At the beginning of 2011, I was preparing to graduate from business school and trying to figure out the next step in my career. I knew that networking would be a key to success in the job search, but I also knew I was—and still am—an introvert, and the prospect of meeting new people has never been easy for me.

Still, I was determined to knock down my barriers to networking and meet the people who would help me reach my dreams and goals. So I decided to embark on a networking challenge: Every month, I would meet with four people I already knew but would like to get to know even better, as well as four completely new people. I called it the 4x4 Networking Challenge.

And at the end of 2011, I had added 48 new people to my network and strengthened relationships with 48 friends, co-workers, and family members. Not to mention, a year of networking like crazy gave me a lot of valuable insights on what it takes to be a good networker—something I never thought I’d be able to claim.

Finding People to Network With Isn’t That Hard

During the challenge, I tried a variety of ways to connect with new people: I used Google to find professionals I thought were interesting. I went to networking events, met people, and asked for their business cards so I could request informational interviews after the event. I brainstormed all of the jobs that I would love to have at my current company and did informational interviews with people in those positions. I searched my social media connections for people I knew virtually but wanted to connect with in person.

And here’s what I found: Every single person I emailed for an informational interview emailed me back. What’s more, at the end of each meeting, I always asked the person if there was anyone else she could introduce me to—and most of the time, she said yes, there was, and happily made the introduction. I was amazed how my networking took off with just this simple question.

From this, I quickly learned that people really do want to help you—all you have to do is ask.

Planning Ahead is Crucial to Your Success

Part of the difficulty in networking is that it can get pushed off your priority list if you don’t make time for it. So, at the beginning of each month, I made sure to block off days in my calendar for interviewing, and I tried to set up all my meetings for the month in advance. Then, I wrote about what I was planning to do on my blog and found someone to keep me accountable.

I also made sure I was fully prepared before each meeting. I created a list with all of my questions for the person ahead of time. And I learned to always be ready to give a quick elevator pitch about myself—most of my interviews were planned, but a few happened at the spur of the moment.

Networking is a Waste of Time if You Don’t Take Action

You can easily spend hours and hours finding and meeting new people. But, if you don’t stay in touch with them or don’t do anything with what you learn, it’s all a waste of time. Make sure to follow up with people by sending them thank-you notes (both after the initial interview, and later, if they do something to help you out) and keeping in touch with them by email and social media.

Also keep a journal of all your notes from networking. Have one place where you log who you met, what you learned, and what you need to do to follow up. This way, you’ll have everything organized, keep track of what you learned, and be able to easily reference your contacts when you need to get in touch with them in the future.

Don’t Forget About Your Friends and Family

I originally assumed that the hardest part of my challenge was going to be meeting people I didn’t know. But, I was wrong—I realized that it was even harder for me to stay in touch with friends and family, especially with those who didn’t live nearby. Actively networking really reminded me to get in touch with those people, too. (I particularly cherish a conversation I had with my aunt in the beginning of my challenge—she passed away at the end of the year.) Yes, networking is about meeting new people, but what’s just as important is maintaining relationships with those who are close to you.

So, now that I’ve completed the challenge, what’s next? In 2012, I’m continuing it, but with a twist! My goal is to interview 50 successful businesswomen before the end of the year—and I’ll be recording all my interviews so that you can watch them, too!

Check out my networking challenge page to watch the interviews, keep track of my progress, and hey, maybe even start a challenge of your own!

Photo courtesy of Jodi Womack.