By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven®

Network Map

In the professional world, it is impossible to succeed without networking. Remember that old adage: “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” Well, it’s true. Now, this isn’t to say that competence doesn’t matter. It still does! As Dr. Fredric Neuman puts it in a Psychology Today article, “I like to think that competence is the most important determinant of professional success; but if it is, it is only over the long run.” In the short run, we cannot underestimate the importance of meeting people, cultivating those relationships and leveraging them when the time is right. Being well-known or having a lot of contacts can help you in all sorts of ways:

  • Landing a job
  • Securing a promotion
  • Finding a new client
  • Raising money
  • Swaying public opinion

Remember that former coworker you took time to befriend last year? He may have a job for you now, or know someone who does. Remember that business owner you met over drinks a month ago? She may be your next client, and your friendly conversation may have made her comfortable with the idea of retaining your services.

Expanding and maintaining a wide circle of influence brings intended and unintended benefits. Sometimes you can envision a social relationship paying dividends in the future. But other times those dividends can seemingly come out of the blue, leaving you grateful that you made the effort in the first place. You never know where simply making an effort may lead you.

As I often explain to clients, I recommend making a network map, whereby you place yourself at the center and then draw circles around the perimeter to illustrate all of the various groups that make up your life. These could include:

 Your current or former hometown

 Your alma mater(s): high schools, colleges and universities

 Your local gym or YMCA

 Your favorite sports team (Go Red Sox!)

 Your political party

There are others, but you get the point. Networks affect all of us, even if we don’t always realize it. Know your map inside and out.

Look at this way: You can’t leverage your contacts if you aren’t even aware of them. Keeping a database of contacts is valuable when we need to reach out and make an ask — from raising money for a political campaign to looking for a job and finding new clients. That’s how you know which buttons to push, and when.

Once you’ve mapped out your network, it is important to create an action plan. Look at each connection on your map — from alma maters to your neighborhood — and identify two or three individuals worth contacting from each one. Then, determine the kind of contact you wish to make with each individual, whether it’s asking them for coffee, a lunch meeting, or to attend an event together. Your action plan just needs to be tailored, based on the individual.

At the very least, you’ll have a conversation with a new contact or someone from your past. At best, you will have gained a valuable connection — professional, personal or both.

Throughout my life (and even without consciously realizing it), I’ve made an effort to cultivate a wide circle of influence nationally and internationally, through personal and professional connections. In many cases, the line between “personal” and “professional” is blurred, as your contacts may fall into both buckets. That’s not a problem: Your personal connections can become some of your strongest professional ones, and vice versa.

During my childhood, my parents were extremely civic-minded in our little town of Bethany, Connecticut, volunteering for boards and committees to stay involved. They understood that social connection is an important part of the human condition, perhaps even the most important. We are born to be a part of groups, not only our own families but beyond.

I took their lessons to heart, but don’t just take my word for it. Empirical evidence shows that anywhere between 70%-85% of jobs are filled by word of mouth, and are never actually advertised.

The referral, in my opinion, is the most powerful form of marketing. When you receive a personal vote of confidence from an employer, colleague or prospective client, the positive impact is immeasurable. I believe word of mouth is the most efficient and effective way to advance your professional career because third-party validation is more authentic to others than your own words could ever be.

So get out there and expand your list of contacts. Connecting with others on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is a start, but it is by no means the be-all and end-all. Our strongest relationships are cemented in-person, not virtually. That is harder but infinitely more valuable. I repeat: Get out there. But first, build a network map to know where you’re going.

This article originally appeared on the Forbes Agency Council CommunityVoice in July 2019.