Step #1: Building your empire
Get a new attitude.
Don't think that needing help is a weakness. Building a personal network means meeting, contacting and maintaining relationships with people who have the ability to help you succeed. Because most people have found themselves in your position at one time or another, they can empathize with your situation and gladly offer assistance-whether it be arranging introductions or offering advice.
Attend industry events.
Check your local trade organization's calendars for a listing of events in your area. Whether the event is a straight networking event or topic specific, it is an excellent way to meet others in the industry. If you don't feel comfortable going alone, get a few friends or colleagues to join you-but get out there! Make it a point to meet and talk to at least three new people (don't forget to get their business card). Follow up with the people you met in a quick next-day email. The goal is to make an impression so they will remember you the next time you contact them.
Keep a black book.
Maintain an address book that includes contact information for former managers, department VP's and reputable colleagues. There will come a time where you will want to contact these people again-whether it be for a reference or simple advice. Drop them a line regularly as to keep their contact information up to date.
It's probable that you've been part of an association at one point in your life (sorority/fraternity, scholastic or professional associations). If not, get out there and find a trade organization to join. Typically, these associations have online communication and/or networking opportunities to keep you in contact with other members. These are people you don't even know that are willing to help you! This can be a terrific resource for you to gather information about a particular industry or hear about hot job openings.
Step #2: Using your power
Keep in touch.
Communicate with your contact list via a quick email or coffee about once every one to two months. This will keep you fresh on their minds when they hear of a new job opportunity or company that may interest you.
Know what you're asking for.
In this day and age, people are extremely busy. When calling on your peers for assistance, be clear in your request and expectations. People want to feel as if they are actually helping you; however, if you don't know what you are asking for, you'll just end up frustrating everyone.
Get contacts from your contacts.
Here's the best kept secret in the world of networking. It's great to meet new people, but think about how many more people they know. During your next conversation, ask your contact to recommend three people you could speak to about _____ (insert your interest here). It's important to be specific and courteous when requesting information-don't forget, your contacts are putting their own name on the line for you.
Don't just scratch your own back.
As a productive member of society, you can also help your contacts gain access to companies and information via your personal network. Offer assistance regularly, especially if that person has helped you in the past.
Mind your manners.
Don't forget to say "thank you" to those who have helped you out! A simple hand-written note or small gift (there are several gift delivery sites online now that are easy and inexpensive) expressing your appreciation says it all.