As you progress through your job search you may be feeling as though there is a secret strategy you’re missing out on. Well, in fact, you may be! Networking is the most effective job search strategy. So now that you’re in on the secret, you’re probably thinking the same thing a lot of my clients and students wonder about — what exactly is networking?

Let’s start simple: networking is just developing and then maintaining the contacts and personal relationships you create. There is no complex method or magical process to networking. In fact, you’re probably already networking: when you attend a professional conference, a school reunion, when you volunteer, talk to your neighbors, chat with someone while waiting in line, and even in virtual ways, like posting messages to a blog or on a discussion board. When you start simple and you think about the natural ways to interact with people you won’t need to study and memorize the thousands of books out there on networking.

You can network with the various everyday things that are already part of your life. Networking does not need to be a huge, complicated process; rather it’s something that can become a natural part of your life. To make use of networking however, it must start long before your job search. Maintaining a relationship is much more than just asking for favors. Keep in mind networking is about being genuine, real, and, most importantly, yourself.

Start with a few simple things that work for you. If you normally have lunch in your office or cubicle, start having lunch in the cafeteria or scheduling lunches with other people in your office or building. Not only will this time be rewarding and allow you to connect with others, but it is something you can do without adding extra hours to your already long day. You can also bridge networking with things you already enjoy. Consider joining a local athletic league or volunteer organization. You’ll naturally have at least one thing in common with the people you meet.

Be smart in your networking strategy. Think of the people you already know who seem to know everyone else. These connectors are fundamental to your networking success — they are the key to opening your networking door. If you are only “networking” with friends and family that you know well, then you are limiting yourself to new information and opportunities. Extending your network will help you to connect with those who operate in different circles with different people who ultimately have access to new information and resources. With new people in your network come new opportunities that you would not otherwise know about.

While we’re on the topic, let me make one thing clear. Networking is not asking for a job or making cold-calls to people you do not know. Rather it is talking to those you do have a relationship with and asking them to introduce you to others. You can build your network by helping others meet new contacts, too. Building your network is a give-and-take system; if you are hoping to be connected to new people you need to be able to offer the same to your contacts. The best advice I can offer is for you to be the one who connects others. You do not need to put together a big event. One of the easiest techniques is to introduce others over e-mail and let them do the coordinating. When your contacts or acquaintances see you as a valuable connector they will want to reciprocate the offer and your network will grow before your eyes. You need to bring something to the table otherwise you’re just like that annoying acquaintance who is always asking for favors but not providing anything in return.

Just in case you need the motivation to get started, networking has a number of great benefits. From learning more about a particular career to gathering job leads, the opportunities you create through networking are endless. Even if you are not concerned with finding a new job networking can help you in your current organization as well. Promotions and career advancement do not happen just because you are good at your work, rather they are linked to the people you know and who will vouch for you. Visibility is key to your success.

Katrina Davy is a professional career counselor who has worked in both university and private settings. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Got something on your mind? Send your questions and comments to newshrink@gmail.com or visit www.newshrink.com.