As an IT leader you know that you need to get out of the office and get some professional development. Regardless of the industry you are in, there are no shortage of great events that combine great speakers, relevant workshops, a chance to meet vendors, and hundreds if not thousands of delegates seeking to solve the same problems and who are faced with similar issues.
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For many IT leaders, therein lies the problem.
Not the workshops or the show… but the number of people they don’t know. In a highly unscientific study mainly based on personal observation I would suggest that the majority of folks attending IT conferences as delegates are highly uncomfortable meeting new people and engaging in small talk, particularly if they have come on their own.
I've attended many conferences over the years. Nothing I have observed has dissuaded me from this theory. If some appears to be thriving while working the crowd, they usually have a Vendor ribbon attached to their show badge.
There are exceptions to every rule, and you can go to conferences and observe delegates who are engaged with others, who don’t stand around alone at coffee breaks and don’t eat dinner alone with their smartphone.
Let me fill you in on something. I was one of those people I just described, only we didn't have smartphones in those days, so I’d take my computer to dinner. I know… sad.
If you are an IT leader, one of the more significant things you need to do is schmooze… not to sell things, but to connect with a collective mind power and expertise that will help you learn and advance in your career.
I realized that while attending the conference has value, I was missing out on one of the primary benefits of going to these events… to meet and network with peers. So I picked up a few pointers on making the best of my time away.
Before you leave, plan your time. I know this sounds like a no brainer but I’m amazed at how many people show up not sure of which workshops they might attend. Picking the sessions that address your key issues will increase the chances of meeting peers that share your challenges.
Reach out on social media to see if any of your contacts are attending the same conference. Usually these are the people you met at a previous conference. If you are active on social media, use the hashtag (likely posted on the website) and start informing people you will be at the conference. Quite often the replies you get will be from vendors looking to meet with you buy I’ve also made some connections this way as well with fellow CIOs.
The first day of any event usually has a “Networking” session. Typically the offer of free beverages and food is enough to get people to attend, but the connecting part will be up to you.
The key thing to remember is that most of the people in the room have more in common with you than not. Someone just has to start the conversation. Steel your resolve and decide it might as well be you.
I usually look for someone standing alone and introduce myself “Hi! I’m Kevin… Is this your first time here?” I know it sounds like a cheesy pickup line, but it seems to work well for me. More often than not, the person looks relieved to actually connect with someone. The next part is a bit more challenging, but let me give you tip. Learn the art of the interview. I've fallen victim to it on a number of occasions, and have learned that if you ask someone to talk about themselves; what they are doing, where they are from, etc., they have no shortage of things to talk about it and quite often leave the conversation thinking how delightful it all was. And the best part is you don’t have to do much talking.
You now have a familiar face at the conference and it’s amazing how many times you’ll run into this individual through the event. Do this a few times during the breaks, on the trade show floor, meals and networking events and you will soon have a whole cadre of connections. Because you are all in the same boat so to speak, it’s not long before conversations begin to turn to topics like “What are you doing about BYOD?” or “Big Data”, or how to make each dollar of your budget stretch.
And bingo. You've just added a significant amount of value to your time at the conference.
Once you are back home, reach out via LinkedIn or other social media platform and keep the conversation going. By doing so you've expanded your professional network which is one of the key reasons you attended the conference in the first place.
Enjoy conference season. Perhaps we’ll meet at one of them. Look for the guy with his hand stuck out saying “Hi! I’m Kevin… Is this your first time here?”