Larry Sagers
In this file photo, a peach orchard is ready to bloom.

I have never in my life, either personal or professional, heard someone doubt the benefits, the power or the necessity of networking. In fact, I believe that most people consider their interpersonal connections — their network — to be one of their most valuable assets.

Yet the environment in which networks are built and maintained has been fundamentally changing — not in a single cataclysmic event kind of way, but in a slow, steady, unrelenting kind of way over a number of years. So how can we build strong, positive, useful networks in this new and ever-changing environment?

To answer that question, I would like to use an analogy of the peach tree that grows in my front yard, and offer six key steps to building a successful network:

Start with the right expectations. The peach tree in my yard was planted with intent. That is to say, I expect to get peaches from it; maybe not the first year or every year, but regularly. So often, we want to harvest opportunities from our network, like peaches from the tree, yet we are unclear in our expectations of what we want from our network. It is as if we planted an oak or an aspen, which, while they are beautiful and useful trees, do not produce peaches. If we want opportunities, our network must be actively trained up to bear fruit.

Have an investment mindset. Sadly, peaches do not grow on command. No matter how much I threaten, flatter or beg, I get no peaches. To have a peach tree is to know that it will take an investment in time and money to get the fruit. Networks are the same. Plan well ahead and understand that it will require some allocation of your time and money. Most likely, the more you put in, the more you get out.

Give constant care. My peach tree is an investment, but make no mistake that it is an active, hands-on investment. I tend the tree with personal interest, protecting it from insects, birds, deer, fungus and other harms. With networking, it is also essential to give constant, personal care with one huge caveat: The care must be genuine. Genuineness cannot be faked. In the age of social media, it is easy to build the branches of a professional network on LinkedIn or a personal network on Facebook, but it is the personal interest that creates a deep root base that gives strength.

Manage growth. Trees grow asymmetrically, organically and seemingly with a mind of their own. Occasional pruning is required. So too with networking. On one hand, it is great to let a network develop in unexpected ways. That real estate agent that you met at a party may become a future business partner. On the other hand, relationships not properly managed can add confusion and distraction. If it’s not a maintained relationship, to some degree, consider pruning.

Know when to harvest. With a peach tree, it takes experience to know when to pick the fruit. There are signs such as a tenderness or fragrance that belie the ripeness, but the simple truth is that the more experience you have at picking fruit, the better you will be at getting it at the peak of flavor. With networking, if you never take advantage of opportunities, such as asking someone to introduce you to one of their contacts, then you will not be prepared when a big, important opportunity presents itself. Learn through experience. You may burn a few bridges, if not careful, but the lessons learned will be invaluable.

Diversify. As much as I love fresh peaches, I also love when the cherries, apples, pears and plums come on. Our networks may seem like they meet our needs, but without constantly adding diversity, they can quickly become stagnant with no new opportunities. It takes work to seek out fresh DNA for the gene pool, but the effect is remarkable. Instead of being additive (10+10), the outcome is exponential (10x10).

Comment on this story

It is a shallow understanding to simply say that social media has changed the way that we manage relationships without understanding how. Indeed, the economic turmoil may have even driven some into a scarcity mentality where they would rather hoard contacts than share. Yet those who have developed valuable, useful networks in this new environment realize that success only comes through active and purposeful management. Further, they understand the interpersonal connections arguably have greater potential now than ever before.

Ohrn Consulting is a management consulting firm, focused on creating lasting behavioral change for the purpose of increasing personal and organizational effectiveness through a three-tiered approach: Experiential Learning, Cross Discipline & Coaching