Commentary by Jack White, Head of California Business Insurance for Farmers Insurance®.

There's a very fine line when you're networking yourself and/or your business. It's easy to appear overeager, or even annoying in some cases. It's certainly far from a painless process for many and doesn't always yield results, but it's essential, almost critical, to master if you are looking to grow your sphere of influence.

Whether you're small business owner or an employee of a major company, it's important to remember that networking is a two-way street with a mutual benefit at its core. With that in mind, here are a few fundamental tips I've gathered from years of navigating the networking world.

Networking is not sales

Whether you're a small business owner or working your way up the corporate ladder, networking should not be looked at as sales or an opportunity to sell. At the core of it all, networking success truly requires relationship management. Relationships require both parties to bring value, that is, only if you're expecting to receive something in return. What's tricky about human relationships is you won't ever know exactly what your ROI will be, so you have to constantly cultivate them if you want to get the most "bang for your buck."

Make educated investments of your time

One of the best ways to bolster your network is to build from the one you already have. The connections you have today, regardless of how green you are to the professional world, will be your biggest asset. If you have a specific expertise, leverage it, and help others in need of someone with your skill set.

Additionally, writing out a plan can come in handy when prioritizing your personal and/or professional life. If you're considering pursuing learning opportunities or a membership to an industry organization, educate yourself and determine if your investment justifies your commitment. Does it align with the goals you've outlined for yourself or your business? Excellent resources and networking events can be found at national or local business associations, trade groups, or even joining local chapters in a relevant area or industry.

Build and protect your personal brand

This may sound like a tall order, especially for those less-than-savvy with social media. However, the impact of your online presence does not fully encapsulate how your brand will be perceived. After all, the strongest digital foundation will crumble when built upon one that can't hold its weight offline.

Find ways to educate yourself and your network as much as you can. I tend to read at least one blog or article every single morning before my day begins, and if I come across a valuable insight my network might also find useful, I'll share it with them.

Whether it has to do with hiring or engaging with employees, managing a specific process or providing useful professional resources, I've benefited greatly from a practice of mutual education. It helps demonstrate your value to your network, and to the surprise of many, it doesn't take much time or effort.

Published on: Aug 16, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.