It's not what you know, it's who you know–a truism of business usually associated with the proverbial climb up the corporate latter. But it's also a matter of business survival, particularly in difficult times. If you want more than job security and you prefer to achieve career security, then you should make networking a priority.

Mark is a good friend and business confidant whom I met 10 years ago when I hired him to be the regional sales manager for my client's manufacturing company. He recently became vice president of sales for a roofing manufacturer, and when he needed to train his staff, he contacted me because of our long relationship. When he needed a public relations specialist, he hired Kathy, a longtime business associate with an impeccable reputation–who coincidentally does work for my firm.

Mark was surprised to learn that Kathy and I have worked together with various companies during our 15-year business relationship. He and I reminisced about various contacts we share from our individual journeys in business, noting he never considered how many people we had amassed in our circle of influence. "Networking is the key, man!" he said. "It's the killer skill everyone has to have."

He's right. Networking will build a long-term base of contacts that fuel your career with sales opportunities and, at the right moments, your next job.

If you think this sort of networking occurs only outside of the LBM distribution chain, think again. A solid sales performer for a Midwestern LBM operation sought my advice regarding an offer to take over a subdivision as superintendent, based on the excellent work the salesman had done for the builder. A former independent representative I recently met took a job to head up the entire sales division for an LBM dealer that was, not coincidentally, a former client.

Before employers reading this article get too concerned that I might suggest their top performers seek new jobs, quite the opposite is true. I am suggesting that owners, managers, and other industry leaders have their feelers out constantly and know the top talent in their respective markets. Here are some questions you should answer to test your own networking skills.

1. Do you have a ready-made job lead? If your answer is no, then you must wonder why you don't have established value with clients, suppliers, and even competitors in the marketplace. If you do not feel that you could pick up the phone after a job loss and quickly schedule a job interview, then you need to increase your networking energy.

2. Is your strength personal relationships or professional skills? If you know people, that is great. But if you are not respected on a professional level, then you need to rethink how your reputation is perceived in the marketplace. Your strength lies in your ability to produce results. Very few people think they are the underperformers. But the fact is that, by definition, 50% of all people are below-average workers. You need to constantly hone your skills to ensure you are a professional asset, not a liability.

3. As an employer, do you have a personal relationship with the front-runners in your business community? If you are not talking to the leading businesses in your market about the economy, challenges, and best practices, it is time to start networking.

As we enter 2009, be prepared for a very challenging year. We may luck out and discover that the market grows, but it is better to err on the side of conservatism. You will be better prepared if you have a list of contacts and opportunities to give you more options for success, particularly when others fail. Networking is the skill that will keep you near the top of a falling tide.

Rick Davis is president of Building Leaders, Inc., a Chicago-based sales training organization. 773.769.4409. E-mail: [email protected]