Conference Visiting: How to ‘Out-think’ the Competition

Pick up on a ton of good ideas...

Pick up on a ton of good ideas…

Every year, like clockwork, I get invited along to the PwC annual business conference. To be honest, it’s not normally a ‘barrel of laughs’ (it’s not meant to be), but comes with the guarantee of a bacon sandwich and a hot coffee to kick-start the heart on a cold Winters’ morning. The conference is brilliantly organized – a master class in event management, professionalism and courteousness.

Key Speakers: The line up of speakers had both good and bad news. The really great news was that there were no economists on the menu; thank God for small mercies. Economists are people who summarize their thoughts into 438 PowerPoint slides. They are business historians – brilliant at explaining what happened but brutal at predicting what will happen. Gary McGann delivered the keynote – certainly one of the best Chief Executives/Chairman that Ireland has ever produced. He didn’t disappoint. “We need to create wealth before we distribute this and not visa versa.” So, what were they ‘take aways’ from the session? Here’s couple of thoughts.

Phone’s On: Claire Byrne, the moderator, issued the first instruction of the day: Keep your phones switched on! We had to log onto a particular site and were expected to ‘vote’ on a range of questions raised during the conference. Historically, when you attended a conference there were two immediate instructions (1) In the event of a nuclear explosion, please run towards the green EXIT sign at the speed of Usain Bolt (2) turn off your mobile phone ‘right now’ and keep it off for the duration. But the world has changed. People no longer want to be passive attendees. They want to be ‘part of the action’ – with live tweeting, voting and commentary – even on TV shows. Picture yourself on the couch with the remote control in one hand and a smart phone in the other (you’d need to be an Octopus to drink wine at the same time). Welcome to the new world of participation – where even formerly staid management conferences have become a full contact sport. This is a quiet revolution. Think back a single generation. Do you remember ‘negotiating’ with your mother (“I’ll only wear Super Dry” or “I’m definitely not eating Chili Con Carne”). I don’t. But my kids see this as absolutely normal. And here’s the kicker. My kids have become your employees. They won’t accept Genghis Khan managers who think they have a monopoly on wisdom and don’t involve them in decision-making. If that’s your current company culture, get ready to lash out big headhunter fees because Millennials ‘vote with their feet’. Metaphorically, everyone’s phone needs to be kept ‘switched on’.

Know Thyself: Many years ago I had an idea which was quite similar to I-Tunes. With literally hundreds of CD’s, I normally only liked 2 or 3 songs on each and mentally posed the question: what if people could ‘select’ music that really suited them? Sometime later, in Portugal, I had an idea about integrating solar panels into regular roof tiles. Those big ‘square’ solar panels bolted onto roofs of traditional houses looked incongruous. I knew there’d be a bigger market for solar if this could somehow be ‘integrated’ into regular tiles at an affordable price. Just a couple of months ago, Elon Musk announced that he was bringing this exact product to market. So, why didn’t I take any of these great ideas forward? Well that might be something to do with my complete lack of entrepreneurial spirit and knowledge around commercializing any of this stuff. Career wise, I’ve been moderately successful by following a simple formula (1) Know what you are good at (2) Milk it shamelessly. Many years ago, an Organization Development consultant in the US (Professor Bob Fulmer) offered the following advice: “It’s easier to get a new audience than a new speech.” When I work in the Executive Coaching space I meet all sorts of executives. Most of them are on the ‘up’. Some have plateaued. A small number have fallen off the ladder/wagon completely. But they all have one thing in common – a single red thread binds this disparate group of executives together. They all ask me to help them figure out their weaknesses, where they are ‘less than perfect’, how they can plug the gaps. Of course, I listen and it can be useful to ‘shore up’ obvious deficits. But I always suggest that we also identify their strengths and work on pumping these up. We’re all flawed diamonds e.g. like those random ‘product ideas’ I get but never do anything about. Generally speaking – the best bet is to ignore your flaws and keep polishing the diamond.

Ostrich Mentality: Did you know that China will soon be the largest economy in the world? You might also know that it’s run by 7 men who are politically ‘less than transparent’ (great line from their Politburo after the recent elections in the US: “That’s what you get when you have democracy”). Or, perhaps you’re concerned about North Korea’s increasing nuclear credibility – which is starting to worry a wider group than fish in the South China Sea. Alongside those sobering facts, we had a large serving of Brexit for Breakfast. It was a geo-political tour de force changes that could/might/will (don’t ask an economist) impact ‘Ireland Inc’. Sitting listening to all this stuff, I was conscious of my own role, well down the food chain. And, I became occupied by a single thought. How will any of this stuff impact me? Having lived in Asia and with 3  kids (2 Asian) I’m particularly interested in events in that part of the world. But only in a ‘nosey’ way. Not in an: ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen next’, kind of way. I was reminded of the quip by Mark Twain who said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, some of which actually happened.” We have a fixed amount of processing capacity, or ‘head space’ as they call it in Finglas. Why fill it up with stuff that you can’t control? I’ve teenagers. That’s enough stuff that I can’t control for one lifetime (“you can only be as happy as your ‘unhappiest’ child”). If there are things happening externally that you need to be aware of/do something about – then of course you have to do it. You don’t want to be like Charles Handy’s ‘frog’. But, the rest of it, the stuff that you can’t do anything about, just take an Ostrich stance and give yourself a break (the trick, of course, is to be able to differentiate between what you need to respond to and what you can ignore).

Time Out: When I sign up for conferences, the date is always sometime far into the distant future. Then on the day itself, I have a zillion reasons not to go. I’m too busy, falling behind on my day job. Someone, somewhere is screaming for something. The rush-hour traffic into town (in the teeming rain) will be a nightmare. And so on. But once you make the effort, that ‘thinking time’ in a darkened room – staying open to new ideas and insights – has two specific upsides (1) you might actually learn something from listening to someone at the conference (2) you might learn something from calming down and just listening to yourself.

Book that ticket to your next conference. It’s a sure-fire way to ‘out-think’ the competition.

Have a great week.


PS: Great Advertising: Thai video called ‘Smoking Kid’. It shows a sequence of clips where children go up to adults who are smoking outside of their workplaces and ask them for a light. They tracked the response. Apparently, the calls to a smoking quit line, shown as part of the video, increased by 40%. Brilliant.

 Lighter Note: Conference Attendance:

Three lawyers and three MBA’s are traveling by train to a conference. At the station, the MBA’s each buy tickets and watch as the three lawyers only buy a single ticket “How are 3 people going to travel on only one ticket?” asks an MBA. “Watch and you’ll see,” answers one of the lawyers. They all board the train.

The MBA’s take their respective seats but all three lawyers cram into a restroom and close the door behind them. Shortly after the train departs, the conductor comes around collecting tickets. He knocks on the restroom door and says, “Ticket, please.” The door opens just a crack and a single arm emerges with a ticket in hand. The conductor takes it and moves on.

The MBA’s discussed this and agreed it was quite a clever idea. So after the conference, the MBA’s decide to copy the lawyers on the return trip and save some money. When they get to the station, they buy a single ticket for the return trip. To their astonishment, the lawyers don’t buy any tickets at all. “How are you going to travel without a ticket?” asked one perplexed MBA. “Watch and you’ll see,” answers a lawyer.

When they board the train the 3 MBA’s cram into a restroom and the 3 lawyers cram into another one nearby. The train departs. Shortly afterward, one of the lawyers leaves the restroom and walks over to the restroom where the MBA’s are hiding. He knocks on the door and says, “Ticket, please.”

The Pope And Bill ClintonAfter a meeting with the Pope, Bill Clinton held a press conference and announced that they had a very successful conference and actually agreed on about 60% of what they discussed. When asked what they had discussed, Clinton replied: “The Ten Commandments.”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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