You know that networking is important, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Here’s how to get started or keep going.
"Network or not work!" I don't think there's a single Health Career Connection (HCC) intern or alum out there who hasn’t heard Jeff Oxendine's favorite adage on the importance of building professional relationships. But Jeff didn't make that saying up himself, and the message here is not new. The idea has been around for a long time: it’s not what you know, but who you know, that matters. This message is all the more relevant in today’s increasingly connected - and competitive - economy. And there's the rub - most of us know that networking is important, but simply knowing that does little to make effective networking any easier to do. So I'm excited to provide some tips for readers to overcome anxiety and inertia, build confidence, take advantage of networking opportunities, and make the most of an HCC (or any other) internship.
It is undeniably valuable, especially for college students and recent grads, to build meaningful relationships with professors, employers, volunteer supervisors, and other students. Even as the United States continues to recover from its most recent recession, students face tough prospects following graduation. Consider the results of a 2013 report by McKinsey and the student website Chegg.com: of 4,900 former Chegg customers, nearly half of grads from four-year institutions were working in jobs that do not require a four-year degree.
However, regardless of educational requirements, networking plays a significant role in graduates' ability to find work. In a 2011 FOXBusiness article, John Bennett of the McColl School of Business at Queens University explains: "Research tells us that between 60-80% of jobs are found through personal relationships. Learning to work in networks and in relationships in a way that is meaningful, that has impact and that conserves both our interest and the interest of the people we’re connected to, certainly is only going to add value to us as employees."
I largely credit networking for my first HCC internship. During my junior year, I noticed some campus flyers advertising a new student group, my university's chapter of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA). I signed up and jumped at the opportunity to serve as the chapter's student council rep, because why the heck not? I made some good friends among the other chapter officers, and it was through this student network that I learned about a volunteer program at Stanford University School of Medicine called Leadership Education for Aspiring Physicians. Then, LEAP, a project-based seminar series, introduced me to Stanford University Minority Medical Alliance's (SUMMA) annual premedical conference, where I attended a workshop on public health given by HCC's Jeff Oxendine and Alivia Shorter. Thanking and introducing myself to Alivia and Jeff after the workshop gave me a way to draw a personal connection in my application. Through consistent networking, I made the connections that helped me land my first HCC internship - and access to even more connections (I definitely encourage you to check out both LEAP and the SUMMA conference!).
I tell my story not to boast, but to put a familiar face to the idea of networking. It's about making connections with other people who, although different, share many qualities with you.
And if I can learn how to network well, then so can you. Even through high school, I was fairly shy. I was not very confident in myself, and I often sabotaged myself, avoiding challenging situations for fear of rejection or perceived failure. That lack of confidence is the main reason I did not set my sights on any AP classes, never tried for any varsity teams, and was content with almost never raising my hand. However, nearing my senior year, my dad was laid off from work, my family’s home was foreclosed upon, my parents separated, and I struggled to hold together the pieces of a life that I had taken for granted. I was forced to take a hard look at my life and what I wanted to get out of it – it was sink or swim.
The decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree was a completely new idea to me, but when I entered Notre Dame de Namur University, I hit the ground running. I was determined to turn a new leaf. I still remember how affirmed I felt when, during my sophopmore year, an upperclassman told me that he was impressed with how confident I seemed when I first arrived on campus as a freshman. I sure don’t remember feeling confident! But I did remember deliberately placing myself in situations where I felt a subtle rising panic, particularly those involving people whom I had never met. As Mike Tyson says, “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” And not only did I survive those situations, but the more I practiced getting out of my comfort zone, the easier it became. My confidence grew tremendously during those experiences, and I felt much more successful.
Okay, now I'm going to give you some homework: read (all the way through!) Tom Peters' landmark 1997 Fast Company article The Brand Called You. In fact, I recommend doing it right now. Go on, I’ll wait.
What did you take away from this article?
My takeaway? The reality is that in order for the majority of people to be successful in our evolving economy - however you define success - we must actively work to be the best version of ourselves while generously sharing that best self with the world. That is how I define personal branding.
However, here's where some of us may stumble, especially those interested in a health career. We have an adverse reaction to the idea of self-promotion, of personal branding, so networking often feels slimy, inauthentic, predatory, etc. We don't want to think of ourselves as using or taking advantage of people. And I get that. To return to Peters' comparison of individual and corporate marketing, I would probably feel uncomfortable as, say, the CEO of Unilever as my company sends contradictory, if not audience-tailored, messages to Dove and Axe consumers. It may be difficult for an observer to believe that the corporation is authentic in either case. To many people, it may seem like Unilever only cares about making money.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. In our current environment, Unilever is a corporation and is chiefly responsible for generating profit for its shareholders. Of course, you are a person, not a corporation. But let’s take another look at this metaphor. Think of yourself less like a corporation and more like a small business - or, maybe even better, more like your favorite nonprofit or social enterprise. Regardless of which sector we’re talking about, nothing and nobody is successful alone. Through partnerships among organizations, we’ve put people on the moon, eradicated small pox, and abolished (formal) slavery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his allies were able to accomplish what they did by crafting a powerful message and building strong relationships, exemplified by the network that founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Personal branding – networking – does not mean you are only helping Me, Inc., or Me the 501(c). You're also benefitting your potential colleagues and those you'll be serving – whether that’s patients, clients, the general public, animals, the environment, etc.
Successful networking requires effective personal branding, and personal branding requires that you create a clear message. Nike tells people to “Just do it,” and Dr. King stirred the world with “I have a dream.” I find Simon Sinek’s work on The Golden Circle very helpful here: if you understand your own Why (your purpose; what you believe), then choosing your How (specific actions taken to realize your Why) and your What (what you do; the result of your Why) becomes much clearer. Personal branding is most effective when you remain authentic to your Why and you tailor your How and What for the situation at hand, be it applying to different jobs, attending networking events in different fields, or thinking about different degrees. Make time to watch Simon’s TED talk and create your own Golden Circle.
If the idea of networking still gives you anxiety, try calling it by another name. Instead of networking, make like Alan from the Hangover and grow your wolfpack (satchel not required)! Laugh at yourself, have fun, and don't take networking – or yourself – too seriously. If you're worried about feeling awkward, take five or ten minutes to meditate by focusing on your breathing or visualizing success in a networking scenario. If you can, freeze your face in a big smile for ten seconds – you'll probably keep smiling without trying, and then you'll laugh because you can't believe that trick actually worked! Or assume a power position: hands on hips, back straight, chin up – and say to yourself: "I, <your name>, am going to crush this opportunity, and I'm going to love doing it!”
Informational interviewing is great for building your network because it’s a double threat. You'll learn about people you value or a field you’d like to explore, plus you’ll make a professional connection. You only need to bring a few simple questions, a notebook, and a pen. It probably won’t be difficult to let your interviewee do most of the talking. Avoid asking about employment opportunities, but do ask whether your interviewee could, based on your conversation, direct you to another person in his or her network. Always remember to buy your interviewee coffee and send a handwritten “thank you” letter promptly following the interview. If you’re a champ, you’ll take one interview every week to every month.
There are many other ways to stay sharp. Find ways to make yourself a killer LinkedIn profile (do it big!) and a personal website or blog that people will actually visit (what moves you?). Learn how to email people with whom you have difficulty engaging in person (short and sweet!). Even if you feel awkward or shy now, commit yourself - step by baby step - to becoming a pro at in-person engagements (first and last name and a firm handshake!).
There are also the more obvious fixes to improve your networking. Be discreet using social media. If applicable, change your voicemail greeting to something more professional than “Hello?… Hello?… Leave a message at the beep!” (Seriously, you’re not in high school anymore, and it probably pissed people off then, too). And don’t be on your phone at work! It will be much more difficult to obtain a strong letter of recommendation from a supervisor at an internship, job, or volunteer activity if you forget the basics. And guess what? That supervisor probably has a bigger network than you do, and she may very well speak regularly with the hiring manager at the place where you’d like to go next.
Finally, just because you know someone, do not expect that person to help you without your pursuing it. Nobody owes you anything. If you want to be successful, you've got to hustle.
The most important step in any journey is the first one – the rest is just keeping momentum. If you put the “work” in “network,” I promise that soon enough you'll find an intern buying you coffee over an interview.
Here are the key ideas about successful networking I hope you take away:
Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Finding your Why will help you create a strong message.
Do your homework.
About Kevin Beel: As of August 2015, I will be a two-time HCC alum. My first internship was with the California Program on Access to Care at UC Berkeley, where I researched state and federal health policy that impacted under-served or marginalized populations. I spent much of my time studying California SB 1005 (reintroduced in 2015 as SB 4), examining mental health parity, and updating and reformatting the organization's database of bills. My second internship was with the Healthcare Center at California Pacific Medical Center's St. Luke's Campus in San Francisco. In my role, I was part of a Kaizen team that used Lean management techniques to improve upon the process of getting a patient from Point A - that patient calling to schedule an appointment - to Point B - that patient being called from the waiting room by the medical assistant.
I learned so much about policy, management, and healthcare during these two internships, but I also learned a great deal about myself - about what I like to do, what I don't really like to do, my communication styles, and my level of comfort with uncertainty. I gained a much clearer understanding of what the heck I want to do with my life. In fact, it turns out that I'm really meant for a career in the circus! (No, maybe in another life!) I'm very grateful to my preceptors, colleagues, fellow interns, and Team HCC for the fantastic experiences I've had - thank you! If you’d like to connect, find me on LinkedIn or at my blog, AstoundingTea.com.