How to Meet People at Professional Conferences

If you ever go to a professional conference, here’s what you see: 90% of the people attending have their phone at their ear or their fingertips, avoiding eye contact at all costs. It’s weak, y’all.

I’ve written about this before, but, as the fall conference season heats up, I gotta try again. The true gold of a conference is the opportunity to create or widen a professional network. These are folks you can learn from, bounce ideas off of, meet for an occasional happy hour, and maybe even work with one day. Making connections is critical to your career, your well being, and your learning. Period. Make it happen.

So, how do you do it? First, get over yourself. Not to be mean, but honestly, nobody cares, so if someone doesn’t respond to your chit chat, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t reality TV, no one is watching. Just go talk to someone else. Second, recognize that mostly people really do want to connect, find a commonality, have a laugh. Reaching out is a little gift that you’re giving their day.

Here are some harmless ways to start a conversation:


  • If Wile-e can pull these off, you can, too.

Compliment something, if you mean it. People often work to look their best at conferences, so if you truly like someone’s bag or shoes or dress, tell them! It’s a good way to get a conversation started. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice. *Note – this can be a little awkward. Once, an acquaintance came up to me at a national HR conference and, I guess, finding nothing else nice to say, exclaimed, “You got waxed! Your eyebrows look great.” Not a lot of opportunity for follow up there…

Go with the context. What seminar are they thinking of attending next? Did they go to the conference bookstore and have a look around? What did they think of the keynote?

Find commonalities. She likes jewelry made from bottle caps, you MAKE jewelry from can tabs. See, you have lots of things to talk about already!

Go meta, if you must – “I know I’d like to meet some people here, but it feels awkward to meet strangers. How have you typically networked at things like this?”

Basically, just relax. Relax, make eye contact, and listen. Look for an opening, something that makes the other person’s eyes light up a little, and ask more about that.

BFFs now? Great! Before you end the conversation, let them know you’d like to get in touch again, and give them your card or tell them where they can find you online. If they don’t give you one back, it’s fine, they may not have any. Make a note of their name in case they get in contact. If you get a card or contact info, follow up two weeks to a month later with a brief note about something relevant to your conversation, and see where things go from there. Keep it light.

If you’re getting a lot of people looking around for an escape when you introduce yourself,  you might be falling into one of the insecurity traps associated with meeting strangers. Here are a few traps to watch out for.

I wish I had these cards.

Don’t brag. (“I’m the youngest VP of the largest company in Florida. Here’s my Precious my business card.”)
Don’t humble-brag. (“You have two kids? And no help? I don’t know how I could raise my three without my nannies.”)
Don’t name drop. (“Oh really? You just started as an HR Clerk at Walmart? Then you must know Prithi W? She’s the VP of Supply Chain for Walmart Corporate, I think she reports directly to Bill Simon, Walmart’s CEO? We’re GREAT friends.”)
Don’t complain. (“Yeah, these conferences are okay, but the food is terrible. I wish we could get better sandwiches, after all, we’ll never eat again and we couldn’t possibly bring our own or go off campus. Let’s whine about the chips together.”)

You look insecure and weak when you show that you feel you MUST establish dominance through status, who you know, or criticizing something you didn’t create. You may think you’re playing it off, but you’re not. Nobody is impressed, and you just made them either judge themselves for not being such a rock star, or judge you for showing your insecure side. You want both parties to walk away from the conversation feeling good!  The best conversationalists are secure enough to make the conversation mostly about the other person, and are gracious and supportive.

If you’re headed to HRFlorida or the National Nonprofit HR Conference, I’ll see you there. And say hello! Just don’t ask me about my facial hair.



Brunch Treats

A couple of little treats for you this fine, hot, Sunday morning.

First, let me introduce you to my favorite drink this summer, the Bloody Micky. A country club cousin of the Michelada,  It’s perfect for a long brunch, particularly a long brunch that ends in a swim or a nap. Or maybe, if you have the right pool float, both.

You”ll need:

  • Your favorite wheat beer. I’m fond of St. Arnold’s but you can use whatever you like.
  • ZingZang Bloody Mary Mix. I’m less mellow about what kind of mix you use. ZingZang is THE BEST.
  • Vodka. I like Tito’s. Also pretty firm on this part.
  • Limes
  • Ice.
  • Olives, celery, a little paper umbrella, and friends to brunch with
Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour half a glass of ZingZang, then add the beer and the vodka to your own preferred degree of sobriety. Careful now, you most likely have errands to run and work to do after your nap. Add the juice of a lime and olives or celery, mix well, and clink the glass with your friends. Enjoy!
Second – someone reminded me that I had written an okay presentation on Social Media for Reluctant HR Pros. I delivered it at the HRHouston Gulf Coast Symposium, threw it up on slideshare, and forgot all about it. But since only three people came to the presentation, (talk about relunctant!) someone else might get some use out of it. Feel free to download and use for your own purposes.
So, if your Sunday was all about making a last minute presentation for HR Pros who are scared of social media, and what you REALLY wanted to do was have a nice savory mixed drink, you’re all set. Enjoy!

Wanna be Relevant? Listen First.

The most kid-friendly picture of Katy Perry I could find. Kei$ha? Forget it.

My daughter Maggie is four. She’s an only child, but like her mama, very extroverted. She’s always trying to please, which is great for her moms but can backfire a bit with new friends. For instance, her seven-year-old cousin, who most likely listens to Katy Perry and Kei$ha, was in the car with us recently and Maggie piped up eagerly, “I really like the Muppet Movie! Let’s listen to some of the music right now!” Her cousin rolled her eyes. On Sunday a boy a year older came over to play. Maggie lead with this exciting news, “I  have thirteen dolls, you can pick the one you’ll play with!” He mumbled something about wanting to go outside. Or home.

Love the enthusiasm. But I need to better help her learn to listen first, to really have fun with friends. Figure out what’s important to THEM, not what’s important to her. Her friends will have a better time, and she will learn something new.

I recently started a new job. As always, I’m the only HR pro, and the first they’ve had in a long time. I see SO many opportunities for improvement around things *I* care about and am good at. For instance, I can easily build them a much cleaner, much more professional new hire process, and stick that feather in my cap. But you know what? They don’t care about that, at least not right now. And they care as much about my HR and SHRM network activities as my niece cares about Kermit the Frog. They only care that I really learn the business, that I contribute on the teams that really need some direct help, and that I not go bury my nose in some employee handbook. After all, they’ve gone this long without me, there’s no rush to change everything that they’ve cobbled together in HR land.

It looks like Maggie isn’t the only person around here who needs to practice listening and trying new things. As long as it’s not Kei$ha, I’m excited to learn.



#Winning the Job

My friend recently moved into an HR job. She’s slowly growing the thick skin required to survive in the job, and is starting to laugh at some of the most insane parts of a typical HR day. Yesterday, she sent me this.

A little context – This company only hires chemical engineers. Every job posting and their web site make it clear as day. She made the mistake of taking the guy’s call when he wanted to know why he didn’t get a response when he first applied, and told him to apply again.  She read the resume, and saw he was not  qualified for the role since he’s an architect, not a chem E.  Rather than leaving it for the equally overwhelmed recruiter, she send the company’s “No fit” response immediately.

Here’s what she sent him in response to his resume.

Thank you for submitting your resume to <Company Name> for consideration.
We are fortunate to have many qualified candidates apply to each of our positions. We have reviewed the qualifications of each candidate and after careful consideration, we have determined that the credentials of another candidate better fits our needs right now.  Getting a “no” letter can be discouraging, but having been on the other side of this process, we know it’s better to hear something than nothing at all.
Please accept our best wishes and thank you for your interest in <Company Name.> Stay in touch if we can do anything more for you.

Three days later, she got this:

Dear Ms. <Name Changed,>

You may remember we personally spoke on the telephone June 10, 2011.  I was interested in applying for the Chemical Engineering position with <Company Name US City> office, and on your recommendation I sent you a cover letter and vitae.  Your courteous-sounding response letter suggested a number of people collectively reviewed my application and had given it “careful consideration.”  However, your message was sent only 13 minutes after I sent my cover letter and vitae to your office email address.  That is hardly enough time to even read it, much less share it with anyone, and certainly not enough time to fairly consider it.  Do you really expect me to take seriously your thoughtless, empty form letter after you evade your job’s duties? And that was after you admitted your office lost my first application.  While incompetent and irresponsible people like you are paid salaries to not properly do their jobs, there are probably many people like myself who prepared, educated, skilled, and responsible enough to do real work and actually earn salaries.  It is not even slightly fair a mendacious idiot like you is employed and I am not. You cannot pretend you are providing a fair review to applications in 13 minutes time.  It is disrespectful and flagrantly insincere to do so.


<Job #Winner>

(I bolded the best bits. “Mendacious idiot,” that’s pretty good, right? I might have to get her new business cards with that title.)

People. If you are looking for a job, this is NOT the way to do it. I wouldn’t hire this guy to cut my lawn, let alone make my coworkers and customers deal with him. Epic flameouts to future potential employers show judgement and maturity problems of the first order.

My friend is going to be fine. She is just learning that if you go into HR, learning to laugh is a key component to getting the job done.



On Being a Fan

I’m reading Keith Richard’s autobiography right now. I wouldn’t have expected the hard-partying lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones to be able to put a short story together, let alone 563 pages of detailed rememberances, but he (and most likely an exceptionally patient ghost-writer) sure did. And it costs $30 bucks at the airport book store.

Even though I’m not big on the Rolling Stones, this book is riveting. Keith Richards comes across as an amazed, affectionate, somewhat baffled witness to the birth of something Really Big – this giant mega phenomena of a band he found himself in.  Richards almost never talks about himself. Instead, he spends entire chapters talking about his awe of American blues musicians, John Lennon, and Gram Parsons, pages discussing who taught him open tuning and how it changed the way the Stones sound forever, and paragraph upon paragraph explaining the history of a particular riff, the references to particular old blues or gospel songs and the like. This guy flat loves guitars and the rich history of all the other people who have also played them.

Yes, sometimes he can come off as a bit pedantic, Granpa Keef schooling the young-uns , but mostly his gratitude, sincere awe for those who played the guitar before and with him, and honest humbleness about his own skills really shine through. Keith Richards is unbelievably lucky to still be a fan, a true enthusiast. Given everything he’s seen and done, it’s amazing he hasn’t become a know-it-all and cynic, but at least in this book, not a bit of that comes through.

I think the people who are most successful in business and in life never lose their enthusiasm, that spark of innocent longing and awe. I myself am a huge fan of way too many HR thinkers, leaders, writers, and bloggers. I get a little nervous around them, I talk too much or not enough, I am too aware of my respect for their accomplishments and may make them a little uncomfortable with my fawning.  But I’m cool with that little flaw, because hey! at least I’m feeling something. And introducing myself.

Keith Richards was said to have passed out (soberish) when he met Bo Diddley*.  At least I’m not fainting at anyone’s feet.  And by paying attention to what they’re doing, and trying to learn from them, I’m pushing myself to get better and better at my job. I’m not sure that this will lead to long afternoons smoking hash in Marakesh with Anita Pallenberg, but that’s probably all for the best.

*(or somebody like that, I’m too lazy to go get the book and look it up. But really, you should read it if you’re at all into the Stones. or the 60’s. or women. he talks a LOT about women, too, he’s a huge fan of them. I’ll send you my copy if you like, I’m pretty sure Keith Richards doesn’t need any more royalties.)

For Shame.

You may remember that earlier last year I featured Laurie-Ellen Shumaker in my series on great people who need to get back to  work. Laurie-Ellen was recently also featured at the Huffington Post in a series on the unemployed in America. This brief article part of their “Bearing Witness” project designed to highlight the effects of this recession on real families.

The story was fine. The comments were mostly ignorant, judgemental, and angry. For example, a user who defames a Texan great lady with the username LadyBirdJohnson wrote, “…Your story does not add up and is full of self pity and drama. Most of the time when people have trouble they only need to look at themselves to blame. Maybe you should be asking what role you played in this mess you find yourself? Actually, your story sounds as make believe as your unicorn.”  Self-righteous comments like this go on for 26 pages, thus far.

Brene Brown, A Houston-based researcher,  studies shame for a living. (I know, right? Talk about a Dirty Job) This talk she gave at the UP Experience summarizes her work beautifully. Go watch it.  It takes 25 minutes. I’ll wait.

Back so soon? Isn’t her work challenging and intriguing?

Brown notes that we most severely judge others in areas that we ourselves feel insecure.  We do everything we can to create a wall between ourselves and those we see as failing or less than ourselves. As the economy continues to lag and jobs remain in scarce supply, the self-righteousness level of our coworkers, family members, and friends may continue to ratchet up. The comments in the HuffPo story are a perfect example of that phenomenon.

On Clarity and Privacy in Hiring

A friend, let’s call him Ralph, recently lost his job. He was really upset because he doesn’t have a degree and he knows how hard it will be to get to the same type of job without one. Around the same time, another friend in my network called looking for someone with basically the same unique skill set and background that Ralph had. Miraculously, a degree was not required. I hooked them up, just like a good little node in the social world wide web is supposed to do.
I followed along as Ralph breathlessly proclaimed his excitement at every step on the weeks-long interview ladder. He just knew it was the right job for him, and he couldn’t wait to get started.
Until they asked for his 2009 W2.
And he said, “No.”
So they said, “No.”
And now Ralph is sitting in his apartment watching Oprah rather than doing great things for this company.
Who’s in the wrong here? I dunno.
But if you’re a job seeker looking for career advice, here it is: Don’t expect that every aspect of the hiring process will be respectful of your privacy. (We share a bathroom with a company that has all applicants do drug tests on the spot, whether it’s a call center or CFO job opening. Dignity and privacy are not high on the descriptor list for that process.)
If you’re an HR department looking for recruiting advice, here it is: Explain the entire hiring process, including that you will be asking for W2s or making them pee into a cup, if that’s what you do, in the first interview. You can save yourself a lot of time and heartache by being upfront about your expectations from the very beginning.
If, like me, you’re just a cog in the networking machine, keep trying. You never know what can come from introducing people to one another. If something works out, great. If it doesn’t, you can all still learn something new.