MyCareer@PND — View From the Talent Pool: Conferences are a Nonprofit Professional's Best Friend
As fall conference season approaches, your thoughts may turn to plenary sessions, breakout conversations, and wondering which receptions will have an open bar. With major conferences like Independent Sector and SOCAP on the horizon, it's a great time to think about how to leverage these events to advance your career. Even if you are not actively on the job market, conferences are an amazing opportunity to build your professional network and get to know prospective employers.
First things first: conferences are not the same as job fairs. Job fairs are based on a specific transaction: "Put your resume in the giant pile, take a job description and branded pen." Conferences, however, are highly engaging opportunities to form new relationships and interact with people more deeply. While job fairs are not necessarily staffed by hiring decision makers, conferences attract CEOs, executive directors, and other leaders. The challenge is standing out from the crowd and making an amazing impression on these folks so that they say, "I want YOU on my team."
How do I best utilize a conference to boost my career, you ask? Here are a few ideas.
In the weeks leading up to the conference do everything you can to get your hands on a list of attendees. Some conferences will have them on their Web site or will send out an updated list to attendees before the event. If a public list is not available, reach out to the organizers and ask if there's any information they can share, even if it's just a sense of the types of organizations and leaders who generally attend. You also can reach out to folks in your existing network to see if they plan to attend. Many conferences have smartphone apps or LinkedIn Groups associated with the conference. Make sure to sign up for both early as they will give you a sense of who's attending.
Once you're armed with more information, create a list of target contacts you'd like to meet and then create a strategy that will allow you to have meaningful interaction with those contacts. For existing members of your professional network, let them know you'll be at the conference. Remember: once the conference starts, schedules tend to go haywire, so don't rely on an unplanned hallway encounter. Rather, schedule time in advance to meet with folks that you'd like to get to know better.
In addition to plotting who you want to meet, plan ahead for where you want to be. Download the conference schedule and choose sessions to attend based on issues and presenters that might attract others you'd like to meet. Breakout sessions and workshops tend to be highly interactive and can provide an opportunity for you to get the attention of a targeted audience. For these sessions, plan a few choice questions in advance that demonstrate your energy, curiosity, and knowledge about a particular topic.
Working the Conference
From the moment you check in at registration, opportunities for networking will present themselves. As conferences tend to be bustling and busy, the more strategic you can be about how to spend your time, the better.
When you're at a session you planned to attend, introduce yourself to others before it even begins. As appropriate, ask your planned-ahead (or impromptu) questions during the session, always remembering to stand up and give your full name, organization, and title. At the end of the session, stick around a bit for follow-up conversations and seek out anyone in the room who works at an organization that interests you.
In order to maximize your time, don't book yourself solid for every block. Make sure to leave some time open for networking meetings, research, and even hanging out by the registration desk. Also, figure out the best networking places, such as high-traffic areas outside a plenary session venue. This is a great way to increase your odds of running into people you'd like to meet — either known or new contacts.
When networking with people you already know, ask them whom they've met and whom you should seek out to meet. Questions like, "Who do you think I should have on my radar?" or "Who is your favorite new contact you've made this week?" can give you a sense of who's making a big impression at the conference. As you build this list, don't be afraid to ask for introductions. Try to schedule dinners and other social meet-ups that include not just people you know, but the people they've met at the conference that you'd like to get to know as well.
As you make new connections, particularly with prospective employers or representatives from organizations that really interest you, approach these conversations with curiosity and friendliness. Talk about issues and trends, not just your job search. Even if you get introduced to recruiters, make general inquiries about what they are seeing in the job market and how it's impacting their organizations. Also, look for reasons to stay in touch and follow-up afterwards, such as saying, "I'd love to pick your brain about XYZ more...is it okay to follow up with you after the conference?"
In the days following the conference, take some time to plan your follow-up. While it's tempting to e-mail your new connections on your train/plane/car ride home, it's best to wait a few days to connect. (Kind of like dating.) The first forty-eight hours after a conference leaves most leaders with a huge stack of e-mails to plow through (related to the conference or work they've missed when they were away). Waiting three days can help you not get lost in the post-conference whirlwind. When you follow up, write a personal e-mail that references the specific conversation or interaction you had and then create a reason to stay in touch. For example:
It was great to connect with you at the coffee break after the plenary. I really appreciated all your interesting insights about the future of philanthropy, and I look forward to staying in touch. I thought you might be interested in the attached article. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts afterwards.
Also, I'll be in your neck of the woods later this month, and I'd love to grab a coffee if you are free.
In addition to your personal e-mail, send a separate link-up request through LinkedIn.
The bottom line: Conferences present a unique opportunity for deeper levels of engagement and positioning yourself as an issue expert. Leverage these opportunities wisely, and you'll find yourself with valuable new contacts and relationships. The conference is just the beginning. Cultivating these relationships over time will open the door to new career opportunities for years to come.