Beware of the CEO conference addict

October 14, 2010: 12:22 PM ET

For entrepreneurs, it's important to build relationships. But take it too far, and you sacrifice leadership.

By Mark Suster, contributor

Step away from the Moscone Center

You know the type. You see them on Twitter, Facebook or Plancast plotting out their next 12 conferences. You see their tweets from airports across the globe. Look at me! I'm in Spain! Now I'm in France. Next week I'm speaking in Cabo San Lucas! They are professional conference attendees.

They are CEOs addicted to the schmoozing.

In the industry they're known as "conference ho's." Okay, they're known as conference "whores" but that sounded too harsh for a blog post. Inevitably a certain number of entrepreneurs feel compelled to attend every conference. I think I know the root cause. It can be magnetic being at conferences, especially when you're on a panel, you're invited to a speakers' dinner, you're getting to meet so many new people and you're getting so much attention.

And for all of these reasons it's smart to selectively go to a few events here and there – particularly those that you're likely to have the highest hit rates of connecting with people who can change your business. But there has to be a limit. In the same way you wouldn't spend all of your day in front of your computer at the expense of customer interaction, there has to be a limit to attending conferences.

I've heard all of the excuses from these CEOs. "How else could I get so much business development done? I work hard on my flights and in my hotel room? I have a really productive head of products cranking out code."

Bullshit.

When you're not in your office on a regular basis you're not showing leadership. You're not setting the agenda. You're not establishing culture, inspiring people or resolving conflicts. When you're on the road all the time you're not as productive. You reach diminishing marginal returns of the next person you met in relation to all that you're sacrificing by not being in the office working.

It's about you and the relationships you're building. It's about the personal schmoozing and the network that's going to help you whether you're current company is successful or not.

So here's the thing:

1. I often hear the non-CEO management teams from the companies left with no leadership complaining about the lack of leadership. Leadership abhors a vacuum. So people step in and fight. Or stuff doesn't get resolved. Or somebody else becomes the "de facto" leader of the company. If this CEO would stare in the mirror and be honest with him/herself they'd realize this. It's not possible to be a conference ho and a leader at the same time.

2. You think that everybody is marveling at your travels, your stories, your airplane layovers, your new friends and your photo from the South of France. They're not. I hear people mumbling about how you're unfocused and in it for yourself. I hear investors talking about how they'd never fund somebody that spends more time in conference halls than in their office. You're too busy traveling to hear that they're saying this. Until it's too late.

So my message to people who attend every conference has always been, "Do you see Mark Zuckerberg at every conference? Do you see Ev Williams or Mark Pincus at every conference? Do you see Larry or Sergey at every conference? Name one professional conference attendee that has built a successful software business. If you're in the services business, looking to sell books, or work in sales, I get why you might spend more time at conferences.

If you're a start-up CEO – don't kid yourself. Get back to work. There's a team in the office in need of your guidance.

Mark Suster joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. He blogs at Bothsidesofthetable.com.

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