Thomas BiddleNow that the 2018 Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Annual Conference in Seattle is over, industry professionals have returned to their daily routines and the animals at the conference’s host organization, Woodland Park Zoo, have reclaimed their turf. For me, this is a time to look back on the experience and consider how to use what I learned there to advance my professional career and help others advance theirs too.

As a first-time AZA Conference attendee, I was eager to take it all in. I welcomed the opportunity to attend workshops; meet with past, present and future Schultz & Williams’ (S&W) clients; develop and nurture key relationships; and, as an added bonus, experience my father, Rick Biddle, managing director of strategic, business and organizational consulting at S&W, demonstrate his “personal relationships are everything” philosophy in real time.

In this article, I am delighted to share my takeaways with other young professionals, helping them make the most of the unparalleled opportunities to meet and learn from industry leaders when attending notable conferences.

  1. Listen

I observed many young people at the conference—those just starting out in their careers—chattering a lot when faced with daunting new experiences. Whether precipitated by jittery nerves or the desire to impress others, this tendency can make a first impression that is not exactly desired.

It was easy to see that there is a right time for consultants to speak and a right time for consultants to listen, and it’s critical to know how and when to balance the two.

In addition, listening closely to the directors and senior executives of AZA-accredited institutions speak—those from the smallest to some of the largest and most prestigious organizations in the country—I gained an invaluable overview of the industry. They discussed industry trends, their organizations’ strengths and weaknesses, and challenges for which they want, or need, consulting assistance. Beyond all of that, I also developed an understanding of their cultures, their missions and, of course, the individuals themselves.

Grasping an organization’s culture, mission and people is as important to addressing its needs and building strong client/consultant partnerships as understanding its budgets, attendance, fundraising situations, physical plant and the make-up of its collections and/or services.

  1. Go the Extra Mile

It was during those meetings with current or former S&W clients that something else became clear to me; on numerous occasions, institutional leaders thanked us for going above and beyond the work stipulated in our contracts to ensure that they reached their ultimate goals. Whether our efforts involved reaching out to a Board member, drafting talking points for staff or volunteers, or making key introductions to people who can support or help them achieve their goals, these “extra mile” initiatives demonstrated a sincere commitment to our clients and their success.

While I have participated in delivering some of these “extras” to our clients, it was not until the Conference that I comprehended how much this approach benefits them and the quality of our work.

Going above and beyond the scope of a client’s expectations or contracted work, makes a tremendous difference, bringing added value and outcomes to each project. Combining experience and expertise with these extra efforts is at the core of every consultant’s success.

  1. Build Your Reputation

In addition to delivering high quality work on time and within budget, cultivating and growing your reputation as a respected partner also occurs through many incidental, though important, interactions with clients along the way. These interactions and communications—from first meetings to the delivery of final reports—provide opportunities for consultants to demonstrate a profound work ethic and professional commitment to each client. They also offer a window into the consultant as a person. By establishing genuine connections, professional relationships can grow into fuller, more productive partnerships.

Send follow-up emails or handwritten notes to those you meet at a conference or on a sales call. In addition to basic good manners, thank you notes, confirmation e-mails, and other types of follow-up correspondence demonstrate that you have a high level of interest in the organization and it opens new opportunities for continuing conversations about mission, current situations, needs and goals.

The minimal amount of time required for such follow-up is well worth its return on investment. Far too often we hear about poor communication between consultants and their clients, resulting in serious problems. As consultants, we must model the behavior we recommend to our clients—strong and proactive communication is key to the successful outcome of any project, and it establishes the foundation for an effective and meaningful relationship.

  1. Forge Strong Relationships

The 2018 AZA Conference helped me realize it really is all about relationships and the positive impact that strong client/consultant connections have on helping organizations achieve and exceed their goals. In addition, attending professional conferences is a crucial opportunity for any consultant to build relationships, maintain and strengthen them.

I know this because I see it every day in the successful and meaningful relationships that my father has built with his clients over his 30+-year career. It’s a lesson that he instills in everyone who works with him. Through these relationships–professional interactions that have grown into full-fledged friendships—he has proven that this approach yields the best results for our clients.

Whether in business or love, it’s all about personal connections, and the sooner we realize this, the more we will succeed in our work and our lives.

End Note

Listen before talking; do what it takes to get the job done right; communicate often and effectively; and take time to build solid relationships with your clients. Taking each one of these lessons on its own merit is important; but taken together, they provide a solid foundation on which we can effectively apply our education and experience to help clients achieve their goals and aim for the stars.