When I was just starting my career, going to conferences seemed like a terrific perk. They were usually held in fun destinations and it was exciting to be mingling with smart thought leaders. But I quickly learned that attendance also came with an unspoken price tag. Not only was I missing whatever work was required of me back at the home office—work that I had to figure out how to get done either while I was on the road or once I got back—I also felt a burden to prove that it was worthwhile to send me to the conference in the first place. That the airfare, hotel room, and cab rides were money well spent.
So I became a “super attender” and always tried to return with as much knowledge and as many contacts as I could gather. This meant that I went to every single session with my multi-tasking hat on,
“Oh, this nugget will be interesting to Alison” and “I’ll take good notes for John” and “Hey, I should tell our conference organizers about this guy—he’s a great speaker.” I networked my way through every reception and breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then I’d spend hours writing up a worthy conference report and wait for the applause from my appreciative colleagues.
Except, that almost never happened. Every now and then I’d hit upon a connection or a piece of data that was exactly what my colleague needed and we’d have a follow-up conversation where I got to show off what I’d gleaned. But for the most part, nobody asked me any questions, nobody dropped by my desk to engage in deep discussion about my profound observations, and my hefty conference reports disappeared into obscurity. I realized that I’d been so focused on proving that it was worth sending me to the conference, that I’d made almost nothing of the opportunity for myself.
In retrospect I realize that by focusing on what I could bring back for others, I missed out on one of the great benefits of going to a conference in the first place: creative inspiration. “We know that creative breakthroughs often come from experiencing something that is used in one domain and bringing that framework or approach or questions into a different domain entirely,’’ Monique Valcour, an executive coach, researcher, and speaker, told me when we recently talked about conferences.
She’s found that the amalgam of people and topics at the conferences she’s attended inspire her to try new things and often lead to surprising opportunities. Valcour pointed out that she and I actually came to know each other because years ago she sat next to one of my HBR colleagues at a conference. Their casual conversation during a conference break eventually led to Valcour becoming a frequent writer for HBR, and my turning to her now for expert advice.
So as a manager, when it came time for my employees to go conferences, I tried to practice what I had learned the hard way. If someone was genuinely jazzed about a conference, its speakers, and the potential to learn, I was happy to support them attending. But my support always came with a surprising caveat: Don’t bother writing up a trip report. Don’t worry about proving that it was worth sending you. Just go and live in the moment when you’re there. I expect nothing back from you—except, I want to know that you thought different thoughts, you met different people, and you came back inspired by new ideas. But I don’t need any proof—just your word.
I didn’t care if my employees took off in the middle of a conference day to have coffee with a friend or walk up to see the parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, as I had done many years before. The point of getting out of the office was to recharge your batteries and stimulate new ideas. That was the reason I agreed to any request to go to a conference. My message wasn’t intended as “Have an unofficial holiday on the company!” but rather “You are a professional and I trust your judgment, and you’ve earned this freedom. Go get energized!”
As it turns out, employees almost always plunked themselves down in my office as soon as they were back to enthusiastically share what they’d learned. Once a direct report came back with suggestions of people they’d met who we might want to think about recruiting. Another time an employee was so inspired by her off-site course that she wrote up a personal manifesto for how she was going to achieve her strategic vision. And almost always, employees came back with worthwhile new perspectives or new practices that we should be considering. Sometimes I was simply grateful to have someone from the company present and visible at an important event.
When I shared this approach with Valcour, she liked it but suggested that managers like me don’t have to completely forgo any kind of report back after the conference. Instead of asking for a “what I did on my summer vacation” type of conference report, she says it’s better to request a reflections memo, something that is more in the spirit of energizing and inspiring your employee. “Ask ‘What stimulated your thinking at the conference? What new insights do you have? What questions do you want to follow up on? What kinds of ideas do you have as a result of interesting conversations?’’’ she says. It doesn’t need to be a formal report, it could be as simple as chatting over coffee with those who might be interested in what they learned. “There’s an enormous amount to be learned from the combination of novelty and experiences.”
In 20 years of making judgment calls about who gets the privilege of attending conferences, I was never once let down by someone who took advantage of the freedom I gave them to make their own calls about how to best engage and energize themselves. Quite the opposite—I saw over and over the benefit of not having to prove it was worth the money. Of course it was. It was an excellent investment in one of our most valuable resources: our employees.