It works like this: You start by creating a professional profile—essentially a less formal version of your resume—and then connect your profile to the profiles of other people you know. Once you connect to someone, you can then look at the profiles of the people they’re connected to, as well as anyone those people are connected to—providing three degrees of separation outward.
How to make contacts on LinkedIn
Simply being on LinkedIn and setting up connections to current and past colleagues, clients, classmates, and friends will likely give you a much larger network than you ever realized you had. Here’s why:
Let’s say that you have 100 connections. They, collectively, have 10,000 connections. And when you add in the people they’re connected to, suddenly your network is one million people. One million people available to help in your job search is pretty powerful.
You might be thinking you don’t have 100 connections. But you can use the site’s search tool to find and connect with past coworkers, clients, and classmates. And this goes two ways: Once you’re on LinkedIn, former colleagues and classmates will likely start finding you as well.
How to utilize your contacts
Once you set up all those contacts, you can use them in several ways:
Referrals: Let’s say you’re applying for a job. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could actually introduce you to the hiring manager? You can check LinkedIn to see if you have any pathways to that person. You might learn, for instance, that your neighbor’s former coworker works at that company—information you’d probably never otherwise never learn—and then you ask your neighbor to facilitate an introduction.
Background information: Now let’s say you have an interview. You can learn a ton about your interviewer by reading his or her LinkedIn profile first. You might be able to open your interview by mentioning that you both know Joe Smith, or that you both participated in AmeriCorps, which is information you probably wouldn't otherwise have and which can help establish rapport right off the bat.
Or you might find someone in your network who works at the company, used to work there, or is connected to someone who works there. By reaching out to them for insight, you might be able to walk into your interview knowing the company’s culture, its key players, and what they’re looking for in a new hire.
Building your expertise: LinkedIn also has thousands of alumni, industry, and professional groups to participate in, offering endless conversation on topics in your field. You can use these groups to build your knowledge, establish yourself as an expert in your field, and get access to experts in your industry (thus building even more connections from the people you meet by participating in these groups).
Even if you’re not a big fan of social networking in general, if you’re job-searching or think you ever might be in the future, LinkedIn can be a huge help.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.