In the age of TED Talks, why go to a conference? And what Sir Richard Branson taught me.

Unsolicited invites to conferences are a fact of life for most businesses and business people, but which ones should you attend and which invites should go into the rubbish bin or deleted items?

I probably average 3-4 invites a week. I actually go to less than 1 percent, one of which was the World Business Forum where I managed to meet Sir Richard Branson. More on him and my unexpected lessons later.

Conferences are a big part of what Chartered Accountants ANZ does. In the past year we have held nearly 20 conferences in New Zealand which are open to the public as well as our members.

As a regular conference attender, and being part of an organisation which regularly holds events, I have picked up a few things about which conferences to attend, and then how to get the most out of them.

I’ll immediately admit to being in a very different boat from SME owners who have to pay for conferences out of their own pockets, but like you I have to out myself under extreme time pressure by taking time out from the office, behind the counter or workplace to attend.

But don’t consider conferences an unaffordable luxury. TED Talks will only take you so far.

Here’s my checklist for great conferences. Look for:

  • Relevance to your business – I prefer industry supported or run events as they understand their audience best and are not just running events for the revenue.
  • Speakers you can learn from with real case studies rather than just practitioners or consultants - Pick conferences with opportunities to get practical information and insights you can actually implement in your business.
  • Break-out sessions - Often these are very focused and detailed and can sometimes be more valuable than the headline speakers.
  • Networking opportunities - Who else is going? Are they people you can learn from or do business with? Use conferences to build your networks and don’t treat them as one offs.

But back to my meeting with Sir Richard.

It was at the World Business Forum held in Sydney last month. Chartered Accountants ANZ hosted an exclusive invitation-only event with Sir Richard.

Ahead of the Forum, I felt like I was about to meet someone I already knew. I have read some of Sir Richard’s books, his blogs, watched his videos, media interviews and seen his prolific social media presence.

I was expecting to hear business insights, to be entertained, to be inspired.

The Sir Richard we saw on stage in front of 2500 people was the public persona - he delivered extremely well, holding the entire audience for an hour with grand gestures and adventurous stories.

However he also spoke of his early shyness, even as an adult, and how it never really went away. He mentioned the coping mechanisms he used when the company needed him to take a more public role.

This was the Sir Richard we saw up close at our more intimate event.

And from this I took three key learnings:

  • Introverted leadership is okay - Sometimes leadership requires you to be out front, but actually that doesn’t mean you have to be “on” all the time. Give yourself a break.
  • Have a strong team around you - While we often remember the leader out front, we usually forget the team and the environment for success they have built around them.
  • The power of the impact player - Being an impact player and coming off the bench when the team really needs you may actually be the best thing you can do.

By Kirsten Patterson, New Zealand Country Head, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand


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