How HR Consultants Should Work a Conference

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jun 7, 2010
HR consultants spend a significant amount of time and effort establishing and building strong networks both for use in prospecting for clients and in forming collaborative relationships. Many of these contacts are formed in conference settings. It’s never too soon to start planning to get the most out of a conference experience in terms of educational opportunities and the enormous networking opportunities available. Some of those opportunities can happen at unexpected times and in unexpected places, so it pays to be alert constantly to the possibilities.

Sharon Armstrong, an HR consultant and author in Washington, D.C., learned this when flying to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conference. “I couldn’t help but notice that the passenger next to me had her laptop open and was reviewing a performance appraisal form,” she recalled. “Since performance appraisals are one of my favorite topics, I asked what she was doing. She happily shared her project and her challenges.” Armstrong shared some suggestions and resources. “She later became one of my favorite clients.” Armstrong’s advice to other consultants is to “keep your radar sharp and be willing to share what you know.” And, she added: “Don’t be shy about asking what your fellow participant is working on.”

Jackie Greenbaum is client relations manager for national labor law firm, Fisher and Phillips. “Having the privilege and opportunity to attend the last 10 SHRM [Annual] Conferences, I can tell you this is the most powerful networking and learning experience I’ve ever experienced,” said Greenbaum.

Even before the conference, said Greenbaum, HR consultants should be reviewing the list of exhibitors and sessions and identifying those that would be the most interesting or beneficial to their practice.

The number one priority, according to Greenbaum: network, network, network. “I start networking on the shuttle bus from the airport and never stop until I get on the plane to go home,” she said. “It’s amazing the colleagues you will meet and stay connected with.”

Don’t Just Say You Want to Network—Do It

It is not unusual for conference attendees to stay in their room right up until the time of the first session, skip sessions, avoid the exhibit hall and spend break and meal times alone or on the phone or their laptop. Greenbaum encourages attendees to take full advantage of every opportunity to interact with others. “Attend a breakout session in every time period offered. Walk the SHRM exposition floor whenever you’re not in session, and take the time to talk with exhibitors who might become strategic partners. Attend several of the big receptions or parties that are hosted by some of the exhibitors.”

Thom Singer, a business development consultant and author, agreed that conference attendees need to take advantage of the time they have to network and build connections. Many don’t, he said. “The number one reason that many people claim they attend industry conferences is the networking opportunities, but once they arrive they hang out with old friends and co-workers and do nothing that would lead them to creating a new connection.” That’s a mistake, said Singer. “After all, everyone there is in attendance for the same reason, and they all are equally interested in meeting cool and interesting people.”

Singer encourages conference attendees to put away their BlackBerries and iPhones. “Too many conference attendees spend the breaks reading and typing on their smart phones. This makes them unapproachable to others. Spend the breaks and meal times talking with others, not on your iPhone,” Singer advised.

Overcome the Fear of Interaction

Not everyone is a natural networker. Some people are, in fact, quite shy. Laurence Stybel is one of them. Stybel is co-founder and vice president of Board Options, Inc., executive in residence at the Sawyer School of Business at Suffolk University and the author of a regular online Harvard Business Review column on career management.

“My public persona is gregarious, but I am actually shy,” said Stybel. “It’s tough for me to break into an already formed clique.” To compensate, Stybel has come up with an approach that he says works well and that he recommends to others. He shows up 30 minutes before a scheduled event and stands near the center of the room, facing the door. “As the first convention attendees walk in I smile and say hello. They come over to me. As the next come in, I do the same. Pretty soon I’m in the center of the room with a clique of people around me. The shy people who arrived on time are on the periphery of the room wondering what to do.”

Richard Atkins is with Improving Communications, LLC, a New York-based corporate education firm. HR consultants attending the SHRM Annual Conference already have an “in,” he noted. “I’m a SHRM member—that means I’m networking in an organization of people, many of whom need what I do. Also, being a SHRM member and a meeting attendee, I can speak the language of HR. My fellow conference attendee and I already have common ground.”

That common ground is a good place to start to form a connection, said Atkins and others. But, importantly, they advise against taking an approach of selling. “I try to build a relationship before any selling takes place,” said Atkins.

“Don’t set a goal of making the sale,” agreed Lori Hall, SPHR, manager of HR Consulting Services at Employers Resource Association. “Focus on meeting and understanding new people.” The focus should not be on telling people what you can do for them but learning what they need.

Follow Up with These Connections

Just as networking begins before the conference starts, it continues after the conference is over. Follow-up is critical.

“Meeting someone new and trading business cards does not make them part of your network,” said Singer. “You must actively look for legitimate ways to stay in touch after the conference if you want your networking efforts to pay off. You must own the follow-up. If you assume the other person will do the work to establish a friendship, then you will end up with fewer friendships.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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