This is a guest post from Brandt Smith, who writes for Wealth and Wisdom, a blog focused on helping you achieve wealth and life balance through entrepreneurship.

I was stunned but not surprised when Don wouldn’t meet my eyes that morning. I had grown suspicious when he started passing me over earlier that week while handing out new projects. I was responsible for 40% of the workload in a three man group — why else would he do that?

The company I worked for had been in a downward spiral for quite some time. Every month another group was laid off. Initially they started with the new people and the slackers. These were easy because they contributed little to the bottom line. After round three, the cuts started to hurt. We started to lose project engineers. Ten electricians were quietly told their services were no longer needed. What started as 150 employees would now be 78. Unfortunately for me, I was employee number 79.

A strange twist to the story
Actually, I was relieved. This may sound crazy, but getting laid off was the best thing for my family. The past year had been painful as I watched friend after friend escorted to the door. The hours got longer. The sense of despair was almost palpable.

I knew that a layoff was imminent. I was actively searching for another job, but I had several challenges. First, the economy was still a mess. Second, I had to be extremely discrete. If the company caught wind of my efforts I would feel the ax that much sooner.

But the main reason I felt relieved was that I had a secret weapon: my network.

From the day I started at the company, I aggressively built my network. This was in part because I was an application engineer and worked closely with our customers. In many cases I was far closer to them than our salespeople. I also worked hard to build good relationships with my suppliers. I often knew them better than our purchasing group.

My network gave me strength in the face of unemployment.

Seven keys to a strong network
A strong network doesn’t just happen. It takes time, effort, and patience. Here are seven tips for creating and maintaining a group of contacts:

Key #1: Build it before you need it
Building a network is a lifelong process, and relationships take time to develop. If you wait until you need help, it may be too late. The odds are you already have a network, but have not developed it to its full potential. Start with your family and friends. Move on to business contacts, members of your church, club members, etc.

This is your base network. If you have weaknesses, get to work. Call up the old friend from college. Email a buddy from your old job. Add business contacts to your Christmas card list. Attend industry events and talk to as many people as you can.

Key #2: You must make a deposit before you have the right to withdraw
Just because you have a name and number doesn’t mean a person is part of your network. You must first help them before you can ask a favor. View it like a bank account. Can you take out money if you never make deposits? I’ve known people who try to do this. After about two requests they are no longer welcome. Pretty soon they are on their own and have a reputation for being self serving.

Something as simple as saying thank you can be a major deposit in your network bank account. If someone gives you a hand, make sure they get credit. See an article in the paper they would like? Cut it out and send it to them, or put them in touch with a resource that can help them with a problem.

Key #3: Give more than you receive
This goes hand-in-hand hand with number two. Strive to maintain a positive (and growing) balance. Compare this with personal finance. You must always make more than you spend.

Key #4: Be open and genuine
People will spot it if you are phony. Relax and be yourself. Just make sure you keep away from volatile topics like religion and politics! To make the most of a network, you must sincerely like people and enjoy helping others when you are able. Say “yes” when you can, but also know when you have to say “no”.

Key #5: Follow up and stay in touch
Even the best contact will get old and stale. I like to view a relationship as two people tied together by delicate strands. Each time you make contact adds another strand. If you stay with your initial meeting the connection is tenuous. It is only when you have hundreds of these strands woven together that you have an unbreakable cable.

Key #6: The devil is in the details
Even the experts have trouble remembering all the details. Write things down. If you get a business card, take notes on the back after you finish your conversation. Use that pad of paper at the meeting. What is their spouse’s name? Do they have kids? What ages and genders? What college did she attend? What is his birthday?

Key #7: Your network doesn’t end with your contact
Each of your contacts has their own network. Don’t be afraid to call and ask “do you know someone who can help?” If you are doing the steps above, they will be glad to make the introduction.

Keep these tips in mind and you too can build a strong personal and professional network.

A happy ending
I was laid off Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon, I had logged over 50 phone calls. My message was simple: “What jobs are available at your company? Who do you know who is hiring? Who else should I call?”

Even with the lousy economy, I had three interviews set up by the next day. The next week I had seven interviews. Within a week I had two job offers with a third coming. Within two weeks I had a job with a better company.

The best part? I received a promotion and am now selling against my former employer!

For more on this subject, you may want to read the following:

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