Part of my work involves figuring out why some women succeed and others do not. Yet I’ve worked mostly with men in my career, and I’ve always heard that men have bigger, stronger, bolder, and all-around better networks than women. So when I meet wildly successful women, especially in the male-dominated tech industry, it seems only natural to ask them about the importance of their networks. These women often answer me by talking about relationships. At first I thought this was a fluke: I’m asking about networks, so why are they responding by talking about relationships?

Eventually I realized that men build networks, but women foster relationships. And that this is more than just a semantic difference. Connections between men are more often based on transactions--one business action is traded for another. For women, it’s different. They are more likely to build their relationships over time, based on shared experiences with mutual benefits. And for the women I’ve met, this alternative way of building connections works just fine: These women sit on public company boards, lead highly profitable business ventures, and bring innovative offerings to market.

So how do you go about building the relationships you need for success? And what differentiates this from networking? These five steps will get you going.

Step 1: Assess where you are today

  • What do you need to learn? How strong is your leadership ability, for example, or your domain expertise? Do you have a good handle on your financials? And if your customers are businesses, do you have access to any high-level people you need to work with?
  • What is the status of your business?  Are you about to run out of cash?  Are you able to handle the volume of business?
  • How strong, and how numerous, are your current relationships? Do you have people in your contact list who can help you or who can introduce you to someone who can?

Step 2:  Set goals. Identify the people who can help you reach them

  • Are there specific people you need to know in order to reach your goals?
  • Which investors would benefit from having your company in their portfolio?
  • What expertise or connections are you lacking?

Step 3: Create a relationship map.

  • Within your current contacts, who can help you reach your goal?
  • Who do you know that can introduce you a wider circle of people who could help?
  • If there are gaps, who in your circle can help you identify the types of people and specific people you should be targeting?

Step 4:  Build relationships that bridge the gap between where you are now and the achievement of your goals:

  • Make a list of everyone you plan to reach out to. Then group them by the type of help they can offer. Some people may be able to help you sell to large enterprises. Others may be able to help you hone your pitch to investors.
  • For each category, make a list of the top three topics you need to get smart about.
  • Are there areas where you have no useful relationships at all, or where your relationships may not be strong enough? In those areas, figure out which events, conferences, or associations could help you build these relationships. Look for forums where you’re likely to share the values and experiences of the other people who are involved.
  • Pick three forums that will yield the most valuable opportunities.

Step 5:  Start reaching out. 

  • Who do you reach out to first in your current relationship base?  Who will you cold-call outside of your contact list?
  • Be clear about the topic of conversation, articulating what you want and why. Generally, people want to help. They just need to be asked. You’ll be surprised.
  • Which conferences, forums and events will be the most productive? What will you do to help establish meaningful relationships while also helping your business?
  • Focus. You still have a business to run today.
  • Pay it forward.  Look for ways to help other people connect with people you might know.

Of course, all of this takes time, and for the newbie, more than a little guts. But for many successful women, it works. What have you got to lose?