As published in WESH Leadership Journal (Women Executives in Science & Healthcare), Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2012. Reprinted with permission. 

Networking. It’s a common, if not overused term; yet many underestimate its long-term importance. Whether you’ve asked for help in identifying a tutor, or called upon a colleague as a reference – you’ve networked. You’ve been networking in one way or another your entire life.

Just as computer networks increase efficiency, professional networks expand your contacts and spheres of influence in becoming known to those who recognize your capabilities. Tyler & Company’s Chairman and CEO (and my boss), J. Larry Tyler, believes what matters most “is not whom you know, but who knows you because of your good work and demonstrated ability.” This differentiation can make the difference between your career advancement or stagnation.

So let’s talk about ways to make your network work.

Build your network’s foundation by being productive.

If your idea of career growth means becoming a division chief, chair, dean or vice president of research, then lay the groundwork by being “productive” in your existing role. Additionally, participate in external and internal committees. While cooperative research initiatives are time consuming, they build credibility and expose you to senior academicians who are bound to notice your contribution to the group.

Ensure you are on the right career path.

Weaved into the fabric of academic medicine are mentorship and development; their natural outgrowth is building a network. Ask yourself, “Who makes up my current network? How can they help me?” Is your network aware of your career aspirations? Have members candidly assessed and shared with you their view of the reality of your career goals? Since members of Women Executives in Science & Healthcare (WESH) are identified as future leaders and possess fundamental educations to advance professionally, consider them as sources for advice.

Grow your network with a structured plan.

Ready for the next step in your career? Begin by identifying sponsors – those familiar with your capabilities who agree to tell others about you. While you are likely doing this informally, a structured approach to networking enhances your success in creating new network contacts.

Start by making a target list of current contacts who know you, and your successes and career goals. Include their organizations. Next, develop a position statement that succinctly defines the capabilities and benefits you offer to a formal networking group and potential employers. The keys are to connect and follow up regularly.

Also, contact those in positions to which you aspire. For example, if you aspire to be a dean, ask deans in your network about their jobs, challenges they have faced and how they have attained their goals.

Harvard Business Review posted June 29, 2012, the blog, “Assess the Value of Your Networks.” Athena Vongalis-Macrow, an academic researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, stated, “Women lag behind in leadership because they are less likely to have professional networks to support and promote them as potential leaders.” We need to change this, and thankfully, it’s not difficult to do. Women tend to struggle with professional networks, as well as when it’s time to negotiate salaries and promotions. Why? As a population, we typically aren’t as comfortable “tooting our own horn.”

We prefer to not be regarded as arrogant or aggressive. However, asking for what you’ve earned is a perfectly acceptable and logical course of action, just as building a network helps you advance your career.

Get social via LinkedIn, specialty-specific blogs and online learning communities.

Using social media appropriately creates more opportunities to expand your network. Google about how to get the most from LinkedIn, the most common and largest professional social network. However, don’t neglect the power of specialty-specific blog sites. For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) hosts a blog called “Wing of Zock” (wingofzock.org), which was started by Joanne Conroy, MD, Chief Healthcare Officer at the AAMC. Named after the symbolic hospital wing in Samuel Shem’s The House of God, the blog encourages contributors to “define a future that [also] signifies hope” by sharing innovative and creative stories, and engaging in discussions. Online learning communities are plentiful and also provide networking opportunities, but you need to be faithful and work at them.

Find ways to work your network.

In “Networking,” chapter 4 of Tyler’s Guide: The Healthcare Executive’s Job Search, J. Larry Tyler explains, “Think of your network as a wheel with you in the center and each spoke a contact. The collaboration of spokes creates your network, or your wheel’s outer rim. Your contact can intervene on your behalf and move you to the next spoke. When you contact someone and obtain even one new name to reach out to in your job search, that contact (or spoke) has been useful.”

As you work your network, make a point of staying in touch with past colleagues by phone or e-mail. They don’t need to be local. (Many of my network contacts are on the opposite coast or abroad.) If you’ve recently reconnected through a conference, follow up quickly to let the contact know that you enjoyed the recent encounter. Perhaps, discuss an issue that was raised at the meeting.

Maximize conferences.

With your demanding workload and home schedule, attending conferences can be a lot to juggle. But chances are you likely attend two national conferences annually. During those educational sessions, look around. How many people do you know? Be sure to greet those familiar faces, and introduce yourself to new ones. Speak to the presenters and ask questions. Cocktail parties provide another avenue to meet new folks. Have some icebreakers ready (for conversation starters), and you’ll find meeting new people isn’t as painful as you thought.

Engage in professional associations via leadership roles.

I suggest to healthcare executives whom I interview that they get involved and seek leadership roles in professional associations. This activity not only helps them improve their leadership skills and share thought-provoking ideas, it also provides a great platform from which to expand their networks.

Share your knowledge and interesting finds.

Social media makes it easy to share, and people like to stay informed. Don’t assume that everyone saw that interesting article you read In Harvard Business Review or The Wall Street Journal. You’d be surprised how many colleagues missed it! If you regularly share new information just as you would with students in the lab, you will be regarded as a wise woman and eventually be sought as a thought leader and contributor to the field. This reputation leads to career-advancement opportunities.

Remember, it’s not whom you know, but who knows you that helps to determine your long-term success.