How often do you take time for “networking?” When was the last time you encouraged your team to dedicate time to developing strategic relationships? Do you have a plan to carve out time to purposefully “connect?” When I have these types of conversations with organizational leaders, I’ll often ask a follow-up question about a successful community partnership or funding opportunities. Frequently, I’ll hear stories where a well-established relationship with community leaders or an engaged employee was where it all began. Even if your leadership team includes extroverts that enjoy talking with people, “everyone is so busy” is a common refrain. It’s easier and seemingly more productive to focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Purposeful conversations and relationships are extremely important and a valuable use of your time, but it takes focused time and attention. It’s time to reframe how we think about “networking” and instead focus on investing time and energy into meaningful conversations with people inside and outside our organizations, setting goals for who we want to engage with, challenges we need to solve, or areas we want to grow. Doing so can make this important task more rewarding for leaders who don’t naturally love to network or for those who feel like they don’t have the time. As I’ve worked with clients over the past several years, I’ve found some of the following suggestions helpful. Get out of the office. Plan to go to conferences and meetings. National associations like MHCA or the National Council for Behavioral Health provide great content but also an opportunity for peers at all levels to have genuine one-on-one conversations to share experiences, frustrations, and successes. State and local associations provide similar value. They’re an important opportunity for behavioral health executives to talk to each other away from the daily grind. Most also provide an educational forum to increase your core knowledge base. If you haven’t already registered for a 2019 conference or event, don’t delay. After you register set a goal for individual meetings you want to have while you’re there. Plan ahead. Prepare by reaching out in advance to make new connections; that CEO quoted in an article you read about value-based outcomes or reconnect with past contacts. Schedule time to talk and set a goal for each conversation. In the end you’ll make deeper connections and gain a built-in network of people you can turn to for advice in the future. Walk the halls. You have valuable voices inside your own organization. Yes, there is a chain of command and reporting structure, and in no way do you want to insert yourself in personnel issues. But schedule time once a week or once a month to have coffee or lunch with your employees. Pick a new employee, or your longest serving employee. Talk to your staff on the front lines, or your support staff who keep the office running. Ask your leadership team to make recommendations. Not only will you learn things about your organization that you may not have known, you’ll produce an amazing amount of good will because your employees will see that you value their time and contributions. Step outside your comfort zone. In addition to getting to better know your organization and reaching out to leaders in the behavioral healthcare industry, try to reach beyond your immediate sphere of influence. Join the chamber of commerce or local business and neighborhood association. Reach out to networks in the broader healthcare marketplace, disability groups, or professional associations. Not only can you learn things from other industries that may be applicable to your work in behavioral health, but you may begin to develop relationships that result in long-term benefits for your organization. It’s ok to be purposeful in developing relationships. Make your outreach meaningful. What’s your why? What do you hope to gain from networking? Are you hoping to learn from other organizations that have implemented new service lines that you’re considering? Are you interested in seeing how others structure their leadership teams for improved accountability? Or are you interested in applying concepts/quality improvement strategies from other industries into your organization? Are you willing to take an hour out of your week or a couple of days to travel and visit with another provider organization? Commit the time then maximize it. Travel to other provider organizations, tour their offices, chat with staff, and see how they structure services, staff, and resources. Lastly, remember to listen and learn. You know the expression, “you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” We’re all guilty of it, especially when we’re talking about something we’re passionate about. Just try to check yourself and be in the moment. In her article Six Ways to Kill Conversations, Nancy Dixon provides some valuable tips to help leaders not unintentionally squash conversations among their team members. I particularly like her explanation for why it’s important not to make a comment or response after each team member speaks. Want to brainstorm a plan for you or your leadership team’s outreach and networking efforts? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s explore new ways to build strategic relationships for your organization.