Networking at conferences and events

Do you stick to the comfort of others with whom you have much in common, or do you make an effort to actively seek out people whose background and professional focus vary from yours?  When you return to the office from a conference or social event, have you typically met anyone new, or gained a deeper awareness of someone already within your circle of influence?

As I enter an upcoming conference in my calendar, I’ve been thinking about how comfortable and convenient it is to attend such events with the people we know. What happens when you and a colleague from down the hall both register for the same conference? Do you make arrangements to travel together, and then sit alongside one another throughout the conference sessions. Are you joined at the hip except for bio breaks, only to regroup yet again at the lunch table?

Or, when a conference registration opens up, do you call or send an e-mail to a valued and trusted sector counterpart? 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 meet up at conferences at least once annually with a former colleague who has become a long time friend, and we of course spend time together.

Treat conferences and events as investments in your network

We also make a point of consciously seeking out new faces and ideas at conferences. For the most part, we attend different concurrent sessions; then, post-conference, we bring one another up to speed on insights gained, and add extra value to our investments of time and conference registration fees. While it’s a treat to catch up and spend time together, this is not done 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.

Conferences are opportunities for knowledge exchange among peers, and people are often more generous than you may anticipate. While I’ve attended more than one conference only to be approached shortly after by a new acquaintance for some informal mentoring, I’ve 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 one I may be approaching.

I participate annually in conferences hosted by a US professional association, and continue to be struck by the generosity with which EAs, Chiefs of Staff 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 to lead a session, reciprocate.

Sallie Krawcheck, who has made repeat appearances on Forbes’ list of “Power Women”, has been called the most powerful woman on Wall Street. Krawcheck maintains three networking rules, slightly modified as follows.

Do something nice every week for someone in your network

Straightforward, yes? We needn’t be interested in being on any Power list to recognise that this also enriches our own life. If you’ve been neglecting your network, begin with the first step of doing something nice, this week, for one person in your network. This needn’t be a huge undertaking; as Krawcheck offers, you can post a LinkedIn recommendation for this person, introduce your contact to someone s/he should know, or share some insight or a referral you know would be useful.

Make a point of spending time with assistants or other professionals who are different from you

Build on this by tackling the next two networking opportunites you encounter. Make a conscious effort to spend time with others whose backgrounds and insights vary from yours and, if there’s a social event or conference on your radar, step a bit outside your traditional comfort zones.

Every month, meet one new person in your area of professional interest – or significantly deepen an existing relationship

Without ignoring or diminishing relationships with colleagues or counterparts, have the confidence to separate and strike up a rapport with someone new with whom you’ve identified shared interests or expertise, or someone you’d like to know or better understand. Give it a try, and watch for more from Exceptional EA on networking.

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