By Morgan Lewis

More than exchanging business cards at industry conferences, networking is about building lasting relationships.  Here are five steps to help you build – and cultivate – a truly valuable network.

1. Seek out the right people:  Handing out business cards for the sake of handing out business cards will get you nowhere.  If you find yourself at a networking event or conference, do your homework prior to the event so that you know who will be there. Also, reach out to existing contacts to let them know you will be attending and find time to meet with them at the event you’re attending – they may be able to introduce you to new contacts (and vice-versa). Go for quality over quantity – making a few strong, relevant contacts at an event is far better than coming home with a stack of 20 random business cards.

2. Take sincere interest:  Networking isn’t just about selling yourself. When networking, be engaged and ask questions. Most people love talking about what they do, and why they’re good at it. You’ll learn a lot by discovering how your mentors and colleagues were able to grow their careers, and you’ll probably leave each conversation with useful tools to implement in your own career.

3. Accept feedback: As you begin to build relationships with people in your network, don’t hesitate to ask them for advice on specific aspects of your career or professional persona. There are times in everyone’s career where seeking advice or feedback is necessary to move forward, and the ability to accept and use constructive criticism is a valuable skill. Asking one of your contacts for feedback demonstrates that you value their opinion (and their willingness to provide feedback is a true sign that they value their relationship with you).

4. Offer your skills as a resource: When calling in a favor to a networking contact, always extend your services in return. Take the time to ask your contact how things are going, and what’s new in their world – this will give you a better sense of how you may be able to help him or her. It’s likely that your contact will be willing to help you out once that contact knows you are genuinely interested in the success of his or her business and career.

5. Show appreciation:  In order to build strong, reliable networking relationships, be sure to show gratitude when someone offers to open a door or two for you. Putting in a call or sending a note to say thank you goes a long way.

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