and solutions.

On the ninth day... Maximize social networking to increase quality contacts. Social networks provide enormous opportunity to connect with insiders identified from their profile content. Ask a mutual contact to facilitate an introduction. Join the same group as a target contact; on LinkedIn, for instance, you can send a message to a fellow group member without being linked.

Search to find contacts and send a compelling introduction explaining how they will benefit from meeting you. Check SlideShare to find industry or specialty contacts. Connect on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Join the same LinkedIn groups. Ask for their recommendations-crowd sourcing is one technique to discover new trends, ideas and people to know.

On the tenth day... Spot trends and increase your knowledge online. Go beyond Linked In. Get background info from corporate websites, LinkedIn profiles and Facebook fan pages. Search online (ZoomInfo, Google profiles, Spoke) for more names. Follow individuals and corporate accounts on Twitter, monitor conversations and send direct messages or engage in a public dialogue.

Publish your own blog and reply promptly to comments. Update LinkedIn with personal news. Ask questions within your groups and answer questions to demonstrate knowledge. Move conversations offline to deepen relationships. Identify a handful of bloggers you admire. Regularly read and comment. There's a good chance the author will reply and start a private conversation. Be sure to recommend the blog or offer to write a guest blog.

On the eleventh day... Increase your visibility. Now that you are getting the hang of how to network purposefully, complete your LinkedIn profile. Add key words, document recent accomplishments, and upload presentations, white papers, articles, favorite links or travel plans.

All of this is important because adding content increases your digital footprint, which makes you more searchable. Check your Twitter stream a few times daily. Monitor your favorite blogs and websites via RSS to your e-mail or Google Reader. Write a comment, post a question, answer an inquiry-all of these are searchable and increase your digital footprint adding to your credibility, building your reputation and providing a continuous record of who you are, what you do, how you think and show your potential value.

Also be sure to document your accomplishments online: Your work is your resume. Offline activities published online also add to your digital footprint. Send out press releases announcing promotions or job changes. Present at a trade show. Lead or help organize an activity in your local community or professional group. You will also make new contacts plus get more PR for yourself.

On the twelfth day... Maintain social networking accounts and credibility. Be consistent across all platforms. While staying in touch and keeping your activities current is time-consuming, repeatedly starting to network from scratch every time you need or want a different position requires much more time and effort and is far less effective.

Having solid relationships is the key to sourcing new challenges in the unadvertised or hidden job market. Keep up your side of relationships. Networking is critically important in today's world where every job is temporary and you need to create your own career insurance. It is easier to maintain a relationship than to develop a new one: "Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold."

Debra Feldman is the JobWhiz, an executive talent agent and job search expert who designs and implements customized, senior-level executive campaigns. Contact Debra via JobWhiz.com.

Read more about consumer in CIO's Consumer Drilldown.

This story, "How to improve your professional network in 12 days (before Christmas)" was originally published by CIO.

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