Practice Makes Proficient: Grow Your Competencies at Conferences


By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP June 13, 2019

​Years ago, as I stood at the top of an escalator at the San Diego Convention Center at my first SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition, I was overcome. Below me, thousands of attendees were heading to the opening general session. My first thought: "Wow, all these people do what I do. I'm not alone!"

With many HR professionals soon heading off to the SHRM 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas, I thought it might be valuable to focus on how you can develop your HR competencies by attending professional conferences.

Some of us can't make it to Vegas this year (sadly, myself included), but you are likely looking forward to attending state, local or industry conferences this year. How can you use these opportunities to do more than just get recertification credits?

As you make your plans, keep in mind that developing competencies is all about action and application of knowledge. Setting goals, taking notes and following up are critical if you want to develop yourself.

Talk to your boss about what you plan to learn. Ask for her thoughts. Set a follow-up meeting to stay focused and justify your attendance. Set an appointment with yourself for a couple of hours a week before the conference to study the schedule and set goals for learning.

A review of the many articles available online about "getting the most from an HR conference" reveals the following common threads of advice:

  • Find out about the latest HR trends from experts.
  • Develop new HR networks and build on established ones.
  • Create opportunities for visibility through volunteering, speaking and joining focus groups.
  • Be strategic when you select sessions to attend.

So, how does this relate to HR (and business) competency development? Here are a few ideas:

Latest Trends

  • HR Expertise. Attend sessions related to the needs of your organization and HR function. Take notes on useful facts and determine how you might apply them at your organization. Set aside time back in the office as soon as possible to review what you learned.
  • Communication. Present the information you learned to your HR colleagues. Share information from national or state conferences with your local chapter.
  • Business Acumen. Share what you learned with managers and executives in your organization, which can help justify their investment in conference expenses.


  • Relationship Management. Make it a personal rule to talk with at least one person you don't know each day of the conference. Ask them about their biggest challenges in HR. Follow up with new contacts after the conference via e-mail or through social media. Collect business cards. Use the conference app (check for the SHRM Events app in the Apple or Google Play store) or connect by using LinkedIn's "find nearby" function.
  • Critical Evaluation. Attend at least one session you think you will not agree with, based on the session or speaker description, and ask questions. Provide specific feedback on evaluation forms about the usefulness and quality of sessions. Think about how you would create a more useful session and share that information.
  • Global & Cultural Effectiveness. Make it a point to meet and talk with someone who is different from you. Visit the lounge where international attendees gather and meet someone from another country.


  • Leadership & Navigation. Participate in focus groups at the conference and take the lead in the discussion when appropriate. Provide information to your organization or local HR group about the conference.
  • Consultation. Tell your organization how it might use what you learned at the conference. Ask for feedback from other attendees, as well as from those who didn't attend.
  • Communication. Develop a proposal for a session and present it at a future conference.

Strategy and Planning

  • Business Acumen. Find out about your organization's business strategies and goals and determine which sessions at the conference will enable HR to support them. Use what you learned at the conference and the new networks you formed to develop a business plan for solving an organizational problem.
  • Consultation. Focus on the needs of functions outside HR in discussions with other managers about selecting sessions. Bring back information and new networks that might help those other functions and share them.
  • Leadership & Navigation. Meet with other attendees from your organization to discuss which sessions each person will be going to. Find out how they will share the information after the conference. Help HR staff plan their conference experience by working with them to set goals, select sessions and report back.

You will likely discover other ways to develop your HR competencies through participation in a conference. The key is, as always, to practice, use and apply what you learn there. Having a plan for yourself, talking to HR colleagues and other attendees, making notes, and following up after the event will help you get the most from your experience.

If you are going to #SHRM2019, take advantage of all of the great networking and information, and have fun!

Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession. Save 20 percent off the member and regular price for Phyllis Hartman's book, A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017). Special for SHRM Certification Update readers only! Go to the SHRMStore by June 28 and use discount code SMARTHR. Read the book and pass a quiz to get 3 PDCs toward recertification!


For more information on SHRM Certification, and to register for the exam, please visit our website.

Already SHRM-certified? Be sure to maintain your credential by recertifying. Learn more about recertification activities here.


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