Young Talent: Why Your Professional Network Is as Important as Your Social Network

As the summer months come to an end, many upperclassmen and recent college graduates will be entering the first stages of their professional lives. Whether starting fall-semester internships or joining the workforce full-time, these young professionals face an exciting, pivotal moment that can also bring a little anxiety, uncertainty, and even fear.

It's natural for young adults who are transitioning from students to the workforce to feel this way. Over the course of my own career, I've worked at several different companies, held a variety of positions, and managed many teams. Through my experiences, I've learned a lot of things I wish I knew earlier in my career. Now that I have college kids of my own and have had the privilege of guest lecturing and mentoring students, I'd like to share my most important piece of advice for young adults starting their professional lives:

It's Never Too Early (or Too Late!) to Build a Professional Network

Impressive resumes, high GPAs, and relevant work experience matter, but you should never underestimate the importance of building your professional network. According to recruiting guru Lou Adler, "85 percent of critical jobs are filled via networking of some sort." Adler's conclusion is based on a survey 3,000 people, with respondents ranging from unemployed active job seekers to hiring managers.

The results speak for themselves: Networking is the primary means of finding a job for most candidates.

Speaking from my own experience, I haven't applied blind for a job since my first full-time position out of college, and that was more than 30 years ago! Even then, I knew someone in the human resources department at Hewlett-Packard who helped pass along my resume and cover letter to the appropriate hiring manager. Employers want to hire referrals from employees, colleagues, and peers they already know and trust, so one of the best ways to find a job at your dream company is to make connections.

Even if you're in the early stages of your career, you can immediately start building and expanding your network. LinkedIn is one of the easiest ways to proactively grow your network, and I wish I had this resource earlier in my professional life. Many people treat LinkedIn as a place to post their resume, but it's so much more than that. The true value of the platform comes from connecting with other people, reading and engaging with content, and regularly following companies and industries that interest and inspire you.

As a young professional, you should make a commitment to be just as active on LinkedIn as you are on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Set goals around adding a certain number of new connections to your network each month; these could be your former classmates, fellow interns, professors, or college advisors you want to keep in touch with. Be sure to also add new colleagues, clients, and customers you meet on the job. Join LinkedIn groups that are of interest to you and follow industry influencers who work at companies you admire. Read your newsfeed every day and make a point to share, comment on, and post interesting content on a regular basis.

Employee advocacy programs are growing in popularity, and many organizations are adopting platforms that make it very easy for employees to share relevant company content and industry news on LinkedIn and their other social channels. If your employer has a program like this, take advantage of it. When recruiters search for candidates, they look for certain keywords, activities, and recommendations from colleagues, so make sure your profile appears at the top of their searches. It's up to you to build your professional brand.

Leaving the comfort of your classmates and friends is difficult, and figuring out how to navigate the next chapter of your professional life can be unnerving. Remember, you're not alone. If you proactively connect with other people and are mindful about nurturing and building these relationships, your network will be an invaluable resource as you look for new jobs and grow your careers.

Sara Spivey is CMO of Bazaarvoice.