There's a theory in matters of business networking that more is better. Fatten up the ol' Rolodex and you'll soon be climbing the ladder/locking down your angel round/scoring clients. It's not true. Relationship capital—your web of contacts and their web of contacts—like a truffle or a well-appointed wardrobe, traffics in quality, not quantity. Keep your network lean.
Rather than glad handing every suit in the room, focus instead on engaging thought leaders and influencers and offering your own no-strings-attached time and energy. You'll find the investment pays off in unexpected ways. Here are eight ways to get the most of your own relationship capital.
1. Curate. Collecting piles of business cards is not building a network, it's creating clutter. An effective network is comprised only of people who can help you solve problems. Not simply C-suite bigwigs, but influencers of all types.
2. Diversify. The shortest path to innovation is insights from people of different backgrounds, industries and levels of experience. Your network should produce not one or two but 10 different paths to your goal.
3. Find bridges. Curating contacts and building a strong network can be time-consuming work. Set up your primary circle of connections strategically. Focus on people who are what Cal-Berkeley professor Morten T. Hansen calls "bridges," those with their own powerful, regularly leveraged networks. Your primary contacts will not always have the solutions you need but, being well connected, they will know people who do.
4. Give. In his book Give and Take, Wharton professor Adam Grant makes the case for increasing your success by helping others. Give referrals and advice freely—literally. When you expect nothing in return, your connections will be predisposed to helping you, and each other. A five-minute favor is all it takes to set up a relationship that could mean a lot down the road.
5. Nurture your MVCs. "Most valuable clients," that is. They are your most important brand ambassadors, essentially another branch of your marketing team, with all the business they refer. Stay engaged with the ones who seem most involved, even if they're not actually your biggest buyers.
6. Engage face-to-face. The next time you're at a networking event, leave the phone in your pocket. Focus on the other flesh-and-blood humans in front of you. Take periodic coffee meetings with random members of your network. It's a small investment of time that keeps you on their radar.
7. Express gratitude. Always, always say thank you, no matter how small the favor.This may seem obvious but don't forget to let those who help you, know that they did. It will make your mom proud and cement the value of the helper in your network.
8. Use it. The easiest way to optimize your network is to not let it languish. Don't be afraid to reach out with a phone call, email or quick bite. But don’t over-ask. No one likes a pest.