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Are conferences worthwhile?

I remember going to the International Home + Housewares Show in 2006, when I worked for a large corporation. This was just before the Great Recession. Houses were being built nationwide and selling like crazy, which drove revenue of housewares and appliance companies.

At this conference, expense accounts were flush. The wine (and vodka) flowed. Presumably business was done, although it was all a bit hazy.

I broke up a fistfight between two of my friends in one of the nicest bars in Chicago. One friend was a Tupperware salesman and the other sold air conditioners. That night they wanted to hurt each other.

I woke up the next morning in the Tupperware salesman’s room, with little recollection of the prior evening. My other friend slept in a linen closet in a different hotel. We all reconvened at the conference. Apologies were made. No hard feelings existed and we participated in the show.

When I founded FringeSport in 2010, I was therefore skeptical about the value of conferences. This was based on experiences like that in Chicago in 2006. Lately, however, I’ve been reconsidering conferences and seminars — both for business and personal growth. I’ve been surprised how closely business and personal growth, for me, are intertwined.

A recent conference

I recently attended a conference in Austin, Texas called EO Xcentric. It was put on by Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which I’ve written about, and only available to members, their key employees, and spouses.

The lineup of speakers was packed. Two highlights were Rand Stagen and Brené Brown.

Stagen is managing director of Stagen Leadership Academy, an executive leadership consulting firm. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She is known for a Ted Talk on vulnerability and shame.

Stagen’s best point was “Leaders get the organization they deserve.” That shocked me at the time. And it has really stuck with me. I love FringeSport. I don’t ever want it to become a business that its owner hates. I’ve seen it happen to friends: They start a business and end up feeling trapped in it.

I have been thinking a lot about Stagen’s observation. I am now transforming Fringe into the organization I know I deserve.

Brené Brown’s speech was incredible, especially her assertion that “Our capacity for success will never be exceeded by our capacity for hard conversations.” We are hardwired to avoid difficult conversations — by the social convention to “be nice” or by sheer cowardice. We want to kick the can down the road on tough issues, hoping they will go away, or at least we won’t have to immediately deal with them.

But leaders have those hard conversations. And Brown’s speech reminded me that our capacity for these difficult conversations determines our success. I’ve since adopted this approach with my leadership team, with my employees, and even with my wife, kids, and family.

Brown had another nugget that has stayed with me: “Your brain wants a story.” Your brain, and the brain of those around you, wants a story to explain things that happen. Often, this story does not match reality. Moreover, two people involved in a situation often build wildly differing stories.

I’ve kept this in mind when someone reacts differently to an event than I would expect. I try to understand some of the stories in their head. I have been amazed at what people sometimes think versus what I think. And I am not claiming to be “right.” It’s just that we all perceive occurrences wildly differently.

Brown had one last point that greatly affected me. She said, “Show me a business with a high blame culture and I will show you a business with a low accountability culture.” Coincidentally, I had wondered why some of my employees were quick to blame others for not completing tasks, or for errors. I’ve pondered why employees who blame others do not often complete their own tasks.

Now it’s clear: It’s a symptom of blame. The antidote is accountability. I’m now emphasizing accountability in general. When I hear an employee issue blame, I move quickly to insert accountability.

Are conferences worthwhile?

So, are conferences worthwhile? I now think yes, conferences can be valuable. But it depends on the mindset, commitment, goals, and follow through of the person that attends.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Peter Keller
Peter Keller
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