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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 6 • March 25 , 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Conventional Wisdom

A professional convention or conference, such as NACo’s Annual or Legislative conferences, or a local or regional meeting, can be a time and place of wonder, opportunity and perspective building. It can also be a time of battery recharge, learning and enjoyment.

In fact, the best advantage of attending, in the HR Doctor’s experience, is to return home with new ideas, with new or renewed contacts, and networks of colleagues from whom much can be learned and shared in the future.

So, why is it that we label such a gathering as a “convention” when, in fact, the whole idea is to learn to think in un-conventional ways? These meetings have many more advantages than disadvantages, especially if attendance by a team of two from the same organization is possible.

First, being asked to attend or receiving permission to attend a convention is a sign of recognition and appreciation by the agency. In recruiting and retaining “superstars,” money is not the number one motivator. It is certainly an important consideration, but not the important one.

Interestingly enough, surveys suggest that being recognized for one’s work and having the chance to succeed in meaningful projects and challenges have a higher place in the mind of the best and the brightest of employees. It is every manager’s professional obligation, and honor, to provide such recognition to great performing staff members, especially those in the relatively early stages of their public service careers. Attending a conference with a senior manager or executive is a great tool for such recognition and mentoring.

The HR Doctor recommends attendance be incorporated into a larger personal, professional development plan for the attendee. “Bring back several new ideas,” can be a reasonable expectation. Conduct a briefing on what was learned and what was brought back can also be a logical follow-up.

In today’s world of work and education, there is a perceived reduction in the ability of people to communicate with each other effectively. This is not a genetic weakness in individuals and it is unrelated to race, gender or disability. It is something which can be learned — but not without practice.

The key skill in the professional life of the most successful executive is to be able to serve as a briefing officer — to be able to take a complex issue and communicate it and explain it to others. This takes written and verbal skills obtainable through the experience of doing rather than just taking notes in a classroom. Use convention attendance for such experience. The positive results may prevent a great employee from leaving the organization prematurely.

Spread conference attendance opportunities to diverse members of the staff. Agencies simply can’t afford to send hordes of staff members to conventions, so the selection of attendees is important. Let the selection reflect the organization’s commitment to diversity and equity.

Deliberately use the event to build a professional network for the benefit of the organization. For example, there is an annual meeting, hosted by the International Personnel Management Association, which always results in follow-up help and contacts for attendees who present each other with issues and questions and get nationwide feedback.

What a wonderful tool for the individual and the organization! Just try doing that without ever having met your colleagues. It will not be anywhere near as successful as building on the contacts and relationships that can be established at professional meetings. In a world of e-mails the possibilities for follow-up are even greater.

If improved retention, staff development, morale and new sources of innovation aren’t enough positive reasons for attendance, how about the reality that going to a convention can re-energize the professional who may be feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Everyone feels that way periodically. Attending a meeting with colleagues helps you realize others share the same dilemmas and perhaps have tried solutions that worked for them and can be exported. This can be a very effective treatment to counter the bureaucratic illness of simmering frustration.

Now to the “dark sides of the force” when it comes to conventions. First, “Houston, we have a problem” when meetings are scheduled in locations that are so expensive in terms of registration, travel complexity, accommodations, food, etc., that a “chilling effect” results. No agency has a budget equal to that of the Department of Defense when it comes to attendance.

There is always local scrutiny of travel by helpful auditors, watchdogs, citizens who need better hobbies, Monday morning quarterbacks, etc. In many agencies, there are meal reimbursement limits, such as $3 dollars for breakfast, $6 dollars for lunch, or $12 dollars for dinner, which made great sense in 1972, but have somehow lingered on.

Organizations have an obligation to take these real world, practical dilemmas into account in planning the most convenient and cost sensitive locations as possible.

The agenda and logistics of the conference must be exciting, fast-paced and enjoyable. If not, the attendees may injure themselves when they fall asleep during a meeting and slip out of their uncomfortable chairs. Great, enthusiastic speakers, who present subjects of compelling interest in a dynamic way, are essential. The attendees need to end their convention experience feeling that their expectations were exceeded and they gained so much that any negative factors, such as time away from the office, travel hassles, and expense can be overcome.

Effective approaches to creating such “exceeds expectations” meetings and learning opportunities, low in cost but high in outcome, may be found in HR Doctor articles entitled Turning a Retreat Into a Great Step Forward and I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like, which may be read at
Local governments can also create great learning events in their own neighborhoods with less cost and greater opportunities for more people. Sonoma and Marin counties in California create a learning symposium periodically and invite cities and universities to participate.

The HR Doctor had the pleasure of speaking at the most recent one focusing on security and counter-terrorism. Lucas County, Ohio has a similar approach with the next one focusing on how managers can “…create a compelling place to work.” These locally grown efforts can pay off in improved staff and agency relationships, as well as in the more obvious sharing of specific knowledge with attendees.

Finally, some comments on what is often the first response of an elected or appointed official at the slightest hint of budgetary or publicity trouble. Namely, let’s cut the training budget! Let’s eliminate the travel budget! These responses, often originating in the knee joint, seem like correct ones, but the reality is that they can be very counter-productive.

It is critical that an organization encourage professional growth and support — no, demand — excellence in training and development. To do otherwise is to send the wrong message to staff members or job applicants.

Local government’s version of “R & D” rests in the learning, questioning and searching for better approaches by staff members. These abilities are enabled when staff gets to represent the organization at professional meetings in the manner described in this article. There is a balance to be drawn, of course. However, the agency hurts itself, its employees and those it serves by foolishly ignoring the unconventional positive outcomes of using meetings and conferences to serve the public!

See you “…in conference” and best wishes,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •