Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beyond the Books - and Social Networking

Last month I attended the AHIMA conference in Grapevine, TX. One of my favorite things to do at the conference is to attend the exhibits - not because I really want to buy something from every vendor, but because I find it's the best place to network and catch up on the industry's latest trends. This year, I focused on some key areas - mainly ICD-10 (for work) and education (for me and for all of you).

In talking to some of the schools represented at the exhibits, I realized a lot has changed since I graduated and took my RHIT exam. Of course, I already knew this, but I never really thought about how different it is to network into a new position in this new educational system. As students seek out more online education opportunities and medical records move to an electronic format, schools are able to set up virtual labs to closely mimic the real world. The unfortunate drawback to this is that as a society, we've become so "virtual" that employers are seeing an increasing need for soft skills, or those social skills associated with a person's emotional intelligence quotient (EQ).

Soft skills include things like verbal and written communication, the ability to work in teams, motivation, conflict resolution, and leadership. I am neither qualified nor interested in writing a blog about the importance of EQ, but I thought I would present my opinion on the subject and include a few tips - things to think about before going for an interview - that might give you an edge in getting noticed and getting hired.

What WALL-E Has to Say About EQ

In thinking about soft skills and EQ, I am reminded of the movie WALL-E, which, although a kids movie, has some very poignant messages for adults. If you haven't seen the movie, I highly recommend it. The part relating to EQ is the human part of the story where the humans have been living for over 200 years on a spaceship. When we first see the humans, they are riding around in hovercraft equipped with laptops with messaging capabilities and they are glued to their computer screens. They communicate through their computers and ignore everything else around them. It's not until the robot WALL-E accidentally knocks a man and a woman out of their hovercraft that the humans begin to realize they can converse face-to-face.

Now I'm not saying we live in a WALL-E world, but there are days when I think we are headed in that direction. I work remotely 50-75% of the time and most of my work is done using the computer, internet, and phones. This makes it possible for me to work for a client in another state without the expense (or frustration) of airline travel. This is a great thing but the other 25-50% of the time I am face-to-face with clients, colleagues, and students and I firmly believe that no matter how I present myself online or over the phone, what matters most is how I interact in person. Even if you want to work from home, chances are you will need to interview in person, or even via web cam. So how you convey yourself in that initial meeting matters.

Get Off Social Networking Sites and Go Meet People

Social networking is the latest in personal, business, and marketing communications. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are heavily populated by people wishing to connect or reconnect and I'm all for that (find me at the Coder Coach on Facebook!). But social networking is only one tool and you need to get out and meet people. So if you are planning to get a job in the industry, you need to meet people face-to-face. Look for local seminars and AHIMA/AAPC chapter meetings where you can meet other coding professionals. I am much more likely to recommend and endorse someone I've met personally versus someone I've met online.

But meeting industry professionals is going to be tough. As mentioned, today's technology lends itself to remote work and more and more coders are working from home. In addition, hospital budget constraints often mean coders must pay for their own continuing education and either take paid leave or no pay to attend classes. As an alternative, many coders are opting for distance education in the form of online courses, audio conferences, and webinars. This means less of a networking pool for novice coders. So seize every opportunity you can to network in person with coding professionals. Check out your local AHIMA or AAPC chapters to find something close to home. If all else fails, find a local mentor and meet with them on occasion. Once you meet one person and they start to introduce you around, you will be amazed at how quickly your non-virtual network grows.

Looks Matter

We're all told that we need to look at people for who they are rather than how they look. Well, in business, how you look matters. I am not saying everyone needs to go out and get plastic surgery, but here are some tips:

1. Dress for the job you want. I think we've all heard this one before and it's true. Look at people who are in the industry in the positions you someday hope to hold and emulate their dress patterns. This is true even during networking events, such as seminars, meetings, and educational events (other than traditional classroom education). Pay attention to conference brochures - they usually tell you what is appropriate (business, business casual, or casual). If you are networking with potential employers, I always recommend either business or business casual, but never casual. You want to send a message to employers that you are serious about your career.

2. Observe standard corporate business attire - unless given permission to relax the rules. I realize this is the 21st century, but there are still some old fashioned rules that may never go out of style. You can google "proper business attire" and get a million hits on what to wear. Here is my personal take on it. For women, skirts should be no more than 2-3 inches above the knee and leg coverings are recommended (at least for the first meeting). Dress slacks are fine, but foot coverings should be worn (again, at least for the first meeting). Don't wear cropped or capri pants - even if they are dressy - for interviews. Some places may accept them, but not others and you want foolproof attire on the day of an interview. Avoid jeans, t-shirts with printed letters or logos, tank top, sleeveless tops, halter tops, short skirts, sandals, tennis shoes, or shorts. For men, business attire generally includes slacks with a button down shirt that can be worn with or without a tie or jacket depending on the formality of the setting. Men should avoid jeans, khakis and polo shirts (unless business casual dress is called for), t-shirts, tennis shoes, and sandals.

3. Ignore what everyone else is wearing (except for your mentor whose job you someday hope to hold!) and dress for the occasion. When you are looking for a job you want to stand out from the crowd (in a good way!). Now is not the time to be pressured into sloppy dressing by your peers.

4. Remove additional piercings and cover tattoos. A former coworker comes to mind here. As a traveling consultant, it's always interesting to see your coworkers dressed down during non-business hours. Many days a team of consultants looks like a group of agents from the movie Men in Black with conservative black business suits. So imagine my surprise to see one such male consultant sporting an earring at the airport. Maybe there were tattoos too, but I never saw them. The point is - business is still conservative. It's okay to have the tattoos and piercings, but portray a more conservative image when you are meeting a business contact for the first time.

5. Tone down hairstyles, makeup, and accessories. I love movie references, so here's another - think about the movie Working Girl where Melanie Griffith's character starts out with huge 80s hair, loud makeup, and over-sized accessories and ends up with smart business suits with subtle accessories (and Harrison Ford!). I admit, this is a hard one for me because I love accessories, but I try to wear one statement piece and tone down everything else. If you have color in your hair that is not normally found in nature (e.g., pink, purple), think about styling it in a way that the color is not so noticeable.

6. Don't wear cologne or perfume. You might think you smell nice and maybe other people do too, but particularly in health care institutions, people have allergies. You don't want to offend your future employer by making him/her sneeze. Many hospitals and doctor's offices have a no perfume/cologne rule for the sake of workers and patients. So save your best fragrance for a night out.

How You Write Matters

I am going to try to be very careful here and not get on my soapbox, but I will say this: I am appalled at where we are with written communications these days. I'm all for texting and instant messaging and "LOL-ing" but there is a time and a place and text lingo doesn't apply in business when you are trying to get hired. If you are emailing potential employers, ensure that your communications are professional and contain no typos. If your email has a spell check option, use it, and always read your emails through before hitting send even if you use spell check. After all, "form" and "from" are both words in the English language, but they cannot be used interchangeably in a sentence.

Your resume should also be text-lingo and typo free. I fully admit that I have set resumes aside, even if the candidate is seemingly qualified, because of the typos. I have a natural tendency to edit, so if I get out my red pen just to read a resume, then I am too distracted by the typos to read for content. So write your resume and read it over several times. Better yet - give it to a friend to read to make sure you didn't miss anything. You don't want to be set aside because of a poorly written resume.

People Talk

I really hate cliches, but they're cliches for a reason: they bear repeating. Case in point: don't say anything you wouldn't want printed on the front page of the newspaper. The coding industry is small. This is an excellent networking tool because you can generally get introduced to just about anyone in the coding industry through someone you already know. The downside to this is that people talk. And you don't want them talking about you negatively, so be careful what you say about others in the industry and to whom.

I once interviewed someone who didn't work out and later heard her bad-mouthing me at a conference. Needless to say, I never will hire her in the future. We all have those people who grate on our nerves and we work with people whose personalities just clash with out own. My best advice here is to maintain professional interactions when necessary and never say a negative thing about that person to anyone. The type of reputation you have is up to you. You can be the hardworking team player or the trouble maker.

Want More?

There are a lot of websites and blogs out there dedicated to getting hired and standing out. So rather than rehashing all of those, if you want more information, I listed some links below that might be of interest to you. And since I am such a movie buff, let me offer another recommendation: The Secret of my Success starring Michael J Fox (1987). I love his enthusiasm as a recent grad trying to make it big in business in New York. Most of all, he has such faith in himself and it drives him (unconventionally) to great things. At least you'll get a good laugh out of it (I hope!)

-Personal Branding: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
-Proper Business Attire: