Business leadership conferences: How to maximize your time

Want to get more from your next conference? IT leaders share 7 ways to navigate events wisely – before, during, and after
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Dozens of technology conferences compete for attention from IT leaders. But for already busy CIOs, investing the time and effort to travel to and attend events needs to have a clear return. “Given the crazy demands on our time, it is crucial that IT leaders and CIOs leave conferences knowing that our time was well-spent,” says Wendy M. Pfeiffer, CIO at Nutanix.

That's why IT leaders need a clear understanding of their attendance goals and a strategy for navigating events – before, during, and after.

[ What new events will you check out this year? We rounded up some good candidates. Read Business leadership conferences worth exploring in 2019. ]

Consider these seven tips from leadership event veterans for getting the most out of your next conference:

1. Pick conferences based on your specific goals

Dig deep to determine if the sessions will have value for you. “Before attending a conference, check out the sponsors and the agenda, and ensure that there are a variety of technical topics and tracks. Make sure there are enough sessions that cater to your specific interests or current role,” says Pfeiffer. “To ensure I personally get value out of the handful of conferences I attend each year, I always confirm that there is a strong technical focus [and that] the technical sessions are led by true product experts – people who have hands-on roles in the company, rather than salespeople.”

If you want to use an event to learn something new, make sure to "attend sessions outside of your normal ‘sweet spot’, says Larry Bonfante, veteran CIO and founder of executive coaching and consulting practice CIO Bench Coach.

2. Peruse the list of speakers and attendees in advance

“We’ve consistently found that the number one reason IT leaders make the time to attend events, according to all of our IDG surveys, is to network with one another,” says Maryfran Johnson, Executive Director of CIO Programs for IDG Communications. “Concentrate on the networking opportunity as much as you do the content of the conference.”

Look for people you’d like to meet, but also look for those connections you’ve already made and want to solidify. Never rely on serendipity to connect. “Make plans to reach out to new people you’d like to meet where you feel there would be mutual benefit and value,” Bonfante says. Consider reaching out to them before the event to make arrangements to meet.

3. Look for an executive track

Chances are you’d like to compare notes and rub elbows with your peers and an executive track suggests that you won’t be the only CIO there, says Pfeiffer.

4. Put your phone away

Remember that 95 percent of other IT people are also introverts.

Use break time to meet other attendees. “Introduce yourself and ask them what they think of the sessions so far,” says Johnson. “Remember that 95 percent of other IT people are also introverts, so they’ll appreciate whatever efforts you make to break the ice.”

Consider writing some ‘small talk’ questions in advance that you can ask every new IT colleague you meet. “For example, if there’s a problem you’re trying to solve right now, ask others what advice they have,” Johnson says. “Who doesn’t love to give advice?”

5. Keep moving your seat

“Don’t settle into one table and stay there. After every break, relocate yourself and say hello to your new table mates,” Johnson says. “If you’ve got a few minutes before the next session, throw out a question to the table.” Ask fellow attendees what talent they’re trying to recruit these days or how they’re faring with machine learning.

6. Escalate your role

If the conference has an advisory board, volunteer to join it next year.

If the conference has an advisory board, volunteer to join it next year, or introduce yourself to the event moderator and let him or her know you’d be willing to help out. “Executive recruiters use those boards to find high-profile IT leaders,” Johnson says, “and being on such a board will turn up when someone Googles your name.”

7. Follow through

If the conference provides a list of attendees by name and company, follow up with those you are most interested in by email or a LinkedIn invitation. “Even if you didn’t get a chance to meet in person,” says Johnson, “a mention of the conference you both just attended is a nice ice breaker to use in your note requesting to connect.”

[ Are you considering a job hunt? Get winning tactics and relevant data in our new eBook: IT job searching in 2019: A practical guide. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.