If you wrestle with business development — where to focus, how to start, what to do next, how to make it seem natural — if you struggle with the whole idea , chances are one of the causes for the struggle is an anemic or nonexistent professional network.

If this describes you and you’re among those who follow this space (thank you!) you may be tired of hearing this diagnosis. Maybe almost as tired as you are of reading about how central target identification is to business development success.

Admittedly, this conversation would be much more attractive were there a formula that factors some data, revolves around your expertise, incorporates brand equity, and results in business thanks to your experience and reputation

But strategic business development doesn’t work that way.

Note that I didn’t say you’ll never close a deal working that kind of formula. It happens. But any time you are tempted to believe that’s what has occurred can likely be linked to the relationship equity you or someone close to you built over time. Or just pure luck. And rainmakers enjoy a measure of all of the above, to be sure.

But the strategic development of a rewarding network— ore that will build a practice, and endure — begins with the identification of a target market, and a plan that creates a professional network that connects you to that market.

The reason for the difficulty is not that you were not born a rainmaker. There’s no secret handshake. You don’t have to be naturally gifted at working a room or making small talk.

You do have to consistently, and with some rhyme and reason, invest in building and nurturing a viable network.

It has not always been this way. In the good-old-days you could hang a shingle, do quality work, take care of the needs of your client, and experience a growth in both reputation and practice. But for most professional service providers, today’s marketplace relies on networking to connect and differentiate competitors.

This is not about attending every event that comes along. It is about establishing connections — with centers of influence, referral sources, and the seats of decision.

Building a professional network is about investing in strategic relationships that introduce, inform, educate and connect.

It is not about partying, hob-knobbing or wining-and-dining. Nor is it about schmoozing your way onto a preferred provider list.

The art of networking is what it takes to establish and nurture a productive link to your market; appropriate attention to a network is what creates a pipeline of future engagements. A vibrant network minimizes those painful lulls that occur when you have no idea where the next piece of work will come from.

More often than not, a vibrant network is responsible for what otherwise appears to be a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

A killer network markets for you even when you believe you’re too busy to think about marketing.

This is not to suggest it is easy. It requires tenacity, and doesn’t happen over night. But work on your network, and anyone can develop a robust book of business.

The Hard Part

Building a community — that’s the way to think about your network — is a proactive exercise. And for many, the most difficult part is resisting distraction, and focusing time and energy in the right place. This isn’t about creating a cloud of dust with activities.

Events, speaking, writing and social media can all be tools. And they can be unproductive distractions that drive one to despise the idea of networking.

The key is to focus on actions aligned with strategic targets.

Which brings us back to that sticky issue of target identification. Who is in a position to connect you to the work that will build your practice? The closer you come to actually naming these individuals, the closer you are to being able to build a strong network.

If You’re Just Getting Started

Finally, if you’re just now beginning your practice development, here’s some of the best advice you’ll ever receive. It comes via a colleague and long time consultant to law firms — Ann Lee Gibson — and was shared during a Legal Marketers discussion on Facebook.

Maintaining the relationships you already have is key to lifelong networking. {The} biggest, best thing {you} can do is come up with an actual plan to stay in touch with friends who have gone on to work for companies that {you / your firm} may work for one day. It means scheduling on a calendar…”

If you struggle with business development, and — for whatever reason — can only get one thing accomplished in that area this week, make it strategic work on a network. You’ll reap the rewards as long as you practice.