How to organize a conference that provides lasting value
Wednesday, March 06, 2019
As much as I enjoy meeting new people and connecting with old friends, I don’t have time or energy to attend conferences that rehash the same ideas or leave me exhausted and wishing for a bar of chocolate to make me feel better.
But not all professional development conferences are equal. Some conferences are showcases for mediocre speakers, not a lot new information and boring workshops. Other conferences provide opportunities for learning, transformation and growth.
The Watermark Conference for Women on Feb. 22 in San Jose, California, was an example of the latter.
With an emphasis on leadership, women’s advancement and practical success strategies, it would have been very difficult for anyone to leave without at least three actions they could take to be great leaders of people and/or ideas.
1. Invite speakers with whose messages resonate with the participants.
The three main speakers in the morning were Gloria Steinem, Brene Brown, and Juniper CEO Rami Rahim.
This was a conference primarily for women who in leadership positions or on their way to positions of leadership.
Gloria Steinem, a pioneer and early leader in the women’s movement said that women need to get past internalized sexism and the belief that they can’t succeed on their own.
She talked about some of the earliest leaders like Harriet Tubman and the fact that too often women of color were not included or recognized for their talent and leadership qualities.
Brene Brown’s message was that courageous leaders are able to show their vulnerability. This is particularly important for women in leadership who have heard over and over that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Great leaders whether they are women or men need to show vulnerability in order to connect with the other people in their organization.
They also have to be willing to engage in tough conversations particularly if they want to build cultures that support diversity, equity and inclusion. Issues of racism, sexism and homophobia have to be addressed.
The diverse group of participants at the Watermark conference connected with the morning messages and I could feel the energy in the room.
2. Provide enough time and opportunities for people to interact, network and absorb what they heard.
Unlike a lot of conferences I’ve attended in the past, the Watermark conference for women didn’t overschedule. There were 30 minutes between workshops, which gave people time to talk about what they learned, how they were going to use it, and talk to the speakers.
3. Schedule workshops that include content, ideas and advice that participants can implement and will help them achieve their professional and personal objectives.
There were just enough workshops that participants could choose the programs that were most relevant to them, but not so many that it was overwhelming.
I attended one panel where the topic was leading with empathy, kindness and connection. That also means that there are times when a good leader needs to know how to detach with love and not take on people’s pain.
Charmaine McClarie led a workshop on how to create your own narrative and tell your story in a way that gets you heard and seen as the leader you want to be. Attendees spent time crafting and tightening up their descriptors so that when asked, "What do you do in the organization?" they could respond with powerful statements that demonstrated their value.
Finally, the best conferences are the ones where you leave thinking about what you heard, what you learned and what you’ll do to keep growing.
I left the conference with the thought that as more women move into the ranks of leadership, there will be more challenges and even resistance, but if we work together across gender; are willing to look at ourselves individually and in our groups; are willing to address issues before, during and after they occur; and are willing to take actions together we can create not only great workplaces but great communities and a greater world.
Are you planning your next conference? What do you want your participants to experience, and what do you want them to think about and do after they leave?
If you can’t answer these questions, then you’re not ready to start planning. You get to decide if you want to create a conference that just "goes through the motions," and is forgotten as soon as people get home, or if you want people saying they can’t wait until your next one?
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