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Networking 101: Mastering mingling and conquering conferences

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You’re at a conference, filling up on M&M’s and pretzels between seminars during a “networking break.” You stand awkwardly holding your snacks while scanning the area for someone to talk to. The room’s chock-full of potential new connections, but you’re not sure how to approach them or what to say. You sigh and wish you were back at the office seeing patients, where you feel more comfortable.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Many physicians and medical students must reframe the way they think about networking, says Devora Zack, the author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking.

“It’s not how many people you meet, it’s how effectively you follow up.”

“Physicians tend to think, ‘Well, I’m here to heal people. I’m here to make people better. So networking really isn’t the focus of my career,’ ” she says. “But networking helps you be more effective in your work and more successful in your practice. It enables you to take care of more people more effectively.”

And the changing health care landscape means today’s medical students and young physicians really need to sharpen their professional socializing skills, notes Roy Cohen, a career counselor and the author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.

“A lot of medical students go to medical school thinking there will be immediate and guaranteed employment when they graduate, and that’s not so much the case anymore with fewer hospitals and fewer options for training,” he says. “It’s forcing medical students to become more business-minded when it comes to managing their careers, and that’s not something that’s taught in medical school.”

Even physicians who consider themselves seasoned socialites may sometimes find today’s social mores confusing. Now that there are 14 different ways to reach a colleague, which one is best? Should you approach older and younger DOs differently? Here’s what experts as well as leaders in the osteopathic medical community have to say about networking, social media and the follow-up. With OMED 2013 approaching, it’s a good time to work on your mingling prowess. Collect business cards alongside CME credits and poker chips when you’re in Las Vegas.

Find your style

DOs and students often learn how to network by trial and error, reading books about it and receiving advice from mentors and colleagues. But Zack says much of the standard networking advice—for instance, that one must be networking constantly—won’t work for physicians because they’re too busy.

“The idea that you need to go out there and network all the time is completely unrealistic for most physicians and medical students, so let go of that,” she says.

Common networking advice also ignores the fact that people have different communication styles, Zack says, and she suggests physicians learn what theirs is and become comfortable with it. Most people are either introverts or extroverts, Zack says, and operate as either “one-man wolf packs” or team players energized by working with others.

At conferences, extroverts will likely thrive on attending seminars, large group dinners and happy hours one after another, Zack says, but it’s a mistake for introverts to try this approach.

Norman E. Vinn, DO

“Social media is a great entree to contact, but it’s not a replacement for personal interaction.”
Dr. Vinn

“Introverts often go to conferences thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to make the most of this conference, I need to go to all the events,’ and it drains them and makes them less effective,” she says.

At conferences, introverts should leave themselves plenty of time to recharge solo, Zack says. There’s no need to attend every single function on the conference schedule, she says—take a look at it and cross out some of the events. And when it comes to socializing, she recommends planning smaller group dinners in advance and attending cocktail receptions early.

“It’s easier to chat with a few people in a quieter environment than it is to walk in an hour late when it’s loud and noisy and crowded and everyone’s already engaged in conversation,” she says. “So get to happy hours early and leave early.”

A tactic that works well for both introverts and extroverts is volunteering to help out at conferences and events.

“In advance of the conference, contact the people organizing it,” Zack says. “See if there’s some way you can volunteer to participate. Volunteering will position you as someone helpful, and it will also give introverts a purpose and a reason to talk to people.”

Conference attendees will take from the experience what they put into it, notes AOA President Norman E. Vinn, DO, which is why he also suggests volunteering.

“Volunteer to be on committees. Go to sessions, seminars and social functions and take the opportunity to meet people,” says Dr. Vinn, whose rise in the profession can partly be attributed to his networking skills. “Seek out the leaders and ask them what the most important issues for the association and the profession are. Then resolve to be a part of the solution.”

Approaching a leader in the profession or even an unfamiliar colleague can be intimidating. Matthew Flamenbaum, OMS II, finds it easier to operate with a wingman.

“If you happen to say something foolish or if you don’t come off the way you want to, your friend can help you out,” says Flamenbaum, who attends the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, N.J.

DOs and medical students who want to make a good impression on those they meet will focus on listening to and showing genuine interest in others, Dr. Vinn says. Zack suggests asking lots of questions—but altering typical queries such as “What do you do?” to make them more compelling.

“Ask people something like, ‘What’s your favorite part of your work? What was the highlight of your year?’ ” she says. “Those are much more interesting questions, and it gives the person something to talk about that he or she is excited about.”

And when your colleague is excited while speaking with you, he or she will remember you more positively, Zack says.

At some point, however, you’ll be talking about yourself. It’s best to have your “networking rap” pitch perfect, Cohen says. In advance, determine how you’ll tell people who you are, what your background is, why you’re attending the event and what your goals are.

“Also, figure out how you can make a request in presenting yourself,” he says. “It has to be a request that is reasonable. You can’t say to somebody, ‘Hey, do you have a job for me?’ You might say, ‘I’d love to get your insight and advice. How did you cross over? How did you move to Pfizer?’ Or, ‘What led you to pursue this area of specialization?’ “

Sealing the deal

After meeting new contacts, it’s time to follow up. Experts have different opinions on the best ways to make contact, but all agree that it’s crucial to the networking process and should be done quickly.


“You can’t say to somebody, ‘Hey, do you have a job for me?’ You might say, ‘I’d love to get your insight and advice. How did you cross over? How did you move to Pfizer?’”

Introverts typically excel at getting in touch, Zack notes, while extroverts can struggle to keep track of all the people they’ve met. But following up is a skill anyone can cultivate, she says.

“If you meet two people at a conference and follow up with those two people in a meaningful way, you are a better networker than somebody who meets 30 people and follows up with nobody,” Zack says. “It’s not how many people you meet, it’s how effectively you follow up.”

Connect within 48 hours, as that’s when your meeting will still be fresh in your colleague’s mind, she suggests, and demonstrate that you remember details about the meeting. For instance, if your contact is interested in telemedicine, send an article about it or offer to introduce him or her to a DO who practices it.

In 2013, there are endless ways to reach out: email, snail mail, Facebook, LinkedIn, text messaging. For networking, Zack likes email. But if you felt a particularly strong connection with a colleague or met someone who did you a great favor, a handwritten note is in order, she says.

“I call handwritten notes the secret weapon of networking,” she says. “Keep a stack of little notes in your drawer. It takes the same amount of time to write a little card as it does to write an email, and it goes a long way. They make a great impression on people, particularly because they are so rare now, and it really shows that extra effort.”

But Cohen says email is king and he prefers it always.

“It’s an anachronism to send a hard copy, and it’s also inefficient,” he says. “It takes far too long. I’m a big believer in immediate expression and immediate delivery.”

Colleagues from different generations may not prefer the same forms of communication, Dr. Vinn notes.

“It never hurts to use the information on the business card to send somebody an email and write that you enjoyed meeting him or her and would love to interact further,” he says. “For the younger generation, you could post a message on someone’s Facebook page.”

Flamenbaum says he finds email impersonal and worries his message will get lost in the shuffle of an overflowing inbox.

“If I can, usually I will follow up on social media,” he says. “I like to find people on Facebook. That doesn’t work for some physicians who don’t use Facebook, but it does work very well for students.”

Be sure to choose a method of contact on a case-by-case basis, Flamenbaum says.

“People tend enjoy going on their social media pages,” he says. “So if you get in contact with somebody that way, they are more likely to see your message in a timely fashion. At the same time, it can be detrimental if the physician you’re networking with feels that reaching out via social media is a little bit too personal because they want to keep their professional and personal lives separate. It really depends on the situation.”

No matter the scenario, Cohen says all physicians and medical students must be on LinkedIn.

“There’s no excuse for ignoring LinkedIn, especially if physicians are looking at a nontraditional option for their careers,” he says. “Everyone is on LinkedIn.”

But when considering where social media fits into networking, Dr. Vinn and Zack caution that it can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

“Social media is a great entree to contact, but it’s not a replacement for personal interaction,” Dr. Vinn says, “at least not with those individuals with whom you are seeking a truly personal or professional relationship.”

Generation gap

At networking events, DOs and medical students of different ages can benefit from embracing each others’ networking styles, says J.D. Polk, DO, JD, the dean of the Des Moines (Iowa) University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“Members of the older generation need to be earlier adopters of social media,” he says. “And the younger generation needs to adopt some of the cordiality of the older generation. Typically, the older generation doesn’t go for the jugular right away. We don’t say, ‘Hey, have I got a business deal for you.’ We start out with, ‘How’s your practice? How’s your family? How are things in Iowa?’ Those things get lost in the younger generation somewhat.”

Dr. Polk suggests young DOs and medical students adopt a business-card trick he learned years ago from an old colleague. Whenever the colleague met someone and got a card, he’d write a mix of professional and personal notes on the back of it. He might jot down the contact’s business interests, spouse’s and children’s names, and alma mater. And when he reached out later, he could refer to those notes.

“If someone starts off on a very amiable friendly note and actually remembers your wife and your kids and has taken the time to remember your hobbies and interests, suddenly you’re more eager to listen to a business proposition or to have a second conversation,” he says.

2 Responses

  1. I was quoted in The DO for “Networking 101″ | Matt Flamenbaum on Sept. 26, 2013, 12:38 p.m.

    […] A few weeks ago I was approached by a staff writer for The DO, an online publication for Osteopathic Physicians managed by the AOA, and interviewed about how to network in person, at conventions, and over the Internet.  Now, as the annual OMED convention is about to begin, the article has been published to the front page of The DO! […]

  2. Lee Ann Van Houten-Sauter on Oct. 11, 2013, 8:44 p.m.

    Good article. I wish you would have published it prior to OMED 2013 on this website.

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