You never know when that phone number might come in handy. I’ve often told this story to people who’ve asked me about developing their careers and getting into the industry. I was working in surgical device sales, at a wonderful company, with a brilliant manager and team. I was good at what I did, had a territory that performed well, and loved the fact that I was helping patient care, in some shape or form. Despite all these positive things, I was also getting itchy feet. Five years prior, I had completed a Ph.D. in cancer therapies and I had long wanted to get into ‘medical affairs’ – a relatively new division of the pharmaceutical world where I could use my science communication and relationship building skills. Disappointingly, every job ad for these roles seemed to make getting in an impossible feat. I never seemed to get callbacks, or if I did, the HR people I spoke to seemed quite insistent on the fact that I needed experience. Experience in pharma, and experience in medical affairs, both of which I had zilch. Nada. Zippo.
Around this time, a colleague of mine at the company I was working at mentioned that she knew a manager at a large pharmaceutical company and that I should really give him a call. I will forever be grateful to this colleague of mine. She gave me his mobile number, and I tucked it away somewhere, where it sat, untouched, for three more months. I was driving home one day, after a particularly grueling country hospital visit. The surgeon I had seen was annoyed – the products he had asked for hadn’t arrived in time. I had spent all day trying to understand why. The operation was canceled. Three hours of talking to staff at the hospital later, we found the box of product, sitting on a dusty shelf in a corner somewhere. Someone had put it down and then forgotten all about it.
I called the manager at that large pharma company that day in the car as I drove home. We spoke for 2 hours. A few days later, he put me in touch with another manager in his department who was potentially looking to hire. I still had no pharma experience, but I was determined and put on a show all my best soft skills, eagerness, and expertise in scientific communication. A couple of weeks later I was on a plane for a final interview with that company, where I am lucky enough to still work now, several promotions later.
This was a long-winded way of demonstrating the value of your network. People always talk about networking as something that should be done constantly, and in today’s highly connected global village, I agree that this is an incredible way of expanding your reach. If I hadn’t discussed my wish to move into medical affairs with that colleague of mine, she may never have thought to connect me with that pharma manager. Often, connections made at the periphery of your network come through when job hunting. Or sometimes when you’re not even looking at all. Right place, right time, the right person has never rung so true.
So how does one network? I put networking into two main “buckets”. In-person networking, and virtual networking. There are skills you need that cross over both “buckets”, but I believe that in this day of constant communication bombardment and the restrictions imposed on us by the pandemic, virtual networking is where we spend much of our time, and hence, virtual networking needs to be incredibly selective, personalized and considered. It is also much harder to build connections virtually.
Most people today are familiar with LinkedIn. In many ways, LinkedIn seems to have become the new Facebook. Everyone’s got one. Only 3 million users (out of more than 700 million) on there are content creators. Most users simply engage with posts (whether original or shared content) via likes. Used properly, however, LinkedIn is a powerful tool for building your professional network into something that works for you – and I don’t mean by growing your contacts list exponentially. Think back to the last person you added on LinkedIn. Did you write them a personalized message? Did you look over their profile, their contacts, their recent posts? WHY did you add them? Were you able to convert your LinkedIn connection request into a meaningful relationship? If you are struggling to answer any of these questions, have you considered what value hitting that “add” button has brought you? Or them?
Here are the things I would consider when using LinkedIn (or any other professional networking site)
- Keep your profile up-to-date. This is effectively your resume– make sure you’ve got any details around the job description, higher duties, and role changes current.
- Don’t go on an adding spree. Reach out to connect with people in the industry you are hoping to work in, but also think outside the box. Are there people outside that industry but who have skills that you would like to learn? Could you connect with them?
- When adding someone, personalize your message to them – write out why you’re adding them, what you hope to gain, and give through this connection.
- As a build on the previous point – go through their profile and professional history (including any work they’ve published) so you understand their experience. This is good practice before any meeting, not just with networking.
- Once they’ve accepted you, perhaps arrange for a virtual meeting or a phone call. Building a personal connection is so important – you want your personality and the memory of you to stick in this person’s brain, so that when they next see a role that fits you, they may remember you and connect you to the right people. Likewise, as is the reciprocal nature of networking, once you have spoken to this connection via phone/your favorite video conferencing service, you may be able to return the favor.
- Soft skills are everything. Whether in building your own network or whether at work. And especially so in the world of medical affairs. EQ (have I reached out to this person at the wrong time?), trust (I said I would call at 8 am, and I am ready to ring them 5 minutes before) and communication (I have my elevator pitch ready to go – the “why” of this call) are just some of the soft skills that will hold you in good stead both in networking and at work.
- Follow up – once you’ve spoken to the person, it may be reasonable to build an ongoing relationship, if that works for the both of you. If the person is in your city, consider grabbing a coffee with them. Go to local industry nights. Above all else, ensure you are visible (in a good way). Ask lots of questions! Cultivate a general and informed interest in the industry you want to get into.
- And my number one rule – Always. Stay. Professional. There are other websites for building friendships or more. Keep networking strictly above board.
Dr. Sheri Hussain
Dr. Sheri Hussain is a Senior MSL at AstraZeneca Australia, currently on secondment as a field medical manager, leading a team of 7 clinical science liaisons. She holds an honors degree in biomedical science following which she completed a Ph.D. in the field of prostate cancer, and now has over 12 years of industry experience across commercial and medical functions. Dr. Hussain has a strong interest in implementing medical excellence initiatives to drive strategy within the medical function and has engaged in a number of local and global initiatives to drive these imperatives. She was born and raised in the Maldive Islands, and now resides in Melbourne, Australia, with her partner and far too many plants. In her spare time, Dr. Hussain enjoys circuit training every day, planning for future travels, sneaking new plants into her home, and cooking new and unusual cuisines.