Everyone networks. You do it often without even knowing it—talking with family, friends, co-workers and business professionals. It's all networking.
It can be as simple as chatting with a patient or resident while serving lunch, as involved as making a connection while attending a professional seminar or anything in between. As a healthcare foodservice professional, every conversation you have and every connection you make during the course of the day rolls out the red carpet to improving yourself, your operation and, ultimately, the people in your care.
Whether your networking is done on a personal or professional level, the goal is the same: to cultivate and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with a mix of people with whom you can share ideas and knowledge.
The key word in that definition is people, says Maureen Leugers, Director of Non-Commercial Customer Success at Gordon Food Service. It’s not about collecting business cards of people you can call when you need advice. It’s about reaching out, talking and listening—really listening—to people.
“It’s less about having a bunch of LinkedIn connections and more about having a phone-a-friend relationship,” Leugers says. “Networking is about sharing information as much as it is receiving it, and that’s critical for healthcare foodservice.”
In the healthcare subculture, the foodservice director often feels isolated or far down the ladder of importance, according to Gordon Food Service Customer Effectiveness Manager Ken Wasco. Everyone plays a role: administrators, doctors and nurses, therapy professionals, then foodservice workers.
All of these people deal with situations and find answers every day, which makes open lines of communication essential to internal networking.
“It’s easy to think your opinion or experience doesn’t have an impact, but it does,” Wasco says. “You and your staff are connected to residents all day long—you know what they like and dislike, you understand nutrition, diet needs and even who they like to sit with at dinner.”
Effective networking starts with reaching out, Leugers says. She cites business consultant Harvey Mackay’s advice—dig your well before you’re thirsty—as relevant to healthcare foodservice.
“If you listen to other people’s needs and connect them with the data and people who can help, you’ll find they are willing to share knowledge and ideas when you’re in need,” she says.
The risk of not reaching out is that it’s hard to stay on trend or avoid inefficiencies, and that can increase expenses that take a toll in patient or resident count. If you’re in charge of food service at an assisted living community, Leugers says, you need to be reaching out to hospitals and telling them about your nutrition plan, memory care capabilities and other successes. The entire community benefits when you network your strengths and keep an open line of communication.
“If you show a hospital how your foodservice program promotes healing and contributes to lower admission rates, your community will be on their preferred placement list when patients are discharged,” she says. “And that’s built on networking.”
Networking—contact and conversation with people in the business—ultimately keeps the operator current on foodservice topics: the latest government regulations, new food products or serving items that can improve the dining experience.
In today’s high-tech world, it’s easy to think all the information you need is online. With the Internet, Wasco says, answers are easy. “The challenge is to know the right questions to ask, and networking provides a way to learn those questions.”
He suggests forming a network of five people who know what you do. They can work in your healthcare community or in other businesses. This group is not only a personal network, but it’s the antidote to feeling alone with an opinion or problem.
“I guarantee that among the five people you will find someone with the same or similar concerns and you’ll be able to talk through solutions.”
Any knowledge gained through networking increases the foodservice director’s value, Wasco and Leugers agree. This benefits the entire caregiving team. Here are some key considerations on improving your networking:
Start where you’re comfortable. Networking can be a lot like going alone to a party, Leugers says. You’re never at ease until you mingle and find people with similar interests.
“Strike up a conversation with the foodservice director at the assisted-living community across town,” she says. “It’s easier and less expensive to connect locally, and people are happy to share information you can take to your community.”
Network in-house. We all have expertise, Leugers says. Your facilities team has knowledge about the environment, the foodservice team knows safe food-handling, the nursing team knows about infection control and you should be sharing that knowledge internally. “In the end, we care for the whole person, not just the nutrition or diet needs.”
Know the pros. If you want to look beyond the local landscape, there are a number of professional and trade associations at the local, state and national levels, Leugers says, and they are there to help. Examples include The Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals (ANFP), Leading Age or the local Alzheimer’s Association. Many of them have their own network of professionals able to respond to your needs, and most offer seminars, workshops and conventions that can be valuable.
Share your learnings. Attending a conference or a workshop comes at a cost to care communities, either in travel expenses or time away from work. So if you’re able to attend, take notes and share helpful advice when you return.
“It shows the value of sending you to the seminar, plus it gives your boss or administrator something to think about that may not have been a priority before,” Wasco says.
Practice saying two things after you return from any networking venture, Leugers advises:
“I just learned this.”
“What do you think … should we do this here?”