Why helping others is the best way to grow your professional network.

The sheer number of people who’ve gotten a job through their network is a testament to its importance. Whether you find new freelance work through a former colleague or land a new job with an old boss, our career trajectories are profoundly influenced by past connections.

This reality speaks to the obvious importance of treating all professional connections equally and with respect, no matter where they fall on the company hierarchy. But it also highlights a vital but often overlooked truth: that networking is a two-way street. You only secure job referrals or LinkedIn recommendations, for example, if you’re willing to help and assist others.

“When you seek assistance in your career without first establishing trust and respect, you'll find new connections quickly disconnecting,” Inc. reports. “Just because someone agreed to connect with you doesn't mean they're ready to do you any favors. Nothing seems more self-serving than to open the conversation with, ‘I see you've worked at ABC Inc. for five years. I've always wanted to work there. Would you be able to introduce me to the hiring manager?’”

Not only is this poor social etiquette in general, it can easily backfire on you in a professional setting. Instead, broaden your network and open new professional doors by trying the following strategies:

1. Ask how you can help them first.

Rather than reaching out with the sole purpose of asking for a favor, consider what you can offer your new connection. Perhaps you’re in a great position to take on a mentorship role or have a high-profile industry connection on Trove that you can introduce someone to. It can even be as simple as letting them know that you’re available for professional advice and would love to help in any way you can. Generally speaking, always think about how you can help the other person before launching into your own agenda. Be other-focused instead of self-focused.

2. Offer yourself up as a mentor.

One of the most tangible, transformative ways to give back to your network is through mentorship. In this role, you are actively shaping someone’s career and offering yourself up as a fountain of knowledge and advice. The key here is to find a mentee in the right industry or professional circle; that way, you can both benefit from the mentorship in a networking sense. You will actually expand your own network as you help your mentee expand theirs. Mentorship is also a great way to sharpen your communication, management, and leadership skills.

3. Always give more than you take.

Not only will this ensure good networking karma, you’ll also develop a reputation as a great professional resource over time, which speaks volumes. The phrase, “you get what you give” definitely applies here; the more you give back to your network and offer your expertise to connections and colleagues, the more those people will be willing to offer you assistance when the time comes. There’s nothing wrong with asking a trusted connection for advice before you’ve personally helped them out, but always remember to return the favor.

4. Remember that online networking isn’t a shortcut.

While a LinkedIn message may feel more casual, the same networking rules still apply. You wouldn’t walk up to a stranger at a networking event and ask for a favor, so don’t do it online. Instead, simply thank the person for connecting, mention a mutual friend or colleague, or ask if they’d be open to an informational interview over coffee. To spark a casual conversation, Inc. suggests asking about the person’s career goals or share an interesting industry article. Whatever your approach, keep things casual and refrain from being self-serving.

5. Focus on building relationships, first and foremost.

At the end of the day, networking is about relationships. It’s not all that different from making friends. While the setting isn’t quite as casual, the premise is the same: you want to make connections with people, find common interests, and hopefully enjoy yourself. Once you’ve established a relationship with someone, you’ll actually feel comfortable asking for a small favor or brief introduction down the line. Generally speaking, friends are willing to help each other out. If you don’t feel comfortable asking someone for a favor, chances are you haven’t made the effort to develop the relationship.

Next, read up on how to prioritize quality over quantity when building your network.