By Kathleen D. Pagana, PhD, RN
Are you making connections that benefit your career? Are you comfortable starting a conversation at a networking session? Do you know how to exit a conversation gracefully when it’s time to move on?
These are questions and concerns many clinicians share. Career success takes more than clinical expertise, management savvy, and leadership skills. Networking can be the critical link to success. This article helps you improve your networking skills by focusing on what to do before, during, and after a networking opportunity.
The value of networking
Networking is all about making connections and forming relationships. Business gets done through relationships. These relationships connect you to new colleagues, new opportunities, new information, and different practice settings. For example, at a convention, I met a manager for a large healthcare organization, who told me he needed speakers and asked if I had an interest. This contact has led to more than 50 speaking engagements.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking networking occurs only in professional settings. It can happen anywhere. Don’t underestimate its power, either. Several years ago, I was at a yoga class when a friend told me her son was seeking a sales position at a laboratory and diagnostic testing company. I had a personal contact at that company, and through this connection, her son was able to get an interview that led to a job. So think of networking as part of your job, not just as an add-on to indulge in when you have time. (See Expanding your network.)
Getting ready to network
Before a networking opportunity, be sure to plan. Find out who will be there, and plan to meet at least several new people. You may be able to ask a colleague to introduce you personally to someone you’ve been wanting to meet.
Prepare by being well read. Read newspapers, magazines, and key journals or newsletters related to your conference or specialty. Determine what type of clothing to wear for the event. You’ll have enough on your mind; why worry about your clothing? You don’t want to show up at a dressy cocktail party in a business suit, or not attend because you didn’t pack the right clothing.
I’m amazed at how many people I meet at networking events who don’t have a business card. Handing out a business card is one of the best ways to follow up and stay connected. Many online businesses, such as VistaPrint.com, offer cards at a low cost.
But don’t pass out your business cards as though you’re dealing a deck of cards. You want people to ask for your card. To make this happen, ask the other person for his or her card. (See How to avoid networking mistakes.)
Networking in action
Networking is active, not passive. Always be ready to introduce yourself. Don’t just stand next to someone waiting to be introduced; take the initiative. Put out your hand for a firm handshake and state your name in a confident voice. For example, “Hi, I’m Mary Balon. I’m a wound care nurse.”
Small talk is an easy way to start a conversation until you find a commonality. It breaks the ice and makes people feel comfortable. If you have trouble getting a conversation started, use the acronym OAR. In the example below, imagine you’re standing next to someone at a convention in Boston.
• Observe. Make an observation. (“It looks as if there are thousands of people here.”)
• Ask a question. (“Have you attended this conference before?”
• Reveal something about yourself. (“This is my first time in Boston.”)
You can practice this easy technique anywhere, anytime—for instance, when standing in a cafeteria line, waiting for a meeting to start, or checking out at the grocery store.
Networking doesn’t mean flitting from person to person, handing out business cards and pumping hands with as many people as possible in a brief period of time. If you don’t care about the people you meet, they’ll sense your insincerity. Instead, show respect, courtesy, and consideration for others. We may forget what people say to us, but we remember how they made us feel. One of the most important things we can offer someone is our full attention. Be a good listener. Focus on being a good resource for others—not on your own agenda.
Don’t monopolize those you meet. The last thing you should do is tie people up and prevent them from moving on and meeting others. When it’s time to disengage from a conversation, do it gracefully. Here are some polite ways:
• “It was great meeting you. I’ll let you have some time to speak to others.”
• “It was great speaking with you. I hope to connect later during the convention.”
• “Juliana, it has been a pleasure meeting you. Will you excuse me? I see my roommate over there, and I promised I’d catch up with her.”
Networking doesn’t end when the conference or meeting does. If you planned to follow up with someone you met, do it. Once you’ve returned to work, it’s easy to get busy and forget to follow up.
Make following up a priority by scheduling time for it. Look for ways to keep connecting with people. Send notes, meet for lunch, and acknowledge accomplishments. Relay information (useful articles, websites, information about a job opening or other opportunity) to someone who could benefit. Don’t connect only when you need a favor.
Building new relationships is the essence of networking. Whom you know and the connections you develop affect your success. The “soft” skill of networking can make a big difference in your career.
Kathleen D. Pagana is a keynote speaker and professor emeritus at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Nurse’s Communication Advantage and The Nurse’s Etiquette Advantage. She is also the coauthor of Mosby’s Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference, 11th ed. To contact her, visit www.KathleenPagana.com.