Networking is perceived as the gateway to long-lasting professional relationships that will help you get to where you want to go. With this in mind, you may frantically RSVP to all career events, LinkedIn invitations, and professional development networks in hopes you'll make the right connection that will take you to where you want to go in your career. The professional network you think you're forming is actually a superficial exchange between two people trying to get ahead; we're all guilty of this. That's not to say you won't ever make authentic connections at networking events. In fact, I've made a few good friends from rubbing elbows at all types of occasions.
Let it happen naturally
Think about how many times we push our business cards into the hands of every last person at a networking event only to wake up the next with an empty inbox. Don't limit yourself to forming professional relationships in expected places like events, seminars, mixers, etc. Think of places outside of the ordinary to form connections to people like the subway, gym, and waiting in line. Personally, I have made 2 very valuable connections on the subway. I've also referred an additional 5 people looking for new jobs to 24 Seven. I may not have exchanged business cards with 20 people at a premier event, but I've created meaningful connections in a natural way that won't leave me questioning whether or not I should follow-up. I am confident that these connections will be there if I ever need them and likewise, I will always be there for them if they ever need me.
Treat everyone the same
The last thing you want to do is treat the Founder of a hip startup differently than you treat his assistant. Fancy titles should not affect how you network. For all you know, the assistant you're tempted to brush off could be the Founder's right-hand man, in which case you ought to treat him with the same respect you would anyone else. Treating everyone equally isn't just the right thing to do, it's the kind thing to do. When you're kind to everyone, people will be attracted to you. That in itself is a great way to grow your professional network.
When you're extending your professional circle, you want to be as authentic as possible. Networking is similar to finding a culture match in that if the two parties don't mesh, there's no point in continuing the conversation. You don't want to create a falsified personality in hopes it gets you ahead. Your true self will be revealed in due time. Instead of trying to mask yourself, show who you are right off the bat. Don't compromise your own values or beliefs just because the other person feels differently than you do. Authenticity is one of the keys to career success.
Offer something of value
If you want to build a professional network you'll actually use, take into consideration what you can offer the other person. A professional network is a two-way street and it should be beneficial to both people involved. Offering a service for free, lending a helping hand, or providing valuable insight to your professional network could even land you a full-time job or an opportunity of a lifetime.