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Networking: How to Make Real Friends and "Like" One's Career

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Roger W Evans, PhD
ISHLT Links Senior Editor
President and CEO
United Network for the Recruitment of Transplantation Professionals
Rochester, Minnesota, USA

The International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT) 34th Annual Meeting and Scientific Sessions is upon us and, thanks to the superb efforts of the Program Planning Committee, and the very dedicated ISHLT staff, it is shaping up to be one of the best ever. Moreover, for those of us who have endured one of the harshest winters on record, San Diego is a bright spot on a very distant horizon. Hopefully, with my eye on a table at an outdoor pub, the weather will be conducive to pilsners, not stouts.

I have attended almost every ISHLT Annual Meeting and Scientific Sessions, beginning with the second one, which was held in Phoenix, Arizona in 1982. At that time, the meeting was so small that a single plenary session accommodated all the scientific presentations. Thus, everyone attending the meeting was in a single conference room, and listened to every paper presented. As a participant, you truly felt you were a part of a small, but distinctive community. The experience was further enhanced by incredible collegiality, and never ending socializing. Many of us spent our evenings together over food and drink.

The early meetings of the Society were very engaging, as well as entertaining. There was a lot of banter, and attendees were not always kind to the presenters. Believe it or not, insults were politically correct - the lower the blow, the louder the laughter!

In this regard, I was invited to present a paper addressing the economic issues surrounding heart transplantation at the third Annual Scientific Sessions in New Orleans (1983). At the time, I was directing the National Heart Transplantation Study, which was to later serve as the basis for Medicare's coverage and reimbursement policy as it pertained to heart transplantation. In my presentation, which was 45 minutes long, I noted that cost could be an impediment to insurance coverage and, as a result, heart transplantation might continue to be considered experimental, as opposed to established therapy.

As always, my presentation was impeccable in every respect, but my audience was, as expected, naïve (LOL). People were unimpressed with my candor. Calling me a villain would have been considered a compliment. However, things were even worse than the initial signals indicated. At the conclusion of my presentation, Dr. Norman Shumway stood up and basically dismissed everything I had to say. As I recall, he referred to me using an unbecoming term for anus. As a young person, four years out of graduate school, I remained confident, but taken back, a little bit. As I stepped off the stage, you would have thought I was infected with the Ebola virus, or something equally as lethal. People quickly distanced themselves from me, both physically and socially.

To my surprise, and contrary to the behavior of virtually all attendees, Dr. Jack Copeland walked up to me, complimented me on my presentation, and asked if I would like to join him and his team from the University of Arizona for dinner. Needless to say, I didn't hesitate to accept his invitation. Otherwise, I'm sure I would have spent a long lonely evening considering my career prospects, which were now dismal, at best.

We all went out, had a great time, and a lasting friendship with at least 8 people began that evening. The next day, with my new found friends obviously comfortable in my company, other attendees seemed more receptive and inclusive. Clearly, I was entitled to my opinion, and even Dr. Shumway bore no grudge. Thereafter, we became good friends and, in later years, he even wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf. Obviously, a bad experience can have a lifelong positive outcome.

To this day, I still yearn for the "old days" when the meetings were small, and there were incredible opportunities to network with people who would become real friends, not merely casual acquaintances.

Let's be clear, in developing, maintaining, or furthering one's career, regardless of one's age and experience, it all comes down to who you spend your time with, not what they have to say in some plenary session.

I don't intend to be harshly critical of outsize meetings. I realize a major goal of the conference organizers is to make the meeting financially viable by maximizing attendance through participation in presentations (i.e., no presentation = no travel money = fewer attendees = a meeting as a money losing proposition). Nonetheless, by increasing the formality, busyness, and complexity of the meeting, we're doing ourselves an injustice. This, I believe, has particularly serious negative consequences for our junior colleagues who are at a critical point in the development of their careers. How do they develop the kind of network I established at the dawning of my career?

Is social media the solution?

In my opinion, networking through social media is a travesty. It's casual, superficial, non-committal, meaningless, and baseless. Even Web sites that tout their role in the creation of credible professional networks are sheer nonsense. Let's be honest, social media at both a personal and a professional level exist for three dubious reasons - the need for visibility, the relentless pursuit of approval, and the hope of Lady Gaga notoriety. Everyone has a story to tell, no matter how insignificant, and people insist on being a celebrity, even when their place in the universe is inconsequential. Even amongst a small group of nitwits there is a proverbial "star."

Most of us who are serious about our careers have no interest in such rubbish. To call the people who are obviously dependent on, and addicted to social media "networkers" grossly understates their insecurity. Social media fanatics are more mentally fragile. In an embellished social world people are inclined to search for any minuscule means to establish their notoriety, and to achieve some semblance of credibility amidst what often is their stupidity and immaturity. Sadly, yet increasingly, the outlandish is becoming the preferred path to perceived success.

To me, networking means building lasting friendships that are both carefully calculated and intended to help develop, maintain, or further one's career. Metaphorically speaking, one is not interested in the casual "intellectual sex" social media has to offer. Instead, our priority should a lasting "intellectual marriage" wherein, with carefully selected mentors, we collaboratively create scientific offspring that continue to contribute to the field which is our very raison d'être.

Based on the foregoing, my recommendation is simple: avoid social media, unless you use it as a means to communicate with family and friends for other than professional purposes and, even then, be private and limit what people may access. A few ignorant postings and little more than one screwball picture can destroy one's career prospects. People love the dirt social media cultivates. Don't dig a hole you can't crawl out of!

Okay. You've hopefully had a little entertainment - maybe too much.

How, then, does one achieve what I have in mind, given the fact that the Annual Meeting and Scientific Sessions will never be what they once were?

It's easy, requiring little more than the innate social talent we all possess. No technology required. By simply being nice and outgoing, it will surprise you how many friends can be made over the course of a few days.

Support the program, attend the sessions. After a noteworthy presentation, go up to the presenter, introduce yourself, and compliment them on their work. Be genuine. Inquire about the possibility of future correspondence, assuming you truly share an interest. Do this on ten or more occasions, and you will be amazed at your circle of new found friends and colleagues.

Another viable strategy is to fully embrace the history of the field of which you're a part. Don't be hesitant to walk up to the real "stars," again introducing yourself, and offering your perspective on what your "idols" have contributed. Tell them they're great. Let them know they're an inspiration. Once again, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to become friends with the people you never expected to get to know. Everyone appreciates sincere recognition, and a bit of friendly banter.

Look for an opportunity to "pick a fight." Perhaps someone presented a paper you "disliked." Look for the person in a social situation, and pull them aside. This is a delicate proposition but, in a friendly way, tell them you thought their paper or presentation was "crap." Then, while laughing and grasping their upper arm, let your combatant know you were just trying to get their undivided attention. You can then embark on a serious conversation, making your point, without an edge. Sometimes you have to step out to be taken in. People enjoy controversy. Starting fights is my trademark. Eventually people come to expect it whenever they see you. A good fight underscores the integrity of your character. I use bantam roosters as a symbol of how I operate.

Maximize the opportunities for informal social engagement. I like to hang out in hotel bars, or in drinking establishments adjacent to the conference center. Coffee shops are passé. I look for the people I would like to get to know. After a drink or two, the process becomes straightforward and second nature. Using this strategy throughout my career, I have ended up going to dinner and socializing with some pretty impressive people, often the "stars" I thought were beyond my reach. Incidentally, at 5:00 PM or after 10:00 PM are prime times to hang out in the hotel bar, but beware of Dr. John Wallwork!

Genuine friendship is like a snowball, and an investment in one's career. The more people you meet, the more friends you make, and the greater the return on your investment. This, in my opinion, is truly networking in the most meaningful way. Lasting friendships are the bedrock of professional development. Careers are rarely planned. They're shaped by the people you know, and the experiences you create.

Don't be bashful. Follow my prescription, and your career will flourish. When you become the "star" you never thought you would be, just remember to return the favor to those junior colleagues who would like to get where you're at.

Cheers are on me at the hotel bar in San Diego! Come up, introduce yourself, and let's start a fight!

Disclosure Statement: The author is President and CEO for the UNRTP. Although the author has a financial interest in what is written, the thoughts presented are both valid and balanced.

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