By Gene Swank

Many successful business executives acknowledge that one of the most important skills in raising capital or scaling a company is the ability to leverage their professional network. We've all heard the old saying, "It's not what you know, but who you know," yet, many businessmen and women have no idea how to even get started building their professional network. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to learn from some incredible professionals who are masters in the art of professional networking. Below are a few tips that can help you find and grow both your personal and professional relationships.

Where to Network

So we all agree that having a strong professional network is crucial, but where do we look for like-minded individuals to network with? I have found that a great place to start is on social media. Use sites like LinkedIn to find and connect with individuals who share your background and/or mission.

Don't forget about professional conferences either. Don't simply hand out your business card. Be sure to follow up with interesting people after the conference has ended.

You can also join a professional group or society. These groups are designed for networking and they normally have events and meetups that can offer you great opportunities to build your network. Perhaps the most effective way to expand your professional network is by leveraging your existing one. Ask for introductions and attend events that are hosted by members of your existing network to meet new people.

A Friendly Relationship Is a Lasting Relationship

We often forget that the first step in building a great professional relationship is finding something you have in common with someone else. Whether it's your passion for reading profit and loss statements or your love of football, find a subject that you are both passionate about and build rapport before pitching them on your business needs. A professional connection can be best leveraged if both parties feel comfortable and friendly towards each other.

I recently had a conversation with Michael Reagan, son of former President Ronald Reagan and President of The Reagan Legacy Foundation about this very topic. His nonprofit organization routinely leverages personal relationships to raise money for causes that benefit veterans, including the most recent campaign to honor WWII vets. Reagan said that when raising money, networking will provide you with a lot more support than your friends and family will. He told me that while most of the people you know will say, "gosh, we really love what you're doing," when you ask them for money, their pockets are empty. I have heard this sentiment echoed several times. While your personal friends and family may be great cheerleaders, it is important to build a professional network that can help contribute to your organization's needs.

Leveraging Your Connections 

Cultivating these amazing professional relationships is important. But how do we leverage them without coming off as the guy (or gal) who always seems to want something? Keep in contact with your network and volunteer to help them and their organization whenever possible. Whether it's making introductions or giving feedback on a project, a good relationship is a relationship that doesn't feel single sided. Build those relationships without always asking them for money. Building a relationship where it feels like all parties are benefiting. This is a key component to any successful networking strategy.

Making Your Relationships Last

Now that we have discussed how to find, build and leverage great professional relationships, it is important to understand how we can maintain these relationships. I asked Reagen for any insight that his father may have shared with him regarding how to maintain amazing professional relationships. According to Michael, President Reagan never believed in making hot topics personal. He told me that the President would make it about the issues. Whether he agreed or disagreed, he preserved the relationship and could always go back to those individuals to discuss other topics. I have found that many times, our most helpful connections are those with which we have the strongest bond. Staying in contact, helping when possible and never taking anything personally are the best ways to maintain a healthy and lasting professional relationship.  

A Serial Entrepreneur / Engineer / Innovator, Investor, Adviser and Mentor.