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!

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.


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!

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.)

The Benefit of Benefits

Benefits are the least interesting part of my job, honestly. I don’t think they motivate or reward anyone, and I don’t think most people appreciate them except when they are really in need of them. But since I’m responsible for making sure our entire compensation package is competitive, and all of our biggest competitors offer good benefits, my life right now is all about vendor meetings, plan selections, plan communication offerings, and open enrollment process creation/revision and then of course, actual enrollment.

It’s not easy to compete when your company is literally 1/100th of the size of the companies going after your staff, but we do it, and generally win. Here’s how. We do things right. Every time someone talks about progressive policies, I laugh – my company already lives them. For instance:

  • We don’t care where you work. All of our staff can work from wherever, whenever, provided that the quality of their work doesn’t suffer.
  • We don’t care when you work. There’s no penalty for being “late to the office,” even as just a perception issue.
  • We don’t care how you work – if someone wants to work as an IC, great, we’ll do that. Part time from home? No problem! Road warrior? We’re on it. And you keep the miles or tickets you’re double earning on the airline credit cards.
  • We DO care that your work is impeccable and that you are building a fantastic reputation for yourself, and we want to have staff with personal brands bigger than our brand. We do everything we can to facilitate that.
  • All salaries, all individual performance measures, and how every employee is doing against those measures, is public knowledge inside the company.
  • We throw world-class parties. No, really. Like “take the company to Mexico as a surprise” parties. We foster fun, fulfillment, and friendship on every level, and HR doesn’t plan those parties – the staff do.
  • Instead of planning parties, the HR department helps the company make money. I have revenue responsibilities directly related to finding great independent contractors and connecting them to work that our sales engineers may not have known they could fill internally.

Will benefits be a deal breaker for current staff? Nope, as long as I keep them somewhat in alignment with what our competitors are doing. Will a great company culture where people are valued for their work and their relationships, and are celebrated for just being themselves, authentically, help retain and engage folks? So far, so good. And the fact is, though benefits aren’t what keep them here, it’s worth it to make sure we’re taking every opportunity to show our appreciation for these hard working folks. Even if it means another bunch of lame powerpoints discussing deductibles, plan coverage, and Obamacare.

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.

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.

Kimberly Roden – HR Leadership Without a Corporate Net

Kimberly Roden is a senior level HR generalist with 20 years of experience.  Kimberly is looking for a new opportunity – it doesn’t necessarily need to be a full blown HR generalist role – it just needs to be a role that can solve problems and work with humans.  Kimberly will be on HR Happy Hour on Thursday April 8 talking about best practices when you’re a one-person HR shop.

Kimberly, tell us a little about your favorite job you’ve ever had.

The best position I ever had was with an entrepreneurial organization called AND1.  It was a young company that moved fast.  There weren’t formal training programs; it was a “sink or swim” environment.  Everyone who was hired knew what they were hired for and what the mission was:  “To be the #1 Basketball Company in the World.”  It was defined every single day from the attitudes of the team and the leaders. The down side to that is that I have no hard metrics of my work (in print) on my resume because we were too busy!

It did come with challenges – due to the lack of real life corporate experience from the employees as well as some of the leadership.  For many of the employees, it was their first job out of school.  It made it great for them but not so great because it wasn’t the real world.  You can’t have a “first job” like that and not have high expectations of Corporate America.  <sigh> As for me, I knew it was Nirvana and enjoyed every minute of it.  The company sold and I’ve never been the same.  I even took a break from Corporate America and started my own pet sitting & dog walking gig for a few years.  I was grieving.

When we spoke, I loved that you had so many examples of real-life experience that you can only get with front-line HR. Can you tell us a few of your most vivid work experiences?

Oh wow… there are so many, really.  HRCI, eat your heart out… you can’t teach this stuff in a book!  A few of the ones that really stand out throughout the years are when I administered CPR for what was thought to be a potential drug overdose or drug reaction by an employee.  Another early morning, I walked into a senior executive’s office only to find him and his “date” sleeping under his desk – from the previous night.  By far, the most memorable one was being in a termination meeting and during the explanation of the termination, the distraught employee pulled out a firearm.  Yes, I AM employee relations!

I also really liked that you are much more focused on doing the work than on theory. Tell us a little about that.

I’m a real person.  I don’t hide behind fancy words or consultant-speak.  I can walk the walk and do it professionally.  I’m an uber-professional!  I get along with everyone but I’m not loud about it – I have a saying that I believe in, “You don’t have to explain what others can see for themselves.”  You see it’s all about what folks observe when they’re watching you work – how you work and how you treat others.  What managers and leaders don’t get is that you can’t preach the way you want others to be treated and then not do it yourself.  People aren’t stupid, they don’t miss that.  But, it happens every single day and no one tells them.

If you want to talk about employee engagement and why it isn’t happening, start at the top.  The real challenge is TELLING the person at the top that they’re the problem.  That rarely occurs, so the cycle continues.  So for the folks who call themselves experts, gurus, ninjas and whatever other term du jour they call themselves – you can analyze until the cows come home but action is the only thing that makes change.  I know change – it’s the only thing that stays the same.

You are on Twitter and Facebook and you have a pretty thorough LinkedIn presence. Has any of that helped you with your search?

I’ve met some great recruiters on Twitter and have learned a lot.  LinkedIn has been the strongest source of job leads – the posted jobs.  I’m getting the feeling that recruiters are under a lot of pressure and they’re busy.  Yea, that’s it – it must be.  I’ve had phone screens by at least a dozen recruiters for real positions.  The problem is after the screen, they fall off the planet.

Locally, what has been the best source of leads for your search?

I belong to an HR networking group in Princeton, NJ.  There are requirements to belong in that group and one of them is that the members must have at least 10 years of experience.  So, when we share leads, they’re good ones.  Some of them may be redundant since we’re located in the same geographical area, but still good leads.

What have you learned during this search that you might use when you get back to work?

Well, it has really reinforced how I will continue to treat humans and how I will continue to practice empathy – in every way.  It’s no secret that being in a job search and being “in transition” is stressful.  Empathy is a powerful trait that many professionals don’t have.  Recently, I’m convinced that not everyone is even capable of being empathic.  It’s not wrong, just different.  When you have empathy, you don’t judge and you don’t pity – you understand. When you have that ability, you can be far more useful to every human being you come across in life.

Anything else you’d care to share?

Yes, actually!  As I mentioned, I’ve had my share of phone interviews during my search.  Of the two face to face interviews I had, one resulted in an offer to which I turned down for many reasons.  The other would have been an offer but the job level was restructured to a junior level position due to budget restraints.  It is difficult to “shine” over the phone and I’m not an online “rock star.”  When you meet me, you’ll love me!

Laurie Ellen Shumaker: Lawyers, Leadership, and Laughter

Laurie Ellen Shumaker is an attorney eligible to work in-house in most jurisdictions as an authorized House Counsel. Laurie Ellen’s previous experience includes nearly 24 years working for companies focused on commercial real estate (shopping centers), including land and property development, leasing, title reviews, governing documents, and resolving the differences between parties in a way that builds relationships and facilitates success. Laurie Ellen is looking for a role as a transactional attorney for a company that would be able to use her experience in communicating, negotiating, and drafting documents, preferably on the East Coast.

L E, tell us a little about your proudest accomplishments so far in your career.

My bottom-line ‘theme’ I’m most proud of is that I’ve been able to open doors and windows for quite a few people who were almost too smart for what they’d buried themselves doing but didn’t have the confidence or opportunity to stretch and grow. One of my ‘mentees’ started out as a secretarial temp and then became a vice president at the public company where we’d worked together, and another went from being a construction assistant to becoming a wonderful attorney who helped a lot of people.

Another was being told “it can’t be done” when one company I was with decided to go public and they wished that a certain number of transactions, that would normally have been worked through over a 2-year period, could be completed in the 6-week period prior to the IPO. And I got it done with a couple of days to spare (and all my nerves worn to bits!)

A third milestone of which I am proud happened when a public company I worked for had to deal with the fall-out of a couple of high ranked officers were found to have ‘cheated’ the company, our customers, and the stockholders, and Wall Street critics were clamoring for all of us at the company to be shot and our families sent a bill for the cost of the bullets. In the middle of that uproar and resulting chaos, I was able to rally the troops to continue forward doing the same excellent work we’d been doing before as well as speak directly with our customers and give, and have them accept, my personal integrity and honor as a reason to continue working on deals together. A ‘breakdown’ team was brought in at the top to dismantle and sell off the company rather than fight for it, but my team worked at 100% belief and commitment until the day the sale closed. That was an extremely challenging set of circumstances and we were proud we worked flat-out hard “until they turned our keycards off”.

And what has been your most unusual job or job situation? How did you handle it?

From resolving conflicts between two employees who were let go for spitting at each other, a customer who claimed his ‘assured’ winning of a Billy Idol Look-A-Like contest had been ruined, to driving a former boss to start his time in federal prison, I’ve just tried to stay fair, balanced, and listening to complaints until I could turn the screaming no’s into calm nods of okays.

But probably one of the oddest situations was when a small aquarium store was having to go out of business and owed a lot of money in back rent. The owner of the company agreed to a lower amount of money as long as he got (‘for the office’) a particularly creepy, ugly, and expensive eel for one of the several huge aquariums in the office. As many intricate and complex transactions as I have written the language for, debt forgiveness based on an eel transfer was not something I had experience with. I had to stop laughing and cringing and think hard about what the end result needed to be, and then just sit at the keyboard and bang it out. It worked, and the eel turned up and terrified all of us when it would throw itself out of the tank in the lobby, but the boss was thrilled.

What do people say they appreciate most about you, and your work?

I think most people appreciate that I am not a “typical” attorney, not the type that is subject to all the mean lawyer jokes. They like that I take the time to listen to them and hear what they mean beyond what they say, and then I figure out how to make it work, get everyone’s agreement, and then quickly finish it up… and move immediately to the next ‘to-do’. They like that I have a strong sense of humor coupled with a strong sense of responsibility and commitment, and that I step in to deflect mistreatment of people by those who think they can and I shine the spotlight on people who deserve it but are rarely noticed.

Can you tell us a little about your ideal job situation?

My ideal situation would have me in a position to direct work and be a resource for those in the more direct fray. I would mentor, still, and resolve impasse, be the lovely person whom everyone turned to when no one could agree on which way to go. I would want time to study and research situations and use that to facilitate and streamline workflow, creating a bank of language and/or response that could be easily accessed by people that they could ‘grab’ and move their work along without waiting interminably for someone to help. And I would still be able to write language that not just notes how a problem will be resolved if it comes up but eliminates the possibility of a problem at all.
And what do you know you don’t want to do, either because you’re no good at it or it just doesn’t interest you?

I would greatly prefer not to do “numbers” as a large component of my work. I can “do” numbers but it uses such a different part of my brain and logic that it takes a two-step to do that along with my life of words.

You’ve been out of work for a while now. You and your family have had lots of adventures and changes during that time. What stands out as the best experience during this time?

The best experience during this time, and one which makes me actually appreciate the fact that I was laid off when I was, is that I got to spend a lot of very precious and valuable time with my mother, who my daughter and I cared for during her 7-year long battle with Alzheimer’s. Her physical health had just started giving out and she had to go into a nursing home for 24-hour skilled nursing care, and it terrified her. But being able to be there all the time, for hours at a time, and to be there day and night without ceasing in the last days before she died meant that I had some of the most special moments between us and I do not have to regret not having the time for her that she deserved.

During this period my daughter was pregnant and gave birth to a wonderful young fellow who brings joy and challenge and learning every single day. Being able to be there for her and for him as much as was needed has been another incomparable gift.

We have used all of my savings, my 401-ks, I sold my much loved T-Bird, and finally we moved out of the nice house we were renting in Florida, because of the necessity of trying to keep ourselves going. We have been incredibly fortunate that my daughter had a wonderful friend who has been letting us ‘housesit’ in an old hunting lodge out by the river in Maryland, near DC, while I try to locate a job in this area. That time must end ere long, and then I will try to figure out what to do next.

And what do you think this job search has taught you, that you might apply in your next job?

I have learned from this job search that there are not rules, no formulas for ‘how long’ or what to do, that there are people who will take a lot of advantage of you while you are vulnerable, that the way things are now, you not only won’t get feedback, you won’t get interviews, or calls, or even acknowledgments that you spent the effort to apply for ‘perfect’ jobs. I’ve also learned that some people are the best friends one could ever have, and that pride and false fronts do not help. I will apply the need for kindness, for listening, for helping others along. Before my mother’s Alzheimer’s I would have said that impatience was a bit of a character flaw for me, but dealing with her situation, and endless repetition of the same things over and over, and then dealing with being out of work, so unbelievable and ungraspable for me, I’ve learned to tap into an ocean of patience and calm, and an eternal (I hope!) sea of optimism that TOMORROW I will find that place that wants me.