Congrats! You’ve either secured your employer’s support or invested in yourself by registering for a conference. You’ve completed your registration, booked your travel and accommodation.
What’s next? Do you quietly stress over being alone in the crowd, or wonder whether you’ll meet counterparts with whom you can connect? Do you start thinking about contacts who might also benefit from the conference, with the obvious advantage that you won’t be walking into sessions solo?
Joined at the hip?
Or, do you turn to a valued colleague or sector counterpart before even committing to registration? You may coordinate schedules so that you meet up for dinner on arrival, and then a bit of sightseeing or shopping between business sessions. Or perhaps you review the conference agenda from your respective offices to decide which sessions you’ll attend together, and save seats for one another for lunches and coffee breaks.
Sound familiar? It’s all too easy to do, but conferences – and all social occasions – represent opportunities to stretch yourself and your comfort level in exposing yourself to new people as well as new ways of thinking. I used to meet up at one annual conference with a former colleague who has become a long time friend, and we of course spend time together.
Conferences as opportunities to grow
However, we also sought some balance between nurturing existing networks and also growing them. We made a point of consciously seeking out new faces and ideas at conferences. For the most part, we attended different concurrent sessions. Then, post-conference, we would bring one another up to speed on insights gained, and add extra value to our separate investments of time (and registration fees!). While it’s a treat to catch up and spend time together, we didn’t do so at the expense of meeting new people or expanding our respective circles.
Think about it: without opening yourself up to exposure to new people, or a better understanding of people you bump into infrequently, you’re restricting your opportunities for professional growth. Treat conferences as investments in your network, and then nurture that network.
Breaking the ice
I know a couple of associations that open each conference with educational versions of speed dating. I’ve served at such events as a “table facilitator” during speed mentoring sessions designed to welcome first-time conference attendees. Newbies get even more professional development and meet other first time attendees, and the speed mentoring facilitators consistently go out of their way to ensure people know they’re welcomed.
If your conference offers opening receptions or dinners, sign up!
The same goes for optional tours hosted outside meeting hours. If such events aren’t available, have a look at participant lists that may be circulated in advance of the event. Identify people from your province, state or region, and send an email invitation to gather socially at the outset of the conference. Contact conference organisers, and ask if they could use a bit of additional help from a willing volunteer.
Once you’re there, don’t wait for others to approach you. You don’t want to be a bull in a china shop, but be prepared to listen to those around you, ask questions and contribute to conversations.
Conferences are opportunities for knowledge exchange among peers, and people are often more generous than you may anticipate. I’ve been approached at conferences for advice or some informal mentoring, and have also departed for home with offers of support from others. This can take the form of promises – always fulfilled! – of templates, or strategies based on experience in situations similar to some I may be experiencing in the office.
I participated annually in conferences hosted by Canadian and American professional associations, and continue to be struck by the generosity with which EAs, Chiefs of Staff, Directors and other peers readily share their expertise. I returned home from my first such conference armed with new orientation ideas from an astute and gracious Kentucky EA. Back in my office, I modified and incorporated elements of her protocols, all to the benefit of my organisation.
Honour the spirit in which expertise is shared
When you adapt shared materials for use in your workplace, do so with written acknowledgement/attribution to recognise the people and organisations who shared the benefit of their experience with you. When you have an opportunity to support another peer’s development or lead a conference session, step up and reciprocate.