Note: Inc.'s Ask a 20-Something series offers sage advice for navigating all manner of workplace issues, from the perspective of a young employee.
Dear 20-Something: I send my employees to a lot of conferences and trade shows to network and learn about our industry. Recently, I overheard some of my younger staffers complaining that the events were boring and pointless. They're meant to be positive experiences, so how do I get those complainers to show some enthusiasm?
Admit it: You've been to some really boring conferences and trade shows. Everyone has.
I remember being utterly miserable throughout my very first post-college trade show. I'm an extremely extroverted, outgoing person, and even I felt like a ghost, wandering unseen through the bustling halls of that large convention center. I didn't know anyone there, and I didn't really know how to connect with strangers in a business setting.
So I've put a lot of thought into this, and I've come up with a three-part plan to help.
Part 1: Make sure your young employees will actually find the programming interesting or professionally beneficial.
If they're unlikely to engage, it's not the right event for them. This involves playing a little bit of matchmaker, knowing your employees and identifying the kinds of experiences they'd need or enjoy. If you don't already know them particularly well, treat them to lunch and use the opportunity to chat about their interests outside of work.
I attended the Inc. 5000 Conference & Gala in Phoenix this past October. I'm a big baseball fan, and I'm not going to lie: I got a lot more excited about the trip when I learned that ex-baseball star Alex Rodriguez was going to be there. Obviously, not every event features A-Rod. (It only seems that way.) But you should usually be able to find something for your employees to get excited about, even as they're working.
Sometimes, though, you don't have a choice: Plenty of industries have annual conferences that you have to send people to. When you can't do much about the programming, make sure you clearly articulate why you're sending your employees to these events. Whether the goal is to pick up a new skill, network, or stay up-to-date on the latest issues, they need to know why they're going.
One idea is to make sure they internalize the experience. Ask them to give a presentation about their event experience once they return, centered on the skill/connection/industry lesson they picked up. I've learned this from countless experiences in both my personal and professional life: Often, the best way to learn is to teach.
Which leads me to ...
Part 2: Help them develop a game plan.
That might include specific objectives: Introduce yourself to specific high-profile attendees, collect a certain number of business cards, ask at least one question at every session you attend, and so on.
Or, dig past the surface metrics and talk with your employees to figure out what's holding them back. Maybe it's the overwhelming environment--these types of events usually have crazy, packed schedules, and it's hard to know which sessions to attend and when to take a breather and recharge for the next one. You can work with them to draft a specific plan for each day.
Maybe it's the social fear I mentioned above: Whom do you talk to, what do you talk about, and whom should you avoid? Walk them through how you'd approach strangers in this context. You can even role-play the situation--an exercise that's equal parts dramatically awkward and genuinely helpful.
You may not think about these questions anymore. Your young employees do--or, at least, they should. If you help prepare them for the experience, they'll get a lot more out of it. And maybe, just maybe, you might overhear a tonal shift in those water cooler conversations.
Part 3: Send multiple employees to these events.
Here's a catchy phrase to help remember it: Attend with a friend! See how it rhymes? I'm proud of that one. Seriously, though, the conference experience clicked for me when I went through one with a familiar face. I could venture out into the crowd, knowing there was someone I could talk to or commiserate with when the networking ran dry.
When you go to a conference and only know one other person pic.twitter.com/eHJEVKlH2Z-- David Howard (@Used_For_Glue) January 13, 2020
If you pair an established staffer with a younger employee, you create a great mentoring opportunity. And if you send a group of inexperienced workers together, they'll help one another figure out the ropes (and bond a bit, too). If you can afford it, it's a win-win.
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