02/27/2012 05:37 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

Strategically Building a Personal Network

As a young woman graduating from a first tier school early and with honors, I was fairly confident in my ability to create my own success. I had been a community leader since my teens, and I wrote my senior honors thesis as a junior. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that I was one of many. Although I had been working since I was old enough to get a permit, this would not fulfill the necessary "work experience" requirement so many job applications demanded. I became more concerned as the years passed -- and I learned my health insurance benefits were limited. As I aggressively searched for full-time work, I was advised to develop and utilize my own personal network.

Originally, the idea of asking others for help really bothered me. A child of the "American Dream," I really wanted my professional accomplishments to be a function of my academic success and community service efforts, rather than the result of certain personal connections. Nevertheless, as more people proposed the networking concept to me, I began to think of women I had previously worked with who knew I was driven and reliable. People often overlook their established networks in favor of building new relationships with larger numbers of people. I am of the mindset that those who have known you for years are likely going to be your more valuable network members, as they will invest more time and energy in creating and sustaining your personal success.

Successful networking is characterized by meaningful relationships with fewer numbers of people, rather than large groups who simply possess one another's business cards. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, proposed that there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain current, stable relationships. As the average person can only allocate so much time to social activities, investing in the quality of your network members is far more effective than investing in your network size. Edward Hall's research determined that regardless of the task at hand, the perfect group size lies between eight to twelve individuals. Hall argues that in smaller groups people can maximize peer talents and communication levels remain simple. Although your personal network may not work together exactly like a small group, the significance of inter-personal relationships remains highly applicable in modern networks. While you're likely going to want more than eight people in your personal network, having eight people with the willingness to completely exhaust their resources on your behalf may be much more beneficial to you than having 150 people (Dunbar's estimate) just scan a few of their connections. It's important to remember that just because someone is in your network does not obligate him or her to take part in your success.

Just because someone is very busy, intimidating, or sought after doesn't mean you should automatically exclude him or her from your potential network. Perhaps you know someone who is well connected in the community and accordingly, is frequently asked for assistance regarding all sorts of endeavors. The key is to separate your appeal from the many other requests this person receives. Most importantly, you must maintain the willingness to try whatever action the individual you contact suggests. After all, you are asking this person for access to personal connections and resources. Regardless of the nature of your relationship, following through is the most important part of creating personal relationships and in turn, network success.

In addition to investing in the quality of your network members, those who network strategically usually consider the input/output function. In general, this is the idea that one gives as much, if not more, as they receive. I prefer to look at this as a communal concept. For instance, mentorship is so effective because those who have been mentored frequently choose to mentor others. Volunteer work can also be a great opportunity for individuals to gain experience in a field they may have a particular interest in. As some people may take advantage of talented people willing to work for free, you should always be aware of what constitutes an internship, networking, resume-building work, and what may feel like exploitation. Successful people don't let others waist their time.

Social networking is an interesting tool for people looking for opportunities. Growing up in a generation where having 600 Facebook "friends" didn't mean you got a phone call on a Friday night, I originally felt that Facebook was not the best networking option for me, particularly concerning my job search. However, I discovered that many people were using social networking as a tool for their businesses. In this sense, I would definitely participate in social networking; however, I would never substitute face-to-face contact with social networking and expect similar results. In the 1970s, Professor Thomas Allen discovered an inverse relationship between communication frequency and distance. The Allen Curve has since been found to apply regardless of the communication medium. Accordingly, the more you see someone in person, the more frequently you will communicate with him/her by means of the telephone or the Internet (and vise versa). Allen's study would affirm the notion that the Internet does not allow for people to sustain quality relationships with large networks of people, as social networking websites might suggest.

As more employers receive piles of perfect resumes, networking skills have become a subject of great public attention. While the Internet is undoubtedly a major advancement in social communication, the popularity of social networking has created a misconception that a network's success is a function of its size. In fact, research deems group size as potentially counterproductive in regards to certain network goals. A social group's effectiveness, rather, is much more dependent on the quality and commitment of the constituents. As a young graduate, the ability to build a personal network without ample economic and personal resources has granted me the opportunity to create my own success- without having to submit hundreds of online resumes.