Networking: It’s a crucial component of success in any field. Some of us are good at it. Some of us have to work at it. But all of us benefit from the connections we make. Here are four tips to expand and enhance your networks, whether you’re a master conversationalist or an introverted novice.

Know what networking is ... and what it isn’t.

First, let’s clarify. Networking is not an event. It isn’t about going to a luncheon or a happy hour. Networking involves informal relationships generated from social interactions that aggregate over time. These sustained, deliberate interactions lead to valuable contacts and connections. Think of networking as a process — a series of luncheons, lectures, layovers and happy hours where relationships are strengthened one conversation and prosciutto-wrapped melon at a time.

Interact with colleagues, even when you’re busy.

Networks are the natural outcome of relationships built from social interactions. That means the fewer social interactions you have, the fewer networks you will build. Watch out for work behaviors that may unintentionally isolate you. When you limit the potential for informal relationships, you limit the potential power of your networks. So instead of eating lunch at your desk, go out with the group. Chat for a few extra minutes at the water cooler. Or go have a birthday cupcake in the breakroom. Don’t let a daunting to-do list limit the time and effort you reserve for networking. 

Track your progress and make changes.

Once you become aware of how you can inadvertently exclude yourself from valuable work interactions, step back and evaluate yourself. For example, take note when you hear yourself saying, “I just don’t have time for that” or “All that chatting is a waste of time.” Keep a journal to identify these missed opportunities. Identify changes you could make to build in “spontaneous” encounters like these and still keep to your busy schedule. Set small, realistic goals — and you’ll see big results.

Go beyond hashtags and focus on real connections.

With all the social media platforms that have become a natural part of our working day, it’s easy to confuse a retweet or status update for actual networking. Remember: Social media is not a relationship. It is an invitation to have a relationship. Find ways to reach out to a set number of people from LinkedIn or Facebook each week or month. Set a goal. Then, send someone an interesting article or celebrate a completed deadline over lattes or pizza. If you build equity in your social networks now, they will be there when you need them later.

The MBA program at St. Edward’s University connects students to the Austin business community through partnerships and internships, so they’re ready to join the city’s vibrant economy.