It’s often said that knowing the right people can guarantee success in a career and in life. We’ve all heard the expression “it’s who you know.” But is it really as simple as that? According to best-selling author, motivational speaker and networking expert Bob Burg, “It isn’t just what you know, and it isn’t just who you know. It’s actually who you know, who knows you and what you do for a living.”

Whether you’re an RN looking for a new job, a faculty member hoping to transition to a new academic institution, a researcher seeking sources of funding or a nursing student in search of mentors, there’s no denying that connections—knowing the right people—can open doors. However, if you don’t invest the time and effort to cultivate and nurture those connections, the door will soon close. Therefore, the key to effective networking is to develop yourself professionally and personally while establishing and maintaining relationships with others.

Saying that networking is important is an understatement. Absent or ineffective networking will virtually guarantee limited success in any career,” says Ramon Lavandero, MSN, RN, MA, FAAN, director of development and strategic alliances for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. “I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and both of my parents were accomplished networkers in their professional and social lives. I didn’t realize it until many years later, but this combination of living in a culture where networking is part of the social fabric and experiencing it in my home life has proved invaluable.”

Although there is no secret formula for successful networking, there are tools that you can use to develop effective networks and networking skills. However, the process of networking can seem mysterious and even intimidating to people who don’t clearly understand what it is and how it is done.

Why Nurses Should Network

It’s helpful to think of networking as a way—and, perhaps, the most effective way—of managing our lives. When you ask a friend for advice on what kind of car to buy, or when you recommend a good restaurant to a coworker, you are networking. Whether it’s something as simple as deciding what movie to see or as important as choosing the best employer to work for, we often depend on the recommendations of others. In fact, many people will not try something new without a referral from someone they know and trust.

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“Networking is critical for nurses,” says Demetrius J. Porche, DNS, PhD(c), APRN, president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN) and dean and professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing. “It’s an underutilized vehicle for developing social capital. Friends, colleagues, people you’ve worked with in the past and former professors or students are all people you can reach out to when you need information. Nurses also need to know that their network should extend beyond just the nursing profession.

Sandra Millon Underwood, PhD, RN, FAAN, American Cancer Society Oncology Nursing Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Nursing, believes that networking is a crucial way for nurses, both in clinical practice and academia, to stay abreast of new knowledge and changes in the field. “I think it’s important for nurses to recognize, in their current positions and in their overall careers, that we’re constantly developing, expanding and creating the culture of the practice based on our experiences and our perceived needs of the practice and of the population,” she says.

Most of us, through the course of our lives, meet thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. Each one of these people is a potential networking contact in the future. But since a network containing thousands of individuals would obviously be impossible to manage, your actual “active network” will be much smaller. Then, when you need to consult your network to get information or advice, you will have a very narrow group of people you can comfortably contact.

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The term “networking,” particularly in a professional setting, makes some people nervous, because they associate it with “cold calling” or asking someone for favors. This is one of the most common misconceptions people have about networking. In fact, if you are networking in the correct way, you should never be in the position of “cold calling.”

Webster’s Online Dictionary defines networking as “an intricately connected system of things or people.” This definition underscores an important element of networking that all nurses should understand: Networking is not about asking others for something—it is about sharing.

In other words, networking is not a one-way street and it’s not a one-time event. It’s about building a system of mutually beneficial relationships. If you need to find a new job, for example, you can reach out to someone in your network and ask for information, advice or a referral. But, if you are an effective networker, you will also be able to provide that same person—perhaps months or even years in the future—with your own recommendations, information or referrals when it’s their turn to reach out to you.

Developing this “intricately connected system,” requires trust, which in turn requires time and effort. “Networking—effective networking—always moves in two directions,” Lavandero emphasizes. “I may certainly benefit from networking with others, but if I’m truly effective, they will benefit in return.”

Underwood agrees. “Networking should be ongoing,” she explains. “It is a process—not something you engage in [only when you need help with something]. I think we should always be networking with professionals in our area, beyond our area and in areas we might want to be in at some point in the future. [In terms of career networking], I would encourage nurses not to wait until they have to make a change, or want to make a change, before they start networking. You should always be developing relationships with others involved in the practice. Taking the time to make a personal contact after meeting someone who shares a common interest is extremely important.”

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Networking 101

So, if networking is all about building a system of relationships, how do you get started? The first step is simply meeting other people. This can be done in many different ways—through friends, coworkers or classmates; at social events, your church or your children’s school; through alumni associations, nursing professional associations, hospitals, doctor’s offices or agencies. It can also include people you meet at conferences and people you meet online.

But does this simple method guarantee that you’ll meet those proverbial “right people?” One way to answer this question is to consider the theory of six degrees of separation. This idea is not new; many credit its first mention to a Nobel Prize acceptance speech given by Guglielmo, the pioneering Italian inventor of the radiotelegraph, in the early 20th Century. The hypothesis essentially states that any individual on the planet is separated from any other individual by no more than six other people.

The term and the concept gained momentum and entered the modern lexicon through a 1993 movie starring Will Smith, and even more recently through a game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Invented by college students, this trivia game requires players to connect actor Kevin Bacon to another movie actor using as few links as possible.

It may seem far-fetched to think that everyone reading this article really is connected to—for example—Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela, the Pope or the Dalai Lama by no more than six other people. But as surprising as it might seem, research—including an in-depth study conducted in conjunction with faculty at Columbia University involving more than 60,000 participants from more than 170 countries—actually bears this out. The results of these studies confirmed that participants were, on average, connected to other participants by six links in a human chain.

So if you want to meet a certain nurse whom you’ve heard of but don’t actually know, start thinking about how you can reach that person through six degrees of separation. Who do you know who might know somebody who knows that person?

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Underwood notes that for many nurses, the best way to start building your network depends a great deal on where you are in your career. “For new graduates trying to identify roles or opportunities in the field, I think it is important to [network with] nurses who are already working in those areas. This gives the new graduates an idea of their career trajectory,” she says. “For nurses already in the field who may be trying to make a [career] transition, networking is just as important, because it can give them ideas and provide them with information about [job opportunities that may open up] at a particular institution.”

Porche emphasizes the importance of joining professional associations and familiarizing yourself with list servers, discussion boards and networking Web sites, all of which provide excellent ways to meet other nurses in the Internet age.

“[Getting on an organization’s listserv] is an excellent way to develop a network,” he states. “Someone posts a question about how something is done and then someone else will give an answer. I’ve also used [these tools] to find experts in different areas. For example, I’ve posted to find a consultant and received recommendations from across the country. These list servers provide you with access to a huge network of people and nurses coast to coast.”

The AAMN provides a discussion forum on its Web site and, says Porche,” I think most [other nursing] associations that build communication [channels] for their members have this type of virtual network.”

Managing Your Network

When you meet someone you share a common interest with or someone you simply find interesting, you should seek to keep this person in your network. In order to do that, you need to have some system of organizing and maintaining your database of contacts. Some people use professional online networking sites, such as LinkedIn. Others use something as simple as tracking names and dates of contacts in their email account. Some even use traditional paper filing systems. Whatever method works for best for you, the most important thing is to create a system that enables you to keep track of the people you meet.

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This system might include information such the person’s name, title, company or institution and contact information, as well as who referred them to you, who they referred you to and any relevant personal information. You should also track each time you “touch base” with the person and the topic discussed.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in networking and relationship management is neglecting to thank their contacts. Fortunately, this is also one of the mistakes that’s easiest to correct. It’s a matter of common courtesy and common sense. When you give your time or make an effort on behalf of someone else, you appreciate that person acknowledging your effort—and other people feel the same way. If you make a genuine effort to sincerely thank the people in your network when they help you, they will appreciate it.

In fact, if you write thank-you notes and send them the old-fashioned way—by mail—you might even pleasantly surprise the recipient, since thank-you notes have become so rare these days. Also, remember to thank everyone who helps you, including assistants and friends.

Stay in touch with people in your network by updating them on your progress and by sending holiday cards. You can also send articles or Internet links that you think would interest them. If someone is especially helpful, you might consider sending a small token of thanks, such as flowers, a book or a CD.

Most importantly, remember that networking should always be about give and take, not take and take. When networking is done correctly, as an ongoing process of lifelong sharing between people with mutual interests and goals, the relationship will be a positive experience for everyone involved.

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