What is the most important activity for an early career professional? Probably exceeding expectations in the quality and quantity of your work product and making your boss look good. OK, the second most important activity? Building relationships and “networking”. I don’t need to repeat why this is critical for your career but in brief, you generally don’t get ahead without it. Meeting the right people and finding the opportunities before they are fully formed is the best way to help your career advancement and cultivating relationships is the best way to do that. There are lots of ways to do this and you should use many of them, finding the methods that suit you the best.
In this post I want to focus on one type of method; attending tradeshows, conferences and professional society meetings. These can be industry focused, market focused or technology focused. They can be small or massive. They usually include product announcements for companies. Sometimes they include job posting activities and interviews and sometimes they don’t. But by their fundamental definition, they always include networking. I can hear some of you thinking: “Conferences are for people who want to go into a technical field.” Not true. It took me less than 5 minutes to come up with these conferences for consultants: (i)http://www.imcusa.org/?IMC_Conference, (ii)http://www.nacva.com/conference.asp. And I am sure there are many more! I only use that example because it was the area I was most skeptical about having a relevant conference. After all, consultants work in all different industries and yet, there are conferences that bring them all together to learn best practices from each other – and to network.
Many of you have probably heard of the big consumer electronics or computer trade shows and conferences, often held in Las Vegas, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. For your own interest, do a few Google searches with your industry or functional area of interest coupled with conference, tradeshow, or professional society keywords and see what you come up with. I am certain there will be more than you will have time to study.
So what do you do at these conferences and trade shows? The key point is that in the space of a couple of days, you can get more informational interviews, new contacts and basic learning than in weeks of your daily routine. There are typically two basic formal activities – presentations in various sessions and trade booths showing off new products and services. Of course, there are also many social functions. All of these give the perfect opportunity to meet new people, learn about organizations and generally strengthen your professional network.
Going to talks helps you meet people. It is relatively easy to go up to a speaker after a talk and compliment them on the talk and ask a question that starts a dialogue. Remember that networking is about building relationships. You need to cultivate the relationships so it is not just about meeting as many new people as you can. Try to have lunch or dinner with someone new each day. Be sure to get their contact information. Walking the line between being proactive and being too pushy is important but most of us need to be more proactive.
At most conferences, the activities that are going on outside the talks and trade show are extensive and you should take advantage of them. From receptions to poster sessions to social activities to conference administration; all of them afford the opportunity to get to know the field and people in the field. Note that going to conferences is easier if you prepare and it gets easier with experience. Even going to the conference of a new society or topic can be challenging the first time because they all have their own way of doing things. By reading as much as possible about the venue and the activities before hand, it can really ease the burden while you are there. Look for talks and posters that fit your research and mark them. Most conferences have online apps to make this easier.
A corollary to all this discussion of conferences and tradeshows is the role of professional societies. Many times they will manage these events but beyond that they are themselves a great forum for networking. Smaller local events, online forums, social gatherings, etc. are all part of processional society activities. So be sure to join a couple of key professional societies as part of your networking activity.