Author: Mpilwenhle ‘MP’ Mthunzi Date: May 09, 2016 When I was growing up, my mother always used to say that I should never speak to strangers. For many years of my childhood, youth and even adulthood I desperately clung to every vestige of this long acquired wisdom. This childhood level of thinking, never unhampered by constraints of reality, has recently collided head-on with one of the desired fundamental manifestations of the attitudes and aspirations of a Health Management Intern, ‘ Networking ’. The Australasian College of Health Service Management (ACHSM) identifies as being one of its core functions bringing ‘together health leaders to learn, network and share ideas.’ The management internship itself is marketed on the basis of giving aspiring and emerging health managers the opportunity to develop professionally and to network . The events that the college facilitates are also touted as providing a range of networking opportunities with like-minded people with similar interests and specialisations. In fact, never have I ever been relentlessly confronted by a single term than I have by the term “ networking ” since my association with the college as a Health Management Intern. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ Networking ” as interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts. To a newly recruited, aspiring and ambitious intern, what exactly does networking mean? Coming from a cocooned environment, where the only contact I had with the Director of Nursing, later on the General Manager of the hospital was when there had been an adverse event or during the organisation’s annual Christmas party, finding oneself in the constant company of CEOs Directors and such like in my professional networking efforts has initially been a daunting proposition. My first experience of professional networking as an intern was a disconcerting and fear inducing task. The Department of Health and Human Services, where I am currently doing my internship, had organised one of its quarterly CEO Forums for Rural Health Services. I found myself among at least 30 Chief Executive Officers and like a naughty schoolboy stood before the school principal, I felt insignificant. In my culture, managers and leaders occupy a social niche of respect, reverence and influence compatible with the parental role. Many questions raced through my mind at the time. How do you begin a conversation with people you have never met, people who are well accomplished in the careers, and people who know a lot more than you do? How do you start a conversation with people who, in most cases are not even of your generation? Well, I did indeed live through it all and alas, here I am telling the tale. Keen to discover whether I was alone in my feelings of inadequacy, I carried out an anecdotal “mini research” to solicit my fellow interns’ views on what they understood “networking” to mean and what their experiences have been thus far. I started by asking them what they thought networking was when they commenced on the internship program. One wrote that they thought it was for high- level executives or very important people. One other stated that they thought it entailed drinks and nibbles, being extremely complimentary and “schmoozing”. Some though appeared to have had a clearer idea from the onset. For instance, one intern responded, “I thought networking was about making connections in the industry and furthermore linked it to building relationships” [sic]. I also asked my colleagues what they thought would help for someone struggling to get off their mark in their networking efforts. The prevailing sentiment was that if you do not take the initiative to walk up to someone new and introduce yourself, you might be missing THE professional connection that would have led to your dream job. The interns offered other interesting tips: In such professional gatherings, usually the first question is “where do you work?” or “What do you do?” or “what’s your background?” In responding to such questions, avoid labouring long and hard about yourself, just quick factual answers to enable additional conversation are helpful. Adopt active listening skills, smile, nod, and acknowledge. Personally, I have always despised bloviating. While you might not want to appear naïve, there is a very fine line between appearing confident and being a show off! Use your mentor and preceptors; they are your networks too! Ask them to introduce you to people that you might be interested in. This could be said about your fellow interns as well, ask them to introduce you to THEIR mentors and preceptors. Avoid the “safety in numbers” mentality. During Breakfast Forums and such gatherings, seek to venture out and sit with people that you have not met before rather than huddling up together with your fellow interns at every opportunity. While this will make you feel safe in the company you have, it will not do much for your confidence building and meeting new people. Do a lot of listening. People enjoy talking to a discerning listener! After all, above all else, you are there to learn. Always stay sincere. There is nothing as nauseating as transparent charm offensive! While there can be a temptation to feed your prospective employers’ egos like geese destined for pate, this can be very off-putting to people you are seeking to build relationships with. So, while I have become progressively better at networking, at times I remain guarded and circumspect about my continuing experiences. I do take solace in the thought that it is a skill that I am building up on, with time it will come good. I have also since learned that the life credo of a Management Intern with regard to networking is “I can, therefore I must”, and armed with this, I shall continue with my efforts to unleash the charm offensive! Mpilwenhle 'MP' Mthunzi is a 2nd year management intern in the Vic Health Management Internship Program (HMIP). Click here to know more about the program.