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.



Local and Humble

My wife and I like good food. A lot more than we should, really. We spend a disproportionate bit of our budget on fancy food served in tasteful restaurants. We live in Houston, one of the top restaurant cities in the world, and we work our way down a long list of great places pretty methodically.

We’ve found that the finest ingredients, cooked and served in the most amazing atmosphere, is nothing compared to decent, local, food, cooked at home by kind people who care about you.  The same can be said for your HR functions.

You see these shrimp? (Sorry, crappy iPhone pic) Those giant blue shrimp were sold to me in the small town where I work sometimes, an hour from the Gulf Coast. Two guys drove up in a truck and parked at the closed up corner gas station. They come on Thursdays, and hang around for a while drinking beer out of cans covered with paper bags, shooting the shit until their six pack or their coolers of shrimp and fish run out or their customers stop coming around.

The smaller pink shrimp are from Key West. They cost $3.00 a pound more and came from a very fancy grocery store here in Houston. They were purchased the same day. The taste test – well, too bad you can’t taste a blog post, you’d know the difference right away.

The guys only sell shrimp in 7 pound bags, so I took some around to our friends. Our friends gave us a glass of iced tea, a good visit, a sack of strawberry plants and a jar of home-pickled eggplant. The visit wasn’t very efficient, but the strawberry plants were a nice surprise and the eggplant tasted great with dinner.

Nobody’s going to get rich shrimping, and selling their catch out of the back of a truck. It’s not scalable, as they say. But  that’s what works for those guys. They’re not looking to supply restaurants in Houston: it’s too far and they’d have to work too hard. And though pickled eggplant wasn’t on my list of Things That Sound GREAT for Dinner, we really enjoyed it.

Be careful, when developing your HR function, not to suck all the life out of your company, all the opportunities for a little conversation, a talkative coworker who offers you something you’ve never tried but really works well. Chances are good that your homegrown system, built with a deep appreciation for your company’s particular circumstances and culture, will work much better than some off-the-shelf fancy system, if you’re not planning to become a Fortune 500 giant. Efficiency can be highly overrated when building a company, and a life, worth savoring.








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.



HREvolution: Stunt Double Camp

In my last post, I asserted that HR pros will and should consistently work in the background, with no acknowledgement and little, if any, attention drawn to their performance in creating a culture of excellence. The problem is, that can lead to a lot of lonely and discouraged HR leaders, folks who, out of habit, scurry from the limelight when it does happen to shine near them.  Practicing HR pros rarely share their expertise,  except at their company. They don’t try to speak at local or national SHRM conferences much, they don’t give quotes to the newspaper, and they sure as hell never draw attention to themselves in public with questions or comments that might imply that their employer is anything other than Perfect In Every Way.

Except. It’s hard to grow without making mistakes and asking questions. It’s impossible to contribute honestly without telling the truth, authentically, about mistakes you’ve made, or plans that went awry, or just flat admitting that you don’t know it all. You can’t do that staring down at your Blackberry, working while “attending training,”  and counting out HRCI credits. To learn and grow, you will need to screw up.  And sweat. And talk about those mistakes, or at least process the learning you get from them. And try again.

HREvolution, and the community of badass,  honest, ambitious, authentic HR leaders who attend HREvolution, is a platform to celebrate HR pros who are trying to get it right and aren’t afraid to try new things, and a learning laboratory where we can all process and learn from mistakes and new ways of thinking about our role and how to be amazing at it.

Stunt-double school!

HREvolution is sold out. Which is good, because we like to keep it intimate. And authentic. And put people in the limelight who don’t normally love to be the center of attention.  And mostly, we think deeply about how to be the most amazing stunt double leaders in the world, ninja CEO, CFO, and CIO stand-ins with a heart and a deep appreciation for the human element.

We laugh. We argue. We toast each other. We develop intimate and appreciative relationships with vendors who get what we stand for. We deepen ties to each other so that when we go back into the real world of HR leadership, we don’t feel so under-appreciated, isolated, alone. We may not be the center of attention in our workplaces, but we’re renewed in our resolve and our ability to make our employer the center of attention.  We’ve got each other, which, in my book, is better than an award. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to be with these people, and have these conversations, for the world.


HR: Leadership’s Stunt Doubles

Recently, a dancer named Sarah Lane has been talking to the press about her role in Black Swan.

She danced some (85%? 5%?- it’s up for grabs) of the scenes in the movie, and is angry that Natalie Portman is getting credit.  Lane stated, “To say that someone trained for a year and a half and did what I did is degrading not only to me but to the entire ballet world. They threaten the entire principle of ballet and I feel like I need to say something.”

And then, there was this important detail,  “Another thing Lane was upset over was that she was snubbed from Portman’s Oscar acceptance speech. “I expected it because at that point, I knew,” she said. “I did wish that she could have said something nice about ballet itself instead of saying that it was so horrible and she’s so glad she’s done with it.”

When your company is on Fortune’s 100 best places to work, does your CEO go up to the dais and thank HR, or all company staff? Does he or she ever say anything about HR, other than how glad he or she is that someone is there to take care of it? Do you find your words often coming out of some manager’s mouth, after you’ve coached them about how to handle a delicate leadership issue? Do you yourself often end up doing the “backstage leadership” associated with the successful role-out of a new initiative, or having the hard conversations when a manager just won’t get it done on his own?

In other words, does Lane’s whine sound familiar? We may think it, but hopefully, unlike Lane, we’ve kept these thoughts to ourselves. Whining and looking for credit never, ever gets you what you want.

Fact is – our job is invisible to most people. And it’s supposed to stay that way. Just like stunt doubles, it’s our job to stay fit, mind the details, do the hard stuff in the background, and let others win the Oscars. While I agree that HR needs to stop enabling bad management, as Jason Lauritsen and Trisha McFarlane have discussed, we don’t get the limelight for doing so. And we sure don’t get to complain about not getting the limelight.

If you want the award, then start your own company.  Whining kills your credibility faster than a knee injury kills a ballet career. Sarah Lane may develop some notoriety in the ballet world, but her career in film is now over before it really began.


My Tennis Shoes, My Time.

I ran today. Around the block. It took 8 minutes. Sad, I know. But it’s progress.

I’m in week five of the Couch to 5K program, and it turns out, running isn’t all that hard – you just have to keep doing it, and run a little more, a little faster every other day. So, I tried it one day. And then tried it again a couple of days later. Because I wanted to. Giving a little effort wasn’t that hard, and it was something I could do on my own time, and quit at any time.

Here’s what didn’t work: trying the same program with co-workers, last year. Here’s what has never worked, in my experience: doing much of anything with coworkers, during work time, that wasn’t related to work and/or a shared passion. That includes, or maybe especially includes, wellness programs. The wellness programs I’ve seen are generally regarded as invasive, irrelevant, and ineffective. If you’re in HR, is that what you want to be associated with?

People only have so much discretionary effort and self-discipline to give their jobs. Do you really want to waste it on something that has no impact on the bottom line?

Focus people on their work, and on using their brains and best efforts to collaborate with coworkers around things that matter to them and can be measured. Don’t waste their time and limited ability to focus on silly, useless initiatives that just make them resentful and make you look patronizing, at best. They’re adults, they know what to do about their personal lives.Whether they do or not is up to them.

Now to enjoy this piece of lemon pie.


Tire Tales

I developed a flat tire last week, wood screw in the tread.  I got it fixed for twenty bucks by a highly reputable tire dealer.

I’ll never go in there again.

Did they have good customer service? Sure. The lady kept calling me “M’am,” and “Miss Franny,” and asked if I wanted some water.  Did they have decent amenities? Yes, the bathroom was clean, the TV blared the most popular daytime soap for that time slot, and they had both Vogue and People magazines for customer perusal.  Did they fix my tire well and for a good price? Yep.

But here’s why I’m turned off. For whatever reason, this store appears to value data even more than customers. When I arrived, the rep completed no less than four separate screens of data just to input the request. Type, year, serial # of vehicle, license plate number, insurance card, my own home address and phone number, even my email address. It felt like I was trying to buy a last-minute ticket to Tel Aviv with cash.  Even more strange? We went through a similar rigamarole when I paid my little twenty bucks to leave. I had to sign two separate full-page receipts.

This is a company that, apparently, lets their IT department and their lawyers run their hundreds of tire shops. Marketing and common sense have left the building.

Check it out, HR.  Do you do the same? We recently implemented Taleo as our ATS and onboarding system.  We’re happy because we did have a full-time employee who JUST entered new hire data into ten different systems, taking about six hours per new hire. We were able to free up a lot of time and ensure that the info was entered correctly, by having the applicant do a lot of it themselves when they apply.

Right now, about half of our new hires come from internal referral, and half come from online sources. Internal referrals typically get excited about our company because of it’s “no dumb rules” work culture and the opportunity to build their own career ladders. We had to really think about how to handle their new hire process, since they don’t come in through Taleo.  Do we force them to go through the same process, so we can get them into our ATS?

We finally decided that, though it would be more convenient for us, we didn’t want to be like that tire store. We’ll give them the option to opt in to Taleo onboarding, or we’ll enter the info on our own. We didn’t want someone’s first interaction with my company to bring bureaucracy, internal controls, and dumb rules to mind.

When in doubt, remember who your customers are. It’s almost never IT, HR, or your legal department.



The Devil’s Drink!

Recently, an HR group on LinkedIn has been in full tsssk-tssk mode about some startup that has kegs of beer at the office. Every. Single. Commentator. has written some variant of “OMG the sky is falling! Soon their staff members will start shooting heroin while driving company-branded semis full of explosives into daycare centers!”

Really folks? Really?

I think a lot of HR pros get off, a little, on overreacting to news like this. They think that if they have an opportunity to weigh in, they sure better get everyone’s attention and create an opportunity to be important.  Who cares if they’re seen as patronizing killjoys?! At least they made a point.  And managed to one-up some people who are trying to add a little more fun and humanity back into the workplace.

HR pros: Get over yourselves. Take your Spanx and your high heels off. Crack a smile and a beer with some friends. And, by the way, get some friends, at work.  A good place to start would be buying the first round.




Look! Over There!

I recently wrote a post at Women of HR entitled, “We’re All Bullies, Sometimes!” The post was picked up by  Dan McCarthy for a Leadership Development Carnival – I’m excited to have the opportunity to share such great company. Check out Women of HR and some of the other writers at Dan’s Great Leadership blog if you’re looking for innovative thinking on leadership for and by both women and men!