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.



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.)

Waffle House to James Beard Award? Great Hiring

Bryan Caswell of Houston’s current favorite restaurant, Reef, has some very smart things to say about hiring.  Caswell commented that he strongly prefers to hire chefs who’ve worked at The Waffle House, a southern breakfast chain.  Jason Sheehan, food critic for the Seattle Weekly and another former Waffle House chef agreed. Take a look at Caswell’s short comments:

Caswell has it exactly right. When looking at a set of resumes, I’ll pick the person with hard-won experience, particularly restaurant or farm experience,  over fancy schools any day.  Similarly, I’ll almost always pick the candidate with a lower GPA who worked their way through school over the candidate who has a high GPA but hasn’t ever had to make rent or pay their own bills.

Don’t be mesmerized by big-name colleges or Fortune 100 experience – go with the person who can show you that they made home runs the old-fashioned way, not just by being born on third base and getting a walk. I’ve rarely seen people successfully move from a huge company to a very small one, and have often seen people with lots of small company, high intensity, broad experience help grow their companies into very big, very successful ones.  They don’t fool themselves that privilege is the same as talent. And neither should you.

Don’t Try This At Home

After fifteen years in HR and recruiting, a Masters, an SPHR, and reading a book or two about interviewing, I kinda have hiring down. I am a complete harpy about hiring managers who “go with their gut,” aka “listen to their lunch.” I am a ruthless reference checker, using every trick in the book to suss out fibs, exaggerations, and real feedback. I learned in grad school that references, done properly, are more accurate assessors of a future employee’s success than interviews, and spend as much time checking references as I do sourcing or interviewing.  In other words, I’m a bit of a hiring know-it-all process snob.
My company is filling several beginner engineer positions in Houston. The ideal candidate is a Chemical Engineer with strong people skills and a high level of initiative who wants to work for 35% below market for first-year Chemical Engineer graduates. I’ve just completed several days in a row of phone screens and face to face interviews for some beginner engineer positions, explaining the career growth curve in consulting and the demands of consulting in general and this job in particular. (I’m a big believer in transparency in the hiring process.) I had found some good candidates who seemed like they could do it, but few seemed truly excited about the job – particularly the social aspects of the job.
Then, after one more lunch in which the latest candidate said that she had a lot to think about but she’d call us, a kid in a suit showed up in our lobby. Bearing cookies. Delicious, warm, chocolate chip cookies. He introduced himself as one of the candidates I’d been playing phone tag with, and asked if I had five minutes to visit face-to-face. He ended up going through our entire interview process in our break room, talking to hiring managers and potential peers over cookies and coffee. His answers were solid, his hands shook a little but he stayed engaged with everyone and asked great questions, and he was completely respectful of the fact that he might be taking up too much time given his unexpected arrival. I checked through all my typical interview questions for the job – now that I include potential peers in interviews, they ask most of them for me, but sometimes they miss one or two. I probed. I pushed. I looked everywhere for inconsistencies – and there just weren’t any. This kid had it.
Reader, I hired him. On the spot.
Okay – actually contingent on our usual background and reference checks. I may have been listening to my lunch. I’m checking his references today but my guess is, his story will check out completely – he is just one of the young people who’ve gotten caught up in this bad economy and has had to learn to show more initiative and creativity than the competition. His actions and his answers were completely congruent with a great future leader at our company, and we have a good story and a full belly to boot. Maybe we can get him to make us bacon chocolate chip cookies for his first annual review.

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.