Networking. It’s such an overused phrase, and for many, conjures up images of something kind of slimy and disingenuous. It certainly can be. But approached with the right attitude, networking can open many doors for you to walk through now, and offer quite a few windows to peer through for your future. In fact, if someone asked me, “What is the single-most important skill for a Healthcare IT job seeker to master?” I’d say, without hesitation, “Effective networking.” Okay, it’s important. So what, exactly, is the right attitude, and what makes it effective?
In a moment, I’m going to share with you my personal secrets for effective networking. This insight comes from 20+ years of standing in front of or behind a trade show booth, hundreds of Chamber of Commerce-type events, conferences, meetings, cocktail parties, birthday parties, school functions, graduations, etc. The same principles apply, no matter what the venue or occasion. But before I share these tips, let me let you in on a little secret, particularly if you tend to be a natural introvert who dreads the thought of walking up to a total stranger with your hand outstretched and a big fake smile painted on your face. Networking skill is not a natural ability that some people are “just born with.” All those outgoing, clever, popular people who make it all look so effortless? Don’t be fooled - it’s not effortless, not by a long shot, but they have mastered the art and now actually have fun doing it. That’s right – fun. And you can, too! Here’s how:
Five Secrets to Effective Networking
1. Make your first and last impression count: Firm handshake, look ‘em in the eyes, smile! Your mission is to make your new acquaintance (and that’s really how you need to approach this – this is not a chore, an interview, or an audition - you are making new acquaintances) feel like you are truly interested in him/her, and only him/her at that instant of connection. Friends of mine who have met Bill Clinton tell me he is the master at this skill, as he has a knack for making you feel, for a moment, like the two of you are the only people in the room (this would certainly be a feat at an event like HIMSS!).
2. Do not talk about yourself until asked to do so: HUH? That’s right. Even though your mission is to connect with and make an impression upon those who can assist you in your personal quest for meaningful use, do not launch into your elevator speech, your employment status, or your long list of accomplishments the minute the handshake is disengaged. Instead, glance at his/her name tag, make a mental note of the first name and name of company, and then smile and say something along the lines of, “So Jonathan, what exactly do you do at athenahealth?” And then listen. Intently. And then? Ask a follow up question about something they just said, which shows that you are interested, and listening. At the conclusion of their answer, acknowledge it – “Wow, that’s impressive!” “Ha! Bet that keeps you hopping!” “No kidding – that’s really fascinating!” Whatever works. At that point, if your new acquaintance possesses any social skills at all, s/he will then ask you, “So what do you do?” And then it’s your turn.
3. Make sure every public word or action is a positive one. There is nothing worse than attending a function and being forced to listen to someone complain about … anything. Don’t do it. You don’t have to be chirpy happy, but these events are not the place to gripe about the overpriced food, the lost luggage, or the ridiculously long lines at the bathroom. The last thing a potential employer wants is a whiner. And if you whine it will be the last thing they remember about you. So keep any negative thoughts or actions to yourself, and if you need to, unload on your poor spouse during your nightly phone call, once you get back to your room.
4. Observe the five-minute rule. Even though the person you are speaking with may be endlessly fascinating, your goal at a business conference networking event like HIMSS is to have meaningful conversations with as many potential employers as possible. Therefore, try to limit your time with each interaction to around five minutes. I’m not suggesting a stopwatch approach, or even an attempted-stealth-but-they-caught-you-anyway glance at your watch approach. What I am suggesting is that you try not to allow someone the chance to monopolize your time, and vice-versa. Asking for a business card is the perfect segue for your exit. “I’d really love to continue this conversation in the future, learn more about your company, get the number of that recruiter you mentioned,” etc. May I have your card?” And then of course, whip yours out.
Note: Even if you are currently unemployed, you still should have a business card with your name, contact information (including LinkedIn profile address), and title. If your heart is sinking because you think it’s too late for the upcoming HIMSS Conference, don’t despair – go directly to Vista Print and order a simple card online. Opt for the thicker matte card stock (not the glossy which are impossible to write on) and skip the graphics, hokey templates, etc. With rush delivery you can still get them in time.
5. Watch the alcohol intake. There’s nothing better after a very long day of meetings, educational sessions, and exhibit hall interaction than to hit several afterhours’ functions and take advantage of the colleague camaraderie, free food, and open bars – right? Absolutely! However, when you’re tired, probably food-deprived, and planning to party-hop, it is all too easy to suddenly realize that you’ve overindulged. And even though your business networking events are not a chore, an interview, or an audition, they are still business events, with potentially harmful career ramifications should you decide to take this opportunity to demonstrate your break dancing/karaoke/watch-me-jump-in-the-hotel-pool-with-my-clothes-on skills. Remember, a networking event is a string of first impressions – you want to be memorable, but in a good way.
So there you have it – now you know my secrets. Effective networking takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes fun, and very productive.