Alliances Through Networking: It Is Not Rocket Science

I was in the middle of a hectic day when a friend called and asked if I would give a talk the next day at a luncheon to be attended by 500 people in a major city. "My keynoter has fallen seriously ill," said my good friend. "Sorry for the very short notice, but I know if anyone can pull this off, it's got to be you." Letting that flattery go to my head at the speed of light, I accepted the challenge. Doing so did several things for me: my "war chest"

By | November 9, 1998

networking I was in the middle of a hectic day when a friend called and asked if I would give a talk the next day at a luncheon to be attended by 500 people in a major city. "My keynoter has fallen seriously ill," said my good friend. "Sorry for the very short notice, but I know if anyone can pull this off, it's got to be you." Letting that flattery go to my head at the speed of light, I accepted the challenge.

Doing so did several things for me: my "war chest" of chits got a bit larger; I was helping a friend; and I knew I would enjoy the opportunity to connect with some interesting people. This anecdote illustrates why I do many of the things I do, which includes writing articles such as this one or responding to requests for help with my expertise. I believe strongly in developing and maintaining a healthy network, in order to succeed and have fun doing it. I would advise anyone in science, at any stage of his or her career, to continue to develop a network, or to start building one as soon as possible. The advantages are many:

  • Networking is a great antidote to isolation, felt especially by many women and members of other underrepresented groups.

  • Most significant jobs are filled through contacts and networks.
  • An individual is more likely to achieve great things by working with others than by being a loner.

    *A network increases and expands one's sphere of influence.

  • A network is a resource base, offering information and knowledge, access to expertise outside one's own field, and providing a means by which all participants can showcase their unique talents.
  • Many a great and lasting friendship had its roots in networks. And friends, of course, make life more interesting and manageable.

As a professional skill, networking is a relatively modern phenomenon. Apparently, it gained popularity and became a "must" skill only a few decades ago, when the executive search industry went through a rapid expansion. Headhunters realized that the best and most efficient way to gather leads and reliable information about potential candidates, and to quickly assemble a short list of qualified candidates, was through suggestions from their professional and personal contacts. Over the years, networking has developed into an important alternative to traditional classified advertisements. Ads are placed to cast wide nets (especially when filling entry-level positions) and to satisfy equal opportunity laws. Employers, however, continue to tap into their networks for the right people, especially at the more senior levels. That is why it is important to know others, and--more importantly--to be known by them.

Lest it be thought that a network is needed only for professional advancement, rest assured that networking is just as important in personal life. Think of those occasions when it was necessary to quickly find out who was the best doctor, caterer, lawyer, or dentist, or which was the best school in the town to which you just moved. Or consider that doctor, hair stylist, or lawyer who would not take new clients, until an introductory phone call opened the door.

The truth is that most of us in science and technology feel squeamish about the idea of networking. Yet, knowingly or unknowingly, successful scientists always have been integral parts of several networks. That is how one is invited to give talks, write reviews and articles, or serve on prestigious bodies; it also is how one is nominated for top awards and honors and invited or selected to consider plum assignments and positions. To some, the notion of networking is a bit uncomfortable, but this is because it is misunderstood as exploitative, not mutually beneficial and cooperative. Realistically, networking is a two-way street. It is both collaborative and reciprocal. The main goal of networking should be to develop meaningful relationships that benefit all participants. If that does not happen, the relationships will not manifest as positive forces and will not last.

Networking is about doing unto people as you want them to do unto you. Rather than saying, "How do I get X to do Y for me?", the right attitude is, "How can I help X?" Good and effective networking is about being considerate and courteous to everyone, not just those who are at the top at a given moment.

Networking is work. It is not just a gratuitous concept. It requires time, energy, enthusiasm, sincerity, and consideration. To get a foot in the door, a top education and talent are needed, but moving up is predicated on connections, on people who know that you are a talented performer. When filling positions, it is quite natural for people to look for candidates through their own networks, seeking individuals they know can do the job, or who are able to recommend good people from their own networks.

Networking is about developing communities within which common interests are shared, information is exchanged and shared, and mutual help is given. Your network includes not only your own personal and professional contacts; it extends to those people's contacts and networks. The novice networker may harbor the misguided notion of having a lot of acquaintances, but real networking is about relationships.

Recently, I've been hearing people use the term "alliancing." Although ungrammatical, this word is useful in subtly redefining the concept of networking by emphasizing its strategic side--the building of a few, meaningful, and strong relationships or allies. To have a strong relationship means being able to count on someone, and someone being able to count on you. The main purpose of alliancing is to seek and nurture individuals who can be advisers, sounding boards, intellectual and social resources, role models, mentors, and friends with whom joys and disappointments can be shared.

Alliancing is an effective approach, because the aim is to develop relationships with a few people who can be counted on, rather than simply generating an overflowing Rolodex. Alliancing (or networking, for that matter) is not a numbers game, and should not be about superficial meetings and insincere platitudes. Nor is it about sheer visibility without credibility, which can be deadly to professional goals. One must be willing to consistently deliver what is promised. It is not necessary to do great and significant things to nurture the network. Small things do count. On the other hand, networking is like doing math. A small, early infraction can derail you. To be truly successful, your antennas must be up all the time, but keep in mind that this does not mean being superficially alert. Like many people, I dread the sight of "human butterflies" with nanosecond attention spans, who collect and give tens of business cards during the cocktail hour, or those who offer the NutraSweet version of affection to people they perceive as useful to their agenda. You can get by only so far with charm alone. Then you have to deliver. In fact, few things turn me off more than "professional networkers," who are attentive only to the "powerful and highly placed," but who look past those they do not consider to be important. Underestimating and disregarding the junior people or those without impressive titles is the hallmark of phonies, and you can spot them from a mile away. This is not to say that, as a rule, touching base with as many people as possible should be avoided. There is a right time, place, and manner in which to do so. But in many situations, it is far more rewarding and enriching to meet a few interesting people, learn what they do, how they do it, and discover if there is a convergence of interests. True and successful networkers treat everybody with sincerity, courtesy, and dignity, knowing that good manners buy good will. People are like the stock market. You never know who will be up and who will be down the next day. Taking the long view, giving everyone her or his due, is the best way to build a real network and to ensure that things will fall in place for you.

Developing a network comes naturally and with ease to those who like being around other people. But there is no doubt that networking is a skill that can be learned and honed by almost anyone. Here are some pointers:

  • Join relevant professional societies and attend their meetings as often as possible. Regard the meetings as time spent working smart. Be prepared to get more than the technical data out of such meetings; work to establish friendships and lasting relationships. Offer to help and take on responsibility in areas where you can produce results and also show your colors.

  • Join and offer to serve in volunteer organizations and on boards. This is a great way to create a multidimensional and multifaceted network. New skills can be gained and good can be done at the same time. In addition, these are places where people with different expertises can meet, and where each individual can add something unique and special to the collective effort.

  • Good networkers are interested in other people and have the desire and discipline to nurture relationships. Within each scientific community, there are several subcultures. The first task is to understand those specific cultures, and then work to become an integral part of them.

  • Networking is a perishable commodity. Be vigilant about its maintenance, feeding, and expansion.


Jaleh Daie, Ph.D., is president and founder of Women in Science & Technology Alliance (WiSTA) and chairman of the board of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, both based in Washington, D.C., and a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Phone: (608) 265-2987; E-mail: jdaie@facstaff.wisc.edu
A friend recently gave me one of the best books I've seen on the subject (H. Mackay, Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty, New York, Currency Doubleday, 1997). Written by the networking guru, Harvey Mackay, it's a fun read and chock-full of great real-life stories and lessons. He finishes each chapter with a "Mackay's Maxim." Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Networking may not be rocket science, but studies prove it works for rocket scientists.

  • It takes years to become an overnight success.

  • It's great to be liked. You'll have a network you can always use. It's even greater to be needed.

  • In networking, you are as good as what you give away.

  • Your best network develops from what you do best.

  • Building a network is about learning what people want.

  • Cream does not rise to the top, it [net]works its way up.

  • There is a reason they call them "connections." You have to connect.

  • There are no dead-end jobs. There are only dead-end people. If you build a network, you will have a bridge to wherever you want to go.

To maintain, reenergize, and nurture allies and a network, keep in mind what Conrad Hilton said: "All my life, I have been as good as my associates, and in them, I have found my good luck and my fortune." Those who keep nurturing their allies, network, and associates--helping them to be greater in their professional lives and as people--will themselves be greater for it.

SUGGESTED READINGS
H. Mackay, Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty, New York, Currency Doubleday, 1997.
D.B. Richardson, Networking, New York, National Employment Weekly, John Wiley and Sons, 1994

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