Professional Development that Is Different by Design

I have always found conferences to be both the most exciting and a somewhat puzzling part of my professional development throughout the years. The chance to get out of “the norm” of my day-to-day work at my organization is always refreshing, as a chance to gain renewed perspective. For many years, I also found that I often had a few spark or “aha” moments at each conference. Sadly, they didn’t always have the staying power to significantly impact my work.

Over time, I came to realize that to truly get the most value out of a conference experience, I needed to put more intention into what I did leading up to, at, and following a conference event. I know it sounds obvious now, but these are not things people tell you. Usually, a supervisor would simply say, “Yah, that looks good. Go, absorb, get smarter, and come back better at your job,” and that is exactly what I would attempt to do.

As I progressed in my career, and the nonprofit technology field in general, I found that my role was more and more consistently as a presenter at conferences and less on the participant aspect. If I wasn’t running a session, I was trying to network or volunteer. While I greatly enjoy this side of things and find good value in this, I have increasingly missed a chance to grow myself and find those “aha” moments like little treasures in unexpected sessions. Professional development now usually happens by myself reading blogs, books, and participating in online learning communities. I really miss the in-person aspect of learning from and with other people.

It turns out there are other folks who have been having a similar experience at conferences—lots of other people.

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Being part of the team evolving the 2015 Leading Change Summit (LCS) has been a fantastic way to create a learning experience that gets at some of these challenges. There are three things in particular that I really like.

Come With Context

The whole premise of the LCS is to come with a challenge and leave with a solution. While I usually come to a conference knowing a few of the sessions I want to attend, they can often still be scattered across topics. Knowing that my entire multi-day experience is centered around solving one particular challenge really does help set the context in my own personal reality.

I start every one of my trainings asking people to find their working example for the day so as to help keep them focused as we move through content. This allows them to ask their most important questions and have a better chance of leaving with really actionable next steps.

Imagine the value of doing that for an entire conference and not just a one hour training. That’s the LCS.

Facilitated Flow

During a multi-day conference, it can be fun to hop around between topic areas—from mobile applications to email metrics to organizational culture. The challenge comes in successfully connecting the dots between sessions that were created in isolation of each other. Certainly connections can be found, but it often feels impossible to do so, because the time and space needed to properly digest it all simply doesn’t exist after you leave the conference and get back to your daily responsibilities. This is all the more amplified as you come back to a backlog of tasks because you know…you were gone at a conference.

That is precisely why we built that process directly into the program flow of the LCS. Having multiple touchpoints throughout each day with your hub—a time with peers and a dedicated facilitator—helps connect those dots while you are in the process. Imagine dedicated time to think. This allows you to step away from the conference with more of a finished product rather than the making of a major “homework” assignment to get to that point.

A Hint of “Choose Your Own Adventure”

Frameworks are things I talk about all the time. We want to make sure a structure is in place to set you up for strategic success, but the structure should have enough flexibility that each organization can apply their own style to meet their unique needs. By adding workshop opportunities that allow folks to step outside their facilitated hubs, attendees can do just that. Attendees can choose from select workshops on topics that fit their particular needs and help them build their ideal solution.

Taking Ownership For the Outcomes

Overall, the idea is to create a conference experience that moves those unspoken “secrets of success” out of the implied discussion and puts them front and center. Sure, the idea of “your own private strategic planning retreat” sounds great, but it also accurately describes the advantage of making the experience your own from the start.

Interested in learning more about the Leading Change Summit and how all these pieces are going to come together? Be sure to check out the summit website, ask questions in the comments, or shoot us an email (

Ash Shepherd
Education Director
Ash has been in love with the nonprofit sector for nearly two decades, where he has worked in the areas of conservation, environmental education, social work, youth program development, and technology consulting. He has been an active member of the NTEN Community, serving as a co-organizer of Portland’s 501 Tech Club, and completing a three-year term on the NTEN: Change Journal's Editorial Committee. Ash earned a B.S. from the University of Montana in Resource Management and a Masters in Environment and Development from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa.