From email to social media, many of our daily professional interactions have been reduced to brief digital transactions– making in-person face time at networking conferences is incredibly valuable for career growth. Of course, a conference is only as valuable as you make it. You could attend a different conference every week but if you spoke to the same two people every time, you won’t expand your contact base or learn anything new.
As an HR executive recruiter, I know that the power of an organization lies with its people. This same principle applies to your professional success: the power of your career lies with your network. Networking conferences are 100% worth your time– as long as you bring intentionality and purpose to your attendance. Here’s how:
1. Pick the right conference.
Conferences are a dime a dozen these days: how do you know which ones to attend? Start by evaluating where you are in your career. If you’re just starting out or looking to transition to a new industry, say “yes” to as many networking opportunities as possible. You never know where your next opportunity could come from.
As your career matures, you can be more selective about which events to attend. A good rule of thumb is to balance your “bonding capital” and “bridging capital”. “Bonding capital” refers to relationships based on commonalities (bonds); these are typically relationships with co-workers and industry peers. “Bridging capital” refers to relationships built across differences, like disparate industries or professional skill sets. While narrow networks are easier to build, they’re also dangerous. A narrow network makes you prone to groupthink and less likely to consider alternative best practices. Worse, when a downturn comes, everyone in your network may be affected and you could find yourself with limited options. When deciding on which conference to attend, don’t discount those from outside your industry. They’re essential to building your “bridging capital”.
2. Set clear goals.
Before you arrive at the conference, ask yourself, “Why am I going?” Your answer may depend on the type of event you’re attending, where you are in your career, and who else will be attending the event. Be as specific as possible. “I want to meet new people” is pretty vague– after all, you meet new people each day! What type of people are you interested in meeting?
For example, if you’re in a sales position, are you interested in making new sales contacts or strengthening your relationship with vendors? If you’re a consultant, are you looking to connect with a prospective mentor, find new clients, or strengthen your relationship with industry peers? There’s no “right” answer. What matters most is that you’ve carefully thought through your different motivating factors so you can invest your time at the conference appropriately.
3. Plan your time.
Once you’ve set clear conference goals, make a game plan that aligns with these goals. For example, if you’re attending the conference to learn more about different solutions to improve process flow, prioritize attending breakout sessions related to this issues. If possible, review the list of attendees and speakers in advance and identify which individuals would be most helpful to meet. Prepare questions to ask at breakout sessions and keep a few conversation topics in mind to keep your conversations focused. You don’t have to stick to a minute-by-minute plan, but keeping a general plan in mind will help you stay focused on the events that matter most.
Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to attend excellent conferences like SHRM, which have introduced me to future mentors and coworkers, challenged my assumptions about industry trends, and helped me grow professionally.
Which conferences have been most valuable for you to attend? I invite you to share your favorite conferences in the comments below.