In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending CLOC’s first EMEA Institute in London, which has me revisiting some best practices on building relationships and networking. When I attended my first CLOC conference in April, I found an exceptionally passionate and enthusiastic group of legal professionals that straddled the legal ecosphere. Bearing that in mind, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anyone ducking out early or skipping conference functions, because everyone is invested in being there, driving change, and working together.
But what about in other areas where we have the opportunity to meet new people and develop the relationships that can lead to new business? It’s entirely possible that even with the best of intentions, we can end up with networking fatigue. With that in mind, I’m revisiting an old post on the importance of showing up in order to build relationships.
Sometimes, when attending a conference, it’s tempting (and often reasonable) to combine other business with the business of the conference – maybe you have clients or friends in the same city, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal to miss an afternoon or a meal at the conference. You may even be worried that the social functions of the conference are more of a boondoggle, and the “value” is only found in the educational sessions. So what are you missing out on if you skip group outings or meals?
But you will be missing out, in a big way. Here’s why.
Education today is everywhere – if you have a computer, you can learn. Participate in a webinar, read a white paper, take an online class, etc. Attending a conference in-person, while allowing you to obtain some educational credit, is primarily about connecting with people. And the real meat of networking and relationship development is going to happen outside of the conference room. Always.
A few examples:
- There’s an offsite lunch and tour, with multiple bus rides. Each of those bus rides is an opportunity to sit with someone you’ve never met before and introduce yourself.
- You’re in a country that you’ve never been to before, and eating at a restaurant with local cuisine. You can easily bond and laugh with the person sitting next to you about whether or not you like the food you’re trying (or can identify it!), or sit with your hosts and have them explain the correct way to eat it and the importance of bonding over meals in their culture.
- Following a truly excellent cultural tour of a new city, you can catch up with some of your colleagues, using the information the guide gave you as an ice breaker to start a conversation.
- One of the evening meals finds the group split up among different restaurants, so you have the ability to enjoy different cuisines in the city and go to places that couldn’t accommodate the entire group. The meal also gives you the chance to speak in a more intimate setting with some of the other attendees and local host attorneys that you hadn’t met before.
- The meal is once again, a buffet, and you wonder whether the organizers know what they’re doing. Ditto to yet another family style meal. But as you circulate the table to get your food, you end up chatting to someone from another table about the morning session. You meet yet another person at the dessert buffet. Passing plates at lunch helps to break the ice after you’ve sat down to a group you don’t know very well.
- The conference organizers told you to get to the lobby 10 minutes early, but you head down to the bar an hour before you have to leave, because you know a good sized group of other attendees will be there. You get an extra hour of relaxed chatting time to build relationships and get to know new people.
You may joke with some friends while sitting out by the pool during a rare break in the conference that you’re “networking,” but the truth is that networking is EXACTLY what you’re doing. Each and every person you meet at the conference could be a referral source, a source of information, someone who can introduce you to the right people or give you the help that you need someday. The better you get to know them, the more confident you are that they’ll handle your clients professionally should you have the need to refer them.
The more people you speak to, engage with, learn from and laugh with, the more you will gain, both personally and professionally. You’ll become more comfortable with them, and they in turn, will think of you more readily when they need something in your jurisdiction or area of expertise.
So, it’s not enough to have your name on the attendee list, and to show up briefly to the business sessions. There are, of course, exceptions for professional commitments, but building relationships at the conference is a different kind of professional commitment, and it should be treated as such.
The next time you’re attending a conference, go with an open mind:
- Maybe you’ve already been to all of the offsite venues at a conference. Attend anyway – you can share your previous travel experiences with people who are new to the city and offer tips. You may even learn some secrets from the locals or perhaps have a funny or memorable experience with the other delegates that could never be replicated. Going to a place with a different group of people always makes the experience different.
- Think it’s no big deal to miss a dinner in favor of meeting with your clients? Bring your clients to dinner! Yes, you’ll be charged for them (but you were paying for them anyway, right?) and you’ll be offering them the opportunity to make some new relationships as well, which they’ll see as valuable (particularly, if you’re strategic about who you introduce them to).
- Exhausted by the last day of the conference, and happy to skip the afternoon session in favor of a nap (or shopping)? Think again – since many conference attendees skip the last day, it’s a unique opportunity to network with those who aren’t skipping – you’ve got stories to bond over, because you’re the hardier bunch that did the tour or hung around for the final sessions, you’ve met yet another group of people, and it’s likely that those people in the second group are the real go-getters and master networkers that you want to associate yourself with.
- Are there optional tours or business sessions to participate in? Do it! You never know who you’ll meet when attending a session for another region, or joining up with a group of people who also love glass blowing or architecture. When you bond over shared interests, you are that much more memorable to the people that you meet.
Does all of that sound exhausting? It absolutely is. But it’s only for a couple of days, and the benefits can be far reaching. So dig deep into your stores of energy, make sure to hydrate, and just enjoy the ride – don’t just sit in your room, but don’t skip anything either! If you have friends or family in the city that you’d like to see, tack on an extra day – it’s well worth it.
Because if you truly want to make the most out of your conference attendance, your presence there can’t be a drive by – it has to be a true immersion.