Written by Thomas Biddle, RS&S Project Manager
Last year, I wrote an article on the lessons I learned while attending my first annual AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Conference. Having now attended my second annual conference, I wanted to share again my takeaways and experiences as a young professional.
This past year has been a particularly busy one and has led to significant personal and professional growth. One of the most significant contributors to that growth has been the mentorship of an experienced industry professional who has helped to guide my career by providing leadership, advice and support over the past year. He has also proven to be what all good mentors should be: challenging – and I mean that in the best way possible. He doesn’t let me get too comfortable; he is always pushing me to do and achieve more, to push my boundaries and set ambitious goals for myself. For a young professional, this is exactly what is needed, whether your field is consulting, engineering or medicine.
I was lucky to have my mentor also in attendance at this year’s conference. While there, he posed to me a series of questions to support and encourage my continued growth. Over the course of my time at the conference, there were three particular questions he asked that I felt were valuable to share, especially for young professionals new to industry conferences or similar events. Not only did these questions imply a clear expectation that my participation in the conference be active and engaged rather than passive, but they also helped to frame what that engagement might look like and how to achieve it.
As I mentioned in my article last year, he asked me this because he knew that as a young person at a major industry conference, I might feel inclined to focus on my visibility and, as a result, talk too much. After all, if movies and TV have taught us anything it’s that we as millennials know the answers to everything and are often intent on showcasing our expertise.
It’s a classic pitfall that young “hotshot” professionals often fall into, and one I was fortunate to be warned extensively about in the run-up to both this and last year’s AZA Annual Conference.
My mentor’s goal with this question was to see if I had been paying attention and had begun to discern trends and potential new opportunities for my budding career. You can’t do this while talking. My mentor was asking me if I had been practicing good business skills in my interactions with other conference attendees in addition to reminding me to be more like Silent Cal: talk less, listen more.
Again, he was not looking for me to give him a list of the people with whom I’d spoken during the day. He was asking how I was going to make the conversation work for me. After all, the conversations that I had regarding work, the industry and the AZA were not without a purpose. They were meant to develop new business opportunities and work on existing projects, while also building a professional business network for myself and my organization.
These professional networks are a key element in anyone’s career and even more so for consultants as genuine relationships are the lifeblood of our work. Maintaining, managing, nurturing, and growing this network is therefore a key component of any young professionals’ career, and the best place to do all of this is at a conference.
I had learned a great deal during my time at the conference, ranging from sustainability efforts of NGOs to membership trends. Again, that was not what my mentor was asking of me. He was asking what I had learned to help me in my career.
The truth is that overall, I learned less than I had at my first AZA Annual Conference the previous year. While I had certainly learned things that would be vital to the advancement of my career by forging new connections, working with clients and meeting vendors and partners, there was nothing as significant as what I had learned from my first experience in 2018.
What I realized was that last year’s AZA Conference had kick-started a new phase of my career and the lessons that I had learned this year built upon the foundation I established at my first conference. I describe it as feeling like a snowball that started rolling at the AZA 2018 Conference and that has since continued to roll downhill.
Over the past year, I have benefited immensely from having the guidance and leadership of a mentor who believes in me and is willing to invest the time and energy helping me and my career grow and develop. He has challenged, educated and supported my career and professional and personal growth.
These things seem simple and small, but they are critical in the development of any young professional’s career. This is the most powerful lesson that I have learned over the past year, and it was reinforced through my experiences at this year’s conference. It is also what I find myself coming back to as I reflect on the conference.