Thursday, September 30, 2010

Conference Etiquette

I was privileged enough to attend the Ideas Festival this past year here in St. Andrews. It was a remarkable few days where I had the chance to meet an amazing array of leaders in a variety of fields such as journalism, filmmaking, publishing, music, corporate leadership, education and politics. I also met with the young leaders who were part of a group of ten month projects on leadership development and innovative thinking. Tim Coates, executive director of 21inc. was the man, along with Don Dennison, executive director of the New Brunswick Business Council, who brought together the conference speakers, managed the ten month projects and pulled together today’s industry leaders as sponsors of this inaugural event. For me this was a humbling experience and one which left an indelible mark on my mind. For those of you who know me well, this happens to me far too infrequently. I have been passionate about youth development as well as provincial sustainability since I moved here 15 years ago. And these three days helped confirm for me that we as a society in New Brunswick are advancing in a positive direction.

This conference also gave me the opportunity to observe people interacting with one another in several different contexts. I preface my comments by saying that no where is it more important to be civil, have good manners and understand certain protocols than in the arena of leadership. This festival demonstrated to me that my chosen profession has a future.

I remember one young man sitting down next to me at lunch one day and commenting that because he was sitting next to ‘the etiquette guy’ that he would be paying very close attention to my every move. Perhaps he was paying attention, but there was no apparent attempt on his part to emulate such things as posture, style of handling the cutlery, or use of napkin, seating or excusing oneself from the table. As I looked around the table I could see that some of the soft skills so important to grasp and to learn and to implement in order to become tomorrows polished leaders were sadly lacking. Nonetheless, we had lively conversations about the content of the festival and how much we were enjoying ourselves. Wielding cutlery deftly would have produced a less distracting background and added an air of professionalism to the picture.

I remember overhearing another person accosting the event host wanting to know “what are you trying to sell here?” implying that there was an ulterior motive embedded within this conference. And if that weren’t bad enough, he felt obliged to berate another attendee for wearing a kilt. The young proud man of Scottish decent proceeded to tear a strip off the offender which sent him on his way. My point here though is that there is no time at a conference for disagreeable behavior. Mean spirited remarks are uncalled for at any time and certainly never in a public forum where such remarks can be overheard by innocent bystanders. Perhaps the gentleman thought he was being funny. I hope so. But one of the fundamentals of building business relationships is to curb your humor until you know the other people better. Not everyone shares the same views and humor can come off as offensive.

And then there was the rather vociferous person who plunked himself down beside two people at a table who were engaged in a somewhat private conversation. Clearly the two people in conversation were surprised and feeling somewhat intruded upon. They politely asked him if there was anything they could help him with. He replied, “No, I just like to eavesdrop.” I think they were as flabbergasted hearing this as I am actually writing it. This is an easy to understand example of showing total disrespect for others. Of all places, a conference where there are 200 people, all leaders, discussing various topics either privately or in break out groups or with larger audiences, respect of one another’s space must always be a priority. The irony of this is that there were so many opportunities during this three day event to hear people having ‘private conversations’ on stage that for this guy to intrude here was baffling.

This points to another cornerstone of building business relationships. If you are trying to introduce yourself into a group of people, try to choose a group of three or four or more people engaged in what would look like an open conversation. Avoid interrupting two people who are obviously engaged in a more private discourse. This intrusion not only disrupts their trains of thought, but it immediately black lists you from any chance of building any kind of future relationship with them. Acting with civility and showing respect for your peers and, in this festival, your mentors will greatly improve your chances of becoming a community leader and a mentor yourself to the future leaders of our society.