We are almost a week away from one of my favorite events of the year, the 2019 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition, and my excitement level is officially set to HIGH! There’s so much to look forward to in Las Vegas, and space is already limited (so if you’re interested, be sure to register soon!). When I tell you that I wholeheartedly encourage you to attend this special event, I truly mean that for so many reasons. But one of the main reasons is something that has been a struggle for me personally in the past, yet has expanded my world in so many beautiful ways, for which I am forever grateful. And that is building genuine connections with others. Networking has not always come easy for me, but this event has been so instrumental in working through that.
For someone that grew up accustomed to eating lunch alone at school most of the time, simply because I was different and not too many people cared to talk about video games and comic books back in those days, building a connection seemed terribly foreign and frightening to me. Beyond an incredibly small social circle at times, I didn’t understand what it would look like to build connections beyond that group, though I yearned for that. This is something I carried into adulthood.
Of course, my limited understanding of how to build connections was predicated on not wanting to leave my own comfort zone; that fear of rejection and embarrassment was speaking to me and telling me to stay put. But we all know the greatest breakthroughs in life are created outside of that comfort zone.
With the potential for over 20,000 attendees at this year’s event, I know a crowd that size can seem daunting to some. I can tell you it once was for me, and there was a time where I would quickly retreat to my hotel room once the sessions I attended were complete. How wrong I was. Networking isn’t easy for everyone. Believe me, I completely understand that. But it truly is the way to building genuine connections at these events.
One of my favorite books is Dare to Lead, written by the one and only Dr. Brené Brown, who will be one the keynote speakers at this year’s event (definitely do not miss learning from her in-person!). To say that this book is life-changing is an understatement. There is simply so much goodness and so many incredible takeaways that had an emotional impact on me personally, but one theme stands out and relates to my own journey in overcoming obstacles. That is the fact that we should not struggle and give up who we are in the pursuit of building authentic connections.
There truly is suffering in the absence of these connections. I can attest to that. And so it makes sense to break through those fears. Brené powerfully notes genuine connection doesn’t require us to change who we are to fit in. And that’s what has helped me work through my own struggles throughout the years.
Connecting with complete strangers is scary, but what’s on the other side of that fear can be beautiful. Acceptance and releasing judgement can change someone’s life. That good will has a way of spreading. Know that when you pursue an opportunity to network with others, you should do so free of any burden of having to change who you are or what you believe in.
I’ve written previously that the fundamental truth about our work in HR is that we’re dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, and building genuine connections with the people we’re serving, founded upon mutual respect and care for one another, is the only way to truly make a difference. We cannot effectively serve those we do not understand. Part of this is building relationships where we truly care for one another, and enjoy that relationship without fear of rejection or ridicule. Events like #SHRM19 can be a way to expand your world and find those connections.
I know the world can be harsh, and I know it can be divisive. People are not always going to agree on every issue, and we’re not going to be able to build a genuine connection with every person we meet. And that’s OK. But I can tell you, unequivocally, the annual SHRM Conference & Exposition has created so many opportunities for me to grow personally and to surround myself with people that share common causes and experiences.
There are lifelong friendships that have been created because of this event, and because I once made the decision to stop retreating to the hotel room and instead chose to be vulnerable and trust that I could build those authentic connections. And remember that networking is different for everyone. As an introvert, I can tell you I still become exhausted after spending time in large groups.
While some people may thrive on networking and building connections with hundreds of people, some people may find they’re better suited to building authentic connections with a much smaller group. Know what works best for you. Maybe attending only one networking event is your way to begin your journey to building these connections. I say go for it!
Sit by someone you don’t know during a session. Don’t hide in the back of the room. If you’re attending by yourself, don’t be afraid to go to a networking reception. Don’t be afraid to be the first person to say hello. These are all small steps that have created so much beauty in my own life. I know they can work for you too.
Special moments happen when we’re in the company of those we care about, and those moments can shape our lives. I know my life is better because of the people I’ve met at this event throughout the years. And better workplaces equal a better world. Seek out those that are committed to creating those better workplaces, and how you can then create a better world together. And always promise yourself you’ll never change who you are to connect with anyone. I can tell you the reward is incredible.
To anyone reading this, I hope you are able to make the journey to Las Vegas. And I hope the world is better because you went.