12/20/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Getting a Job: The 4 Keys to Mastering Networking

One of the most common errors people make in looking for a new job is spending time sending their résumés through online applications. Using the Internet is a great tool for seeing who is hiring, but if you ask employers their preferred way of finding good people, they will always say they prefer to use networks. The reasons that networks are effective are complicated.

First and foremost, networks screen for personal attributes such as work style, personality, creativity and more. The head of a most innovative charter school said recently that he wished he had spent more time recruiting people who "fit in" to their environment and less on the technical skills of the teachers. Someone who makes a referral is sorting through a series of these complex dynamics to send a person who will fit in.

Second, think of how much time this saves everyone. Many complain of how overwhelming it is to apply for all these jobs online, and there are no jobs anyway. Privately, employers are similarly overwhelmed. They complain about how résumés are useless and filled with errors. They cannot believe how unprepared applicants are, and most importantly, they are flooded with their résumés, receiving thousands for each online job posting.

There are many ways to build networks where they did not exist before. These include through your friends, social media sites, staffing companies and climbing the ladder. The more creative you are in building your networks, the likelier you are to succeed. But first, it is essential to figure out where you want to work.

We all know that it is a great idea to go on informational interviews with career advisors or industry leaders. This remains one of the most valued ways to learn about possibilities and often of openings at that person's firm. You should also be on the lookout for the "job czars." These are people who love connecting their acquaintances. Their connections could lead to job opportunities now or down the road.

Despite their popularity, many formal networking events, like job fairs, are typically not worth the time. It's more productive to find new and creative ways to create networks where you have none. It is good to do research on companies you would like to work for. In every field there are now specialized websites. Whether or not you see that they have current openings, you should identify employers.

Once you have found your target employers, it is time to start networking.
  • Friends: There are more creative ways to use your friends as a network than you might think. An outside-the-box networker found a company that was hiring and, through research, discovered that a friend worked in the building. Although the friend did not know anyone working for the company, she took her résumé to the person doing the interviewing in the building and got her friend an interview. She got the job.
  • Social media sites: Connect with people you know who work or have worked at your desired company. Also post the query, "Who do you know at...?" on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites. Many of these sites have specialized job search capabilities.
  • Staffing companies: Find out which staffing companies are used to fill temporary jobs, and apply directly to the staffing company to get your foot in the door. Companies love to hire short-term employees or a "try before you buy." One recent graduate of Teach for America had been trying unsuccessfully to get his foot in the door of a think tank in Washington, D.C. He found out that they staffed clerical positions with a particular staffing company, got placed there and was able to meet the right people. The ingenuity he showed was just the type of creative action the think tank wanted to see, and he got hired.
  • Climbing the ladder: Many companies hire from within, so a good way to make connections with a company is taking a lesser position than your target job. For example, an enterprising young man took an evening clerical position to learn more about a firm's business practices and possible openings. He then volunteered to work a few hours during the week to help on special projects. His professionalism was noted, and he was offered his desired job.

Networking, in its various forms, gives you the advantage in the job hunt. By using connections and networks, you differentiate your name from the thousands of other online applications. Employers are quick to rely on networks because they save time and they are more reliable than résumés.

It's time to get that job you've had your eyes on. Go out and make some connections.