When Wade Vann, former CIO at Simmons Bedding, was laid off in the summer of 2008, it was naturally a difficult time. "When you've been working 60 to 70 hours a week and that goes away, it's a big deal," Vann says. "There's a lot of stress you've never had to deal with before, including your own sense of self-worth."

What cushioned the blow, he says, were the networking groups he joined that not only helped him maintain a routine, meet people he otherwise would never have met and fine-tune the logistics of his job search, but also provided a generous helping of emotional support and specific job leads.

"I was amazed at the amount of help," says Vann, who recently accepted a CIO position at Augusta Sportswear in Georiga. In one group, he says, to be accepted as a member, you had to have a pay-it-forward attitude in terms of helping others - not yourself - find a job, even though other laid-off CIOs (ie, competitors) were members as well.

To Vann, networking is the key to most successful job searches. "It takes a lot of work to spend a major portion of your day making cold calls, but it does pay off, and I've developed relationships with people I will stay in touch with for the remainder of my career," he says. "That part of the transition has been a true blessing."

Generally, networking groups for executives in transition meet once a week to once a month and provide a variety of services, including expert speakers on career transition topics, job leads from affiliated outplacement firms, and group meetings for networking.

As Vann found, the number of such groups is growing, as are the ranks of the jobless in networking groups intended for both employed and unemployed executives. He says a couple of the networks he was in outgrew the facilities they used for meetings.

Case in point: the Executive Network Group of Greater Chicago. A nonprofit organisation that's been in business 19 years, ENG has seen its membership more than double since the beginning of the year, to 366 members, according to Executive Director Chris Campbell. Attendance at ENG's monthly meetings has substantially increased, to the point where the group has to turn away some people because the room holds a maximum of 200.

If there's a silver lining to the rampant layoffs from the recession, it might be the support that displaced executives are providing to one another, both online and off.

"Most of these executives have never had to figure out what it's like not to have a job, but everyone has a pay-it-forward, 'we're all in this together' attitude," says Ryon Harms, who was in transition for four months before accepting a position as director of Internet marketing at EFI Sports Medicine in San Diego. Harms also co-founded a networking organisation called Pacific Executive Network and runs a blog advising executives about using social media to expand their networks.

"It's interesting to see everyone helping each other out with no real expectation that the person would help them back but that somebody else in the community would," he says.

This expectation is written into the mission statements of some groups. At the Technology Executives Networking Group (TENG), for instance, members are expected to share at least three job leads per month, including leads they are actively pursuing or for which they could be a candidate.

The rationale: Nearly any position would likely have hundreds of applicants who could do the job, so adding a few more won't significantly impact anyone's chances, and the benefits of having a friend land the job far outweigh the downside of competing with a few more candidates.

Other groups are less formal, but the expectation is that members will provide what Vann calls "a warm introduction." So when a member targets a company that seems to be a good fit for his background, it's expected that he should be able to ask fellow members of the network if they can introduce him to key executives at the company.

Either way, one thing is for sure: For executives, networking has become as much a part of this recession as clipping coupons and cutting the cable TV subscriptions. "Everyone figures out quickly that networking with fellow executives is the only way to get through the clutter of submitting rr?sum?eacute;sumr?sum?eacute;s that get lost in a pile with thousands of others," Harms says. "So they're joining networks, shaking other people's hands and seeing how they can help each other find a job."

If you're thinking of joining a network, here's some advice from other laid-off executives who have either found new jobs or are otherwise reaping the benefits.

It's not all about a job

When Tom Siko was laid off in 2007 from Covansys after it was acquired by CSC, he had spent 25 years in IT, the majority in consulting. He's a member of two networks -- ENG and the Technology Leaders Association, in which about 40% of the members are in transition at any given time.

Both networks, he says, are great support groups, above and beyond their job search benefits. "You see people in the same situation you're in, sometimes even people you know, and they all have a positive attitude, which helps a lot in this situation," he says.

Vann agrees. "You have very little control over this process, and that's a difficult thing," he says. For instance, it's easy to sit in your home office and get discouraged, especially when you go through a period of not getting any leads. But if six other people you respect say they also aren't seeing opportunities, it provides perspective.

"If I was at home, with no one to talk to, I'd get real concerned. But by listening to others, I can think maybe it's not so bad after all," Vann says.

Go beyond the unemployed

While it's important to network with unemployed peers, it's equally important to network with employed professionals, particularly hiring managers. Vann recommends spending about one-third of your time networking with unemployed people and the rest with people who have jobs.

"If you're working on a particular company that seems to have opportunities, try to find people who work in that organization who can help you better target open positions," Siko says.

Diversify beyond your field

It's not unusual to belong to more than one network, and it's important to expand beyond those that are specifically for IT. When Vann was laid off, he already belonged to an Atlanta-area IT industry association, but he also joined several other group, including the Kettering Executive Network, a private network for senior-level professionals in Atlanta. About 140 of KEN's 750 members are in transition, Vann says.

Meetings are once a week, and there are additional special-interest groups that meet every two weeks. Members help one another develop personal marketing plans, prepare for interviews and target companies with opportunities that best match their experience.

Vann also created his own eight-member multifunctional work team, which meets every two weeks and includes a CEO, a CFO and vice presidents of operations, sales and human resources. Within 110 days of the group being formed, five of the eight members had landed a job, including Vann.

What Siko likes about ENG is that it is made up of a diverse set of people, including lawyers, sales managers, accountants and marketing executives. "If you're just in an IT-specific organization, you don't get the perspective of companies you're out there looking to get employed by," he says.

As a member of two groups, Siko might attend five to seven meetings per week, whether it's a group meeting or a one-on-one phone or in-person meeting with a network member or someone he was introduced to via a network.

Getting outside of IT helps widen your perspective, says Dennis Burnell, who joined ENG in early 2008. Burnell spent many years as a sales exec in the telecommunications industry, including a position as director of sales at Ericsson Inc., before moving into IT. He also had a stint in real estate development in 2007.

"Business is transitioning at a rapid rate, so to be germane just to IT or one discipline really limits your perspective as to where you want to go," he says. There are only so many CIO positions, he points out, "so you'd better look at more transferable skills."

Pay it forward

The expectation at many executive networking groups is that you should be as willing to help out others as you are to accept help for yourself. This isn't only for altruistic reasons. As TENG's Web site explains, "By helping our peers solve key problems, we demonstrate our value in tangible terms and position ourselves above the crowd." The people you help will remember you -- particularly your self-confidence and selflessness, it says.

That helps build what Harms calls "social capital". And thanks to social media, you can spread a wider net by benefiting from the indirect reciprocity that online communities enable. "With direct reciprocity, you do someone a favor, and they do you a favor back," he says. "With indirect reciprocity, you do someone in your community a favor in anticipation that someone else within the community will return the favor."

Learn to use social media

Both Siko and Burnell make use of LinkedIn in addition to face-to-face networking. Siko says the site has been very useful in helping him identify people within his network who can introduce him to people at companies he has targeted for employment. Burnell started a LinkedIn group for ENG where people post open positions, and he says the site helps him maintain "a virtual Rolodex." He also actively pursues recruiting firms to join the group.

Harms is proud to say he built a network of 400 people within just a few months. But it wasn't long before he wanted a way to communicate with this network beyond sending people his résumé or following up on interviews or job leads.

That's why he started his blog on using social media for networking; he figured it would be valuable to send blog posts on that topic to his network contacts. "It's content that's useful versus asking a favor," he says of his blog, The Social Executive blog. Plus, the posts tend to get forwarded to others, which builds his network even further. Harms says a few thousand people read his blog each time he posts.

Harms advises all executives in transition to start a blog. Rather than sending the typical "Is the job still available?" e-mail, you can send potential employers posts that talk about your industry or something that's useful to their day-to-day work, he says. He sees blogs eventually supplanting résumés as a means of showcasing your capabilities to employers.

Go beyond online networks

While there's a lot to be said for social media, don't let it completely replace face-to-face meetings, Burnell warns. Sites like LinkedIn don't display all the contacts people have, since some executives shy away from connecting on a social network for fear of looking disloyal to their current employers.

Go both broad and deep

In addition to the quick introductions to people that networking group meetings afford, it's important to identify people with whom you feel a synergy and meet with them individually, Siko says. "When you foster a deeper relationship, you're more apt to look out for opportunities for each other," he says, "and that's where true networking happens."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at [email protected]