Going where nobody knows your name

This year has been one of constant change and interesting experiences. The most recent of these found me at a conference where I only knew my coworkers who also attended. It was a regional conference in the South, where until this year I’d never lived. So it wasn’t a big surprise that I only knew one other person when I showed up.

While I’m something of a conference savant now, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when I never hit the conference circuit. So I can remember pretty vividly what it was like to show up to a conference and not know anyone, have no one know anything about me and to navigate that. Being sort of introverted, I have to work myself up for these things to begin with and so, it’s been nice over the past few years to end up at things where I have a crew of folks that not only know who I am, but understand my speaking and interaction style. That sort of comfortability makes it easier to navigate the events and makes me more inclined to engage and participate.

The best part of being at an event where you don’t know anyone is an opportunity. I’ve deliberately sat at tables without my coworkers, to get to know people from other places. All seems quaint, but I’ve always remembered being that person who didn’t know anybody and feeling weird about going up to people and introducing myself.

While it’s always to see your friends — new and old — it’s also nice to step outside of your comfort zone and explore new places, new themes and new experiences.

Finding your flock in the working world

My understand is that when you see a flock of birds, the ones at the front don’t spend the entire trip leading. The birds take turns to conserve energy. The other thing I found most interesting about bird flocks, is that there are actually diverge leadership groups at different times trying to steer the flock elsewhere and some will indeed do that.

The funny thing is, the birds behind start to realize that the more of them that follow one, the easier the travel gets as they can draft behind the others in the flock and conserve energy. They take turns doing this and it makes the trip across long distances possible.

I think a lot about leadership and for a long time, I thought if you’re passionate, work hard and care about other people that folks would naturally see what you’re bringing to the table and want to support you towards your goals. This somewhat mistaken belief was borne out of years and years of supportive people identifying me as someone they thought should lead. I’m talking all the way back to grade school, where I’ve had teachers and peers who have mentored me, lifted me up and told me I was worth a damn when I didn’t always feel like it. For all of my penchant for leading, speaking up and sharing what I know; I’ve spent most of my life trying to recede to the back. But time and time again, people have refused to let me not shine my light.

For this I am beyond grateful.

My professional life has been marked by people who have pulled me aside or put me in leadership roles consistently. From the boss at the software store in high school who made me his 3rd in command a month after I was hired to my first boss in higher ed who decided that she had enough faith in my abilities to let me lead a redesign project & committee that was comprised of all VPs and our President and felt comfortable enough not to attend those meetings because she knew it was in good hands.

These kinds of experiences I have shaped how I’ve seen myself as I moved up the ranks, assumed more responsibility and accept greater challenges. Even when things don’t work out, I’ve come away with a much better understanding of what my role is. But more than anything, I’ve come to understand that not everyone is going to have your best interest at heart. Not everyone is meant to be a mentor, not every person who comes into contact with you is concerned about your professional growth or wants to see you succeed on mutually acceptable terms. The trick here is if you’re not fortunate like I’ve been to have great people support, encourage and bolster me and find yourself in an unsupportive professional environment is realizing that you have a responsibility to accept change and to make it work for you.

I don’t mean making the job work for you because not every situation is salvageable in that way. But if you’ve reached a point where you consider yourself a competent individual with some value to offer, then you need to figure out ways to demonstrate that. People will notice. Even if they don’t, you can’t let one situation define you. Your work, your actions and your strength of character will define you over a period of time. It might takes years and you might find yourself searching far and wide, but eventually you’ll find your flock.

But you need to get off the ground.

Pre-gaming the post-conference blues

Everyone is excited about their next favorite conference, but the worst part of the conference is what I’ve taken to calling the post-conference hangover. It goes something like this:

You go to the conference and have a great time. Everyone is enjoying themselves, you fill an entire moleskine notebook with all of the learning you did, cards you collected and connections you made.

Then you get home.

The euphoria doesn’t wear off until about 24-48 hours after the conference when you realize that you don’t have lots of people at your disposal who want to talk about the sorts of topics that captivate and challenge you day in and day out. It’s a lot like getting back home after a summer at camp.

Attending a conference isn’t only about what you can learn, it’s being able to translate those learning opportunities into your daily life inside the office.

Here are three ways you can maximize the post-conference experience before you’ve left the venue:

1. Treat the conference schedule like a music festival and plan ahead.

If you’ve ever been to a huge musical festival you know how difficult it can be to choose who to see when. At larger conferences, it can be just as daunting when there are so many appealing sessions scheduled at overlapping times.

Reviewing the schedule before you arrive, from your desk or couch gives you the best chance to balance “which things would be interesting to me,” with “what sessions can I put to use in the next week (month?) post-conference?” Making those decisions ahead of time will take the guesswork out of scheduling and make you less inclined to follow whoever you’re with at the time.

2. Use the twitter backchannel (more) sparingly.

At any event of consequence these days, there is generally a hashtag and a subsequent chatter ongoing throughout the event with legions of people tweeting out facts, quotes and observations galore. If you follow a lot of the same people, it ends up being a mess of the same kinds of messages amplified across the same network.

While we all tweet for different reasons, think consciously about why you’re participating in the backchannel. Are you taking a stream of notes you’ll refer to later? Don’t want to miss out on what others are feeling about the presentation? Want to see what’s going on in a concurrent presentation you’re missing?

As a frequent conference speaker, I have accepted distracted audiences as part of the job description. I’m not offended by it, because I know how I work and someone staring at a screen isn’t necessarily an affront. But as a frequent member of the audience, have taken to putting down my phone and closing Tweetdeck during a session because it sometimes makes it harder to keep up and stay engaged in the entirety of the presentation.

All speakers have a different style and the more present you can be, the more they can (and will) feed off your attention and energy. No one will be offended on stage if you decide to show you’re paying attention more often.

2.5 Try the designated tweeter

One tactic some fellow conferencegoers and I have employed lately is the “designated tweeter,” who in our row or table is the person who pays attention and does the bulk of the tweeting during a particular session where maybe the rest of us want to be super engaged so we can ask questions and thus, might tweet less than a different session. Not every session is relevant to everybody always, so there’s more than enough opportunity to pass off the lion’s share of the “chronicling” for the backchannel and folks who couldn’t make it.

While you’re at the conference is one thing, but what about the post-conference hangover blues? How do you beat them?

3. Write a post-conference brief

Depending on where you work, coming back from a conference isn’t revered as a “great learning opportunity,” but just a few days you were out of the office and now need to get caught up. Nonetheless, the relationships and learning opportunities to be maximized are often worth their time spent away. One way to reflect on all you’ve learned is a short post-conference brief.

Don’t overthink it. No one has to see this, it can be in blog format too. Just a brief few paragraphs about sessions you attended and how what you learned could apply directly to goals you’ve set back in the office. Having your thoughts organized in this way shortly after you’ve returned home is a good way to help you communicate with others on what you’ve learned if you’re asked.

4. Stay connected with others

The post-conference woes affect all of us, especially newcomers to the conference scene. Reaching out to others you met — even if it’s a simple email saying “it was good to meet, let’s stay in touch,” is a good reminder that you didn’t dream the whole thing. Unlike those times when you say you’re going to follow up, but don’t, actually make an effort whether it’s via Twitter or LinkedIn to reach out periodically to those connections you’ve made in topical ways.

Two examples:

“Hey Matt, it was great to meet you at #ronbroncon. Have you been able to implement anything from that analytics session yet?”

“@ronbronson It was great to connect at @imaginaryconf. Would enjoy hearing more about how you all decide to implement Slack. Stay in touch!”

Don’t get sucked into the trap of believing that because you met someone once at a conference that you are now BFFs, should exchange Facebook credentials and babies pictures. People will let you know if they’re open to that, but in most cases that’s just not how it goes. Keep it professional.

Here’s the last one.

5. Being a solutions practitioner

No this isn’t like being a web ninja. Sometimes, conferences can be dispiriting for the same ways that the playground can be. The cool kids have cool tools and you might have any of those things.

But let’s face, you’re not going to be able to implement every cool thing you see or buy every awesome product that gets demoed. Don’t be discouraged by that, instead be solutions oriented by identifying small things you can fix without a ton of buy-in or forming a 1000 person committee or workgroup.

Right now there are surely hundreds of tasks in your immediate area of responsibility that could be made easier if someone wanted to make the time to fix them. I’m not suggesting you’ll fix 99 problems, but if you can fix one…you might make someone’s life easier and one dominoes can cause others to fall.

Conferences are exciting and a great opportunity for you to learn and grow with company. Bring home the smarts, put them to good use and ensure that others can benefit and pay it forward someday too.

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Latest post at Medium

I’ve got a brain dump of things that I need to start logging over here. But my latest post over at Medium was a reflection — one of the many you’ll see over the coming weeks — from Aggregate Web Conference called Dreaming In Digital.

Basically, I think a lot about how many of our interactions happen online. Especially if you’re like me where you can claim dozens and dozens of folks who became offline friends after meeting online. If one isn’t careful, you can make a lot of assumptions. The blog post talks about that.

Until next time.

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