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The art of networking at global health events: a few tips & tricks from a recent World Health Assembly & European Development Days participant

By Phumudzo Mufamadi
on June 18, 2018

Career planning is very important, and not just for football players. Sometimes it is good to have a coach who can help you refine your goals, outline the things you need to do in order to achieve those goals and assist with finding relevant contacts in your field. True, it is not always necessary to have a coach if you are very disciplined and clear about your goals – you have a “German mindset”, so to speak (if you allow me a stereotype). But in most areas and workplaces, it really helps to have a mentor, someone perhaps in the same field as you, or in a field you want to get into. Someone who can perhaps also show you how you to network properly at global events. As this newsletter doesn’t cater to football journalists trying to find key players for interviews at the World Cup in Russia, I will zoom in on global health & development/aid events. Focusing in particular, on the World Health Assembly (WHA) and European Development Days (EDD), which I recently attended. I’ll be your coach, if you allow me, even if I’m no Guardiola yet : )

Networking is not as easy as most people think. It actually requires a lot of bravery and courage. Still, there are different ways in which people network, and it’s important to play to your strengths.

First of all, when you are at a global (health) event and you aim to network, do not spend too much time with the people that you already know at the event. Say, for example, you attend an event with some people from your organization; in this case  you should try not to spend too much time with them. I understand that some people feel better when they are surrounded by people they know, but you need to get a bit out of your comfort zone in order to get those (new) contacts on your list. We often hear that ‘’we grow when we are out of our comfort zones’’, and there is some truth to that, including when it comes to networking and socializing at High-Level and other formal global health events.

On a good day, I consider myself to be a “professional networker”. Perhaps I’m not the CR7 or Leo Messi of networking, but I do have a fairly “decent game”, even if I say so myself.   A year ago I did an internship at the WHO with the Coordinated Resource Mobilization unit, on the same floor as the office of the – then brand new – DG, Dr Tedros. When I saw him for the first time, I was very excited. I introduced myself and made clear my ‘’intentions’’  which are  to invest the skills I gained during my internship at WHO around the globe and, hopefully one day work for WHO as I have always been passionate about global health.  Whether these top dogs eventually get back to me (or other youngsters) is another matter, that takes a bit of luck, I guess. At least I didn’t shy away from introducing myself to Dr Tedros. My motto in life is “to never give up” (a bit like Rick Astley), and trust me, that is also good advice when it comes to networking (although of course you shouldn’t start stalking people, like some sort of networking paparazzi : )).

Some people – the “naturals” – introduce themselves in a very social way. They may for instance go to a person and say things like ‘’I like your hair, the color of your suit/dress, or even lipstick’’ and just like that, they start a conversation! BUT is this always the right approach to networking and getting good contacts at more formal events? Well, I have my doubts and I  honestly don’t  know to what extent this strategy works out for people.  It is probably the right approach for Kim Kardashian, but I for one did not go up to Dr Tedros and say “Boy, do YOU have a nice moustache!”

After this more general advice, I would like to outline some techniques and tactics for networking at global health events. I was privileged to attend some events last year, as well as a few in 2018, and I have observed a lot of ways in which people get contacts.  As I mentioned before, it is not easy, in fact it takes some skill & some guts, and not necessarily in that order.

First things first, you should have a target group or person in mind. You must know what you want and how to go about getting it.  (A bit like in love, dare I say : ) ) I know this requires a lot of courage, but to paraphrase Nike’s motto, “Nothing is impossible”. Keep in mind that even Cristiano and Leo had to start somewhere.  A recent example perhaps, the first time I met with the Minister of Health from my country, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, was during a session on BRICS at the 70th WHA in 2017. I had targeted this event because I knew that he was going to be one of the main speakers. I wanted to introduce myself, so, after the session I went straight to him to do so. This was not easy – as you know Ministers and other officials are always in a hurry, and particularly so at these kinds of events. I told him who I am, where I come from, what I was doing then and what I would like to do in the future. Perhaps more than in the game of love, you should know how to “sell” yourself when you’re networking. If you don’t know how to do that, just watch Cristiano before he shoots a freekick.

Over the past few weeks I attended the WHA71 in Geneva, and just one week later, headed for Brussels to attend the European Development Days Conference. Personally I felt there was a bit of difference In terms of networking at the EDD conference and the WHA71.

Perhaps I should have done more research before the WHA (or specific sessions), as the event felt a bit overwhelming and intense. I felt a bit like the Germans in their first game at the World Cup – rusty, and not entirely up to the challenge (even if I wore my most fancy dress). It was not easy to approach people at the WHA71, and I tried to learn from more experienced networkers such as the Tony Kroos of the global health scene. At the EDD, on the other hand, there were a lot of young people with similar interests as me, still “trying to get there”. It was relatively easy for me to relate and ‘’hustle’’, and I definitely felt like a fish in water there.

Some more advice, don’t fake it, and don’t show any desperation while you are networking. It is good to make your intentions clear, but you should also take it slow and get to understand more about the work that you would like to do. Also, it does not hurt to ask the person you’re approaching to be your mentor, at least if you are genuinely interested in moving into the same field. In short, do some good research, know what you want and most importantly, do not bite more than you can chew.

One no-nonsense piece of advice to end with, it is important to understand that when you ask for a business card, you must have a safe place to put it. I mean sometimes people consider it rude if you take a business card and then put it in a (filthy) pocket. So make sure you have a safe place to store the card and of course always end with ‘thank you, I will be in touch  soon’ or words to that effect. In addition, if you are lucky to get the business card, don’t keep it for too long without communicating, it is recommended that you email the person after a day or two. In that case, you can also send your CV, depending on your motives. Give them a week or so, and if they don’t respond, perhaps send another email  as a follow up and reminder. Persistence pays with these people who are usually high-fliers, very busy and may not always have the time to respond to every email. After all, Cristiano & Leo are also not always available for an autograph! : )


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