Fast Company wants you to have your best year yet in 2012; click for more advice and tips  on how to work smarter, manage your career, and lead a more meaningful life.
"The novice users of LinkedIn use it to find a job. The power users of LinkedIn use it to manage their careers."
That's Deep Nishar, LinkedIn's SVP of product, giving his 21st century take on "The Brand Called You ." "Most of us worry when we ever have to find a job," Nishar says over a glass of fresh-squeezed carrot and ginger juice at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. "That's the last time and place [you should worry]--by then, it's too late. You have to manage your career every single day."
With a ravaged economy and an unemployment rate of 8.6%, such career vigilance isn't a luxury many can afford. But with 13.3 million Americans out of work and recovery still likely years away, it's now more important than ever to obsessively manage any and all career prospects. LinkedIn has become a resource for 135 million users to this end, and it's a network, Nishar hopes, that everyone will soon realize they can take advantage of, from high school students to elderly retirees. "We have a saying at LinkedIn: Everyone is an entrepreneur," he says. "It doesn't mean you go out and start a company. It means you manage your career as if you are your own business. You have to be entrepreneurial about your career every single day."
LinkedIn is focused on building products to facilitate this process. Tools such as the jobs recommender and career explorer, which determine exactly what it'll take to get from one job to the next, are helping users find new opportunities. But it's the LinkedIn network itself that Nishar considers most crucial for career growth. Data shows that referrals are the No. 1 source of external hires--in fact, according to LinkedIn, referral candidates are seven times more likely to get hired than non-referrals, which means your career network is the most valuable resource you have to find your next promotion. (That's partly why Monster.com has built its BeKnown career app  on top of Facebook's social graph.)
The issue is however, that unlike users of Facebook, not everyone thinks they belong on LinkedIn. "There's a challenge in general with people believing that something is for them or not for them--that's true for every social network, by the way," Nishar says. A large part of LinkedIn's users come from high tech or finance ; less represented industries include nonprofits, government, media, construction, and services. Nishar wants to balance that disparity out--to make sure there are as many kindergarten teachers as there are iOS software engineers. "Most people are not networkers," he says. "Most of us are not extroverts who walk up at a conference or party and talk to complete strangers. We try to ease people into that process."
Here are Nishar's three simple tips for novice networkers:
Establish A Network (Unless You're The Unabomber, You Have One)
It might sound simple, but Nishar says many don't believe they even have a professional network to establish. A common concern for most skeptics of LinkedIn, who feel more comfortable friending on Facebook than establishing the all-intimidating professional connection: "Well, I don't know anyone!" Nishar hears it especially from students. "Students many times will say, 'I don't know anyone--I've never worked,'" he explains. "And I'm like, 'No, you do. Who are your uncles? Who are the friends of your parents? Your professors? Your influences? People you've met at career fairs?'"
This network could ultimately help facilitate a referral, but if it's not established, you'll be stuck sifting through jobs through outmoded services like Monster.com or the classifieds. "There's cognitive dissonance in this," Nishar says. "You open any newspaper…people are posting jobs all day long, and there are millions of people applying to those jobs every day. The unfortunate part is applying for a job is relatively inexpensive because if you're in the market, you'll try whatever avenue you have, which means the companies on the receiving end are getting inundated with all these resumes."
Unless you have a network for potential referrals, you won't be able to cut through the clutter.
Listen To The Network--It's Always Talking
If you're using LinkedIn simply to list your work history, you're using it wrong. "The network is always talking to you, not necessarily directly, but [users] are sharing a bunch of things showing up in your activity stream every morning," Nishar says. "Do something with it."
He cites the example of LinkedIn Today, the company's personalized news service. "If you read a good article that you believe your network would value, then share it," he says. "It's an age-old thing. I remember 20 years ago when I was in graduate school and looking for job, one of the networking tips they always gave was to clip newspaper and magazine articles someone would love and mail it to them. It shows thought."
The idea is to establish an expertise in something, either through sharing content or answering questions on special topics or demonstrating an interest in learning more about a subject. If you're a high school teacher, for instance, that might mean sharing articles on education, mentoring other teachers, or sharing tips on how to get students interested in college.
Master The Warm Introduction
The next step is to bring relationships established in the digital world offline. "You don't have to physically walk up to someone [anymore] and say, 'Hey, how are you doing today?' That's kind of awkward sometimes," Nishar says. Now, through LinkedIn, you can build these connections through what he calls a "warm introduction."
"If you are an accounting student, and you want to be a CFO [someday], and you find out you know someone in your network, maybe a first or second degree [connection], who is a treasurer, well hey, that's a stepping stone to being a CFO," Nishar says. "I can see, say, [my friend] Aaron knows this person. Aaron wouldn't mind introducing me. You could say [to the treasurer], 'Hey, would you mind spending 15 minutes with me?'"
It won't necessarily result in a job--don't expect to become CFO tomorrow. But it'll expand your network, provide advice, and establish a potent referral. That is ultimately more likely to bring you more career success than any random job listing.
Yes, these are straightforward tips, but a surprising number of people either don't think they belong on LinkedIn or don't know what to do on the network when they sign up. Nishar wants to show that everyone can and should be a digital networker.
"That's why I have a job," he says. "If that was self-evident, maybe [LinkedIn] wouldn't need me."
[Image: Flickr user Alex E. Proimos ]