There is a popular belief that “it’s not what you know, it’s whom you know that makes the difference.” Many business leaders and recruiters with whom I engage on a weekly basis openly admit that much of what gets done in companies is facilitated through personal contacts. It’s all about people.

Effective leaders recognize the importance of cultivating and leveraging networks of people across a variety of functions, organizations and locations. These connections provide leaders with the flexibility, information and strategic advantages needed to succeed in a fast-paced, global economy. Research suggests that people with strong personal networks are more satisfied in their jobs and stay longer at their companies than employees with weak networks. From a career planning perspective, having strong connections provides job seekers access to opportunities that may not be available to their competition.

Unfortunately, most individuals don’t take full advantage of the power of networking. Think about it. What are you doing to actively build more or better relationships with local and regional businesses? What are you doing to connect with colleagues at your current organization or your counterparts at similar organizations in the region? What have you done in the last month to build bridges with these groups? The bottom line is that social relationships matter. If you have aspirations of switching jobs or moving up in your career, start nurturing relationships now.

·Make social networking one of your priorities. Become savvier with social media tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

·Join an industry professional association and start attending panels, information workshops and networking events. When you attend a professional conference or event, set a goal of meeting at least one new person.

·Take advantage of events offered by your alma mater.

·Seek out role models. Identify a few business leaders who successfully leverage their networks and invite them to lunch to learn how they do it.

As you reach out, keep in mind that broadening your circle of acquaintances takes time so don’t expect results overnight. Also, whether communicating face to face or via e-mail, be genuine when reaching out to avoid being perceived by others as insincere. In the words of author Carl Buechner, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Networking through e-mail versus face-to-face can be especially challenging since you don’t have the advantage of seeing your recipient’s response and fine-tuning your message on the spot. People judge you by the style and tone of your writing. Research also shows that e-mail exchanges often lead to misinterpretation and mistrust. Consider the following e-mail that I recently received from an alumnus of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business:

“[The student] sent me a LinkedIn invitation, which I accepted as s/he is a Smith student. The very next piece of correspondence I received from him/her was as follows — “I saw your LinkedIn profile and I request you to consider my resume or pass it on to any position you know.” I have never spoken with the student, nor has the student asked for us to speak. . . . I would very much like to help this student, but considering that we have never had a conversation before and the tone of this e-mail, I am not comfortable.”

Incidents like this highlight the importance of being careful when reaching out to business professionals. Networking is about building relationships. Whether reaching out verbally or in writing, try to notice the effect that your words have on others. Do they inspire action or do they come across as directive and demanding? Start by being curious. Ask questions to learn more about the other person’s interests and opinions. (What does he like most about their job/organization? What’s led to her career success? What tips might this individual have for candidates seeking jobs?) One of my friends in sales recently said, “If you want to get someone excited about you or your products, get them talking about themselves and their accomplishments first.”

Remember that it takes time to grow relationships, and once individuals connect with you they are more likely to go above and beyond to help you out.

Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.