When I started my business in 1991, I had never heard of “networking” until a client invited me to a monthly dinner meeting of a business networking group, called “The National Network of Sales Professionals.” This group consisted of solo business professionals (like me) who shared best sales practices and leads.

Shortly afterward, I joined this group and remained active until it folded in 1999. Besides giving and receiving referrals, I participated in fundraising projects, served as publicity chair for two years, and eventually became the group’s business manager. I am still happily connected to several people I met from this group who are clients, referral partners or friends.

During my membership, I didn’t have high expectations that business would come my way, nor did I count the business cards I collected. I just showed up at meetings and took part in the activities. What I discovered was that referrals were byproducts of me simply being myself and having meaningful interactions with fellow members.

My networking style has carried forward to how I conduct myself today, amidst the social media maze of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others. Both online and offline, I am mindful about the quality of my connections and the potential for relationship-building instead of treating networking like a “numbers game,” striving to amass a large number of friends, followers or fans.

People who are only concerned with the numbers are who I call “contact collectors.” I watch them rapidly giving and collecting business cards at live events or racking up online contacts, without considering the nature of the relationships they are trying to establish. In contrast, I’m much more interested in making true connections.

Apparently, true connections also work for people in career transition. In February 2010 and in March 2011, CareerXroads (a staffing-strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, NJ) revealed in their 9th and 10th Annual Sources of Hire Surveys that “Referrals are the #1 source of external hires.” What this means is that employers will hire people recommended by folks who they know, like and trust, over complete strangers.

If you want to build true connections, do two things: first, be selective about who is in your network; second, know the value that you can bring to each other. For example, when someone wants to connect on LinkedIn (or you’re the one making the request), ask yourself these questions:

1. Do I know this person?

2. Have my dealings/interactions with this person been positive?

3. Would I be willing to write this person a recommendation?

4. Can I comfortably ask this person for a recommendation?

If you answered “yes” to questions 1 and 2, this person qualifies as a true connection. Questions 3 and 4 are more relevant for longer-term relationships. Either way, you can still apply this thoughtful approach to any setting where you’re meeting new people.

Whatever your networking style might be, I can attest that being a true connector instead of a contact collector will help you build authentic, credible and solid relationships with people who will support your personal and professional goals — and vice versa.

© 2011 Joellyn Wittenstein Schwerdlin, The Career Success Coach. All Rights Reserved