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How to network

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The word ‘networking’ conjures up images of power suits and business lunches rather than the down-to-earth world of nursing. But networking is about people. And who knows more about people than nurses?

Networking is one of the most effective job-searching and career-building tools. Some of the best jobs in nursing are never advertised. And although employers can judge from a CV whether you have the necessary qualifications and experience, it is not easy to discern other qualities such as how motivated you are, how you handle crises, and how well you get along with colleagues.

Therefore, when the time comes for hiring staff, employers look first to nurses they know or those who come highly recommended by people they know. This is where networking comes in.

Good social skills are vital to successful career progression and using these skills to network brings a web of valuable contacts. Other people can play a big part in highlighting your qualities and bringing you recognition. Furthering your career in nursing is not just about what or who you know, it is also about who knows you.

So what is networking? It is about interacting with people and building relationships. This means being helpful to others just as much as looking at what they can do for you.

It is important to organise or classify your ‘networks’. One way is to group them into the personal, the organisational, and the professional. Networking should start with people you already know - friends, family, colleagues, or people you meet on a day-to-day basis through your leisure activities.

These people are not necessarily the best source of jobs but they can help you identify your skills and give you advice on how to present yourself. This may lead to intriguing areas you have never thought of exploring. These people are also likely to have useful contacts that could turn out to be valuable to you. This is your personal network.

Organisational networks are contacts developed primarily through your workplace. The larger the organisation you work for, the wider your potential field of contacts. These people may not know of any specific job opportunities but they can provide valuable information about current needs in your field, where your skills may fit, what you should emphasise in your job applications, what you need to learn, and resources that you can access.

It is quite acceptable to make an appointment with an appropriate senior person in your organisation and discuss these sorts of issues. Why not make an appointment to meet your director of nursing? Apart from gaining valuable information, you will be noticed, and that is what networking is about.

Your professional network is more far reaching. It consists of individuals who cluster around common work or leisure interests. Think of your professional network as people whose work is the same or related to your own. These people are usually from outside your immediate organisation - people who could hire you if a job comes up that may be of interest to you.

While there may not be an immediate opening for you, a well-conducted information and referral meeting with someone from this group could lead to an interview later on. Your professional network is the one that will be most valuable to you in managing your career, so this is the one you need to concentrate on. Conferences, seminars and careers events are good places to network with this group.

A telephone call will usually be sufficient in setting up a meeting with someone in your personal network. However, an approach letter, followed by a telephone call to set up an appointment, is usually a more effective and appropriate means of contacting people in your organisational or professional networks. An approach letter should not normally be accompanied by a CV, as that could label you as a job applicant and limit your chances of obtaining an appointment.

It is important to realise that the three networks actually work together. Some of your contacts may fit into more than one category.

Once you have identified your potential networking contacts, how do you then go about using them effectively? First, obtain a set of business cards. Some people think that only high-flying business executives have business cards but this is not true. Some websites offer free business cards that you complete online, so that you only pay for postage. Leave a card with people you meet in various situations, such as conferences or meetings.

Second, organise your networks. Keep a list of their details in your address book or some other relevant place. Categorise them into the three groups outlined earlier.

Next, consider the social skills that make a good first impression. A firm handshake together with eye contact is an indicator of competence and confidence. Develop and practise your introduction - it should be clear, concise, distinctive, and engaging.

Also, prepare some small talk in advance. Find out something about the person you are going to meet so that you have three pieces of information you can talk about. Positive statements about you and your existing organisation will always go down well. And of course, let them know what your career goals are.

However, always remember that networking is a two-way process, so you should always think about what advice or introduction you can offer in return for the person’s assistance. Treat your contacts well and they will be far more willing to help.

Career networking is both a skill and an art and has a specific focus: researching a career choice or change; advancing a job search campaign; or actively managing your career while you are working. Used effectively, your network of professional contacts can become the most valuable tool you have in furthering your career.

Five ways to make networking work for you:

  • Take networking seriously - it is an essential tool for enhancing your career prospects. Done effectively, it obtains results.
  • Develop and organise your networks - divide contacts into personal, organisational, and professional networks and keep their details in a way that is of most use to you. Regularly cull those that are no longer useful.
  • Build up your network - ask contacts if they can suggest anyone else you could talk to. Networking is about becoming noticed.
  • Consider your social skills - are there any that you need to work on to make a good first impression?
  • Make sure you have a set of business cards - hand them round liberally to people you meet during networking. Remember it is not always appropriate to hand out a CV but almost never inappropriate to give someone a card.

Further information:

Carter C. et al (2001) The career toolkit: skills for success. London: Prentice Hall.

Sutton, B. (2000) Career Networking: The Insider Guide to Networking for Career and Job success. London: Spiro Press.

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