Fireside Chat: Conference Job Search Strategies

My niece called the other day asking for assistance. She was going on the job market and attending a conference where company reps and recruiters would attend. The first thing I asked her was, “Has your major professor talked you about what to do?” I wasn’t surprised by her answer – no.  So, I told her that she wants to be better prepared than I was attending my first meeting.

I remember my first conference – early on in my graduate career.  I was clueless of what to expect. Good thing I wasn’t on the job market. Good thing I had a fellow grad student with me. Together we managed to navigate the large meeting and exhibits.

If I knew then what I know now, my first meeting would have been even more successful.  First thing I do now is to scan the pre-program to identify speakers with whom I want to connect.  I may do some research on them.  Read some of their papers. Check them out on LinkedIn and Google them.

Next, I prepare a question or two to ask. A question that is more open ended. One that requires more than a yes or no answer. I always like to follow up with a “How so?” You always get more information that way.

When scanning the program I look for any pre-conference workshops where I can add something of value to my “tool box”.  Find additional people with whom I can connect.  I look for any dinner or reception opportunities where I can network.

Coffee breaks are important times.  I use them to seek out people I want to meet or with whom to reconnect.  I’m always keeping my network current.  Finding out new pieces of information that can be helpful. Sharing what I am doing is important so my information gets circulated as well.  Plan coffee breaks well – they are important.  Make sure you plan to get some coffee too!

Go to the meeting prepared.  Have you ever thought about your business cards? What you don’t have one? Even graduate students need a professional business card with current information. Business cards are important. I always present my card with my name facing the individual to whom I am giving the card.  Why would I do that?  I want them to remember me and know my name.  It’s also very appropriate in different cultures to do it that way.

You can present your card to the speaker or to your new contact and write on the back of the card the question or the “ask” you want the person to do.  For example, you may want to ask for a copy of their paper or survey instrument.

Write that ask on the back of the card.  This serves as a reminder to your new contact of what it is you are wanting. It also helps them remember you when they return home. That is important!

You may be asking your new or existing contact for a referral.   Maybe this person can’t assist you. Always ask, “Professor Smith, who would you recommend I speak with about X?”

They may give you a name of a person to contact. You can write that on the back of the card they gave you. Always ask Professor Smith if you can use their name when making contact with the person.  That will assist you in your next step when you reach out to that contact you are now connected through Professor Smith.

Something simple as, “Mr. Newperson, Professor Smith suggested that I contact you regarding X.”   The door is now open for you to engage Mr. Newperson in a conversation.

When you are meeting someone and exchanging business cards, take an extra second to carefully present your business card so the person receiving it can read your name.  When you receive theirs, take a moment and read it before putting it in a safe place.

I make sure I have two designated places to store my business cards. One place is for my card, so it is readily available when needed – I don’t want to fumble around looking for my card. The other place is for the cards I receive. Never shall the two meet. That could be embarrassing if they get mixed together and you give out someone else’s card for yours. I also don’t want to be seen shuffling though business cards to find mine – I did that once – not recommended.

It doesn’t take much to be prepared and your time and effort will pay off in a successful experience at the conference. Much like my niece’s experience was.

Here is a quick recap.

  1. Prepare before the meeting by scanning the program
  2. Planning your strategy for each part of the program
  3. Draft a few ice breaker questions
  4. Have your business cards ready
  5. Ask for a referral

Fireside Chat: Social Etiquette and Table Tops

Have you ever noticed that there are never enough table tops at a reception and the ones that are there are always taken? People lay claim to them as if they were staking a claim on a gold mine. Well, table tops are valuable and few in number for a reason. The idea is for us to mingle with food. The organizers want to ensure that we don’t become squatters in one place, but rather circulate and network.

Yep, you have seen me make that mad dash and stake claim to one of the tables.  Why? It’s all because of toothpicks and my lack of ability to juggle a plate of food while trying to carry on an intelligent conversation.

How good are you at juggling? Some of you have to be better at it than me. I could do with some practice. Although it seems that with all my years as a Dean, and the many informal and formal receptions and events I have attended, you would think that I have mastered the skill of balancing food plates, drink glasses, and napkins. (A skill not taught in graduate school, perhaps it should be).

It seems that every time I go to a reception I am trying to balance a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other with a napkin. It never fails. I am doing a great job balancing and then someone comes up to me.  They introduce themselves and extend a hand to shake. Now what? I’m still looking for that magic recipe or dissertation on “How to succeed at a reception with food.” If you find a good source, let me know.

Ever notice that the server with tray of the most delicious appetizers always approaches you. Then you spot it – the toothpick- speared through the cheese cube or something wrapped around a water chestnut, or my favorite – chocolate covered strawberries.

It’s over before it begins. I just give up. It’s just too hard a task for me. It’s not that I don’t want the appetizer. I love food – but it’s the balancing of multiple plates in my hand and those little decorative “party” toothpicks.

What do I do with the toothpicks when I am finished eating the appetizer? If I succumb to weakness and select a food item off the tray with a toothpick and enjoy eating that tiny food morsel – Now what? What do I do with the toothpick?

As women, we are at a disadvantage. No pockets. No pockets in jackets, no pockets in slacks, no pockets anywhere. What were the designers thinking? We need pockets to store those toothpicks.  That’s one place I could stash that toothpick, but then again, I don’t want to get home and find a pocket full of toothpicks.

Ever notice the server with the tray is never to be found again especially when you are ready to “give back” that little toothpick?

So what do you do? What are some best practices for handling toothpicks, juggling plates and glasses, and laying claim to a table top?

Here are five effective strategies that I found to be effective.

  1. Eat before you attend a reception, so you only have one hand holding the glass; keep it in your left hand so your right hand is available to shake hands.
  2. If you can prearrange with your colleagues that one of them or you lay claim to a table top. Do so and do it quickly and with gusto! The table top can serve as your staging area. You can deposit your toothpicks wrapped in a napkin and leave it on the table. The table top can hold your glass, plate and you can be hands free. This allows you to move about the room and mingle without food or drink.
  3. What if the table tops are taken? This strategy always works for me. Find a table top that is not too crowded. Approach slowly, stealth fully, and with a smile. Ask, “May I set my glass here?” The answer will always be a “yes”. So, squeeze in and claim your space. The wrong question to ask is “Are you saving the table?” Because even if they are not, they most likely will say “yes”.
  4. Focus on food first, but not food and drink. Best always to make sure you eat before you drink.
  5. Finally, and most importantly, focus on networking and give up the food. Networking is the reason you are there. While I know we have been trained as graduate students (my generation too) to follow the food, you really want to use this time wisely and network.

Next time you see that delicious speared appetizer and an open table top, I know you will have a plan with the end in mind before you engage!

Fireside Chat: A True Story – Introvert at Important Reception

While it may seem to you that I am an extrovert, I’m really a border line introvert/extrovert with the emphasis on the introvert.  It’s not easy for me to break into groups – especially groups where I don’t know anyone. It always seems to me that everyone knows everyone and I am on the outside looking in. Has that ever happened to you?

Never fails – when I walk into a reception I notice all the faculty standing around talking to each other while the rest of us just look on.  Over the years I learned how to be more successful in navigating these events. It’s really not that hard.

First, as introverts we have an advantage! We listen. I realized that I am a good listener and that people really like to talk about themselves. So that makes it easy. I let them do the talking and I do the listening.  Now I’m connected.

The key for me is to prepare a question to ask and then listen. The question might be about the speaker we just heard, or the latest event happening on campus, or something in the news. It’s just an ice breaker. Or I ask them to tell me about themselves. That one always works.

I also figured out a few ways to gracefully navigate an “escape” from the person that goes on and on. One way is to say. “It’s been great talking with you and I promised ‘so and so’ that I would meet up with them at the break.” Sometimes I am really lucky and another person comes along.   That is what I call divine intervention. I don’t feel guilty about leaving, the person talking now has a new person to engage.

As a female I find that it can be difficult at times. I remember this one time when I was at a reception that the Chancellor of the University System was hosting.  I wanted to talk to the Chancellor about an important matter and get it on her radar. She was surrounded by a group of male faculty members. They knew where the power was.

My task at hand was how to I break into that circle and speak to her.  I looked and found an opening in the circle. Stood there and listened to the conversation.

I had a plan. I was not going to shout my question from across the circle.   I had to maneuver closer to where she was standing. So, I slowly kept moving around the circle until I could get right next to her. I did. When I was there standing next to her I engaged her with my question. Because of my proximity, I had her undivided attention.

Later a male faculty member said to me…I saw what you were doing, that was a pretty clever move.

I know you can be clever too.

Fireside Chat: Collaboration and Communication

Collaboration and communication both begin with the letter “C” and so does the word conflict. As we think about or even experience collaboration, we learn first-hand that everyone in our group or team has a different perspective. We see things through different lenses. That is what makes collaboration rich and exciting. At the same time it is our different lenses that create the potential for conflict unless we stop for a moment, spot the conflict (what we are
seeing and experiencing), and be open to receiving and understanding the different perspective. It does not mean we have to change our viewpoint – just be open to receiving other perspectives.  When we are open, we are more receptive, we expand, and we grow. That is where the growth is in collaboration.

We all are the same. We all have a different viewpoint, a different way of doing things, a different method to solve problems or issues, a different cultural experience. I could go on and on about differences and that is where conflict can arise – in the differences. As Tom Crum states, “The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.”

Conflict can be subtle and very passive aggressive or conflict can be “In your face”, New Jersey style. Having lived in many parts of the country from NJ, to the mountains in the west, to the southwest, to the south, I learned how to live in different cultures and to understand different forms of communication and styles of conflict. I was used to the direct in your face style of conflict however, living in the south, that direct style of conflict just would not be appropriate.

Communication is another way we can experience conflict through the collaborative process. The conflict can arise from our different communication styles.  That is, how we receive and how we send communication can cause conflict. Let me give you an example of different communication styles or preferences with respect to collaboration.

The other day, I was having an impromptu conversation with two graduate students. One was a Gen X with business/industry experience and the other a millennial coming straight through from an undergraduate program. Both were in the same department and working on doctoral degrees.  I engaged them in a conversation about collaboration.  What I learned was that Gen X with industry experience had a different understanding with respect to expectations in how to communicate and collaborate with other generations especially with Boomers. Boomers like the face-to-face means of communicating and collaborating. Millennials prefer other means of communication. From our conversation, it became clear to me that different generations have expectationsthat other generations should meet their expectations and preference style in communication. Communication is key to collaboration. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.”

The Gen X person was very clear and stressed the importance of collaboration. “Collaboration is an essential skill in the workplace and that you cannot solve all the problems by yourself.” Both students told me how Millennials perceive collaboration differently.   The Millennial stated that Millennials collaborate using technology for example on google drive. In so doing, each person can work at different hours; people can do their own thing, and isolation can become an issue. Millennials are collaborating when they add to the document or conversation in google drive. The Gen X had a different perspective. “Collaboration looks different today as a result of technology”.  Collaboration happens best when team members “work in person” and not remotely. The Gen X student left me with this thought, “Bigger better ideas come through sharing knowledge and the end result is more innovation.”

What is clear is – as we engage in collaboration, it is important to understand the expectation preferences of each team member’s communication style. Perhaps a hybrid model will evolve to include the best of each generation.

What is important is that each generation wants respect and if we start with that premise, then Collaboration and Communication will begin with a big letter “C” and conflict with a small letter “c”.