Is there a secret to climbing the ladder of success? We asked that question of some highly successful people in the meetings industry.
They agreed on many things, such as the benefit of finding mentors early in your career and the responsibility to mentor those coming behind you. None believe that success comes by stepping on others, but rather through integrity, cooperation, accountability and treating others with respect. They differed on a few elements; mostly, however, they offered not secrets but a clear blueprint for success.
Jennifer Patino, DMCP, CEO of Hosts Global, says a first step is to, “Create or find a vision in order to garner the passion that fuels successful people.” Future leaders, she says, will also be curious, resourceful and do the right thing.
Being resourceful, however, means looking inward as much as reaching outward. “Many people don’t understand the value of continual self-assessment,” Patino says, “which allows one to consider next steps, pain points and solutions for growth, both personally and professionally.”
Sometimes challenges are about timing. “In my early career, there were few women in management. The biggest challenge was to be acknowledged as a contributor and peer to the management team on a level playing field for the growth of my department,” she says.
Her response was to work harder and longer than others in order to deliver results before due date. “I spent time with all the stakeholders to understand how success would be measured and then I over delivered. Know better, do better,” she says.
“When I was moving up the ladder, there was little flexibility related to work-life balance. I missed important moments with my family and had to stretch to find ways to blend my work with my family to ensure my career was on solid footing and my family had me present as much as possible. I didn’t always achieve this.”
Patino was also willing to take on new projects and responsibilities that were out of her comfort zone. “Ultimately that was an important piece to moving up as I was exposed to the flip side of the risky feeling — accomplishment realized with bold actions.”
Today, Patino says, “I work hard at integrating work-life balance for our team members. I want fulfilled people doing great work and that can be accomplished by encouraging flexible solutions to unique situations.”
In terms of mentoring others, Patino’s goal is simple: “Inspire them to know their worth, encourage them to reach and create the path that will allow them to run fast and far.”
Looking back, Patino wishes she had understood one thing earlier: “That I already had all the elements I would need to build my career. One day I came to the realization that I was super resourceful and I could trust myself to work through any challenge, and that if I tapped into empathy and gratitude I could achieve what I needed to.”
Carole McKellar, CMM, MA, vice president, EMEA, with HelmsBriscoe, puts research and preparation at the top of the list of aids to successful advancement. “When opportunities arise, find out as much as you can in advance and be prepared for multiple outcomes.”
The path to success may be straightforward yet not always obvious. “It takes hard work, determination and integrity. I also believe you need to genuinely care about others and take time to give back as well,” McKellar says.
Maintaining integrity matters in multiple ways. “The biggest challenge has been dealing with the rare individuals who try to undermine you,” she says. “I’ve experienced this a few times over the past 30 years. In each situation, I had an established professional reputation with strong personal values, so it was clear the attempts to damage my credibility weren’t valid and didn’t align with what people knew of me. If you have consistent values and act accordingly, colleagues know who you are and what and whom to believe.”
Like Patino, McKellar says self-reflection and passion are key. “Be clear on your strengths and the aspects of work that really make you excited,” she says. “If you don’t have clear personal goals, it’s hard to see the next step. I strongly believe that if you aren’t enjoying your work you should analyze what parts you do like and find a new work environment that matches your needs. If that doesn’t exist, create it. In 1992, our first son arrived. As my employer didn’t support part-time working we made the decision to set up an association management company and create a flexible environment for our family. I’ve been self-employed ever since because that gives us the freedom to focus on family and do the work I enjoy most.”
Also key, is to be well informed about your industry in order to have a competitive advantage over your peers, and to be open to new opportunities. “Having sold two businesses in 2009, I was open to new ideas and was introduced to HelmsBriscoe. That discussion wouldn’t have happened had I not been an active volunteer on the MPI International Board. As an entrepreneur at HelmsBriscoe, I’ve had the chance to grow as a leader, build a team, coach and train colleagues and spend time as a volunteer with MPI.”
McKellar believes in the power of teamwork along with good communication and clear goals. “Empower others,” she says. “You can’t do everything yourself. Build a strong team around you and recognize them on a regular basis for their contribution.”
For McKellar, mentoring goes beyond her team. “There are barriers that prevent people with special needs from applying for jobs when they could make a valuable contribution,” she says. “I’m passionate about encouraging managers and supervisors to review their recruitment processes and look at how they can expand their pool of talented individuals. In the UK, HelmsBriscoe supports a project to bring young adults with autism into hospitality. This is funded through the MPI Foundation and Meeting Needs. Over the past seven years, we’ve seen young adults grow in confidence and go on to gain employment through our work experience project.”
To those on the rise, McKellar suggests three strategies: “Examine your strengths and be clear on what you enjoy doing and are good at doing, then focus your job applications in those areas and become known as an expert in your chosen area. Be open to lifelong learning and seek out ways to gain relevant qualifications to support your goals. Finally, get involved in industry activity, be an active member of a professional association and give back where and when you can.”
Paul Van Deventer, is no stranger to the meetings industry. Today he’s president and CEO of MPI and he’s clear on what’s important for those who want to succeed. “Your personal integrity and brand are the most valuable assets you possess in the business world, and the only things completely in your control,” he says.
He considers it imperative to treat others as you want to be treated. “Not only is that the right thing to do, but from a practical perspective, the world is really a small place and your career will hopefully be long. Inevitably you’ll run across former business acquaintances in the future.”
Van Deventer’s third insight may surprise some A-types. “Take time to stop and smell the roses. My career has afforded me the opportunity to travel the world, visit unique destinations and meet amazing and diverse people. Thankfully, I had a mentor early in my career who emphasized the importance of ‘savoring the moment,’ advice I’ve ardently followed and along the way have built a rich portfolio of unique and rewarding experiences and great friendships.”
He lists perseverance as a key attribute that successful people share. “Or as my mother would say, ‘stick-to-itiveness.’”
Most of our experts agree that passion is critical to business success. “Like any journey, a career has unforeseen twists, turns, ups and downs,” Van Deventer says. “If you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing it can be difficult to weather the challenges and you won’t be prepared when opportunities present themselves. Pursue opportunities that inspire you, that grow you personally and professionally, that you believe make a difference and your career will be fulfilling.”
Van Deventer says he’s blessed “to wake up every day and be able to say I love what I do. But it wasn’t a direct path. My career has gone through several twists and turns, including sideways and backward steps. Early on it was sometimes difficult to stay focused on the ‘long-game’ and not get lost in self-pity during turbulent times. Learning to maintain an even keel has been invaluable for me. Don’t get overly exuberant during the highs, nor too down during the lows.”
Contrary to the belief that success is achieved by ruthlessness, Van Deventer says that approach is actually counter-productive. “Stepping on others may provide a short-term advantage but will inevitably undermine you personally and professionally.”
Moreover, he adds, it’s a mistake to focus too heavily on personal advancement and resume-building. “Your self-absorption will be obvious to others. If instead you focus on finding fulfillment in your work, being adventurous in your career, maximizing opportunities presented to you and working harder than those around you, career advancement will naturally follow.”
Van Deventer’s advice to those starting out is to be open to new opportunities, take risks and constantly challenge yourself. “It’s also important to build diverse, deep and strong networks and continually nurture them,” he says. Perhaps most of all, “Never compromise your integrity and always treat others with respect.”
Hillary Smith, CMP, CSEP, is executive creative director with PRA. She, too, lists perseverance as essential. “Inevitably, there will be challenges and obstacles,” she says. That’s true for teams as well. “The most important thing leaders can do is motivate and inspire their teams to keep getting up and performing at their best.”
Smith says she spent too much time early in her career apologizing for her opinions and questioning her instincts. “What people don’t know is that the more authentic and true to yourself and your passion you are, the more confident you automatically become. Climbing the ladder takes being bold, believing in yourself and speaking up so you’re heard. No one else can speak your truths or have your perspectives. We’re our own best advocates and if we want something, we need to relentlessly chase it.”
Although delegating is a challenge for some managers and leaders, Smith calls it critical. “Many of us are drivers, but in order to be an effective leader, we need to let go and teach others so they can learn.”
At one point, Smith says, I knew I couldn’t take on any more. “I recognized that my team was willing to help. I just needed to believe they were capable. When I trusted, I got great results, my team got better and our overall performance skyrocketed. It takes skill to properly delegate in order to set others up for success and to ensure that what you receive back meets the ask.”
Thinking about key elements successful managers share, Smith says, “I think there’s an insatiable hunger for growth and a curiosity and capacity to manage through change. I think being a leader means you prop up others and/or carry them up along with you.”
While being mentored underpins the success of many, negative forces can also drive success. “I had a string of really bad leaders, which ironically influenced me to want to avoid their negative traits,” Smith says. “It gave me grit, cut my teeth and forced me to survive, which may have been a key driver in my climb.”
To others striving to rise in their careers she says, “Ask for opportunities to shadow and learn, be curious and comfortable asking questions about what you don’t know and choose something you love. Being passionate and enthusiastic is contagious and leads to workplace fulfillment.”
If there’s one regret she has about her journey, it’s not using the resources available to her early on, “that could have made me a better, more effective leader sooner. There isn’t a guidebook. Most young leaders just dive in and learn by experience and mistakes. I finally started my external quest for knowledge five years or more into leadership. I wish I had done it sooner.”
Nicole Bojic is group executive, strategy, at InVision Communications, which provides event management and execution, among other services. Bojic says no one thing leads to success in business.
“I’m not a believer in ‘one’ of anything, she says. “I do think talent sums up a lot of what it takes to be successful, but I don’t believe talent alone ensures success. From my experience, it’s part talent, part luck. While luck has been something I’ve always felt is an important aspect of what it takes to realize success, until recently quantifying the role of luck in talent and career success hasn’t taken place. It will be interesting to see where some of the recently conducted studies take this theory.”
Echoing Van Deventer, Bojic says the focus shouldn’t be career moves. “Climbing the ladder was never a goal I had for myself. In fact, the concept of ‘climbing the ladder’ can easily distract from what it actually takes to move forward in your career. If you look at most successful leaders, you’ll see they’ve made a lateral move or even taken a step backward at some point in their career in order to move forward.”
She also agrees that taking time to slow down is important. “When you’re wired to move quickly, work hard and drive forward, it’s easy to forget to pause and appreciate all that you, as well as those around you, have accomplished. These accomplishments, no matter how small or big, will be the ones that keep you and your team motivated — especially when things get challenging.”
While there may not be one attribute successful people share, Bojic says “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable” should be embraced. “As you move up in an organization, there are more and more unknowns, things you need to solve that have no specific/defined solutions. While this can be scary at times, it’s equally as thrilling because that’s where real creativity and problem-solving come into play.”
Like all our experts, Bojic says stepping on others isn’t the right move. “This doesn’t necessarily mean you can make everyone happy at every turn, but you can try. I’ve found making a good, honest effort goes a long way. “
In pondering what she wishes she’d known earlier in her career, Bojic says only half joking, “everything.” But, she adds, “I do mean this in all honesty: Act like you know nothing and have everything to learn and you’ll get further faster.”
She thinks it’s a mistake to always go for the sexiest role at the biggest brand or organization. “Go for the one that allows you to wear the most hats,” she suggests. “You’ll be uncomfortable at times, but you’ll gain exposure and experience faster. Then see things through even when you hate the task at hand. There will always be aspects of your job you don’t love but demonstrate you can deliver on all aspects of your role — it’s part of growth.”
Beyond that: “Network, network, network. Then network some more.”
Michael Dominguez, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International, needs no introduction. His perspectives on rising to become a respected manager and leader come from deep experience. “Servant leadership is a must today,” he says. “People don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care about them.”
He believes time and team members are a leader’s greatest assets. “As time is a highly valuable asset, a leader should focus on building and maintaining culture. Peter Drucker said it so well, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’”
Yet focusing on team members and taking time to create a culture in which they’ll thrive, he says, “is a shift for many. But at the end of the day, our industry, our life is all about people.”
Like others, Dominguez thinks grit is a common trait among successful people, “the ability to persevere as even the best laid plans will not go as planned,” he says. “People will go to your beat so it’s critical to inspire the team to remember that tomorrow will be better.”
Even in the best circumstances, however, time poverty is a formidable challenge. “There are so many asks for your time as you continue to advance. There’s a critical need to eliminate or minimize unnecessary meetings so your time is well spent,” Dominguez says.
He considers the ability to move important for those wanting to rise in their industry. “Early in my career the ability to move was so important as the learning curve is sped up dramatically with moves.”
Beyond that, he suggests, “Always raise your hand for the tasks nobody wants. There have been so many defining moments that have come from those opportunities. And it may be a bit cliché,” he adds, “but our approach and outlook to whatever is put in front of us is so important.”
Looking back, Dominguez didn’t understand at the start how little he knew. “Reflection is so important as you continue to advance to see the inflection points in your life. I can think back to times I thought, ‘I’ve got this, I know’ and nope, I didn’t have it.”
His advice to those coming into the industry, “First and foremost be humble — get over yourself. This goes to the servant leadership mentality and understanding that humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”
Your actions, he continues will be what defines you. “As Thoreau eloquently said, ‘What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.’ And listen — often and with an intensity to learn and understand, not to respond.” C&IT