My father taught me early in life that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters.

I’ve found his wisdom true on multiple occasions. Early in my military career as a young lieutenant, my assignment officer told me the only open position for a logistics officer was a remote assignment in Korea. The position would require me to leave my wife and two children in Arkansas for two years.

That clearly wasn’t the best option for my family, so I took matters into my own hands. I e-mailed a four star general I’d previously met and eaten dinner with at his home. He ended up offering me a job on his staff in Hawaii, which turned out to be the best assignment I ever had in the military.

Later, when I was in the professional sector, I was volunteering on a committee for a national non-profit. They had a board position open and I recommended a close friend who was qualified for the position. He was accepted and helped turn the organization around. Then, he returned the favor a year later when he recommended me to another board, which led to me being hired as the President of Crown.

Many of the young up-and-coming rock stars on my current staff also came from personal recommendations. Their mentors and local leaders picked up the phone to call me and said, “Bob, this is a person you need on your staff.” Time and time again I see how critical networking is in business.

All business is built on relationships. Networking is the art of developing an array of those relationships, inside and outside your industry, that will help throughout your career.

Like one of my professors at Harvard Business School says, “There comes a time in your career when your greatest currency is the relationships you have.”

The #1 Rule for Building A Valuable Network

A CEO of a top placement firm recently told me that close to 75% of all leadership positions being filled in the United States are done by personal referrals. So how do you build this robust network of relationships that is so critical to your career?

There are many books that talk about the secrets of networking, but the one universal truth I have found is this: Give before you ask.

It’s as simple as that.

We’ve all come across the “networking professional” at a conference, eager to hand us their business card. We can tell the entire engagement is about them, their needs, what they want, and what they can get from us.

I toss those business cards in the trash on my way to get a fresh drink.

The master networkers I have witnessed – and try to emulate – are the ones who flip the script. They are artful in providing value and trying to help. They listen to others’ needs, seek to help, offer to make connections with members of their network, and are always seeking to provide value.

I am always left with the deep desire to pay it forward and when they ask for a favor or when I hear of a way I can help them, I rush to provide assistance. They are the masters!

How to Start Building Your Network Today

For those who are early in their career and looking for ways to develop their network, or those who would like to develop new relationships in other industries, here are a few suggestions.

First, engage in local business networks like Young Presidents Organization (YPO), Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), national industry groups, or your local chamber of commerce. These are great ways to meet other members from a wide array of industries.

Second, volunteer for local, state, and national charities and nonprofits. Not only will you be helping your community, you’ll end up socializing with leaders who are also passionate about those causes. Many of my best friends came from helping in these causes, and in turn I built valuable relationships across multiple industries that aided me in my career.

Just remember: a contact is not in your network until you have a relationship with them. It takes time to build a real friendship. Build trust and provide as much value to them as possible. Give before you ask and stay in touch throughout the year, even if it’s just to say hello.

Over time you will find that your network is one of your most valuable assets. Your goal is to have friendships with people who are eager to answer your call and want to pay you back because you’ve helped them.

As the old saying goes, “Dig your well before you are thirsty!” There is no better time to get started than today.