By Doug Scott 2017-02-27 14:35:19
Improvement begins with “I” Making the Most of the Meet and Greet » Why networking is important for your job and how you can improve your skills in making valuable connections. The agenda at the upcoming SNA or state association conference identifies two or three “networking” events. What comes to mind? Perhaps it’s awkward memories of last year’s meeting, where you attempted to balance a container of coffee in one hand, a tasty new product sample in the other, literature tucked under your arm, a goodie bag over one shoulder—all while being introduced to the new director of a neighboring district who is attempting to shake your hand. While such juggling acts may be inevitable at these types of events, you’ll be relieved to know that managing them with or without physical grace is not a reflection on your networking abilities. What does matter is having a simple willingness to meet and talk with someone who you don’t know—and then acting on the connection you made, when appropriate, sometime in the future. It’s that’s simple. Networking has been so intrinsically linked with professional meetings for so long that it’s something many of us take for granted. We’ve lost sight of the purpose of networking—if we even understood it in the first place. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that many working in school nutrition don’t realize the value of networking, the fact that it is a skill that takes practice to master or how to go about taking advantage of networking opportunities. That’s about to change. Speak Up JoAnne Robinett, MSA, SNS, is a former district director and current owner of America’s Meal, which provides school nutrition training and consulting services. She’s a great example of a school nutrition professional who stumbled upon the power of networking by accident. “When I started in the foodservice business, I was working in the kitchen two hours a day; no self-assurance or self-esteem,” Robinett recounts. “I went to an Association chapter meeting to learn more about school nutrition, and I met people from other school districts. Some were also serving breakfast in their school; we didn’t. So, I knew who to call when the School Breakfast Program was mandated at our school.” A lack of understanding about the value of networking may stem from a distasteful perception. Miriam Salpeter, owner and founder of Keppie Careers, which provides social media, networking, coaching and training strategies for job seekers, finds most people hate networking so much, they see it as a dirty word. “The problem,” notes Salpeter, co-author, along with Laura Labovich, of 100 Conversations for Career Success: Learn to Network, Cold Call, and Tweet Your Way to Your Dream Job, “is that a lot of people think networking means asking for help, and most people don’t want to appear needy. However, in today’s world, networking is essential.” Networking, according to Salpeter and other experts, is about establishing relationships—ones that can help you, but also where you can be valuable to others. “It’s an exchange of expertise,” says Salpeter. “It’s simply a matter of going out and finding people who have interesting information to share with you and, in return, also providing resource information yourself.” Jennefer Witter, CEO and founder of The Boreland Group, Inc., a woman-owned public relations agency, explains how networking serves one or more specific objectives. “As a foodservice professional, what is your objective?” Witter asks. “To better serve your students, to educate yourself on the importance of school nutrition or to better manage your staff. But to accomplish those goals, you have to go outside of your normal parameters to talk directly with successful decision-makers or people of influence who will enable you to achieve those objectives.” Network Socialism “In the K-12 foodservice profession, there really is this attitude that a rising tide raises all ships; we are all in this together,” says Jeff Joiner, owner of Jeff Joiner Training, LLC, which provides motivational speaking and training in the K-12 foodservice segment. “I have found the willingness to share wisdom is thousands of times bigger than the desire to seek wisdom.” One of the great things about networking is that it is not only about getting information, but sharing knowledge that you have with others. “Networking is a two-way street, and that is something that people fail to realize,” offers Salpeter. “When you are going out there looking for and collecting information, remember you also have something to offer. Share your new ideas, information and insights. Exchanging ideas is what makes networking so useful.” Witter echoes this sentiment: “We always have to be ready to give back, and when I am networking, I always ask people what can I do for them. That is key, because then it shows that you are willing to give, and if you are willing to give, it shows that you are not solely about taking. And that will really strengthen your networking ties to the person.” Robinett agrees: “I think most of my networking started because I was willing to help somebody out, and I cannot tell you how much of that has come back to me.” Are You Networking or Socializing? Once you’ve come to terms with the “why” of networking, the next step is to understand the “how.” Is networking just talking? Does it simply require a little extroverted spirit? There’s more art to it than that. Let’s say you’re at a conference, and you find yourself at a meal table with new acquaintances. What do you discuss? The weather? The host city? Your family? The results of the last election? “That is not terribly productive networking,” asserts Joiner. Too often, he finds, the tendency at SNA and state association meetings is to socialize, rather than network. Indeed, too often, attendees fail to network at all, opting to spend all of their time with coworkers or friends. “There is nothing wrong with that. But, I think the far more valuable [activity] is to talk and meet with other foodservice people attending the conference, who are doing the same thing that you do,” says Joiner. “If you are looking for ideas or some new ways that you can improve the job you are doing, wouldn’t it be nice to talk to some of the other people around the country who are experiencing the same things you are? Some of them have failed and some of them have succeeded, but wouldn’t it be nice to find out what they learned?” It’s not easy to approach strangers and start such conversations. “You have to be open,” advises Robinett. “When I started, I was more of a wall flower; I sat back and just said zero. But there comes a point, if you want to get further in life and learn more, that you are going to have to get involved in these discussions and network. Then, out of the blue, somebody goes, ‘Well, JoAnne I didn’t know that you knew so much about baking a cheese bread.’ There—you have just made that connection! Approaching a stranger at a reception or while waiting for a session to start may yield a great connection— or nothing. So, consider making a point to identify someone specific that you want to meet, such as those who are leading education sessions or workshops. “What you could do is go up to the speaker afterwards, and make it clear that you learned something, and were impressed by X, Y or Z.” suggests Salpeter. “And after having a conversation, and depending on the circumstance, ask if you might have an opportunity to meet or speak with them later, after the conference.” She goes on to offer a sample script: “I’ve been so impressed about what you have done, I’d love to talk to you more about ideas that I have about this topic. Would you be willing to meet with me over coffee to exchange ideas?” If the person isn’t local, you could ask to stay in touch via phone, email or social media channels, such as LinkedIn. It can be an intimidating process. “I have found that a lot of individuals are very shy about networking,” says Witter. “I am normally shy, so going into a room where you don’t know everyone sometimes makes you feel like there is light on you, like the nerd back in sixth grade. Sometimes you will see people speaking together in a circle; just work your way in and say, ‘Hi, can I join in?’ And if they don’t speak to you, you know what? It’s their loss; go on to another group that will include you.” “I know lots of introverted leaders who are very successful,” adds Joiner. “Being shy is not an excuse not to network. Nobody is asking you to get up on a stage and sing. All anybody is asking you to do is be better at your job. It’s been my experience when the desire for improvement is strong enough, then being shy doesn’t matter.” Practice Makes Perfect You didn’t learn to be a good foodservice professional just by earning an SNA Certificate or attending ANC. You got where you are because you practiced what you learned, making it a skill. The same holds true for networking. The best way to learn how to initiate conversation is with preparation and practice. “Most people don’t introduce themselves well,” notes Salpeter. “I have been to many professional events where the whole point is to give your 30-second pitch, but most people are not prepared to succinctly introduce themselves. Too many people approach this with an attitude that they are going to wing it. But my advice—especially if you are introverted—is to practice a 10-second or 30-word introduction. Practice introducing yourself in front of the mirror, practice with your dog, practice with your best friend, but practice.” And prepare. “Do your research about the speakers or SNA leaders that you want to meet, because you only have a certain amount of time at these events, and you don’t want to fiddle away the time having a cocktail by yourself,” advises Witter. When you register, make time to review the agenda and the attendee list to discover who else will be there. Identify a few individuals with whom you want to make contact. The Big Follow-Up Don’t think that simply meeting and talking with others at a conference is all there is to networking. That is only the beginning. “I think the place people drop the ball in networking is in the follow-up,” Salpeter says. “Let’s say you go up to somebody and they say, ‘Yes, contact me, I would be happy to meet with you,’ and then you never do. That is a lost opportunity. Or even collecting business cards; some of these people who you meet might be a terrific source of information. But, when you get home from a conference, you just take those business cards and throw them in a drawer. Following up is a crucial aspect of networking. One of the best ways to stay connected is through social media. “What I love about social networking is that it is great for introverts, because you can network from the comfort of your own home,” notes Salpeter. “Social networks provide opportunities to elevate and promote your professional expertise. I would encourage people to learn more about how to use social networking to demonstrate your knowledge and to connect with your colleagues and exchange information.” When you make a new connection, make sure you request not only their business card or e-mail address, but get their social media contacts, such as their LinkedIn site, Twitter handle or Facebook page. “Exchanging business cards is great. I encourage everyone to have those, not just directors,” says Robinett. “But if all you have is somebody’s e-mail or business card, you might not be able to successfully communicate and network with them, since people do change jobs and locations. If you are hooked up to them on, say, LinkedIn, all you have to do is click their profile and you can send them a message.” Find the Joy Many experts acknowledge that for some, networking can be uncomfortable to the point of complete aversion. But it doesn’t have to be so painful. “What I would advise is to approach networking joyfully; it’s not part of a job or a task at hand,” advises Witter. “I can truthfully say I have developed some deep and long-lasting relationships from networking, which is a real bonus.” It’s likely that the more you master the skill of networking, the more you will enjoy it, especially in this profession. “What makes school nutrition extraordinary is never the food,” observes Joiner. “It’s the people, it’s the culture, it’s the strategy, it’s the customer service, it’s the hiring. It’s the people side that makes school foodservice so great. And you will find in the most successful child nutrition programs, the people are networking—purposefully seeking advice and new strategies. It’s hard work for someone to really roll up their sleeves and go after this information; it requires a kind of a zeal for learning that a lot of people don’t possess. None of us are as smart as all of us, and if you are willing to network, there is nothing you can’t accomplish.” NETWORKING 101 1 Networking is not something that you do only on occasions when attending an association conference. Networking should be something that you are doing all of the time. 2 Networking is not just for jobseekers; it’s for everybody. 3 Don’t just network with people at your particular job level or within your district. Network with other operators, vendors, government officials and SNA leaders— people from all across the country. 4 Set goals and make plans for your networking events. Find out who is going to be speaking and/or attending an event and learn what you can about their expertise. 5 Practice your 10-second or 30-word networking introduction. 6 To give is to receive. Don’t just take information when networking; be prepared to share what information you have. 7 Use social media to stay connected after an event. Always request information about their LinkedIn and Facebook pages, as well as their Twitter handle. 8 Always follow-up with new connections after you get home. 9 Be sure you meet someone new at each event—no matter what that event or its primary purpose may be. 10 Don’t expect overnight results. Networking is like planting a garden; it takes time to cultivate. Doug Scott is a contributing editor of School Nutrition.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://mydigimag.rrd.com/article/On+the+Grow/2721933/387786/article.html.