Learning is a lot like fruit…when you’re green you’re growing, when you’re ripe you rot, and when you’re blue, you’re through!

Strategies for Getting the Most Out of Conferences and Other Professional Development Experiences You Attend in the Balance of 2008

“Education forms the common mind. Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” Alexander Pope

“Lifelong learning (for all employees) helps form a focused organization.
Just as the employee is professional developed, the organization’s destiny follows.”
(Pope’s quote, slightly massaged by me).

January is long behind us now and so most of us have now settled into our regular workplace routines for 2008. This is the time, then–spring!–that many contemplate attending a conference or two related to their occupations and professional interests. Remember, big or small, conferences do more than blandly disseminate information about your industry.

Conferences (whether internal or external) offer opportunity to learn more about:

  • new innovations–hear ideas to challenge the current way you do business; identify trends to take back to your local business community
  • new technologies related to your field (to help save you time and sanity)
  • political climate of your profession and industry–to help you develop more strategic savvy
  • networking–hook-up and stay in touch with like-minded people
  • career development and advancement–expose yourself to your profession’s obvious (or not so obvious) next steps and possibilities
  • sharing your knowledge–either formally, as a volunteer presenter, or informally, as a participant in concurrent sessions; raise your profile among peers, as a subject matter expert
  • current experts in your field–hear what they have to say
  • best practices–stay on the cutting edge of your profession

Conferences also: provide honest to goodness entertainment for those who willingly attend, serve as a reward for well deserving employees and offer a bit of extra fun when located in famous, exciting, little known, beautiful or interesting locations.

Whether support staff or senior executive, attending conferences is part of a professional mindset. Those who consider themselves “professionals” take care of themselves and their careers. The most impressive and engaged professionals are members of professional groups and associations. They attend monthly chapter meetings and roundtable discussions regarding the health of their respective industries, keep tabs on the economic and technological trends impacting their profession and network with peers to help accelerate their learning and elevate expertise. These same professionals embrace: lifelong learning, read publications on their industry (they may even contribute an article or two over the years) and regularly refresh their professional certifications and credentials.

Professionals boast strong networks of trusted and valued colleagues and friends, both inside and outside of their chosen work, with whom they regularly meet to explore ideas, obtain council and refine their thinking and strategies for on-the-job success. All of these behaviors and practices are driven by a sense of passion and pride for work performed. These “pros” actually love for what they do for a living (however grand or humble), and have a sense of commitment and loyalty to the people and organizations for whom they work. These individuals are “engaged”–engaged with their work, and probably with their lives.

You don’t have to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, chartered accountant or merchant chief, to be a “professional”. Anyone can be a “pro”–homemaker or CEO–it’s all a matter of attitude and behaviour you bring to the good work you contribute each and every day! If you produce a product or a services–or make a knowledgeable, time-invested working contribution to either–guess what…you are a professional at what you do.

Embrace the value of your workplace contribution now &now that it’s spring and now that all things are blossoming once again–whether you’re in management or help hold down the fort in a frontline position–by treating yourself with the same level of respect, care, planning and, yes, even ongoing professional development that other practicing professionals enjoy.

When you get that bombardment of conference brochures, promotional flyers and emails (or when your employer tells you your attendance at an internal staff retreat is required)–and you decide to attend–consider these strategies for getting the “biggest bang” for your conference buck (even if it’s your organization’s “buck” that generously sponsors your attendance!):

Before the conference…

  • establish a singular focus or goal for attending–about what do you want to learn more?
  • get a good night’s sleep the night before–conference schedules can be hectic; you may feel overwhelmed with information coming at you too fast. It’s easier to absorb the pace and volume of data if you’re well rested (consider sleeping over, the night before)
  • bring lots of business cards and have them immediately available
  • if your conference includes breakout sessions, review the agenda in advance to strategically choose sessions which align with your objectives (and so that you don’t spend time scrambling to pick a session minutes beforehand, only to discover that it’s full and must now attend another that’s of little use to you)
  • if two interesting sessions are scheduled simultaneously, see if there’s a cd or book which will summarize the one missed
  • learn who’s attending the conference (if possible) so you’ll know whom you wish to meet, eg. intimate conferences often include a roster of attendees in the welcoming “goodie bag”

During the conference…

  • remember your singular focus; write it at the top of each page of your notes
  • attend sessions that cover your focus (although others may lure)
  • at lengthy conferences, eg. two or three days, give yourself a “wild-card”–attend at least one session, “just for fun”
  • document the best, most do-able nuggets you garner from each day
  • keep a dedicated “to-do list” of what you can apply at work (include zany ideas you may never implement; for now, it’s just a list)
  • buy cds and/or books from the best sessions, to reinforce what you learned
  • participate in all exercises, even if “silly”–they’re presented for reasons which may be momentarily unclear; trust the speaker’s positive intention
  • speak up–volunteer for anything and everything; be a sport…be game; the more you participate the more you’ll reap; as “parent-y” as that sounds, it’s true (the speaker may even reward volunteers with a gift, as a show of thanks!)
  • if attending with friends or co-worker(s), consider splitting up, at least for some of the sessions; if you stick together you’ll be exposed to fewer people and ideas (if one of your goals is to network, going solo is better); if you split up, you can cover twice as many presentations and report back
  • arrive early; arriving early gives you a better feel for the room’s atmosphere, the choicest seats, allows for some introductory talk with other attendees and gives you time to relax and breath
  • sit near the front, for the best view and learning opportunity
  • ask questions where appropriate; trust that, “there are not any stupid questions”; if you’re wondering, others are, too!
  • take lots of notes, even if sessions are recorded; note-taking layers learning (write it, hear it, read or review it–“three time’s the charm”!); abbreviate or use your own style of short-hand; use symbols to highlight important points
  • exchange business cards with other attendees that have a connection with your business, however remote or unsuspecting; write notes on each card (about the person and why they’re interesting to you; describe looks, too, otherwise, if you meet for coffee later you may forget who you’re looking for!)
  • introduce yourself to the speaker at the end of each session, if possible–exchange business cards and stay connected; speakers get to know a lot of people, venues, and information which may be of interest to you along the way; they’re good people to know and most are delighted to stay in touch

After the conference…

  • practice the, “Law of ’72; not 1972–72 hours; reviewing notes to reinforce what you learned, within 72 hours, improves the odds of retention and application
  • review your in-conference “nuggets” and “to do” list; prioritize and discard ideas that will never “fly” , after all
  • action at least one of your “to do” list items, within that same 72 hour window
  • reinforce learning by teaching colleagues or teammates (perhaps at the next team meeting?); or, at the very least, make it dinnertime conversation–you may bore them to death but, on the other hand…perhaps they’ll be sincerely interested. “Third person teaching” works.
  • consider: the content of the speakers’ presentations, what you know, yourself, in terms of professional subject matter expertise, and your courage and finesse at public speaking; if confident, offer to speak at the next conference, if you have professional expertise that meshes with that conference’s focus; this helps raise your profile within your industry, experience such an event from a different perspective, stretch professionally and attend all other sessions, usually free of charge!

When contemplating, “To attend or not to attend? That is the question.”, consider the words of Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive–try ignorance!”

And speaking of the impact of ignorance…think hard on this tale, if you consider ongoing professionally development, (for yourself or your staff) a “nice-to-do” but not a “need-to-do”:

A manager approached one of her brightest (but, unfortunately, disagreeable) staff, pondering the question, “What do you think the difference is between ignorance and indifference?”, The lackluster, uninspired and disengaged employee responded, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“It’s the CEO’s job to trigger thinking by creating and supporting events or questions to get people’s wheels spinning.”

Marcel LeBrun, President and CEO iMagic TV

“Continuously make sure employees understand how important they are.
As CEO, you need people more than they need you. My job is to keep our people interested in staying, and working, and growing and prospering with this company.”

Lawrence Bossidy, Chairman, Honeywell

“Get the best people and train them well.”

Charles Merrill, Founder of Merrill Lynch & Co.

“It is only as we develop others that we permanently succeed.”

Harvey S. Firestone, Firestone Rubber

“What skills will be required for tomorrow? Nobody knows.
The important thing is to keep acquiring new ones. We’re in an environment where education–for life, for everyone–is the game.”

Tom Peters, renowned business speaker, consultant and author

Go ahead, make your day…and year. Make the rest of 2008 your very best professional year yet!

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