On Conferences


I will be attending a conference this week.

Some thoughts on conferences, none to be taken too seriously:

How many conferences should you go to?

If you’re in a operational role at an operationally intensive organization, not many. CEOs, COOs, and CFOs of operationally intensive organizations (schools, human capital organizations, etc.) will generally best serve their mission by staying put and getting the work done. I’d say maybe 1-3 conferences per year. Exceptions probably include C level staff of mature organizations who have specifically carved out a heavy external relations duties as part of their roles.

If you’re in a leadership at a non-operationally intensive organization (foundation, policy shop, etc.), I’d up the number: maybe as much as 5-6 year. Leaders of non-operrationally intensive organizations generally gain more from large networking events, as the success of their organizations is more dependent on ideas and relationships than it is on tight execution. The gains of networking are higher, and the costs of not being on the ground are much less.

Which conferences should you go to?

Rank conferences by the percentage of attendees that are C level staff of organizations you wish to emulate in some way or another. Given that the main point of a conference is to network, this should really be the only consideration.

What should you do before a conference?

Determine who you want to learn from, build a relationship with, or secure something from – and email 4-5 of these folks to set up 1-1 meetings. There are very few times when some of the best people in the business will be in one place, and you should take advantage of this. Meetings should be scheduled for no longer than 30 minutes. At these meetings, your general goal should be to talk as little as possible and learn as much as possible from whomever you’re meeting with.

What should you do at a conference?

Network heavily, both in terms of 5 minute conversations that keep weak connections alive, as well as the longer 1-1 prearranged meetings. Also, if you don’t leave the conference having met 2-3 great people that you didn’t know before, then you haven’t networked enough.

Attend a few sessions with high relevance to your work that will be led by strong presenters and facilitators. Generally speaking, conference sessions are a very inefficient way to learn new information. Reading and conversation are much better. Only go to the best sessions.

What should you do after the conference?

If you’re going back to your home organization, figure out a way to share 1-2 relevant pieces of learning to your organization. Also be very specific as why the trip was worth your time (in terms of achieving your organization’s mission).

You should also send a quick two line email to any connection that deserves follow-up, especially if there are potential next steps to a discussion.

In sum

Go to only as many conferences as will legitimately further your ability to achieve your mission.

Then: prepare to network, network, and follow-up.

Lastly, putting on good conferences is very hard work. Be kind to the people who plan them.

2 thoughts on “On Conferences

  1. Beth

    While I agree on a few items here (make time away as high value as possible by going to good sessions, finding new people/ideas and explicitly connecting), I wonder what kind of post this would be if we thought of conferences less as opportunities to get and more to give– share ideas, reflect, be a resource to others. As opportunities to push the ecosystem forward? I wonder how we create networked learning opportunities that are about group than individual learning (or perhaps even learning that goes beyond the usual echo-chamber) and less about hierarchy (it’s only worth it if I can talk to C-Level people).

    1. nkingsl

      Hey Beth – great to hear from you. I guess I wrote the (perhaps grumpy!) post to drive home the value of deliberate networking, as well as to be open and transparent about how power works.

      As you note, there are other legitimate purposes of conferences – though, to be honest, I think these are much harder to pull off. Rarely do I see conferences pushing the ecosystem forward (I do see this happen in smaller group strategy convenings)….

      Lastly, I think I could have worded my networking better – you’re right, giving is very important, and the best networking is about mutual giving.

      Take care,



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