My name is Debby and I’m a conference addict


When we launched our latest offering “The Inspired Teachers Conference“, which is just around the corner, a friend asked me how many more conferences I was planning to create. The truth is, I honestly don’t know. But I will probably continue for a while because I’m addicted to the thrill of learning and discovering together.

I’m not sure exactly when the habit started but over the years, whenever I’ve been faced with a problem I can’t solve by myself, I host a conference.

In the process I’ve met fascinating people from a variety of different fields, but perhaps most significant of all, I’ve learnt something very important about how we learn. We learn better together, in conversation.

I often quote the findings of Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology, who researched what it is that people enjoy most about conferences. The answer? The coffee breaks.

So, over the years, we’ve worked with the tension between attracting a star-studded cast and making sure that there is enough time for delegates to spend as much time as possible talking among themselves… because these are the conversations that are remembered years later, long after the logos on the goody bags have faded.

Like most lessons that stick, the only way I’ve learnt this lesson is through personal experience. I remember the first time I experienced working with a syndicate group when I was at Wits Business School many years ago. It was hell. Dunne, who had already completed his MBA and was far more experienced in the political dynamics of the syndicate, was amused as I tossed and turned at night, trying to come up with ways to get my all-male syndicate members to give me air time the next day.

Sleepless nights notwithstanding, some of the insights I learnt through that experience (most of them about myself) have stayed with me far longer than the finance notes I wrote down and tried to learn by heart.

The interactive experience of the syndicate group used by business schools is a valuable one, but it’s not nearly enough.

Etienne Wenger coined the term “Communities of practice” to describe the age-old phenomenon where people engage in a process of collective learning towards a common goal. His work has influenced educators ever since.

But collaboration in learning is now becoming even more prominent as we all get thrown together by the big melting pot of the digital economy. In fact, as gaming expert Jane McGonigal told World Economic Forum delegates recently, the 10 000 hours of gaming that the average young person will spend by the age of 21, will be spent honing the mastery of collaboration.

That’s why business, leadership and education is looking to the world of gaming for some insights. Young people might be obsessed with an online world that scares the living daylights out of us as parents, but they are also mastering skills we don’t know nearly enough about.

We know that the ability to work together across boundaries and across cultures is going to be one of the most essential leadership skills for our economic survival into the future. But many of us haven’t even mastered the basic art of listening, never mind the more advanced skill of working together.

I’m reminded of the importance of these skills every time I host a conference and learn as much from the delegates as from the speakers. Now that I’ve discovered this truth for myself there are all sorts of theories I can find to back up what I’ve already tested out more times than I can count – the best learning is learning together. And that’s why I keep creating conferences.

PS This also doubled up as my editorial for the February issue of The QualityLife Journal. If you’d like to subscribe (which would make me very happy) send an email to join-WLJ@quallife.co.za


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How to have coffee with an influencer (or me)

I don’t much like the term influencer. Partly because it’s the kind of label that many people seem to attach to themselves in their twitter bios, not unlike guru and thought-leader.

Still, as sure as I love sour jelly beans there will always be people we want to get to see because of their perceived value to us. But by the law of meeting karma there are always people who want to see us too.

In the democratic world of the social media universe you see, we are all influencers and schmoozers to a greater or lesser degree.

So take comfort dear coffee-hunter in the knowledge that whoever you are chasing, they are chasing someone too. That’s the law of meeting karma. (just check out anyone’s twitter feed for proof)

Considering I have insight from both sides – as hunter and hunted, as influencer and as schmoozer – here are my Seven Strategies for having coffee with someone you really want to meet

1. In fact people are particularly protective of their coffee times. I have mine in bed in the morning when intelligent conversation is not yet a high priority.

After that I choose to have coffee with a few close friends I don’t see nearly enough. So if we’ve never met, unless you’re suggesting something that can change my life (in a good way) please don’t suggest that we grab a cup of coffee.

2. You could however start with an enticing and relevant personal tweet – everyone likes a mention on twitter– or an interesting email that gives a lot of juicy details. Our inboxes have become our to-do lists (Voicemail not so much.) So make sure your information is compelling enough to stand out.

3. Better too not to tell me that you want to pick my brains. Especially if you’ve never visited my website or attended any of my workshops. Sorry but there’s a fragile ego beneath this tough exterior. Rather suggest a conversation that you think I would find so valuable that I can’t resist spending time with you. (but don’t forget point 1.)

We teach what we most need to learn: About a week ago I sent a rather silly facebook message to an editor I thought would love to meet me because we have so many friends in common. (Erm wrong) Cardinal error: I also added that I wanted to pick her brains. And surprise surprise: she’s under far too much work pressure to see me. No-one I’ve met yet finds the prospect of having their brains picked irresistible!

4. Collaborate and learn more about anyone’s work via facebook or twitter or comment on their blog posts. I’m far more inclined to meet with potential facilitators (many of the people who want to see me want to lecture for QualityLife Company) if we’ve had an interesting interaction on social media for a while before getting an email out of the blue

5. If you’ve been to one of our conferences or workshops, please mention which one. I’m afraid I do (fragile ego again) give greater priority to people who are familiar with our work and our particular brand of facilitation and teaching. By the same token if someone has written a book and I want a meeting with her, I make a point of reading the book first before I write the email. “I haven’t read your book yet but..” has never cracked it as a killer opening line

6. Add value. Mention them in a blog post. Send them a copy of your new book or article (with no strings attached) Mention them on twitter or facebook. But whatever you do don’t lay guilt trips. Sometimes a short, no-need to respond email is the best way to go. Countless follow-ups asking if someone received your email is a sure way to turn someone off and chase them into a reclusive guilt-trip. (trust me I spend a fair amount of time there)

7. Finally, remember that the law of meeting karma is not personal. We all lead fast-paced lives and patience is still a virtue. I’m regularly humbled by the inspiring leaders who agree to meet me but of course there are those who let me know that now is not the time and I hope I take it graciously.

Because if I don’t sulk there’s a chance we might still have coffee one day.  And for those of you who’ve read this far, I like mine skinny and strong