Consultation: Conquering Conferences

I am booked to attend an overseas conference shortly. The overall cost is quite high and I really feel that I need to make sure I squeeze the maximum value from the trip. Do you have any helpful recommendations?

It is worth preparing to get the most value from your investment in the conference. Yours is international, but local conferences are also expensive once you have covered travel and accommodation. Conferences vary enormously in quality but with preparation you can gain real value from even the most mediocre ones.
There are two sides to conference. There are the actual presentations and there are the people attending. Sometimes there is even third side with the conference having an associated exhibition of suppliers.
The first thing to do is at an early stage, ie, few months out, get hold of the conference timetable and list of presenters. Read this through but don’t make any immediate decisions. Now that you have the big picture let it sit and occasionally go back and refresh your memory. You should find as you do this you will start to relate to various sessions of the conference and which ones you should attend. At the same time have look at your personal development needs. Identify priority areas you want to focus on and then see if there are elements of the conference that have relevance.
Once you have targeted which sections of the conference will be appropriate for you, start to look at the wider field and identify some sessions that might be more out of the box that could lead to new ideas. So you have now established session plan and timetable that match your learning needs.
Then when you are at the conference you need to do two further things. First, make sure you talk to as many conference participants as possible. Show genuine interest in them and ask open-ended questions about what they do, what their challenges are, and what they have learnt at the conference. This will add further learning for you and will also potentially extend your network of contacts.
Secondly, make sure you look after your health during the conference. Don’t eat and drink too much so that you feel lousy first thing in the morning or fall asleep after the lunch break. Take some exercise and leave some space during the day to walk around and do something different. Conference sessions are usually an hour to an hour and half long and sitting all day in continuous sessions is uncomfortable and doesn’t support good learning.
So take adequate time to plan for the conference, remember to talk to people when you are there and, most importantly, don’t overindulge. This will deliver the value you are looking for.

I have lost confidence in our company’s performance management system. It seems that every year or so somebody introduces new system. I think carrying out performance reviews is important but can’t be bothered with this constant change. Is this normal?

This is question that keeps coming up and is cycle that seems to occur regularly in organisations. It is usually related to the appointment of new human resources person. It is quite natural for someone in new role to want to improve things. However, the result can be confusing and variable and depends greatly on the skills and experience of the perpetrator. For example, they could be fresh from their studies and may not have the practical experience to understand the impact of their actions. Or it could be that they have had an experience in previous role and want to bring this to their new company.
Changing something like performance management system has very wide impact on people in the organisation. From the HR manager’s perspective it makes absolute sense, but from the employee’s point of view it may appear to make no sense.
There are some fundamental building blocks that make up good performance management system. The process needs to focus on identifying when things are on track or not on track. It is about reviewing outcomes and learning from experience. The aim is to build person’s capability by leveraging high performance and helping and supporting when things are not working. The process needs to be linked closely to the business plan, the person’s job description, and their development plan. The reviews need to be interactive and frequent. The outcomes should be motivation, learning, and engagement.
If you are on the receiving end of the constant change you describe then look for these fundamental building blocks and hopefully they will be there and the changed performance management system will start to make sense. If these building blocks are not there then you can work around the system to shape it to deliver what is needed.
If you are the creator of this change then make sure you first test the current system and your own ideas against these basics. Then merge the old and the new for an overall better result. This will deliver what you want but will also be more acceptable to those on the receiving end.

Kevin Gaunt, FNZIM, FAIM, is CEO of NZIM Auckland and has been senior executive with, and consultant to, some of New Zealand’s largest companies.

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