As a business coach, I've worked with dozens of executives and entrepreneurs on how to become stronger leaders and more effective strategists. However, one asset I find most people have woefully underdeveloped is their professional network. Developing a strong collection of people you know inside and outside your industry is one of the best investments of your time and energy. While your skills and capabilities are important to your entrepreneurial success, knowing the right people with the right connections can be one of the best ways to create value for your business.

1. Cultivate relationships.

Before you try to expand your network, leverage the people you already know. A network is not just a collection of business cards. People do business with people whom they know, like, and trust. If you haven't built real relationships, you won't have a strong network.

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut here. You need to spend time with people to get to know them, and for them to get to know you. Having a coffee or tea or even a meal with someone is much better than just being connected on LinkedIn. If you're looking to create efficiency, invite a small group to lunch and get to know several people at once.

2. Give first, then ask.

Before you start strategizing on what you can get out of your network, focus on what you can give. Look for opportunities to offer help or expertise in an area you know well. You need to build up credit before you can make asks of others.

These don't need to be big things or things directly related to business. If you hear someone is traveling to a city you know well, follow up with a few restaurant recommendations. Have a good book you've read? Send someone a copy who you think might like it. Another great strategy is to make introductions to other people in your network; that's two birds with one stone. 

3. Leverage your second degrees of connection.

Just because you can't find someone in your immediate network who can help you with your need, don't give up. Every one of your contacts knows many people. Look for someone who's likely to know someone who can help, and reach out to them. If you're looking for a a good trusts and estates attorney, ask some of your attorney friends who they know. This not only gets you a warm introduction, it gives your friend the credit for a referral.

4. Look for weak links.

One of the challenges in building a broad network is that you can get stuck meeting people who all know each other and operate in the same circles. Since they all know each other already, you won't be expanding your reach very well.

The key here is to find weak links. These are people who you may not know well, but operate in a completely different circle of people. And while it's hard to find and connect with these folks, when you do, you open up connections to large groups of new people that you otherwise wouldn't have access to. This is one of the quickest ways to expand your network in a strategic way.

5. Communicate regularly.

Once you have connections, you need to stay connected and top of mind with them. Tools like LinkedIn can help publish content and updates to your network on a regular basis. And a newsletter or a blog is another great way to create value and stay on peoples' radar. The key here is to create a steady and regular stream of quality content and updates so that people learn who you are and what you do. Done well, this will keep you front and center in in the minds of people in your network, or those you want in your network.

The hardest part of developing a good network is that it takes time and investment. Good networks take years to build and develop. Have a plan and put in the time on a regular basis. Your hard work will pay off when done right and consistently. If you wait until you need your network to build one, you're too late.

Published on: Feb 26, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.