Dear Sam: I want to get better at networking, but I feel a little lost. Any tips? — Karen

Dear Karen: Networking is such an important professional exercise. Did you know that it is the most common way to find a new job? According to a study performed by Performance-Based Hiring in 2016, 85% of participants found their current job through their network. Networking is something that can be done in a variety of ways: in person at events or through your social circle, online using LinkedIn or other professional platforms, or even just casually in nonprofessional forums.

If you are looking to up your networking game, I would recommend developing a networking plan. By giving yourself an outline to break down your goals, it won’t seem like as big a challenge to tackle. Consider the following approach…

Identify Your Networking Goal
First, let’s start with your primary goal of networking. Are you looking for new open-market opportunities? Do you want to learn more about a specific industry, role, or company? Or are you just hoping to form an engaged professional network? Whatever your goal might be, this will help guide you as you develop a networking plan, chart your course, and evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts.

Set Attainable Expectations
The next part of creating your plan is to develop realistic steps to work toward your goal. For example, if you are looking for a new job, perhaps do some research on companies you are interested in. From there you can see if there is anyone currently in your network you could have a conversation with regarding the company. If not, research and identify those working at the company on LinkedIn, and see if anyone would be willing to facilitate an informational interview or, better yet, a meeting.

If your networking goal is to learn more about a specific industry, perhaps try finding local thought leaders in your area and see if they offer training or opportunities to connect with them for further discussions. Consider attending an affinity group related to your interests, especially if those interests differ from your current career. It can be exceptionally helpful to network with professionals in your chosen field as they could be, after all, the influencers or decision-makers for your new career.

I recommend having measurable steps so you can track your progress. Your evaluatory measures will depend on your goal(s) but, as an example, you may set the step of connecting with three professionals on LinkedIn this week in the IT industry with the intent of scheduling a time to talk. Be specific and set executable and measurable goals.

Hold Yourself Accountable
When you have a goal to reach, you should put things in place to keep you accountable. The American Society of Training and Development—now the Association for Talent Development—found that if you have accountability to someone, you have a 65% chance of meeting your goal. If you get even more specific and say have an appointed time to check-in and evaluate your progress each week, then you have a 95% chance of meeting your goal! I encourage you to find a friend, peer, or mentor who can help hold you accountable by checking in with you weekly on the progress of your networking plan. While performing these hindsight reviews, be sure to analyze what is and what isn’t working and don’t be afraid to change your plan, your steps, and your expectations.

I have found by creating a networking plan I have been able to build my professional network immensely, engage with like-minded professionals, advance my professional persona, and have thoroughly enjoyed the digital and in-person networking opportunities along the way. I hope this helps you as well!