Who you know arguably is just as important as hard work when it comes to achieving success and getting what you want. Even so, you can like people plenty and still feel like networking is hard work by itself.

"I've never been a fan of traditional networking where people are told that they have to network in a special space and adopt a certain character to be successful," says Richard Moross, CEO and Founder of international print and design company MOO. "Not only is that boring, but it implies the person is all business."

The solution, according to Moross, is to stop seeing networking as a non-personal business transaction and practice "organic" or accidental networking.

"Organic networking is when your only goal is to better understand that person's experience and place in the world. The agenda-less approach is much more natural and you end up learning a lot more about the person."

How to network organically

1. Enjoy the conversation in the moment. If you're constantly pitching, you're not appreciating your listener just for their company and who they are.  The relationship, not your business, comes first.

"Networking isn't sales or marketing--it's about expanding your horizons and meeting interesting people! Remember, the value of a network is not the number of people in it, it's the strength of connection and relationship. You could have 10 people in your network and it could be more powerful than 10,000."

2. Practice active listening. While conversation is a two-way affair, you should approach every single conversation as an opportunity to learn, rather than to teach.

3. Be genuinely curious about the person you're talking to. "Conversations can start out more professionally driven (and that's okay), but if you meet someone very powerful in a professional setting and happen to have a conversation that isn't around business, it can still reap benefits for the relationship."

A great conversation-starter question? "Tell me about yourself." Moross likes this question because it prompts your listener to give either professional or personal information as they prefer, and because it builds trust and empathy.

4. Be open to anything. Typically, people network formally. They plan to do it with specific groups at specific locations and times. But every interaction can form a connection, not just the ones on your calendar or within your industry.

"15 years ago, a friend of mine invited me to a photography book launch at the Serpentine Gallery. [...Within] 10 minutes of us entering the event, we realized we were at the HarperCollins summer party by mistake, surrounded by authors and journalists. For us, this event was a social occasion rather than a formal networking event like a conference, which meant we had a much better opportunity to network and really get to know people as individuals, rather than potential business stakeholders. Both my friend and I met several interesting people, and from that one event all those years ago, I met one person who has since become a lifelong friend."

Moross also recalls an 8-hour conversation he had on a plane with Paul Barnett, former Executive Producer at EA Games. Confined environments can be incredibly interesting and unexpected places to build lasting bridges!

5. Arm yourself with something small but interesting. "I always include pictures on my business cards--usually it's something I've experienced, like my favorite meal or restaurant. Recipients are always delighted to receive cards like this, and it gives them an opportunity to talk with me about something very personal."

6. Adopt a small town networking mentality. Smaller cities, says Moross, have fewer strangers and greater potential to see specific people again. This makes it even more important to maintain genuine relationships. You'll also probably have a better chance at forming different relationships that might not be as easy to build in a big city, such as with the mayor or governor. Treat the people you meet as friends who are worthy of follow up--and actually follow up!

7. Say thank you with an offer of value. A handwritten card is always a thoughtful gesture. But email or other mediums are still OK--the main point is to show authentic gratitude and to be useful to the recipient. Moross recommends taking an extra minute to give your recipient a takeaway, whether it's a book recommendation, a link to a great new podcast or a mention of a great restaurant.

If you go into a networking situation and still feel anxious, just remember this golden rule.

"At the end of the day," says Moross, "people just want to be around people who are pleasant."

Published on: Apr 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.