I am a believer that to really make progress, whether for yourself or for your organization, you must have the support of a robust network. Especially when trying to execute a big idea, or begin a large undertaking like starting your own business. Being flexible and creative will get you far, but ultimately, you can’t do it alone. This isn’t a new idea. After all, everyone talks about how important networking is for your career. But what does it mean to make a true, professional connection?

It means having someone that you can rely on for honest and astute feedback about ideas. Being an entrepreneur or a business leader isn’t an easy task, logistically or creatively. Your peers can provide valuable opportunities to experiment with new concepts or strategies. And who better to give insight than people who are experts in their fields? Perhaps an idea ventures outside your area of expertise, but someone you know is well-versed in the relevant field. Surrounding yourself with capable individuals lets you test what works and what doesn’t. You might also say that a strong network of professional connections gives you yourself greater insight into what works. Collectively, a full and comprehensive network of people will allow you to know what’s going on in various industries, which can be the catalyst for change and new ideas.

Professional connections also specifically help you understand what ideas will be the most interesting — even if your idea is solid and able to be executed well, there’s no guarantee that it’ll actually succeed. But in running ideas past your professional connections, you also engage with them as human beings. Beyond their specialities and abilities, gauging the level of excitement your ideas generate can be a good indicator of how the public might view it as well. If you find that your professional connections are intrigued by an idea and want to know more, you may just be on to something.

Your network will give you more options when working through projects as well. By bringing them into the fold, your peers can direct you to places that you wouldn’t have even considered, or weren’t able to go. They also give you better resilience against setbacks. When things go wrong, you can rely on them to tell you where you went wrong, where you can improve, and give you new directions to go in. They are stabilizers — where you might feel utterly defeated if you were by yourself, your connections can give you a wider perspective and help you understand that this failure is not the end, it’s only the beginning.

When properly maintained and cared for, your professional connections create a support system of sorts. Even so, I would caution against blurring the lines between friendship and work. You might begin to think that a charismatic business connection is a friend, only to be disappointed when their behavior contradicts that. That’s not to say you can’t rely on your professional connections, but it’s important to stay measured in your expectations. That disappointment can be detrimental to your business efforts. That being said, your professional network is undoubtedly still a place for support and encouragement. More than any online app, I wholeheartedly believe that my offline resources — my connections — are far more effective at inspiring me and motivating me to succeed. 

To reiterate: everyone understands the importance of networking. But too often you see people think of it as a statistics game, trying to accumulate the highest number of connections with the most important people just to get ahead. But by making an honest effort to connect with other professionals, you’ll become a stronger leader and be far more capable of getting ahead.