Unlike the high-profile CEO, the head of a company’s meetings department often remains ‘behind the scenes,’ and only impacts great numbers of employees and clients through the events he or she oversees. Yet, to the meetings department and supporting teams of vendors, that individual is quite visible. Indeed, the meetings director or manager is relied upon to keep many team members with diverse skills moving forward toward the delivery of a successful event. Leadership skills thus become increasingly vital the higher one ascends in the planning profession.
But great leadership is not an exact science. Effective leaders exhibit a variety of skills and qualities in different measures, making for different leadership styles. Certainly, much learning and experience is involved in acquiring these skills and qualities, even if one considers oneself a ‘natural leader’ who has always been comfortable being in charge. Most fundamentally, one has to gain confidence in one’s ability to lead, a factor that was part of Dana Graham’s evolution as a leader. Graham, who holds a CMM and serves as associate director, corporate events & community relations with Thousand Oaks, California-based SAGE Publishing, relates how she grew into her present role: “Without question, my personal growth as a leader was a building process. It resulted directly from my personal satisfaction in meticulously working through event details behind the scenes, coupled with visible, tangible, positive results. By conceiving, designing, planning, orchestrating and ultimately implementing successful events, my confidence increased.” A self-described “former introvert,” Graham credits her supervisors and mentors for offering her “the chance to get up at bat” and demonstrate what she could do as the leader of the events team. “Their belief in me was inspirational, but so too were their own exceptional executive and leadership skills,” she adds.
“Situations might come up where if we stay calm and handle things, we can keep our client calmer as well.”
On the flip side, a planner can also learn what not to do from experiences with higher-ups. “When I had leaders and supervisors treat me a certain way, I would say to myself, ‘I would never do that to somebody,’” recalls Sharon L. Schenk, CMP, director of conventions and event management with Manchester, New Hampshire-based CCA Global Partners. If she had a positive experience, she would “Remember that if I’m ever in a position of leadership, I will recognize people’s skills and appreciate their contributions to try to get them to grow in their careers. That’s something that some people have done for me.”
Importantly, a planner need not wait until he or she is in a formal leadership role to begin exercising the relevant skills. Leadership happens on smaller scales in one’s corporate life — leading a two-person team on a project — as well as in one’s personal life — leading a church group. “There is a distinction between a leadership role and leadership. I think we’re all leaders, and developing our leadership skills can happen no matter where we are within a hierarchy of an organization,” explains Jessie States, CMP, CMM, director, MPI Academy. States, who oversees MPI’s Women in Leadership Certificate Program, advises planners to take stock in their leadership skills. “Look at where you want to go with your career and then look at your current skills and where there might be gaps. You don’t want to enter a leadership role unprepared, so look at where you want to go and map out what skills are going to get you to that point.”
To provide a starting point for that self-reflection, the following is an overview of some of the myriad qualities and skills that go into capable leadership.
Grace Under Pressure: Planners at all levels need the ability to handle the pressure of delivering a live event, but it is especially important for leaders to exhibit a ‘cool head’ when deadlines loom or things go amiss. Their grace under pressure will influence other team members in such situations, and will facilitate quick, rational decision-making. “I think it’s easier to ‘never let them see you sweat’ if you can make quick decisions, especially when you are caught off guard,” Graham says. “For instance, when an award show honoree showed up late with 24 extra guests in tow, I said, ‘Give me a minute’ and sprang into action.” In another case, flowers weren’t delivered as expected, and Graham led her on-site staff in carrying out a backup plan: “The catering staff and I went around with scissors and cut lavender from the bushes and put it down the middle of the table. There was no need to get mad at my colleague who was in charge of ordering the flowers, but instead I handled it with class and grace. Me getting upset wasn’t going to make the flowers appear.”
Not only does this quality influence and maintain good relations with staff, but it also puts clients at ease. “Situations might come up where if we stay calm and handle things, we can keep our client calmer as well,” says Teri Abram, president of Plano, Texas-based EventLink. “Clients get very nervous, and I can understand that because you’re out front and center at an event and you want everything to go perfectly.”
Willingness to Take Risks: Whether it’s a new type of team-building activity or a first foray into virtual meetings, the head of the meetings team is often the one to drive a change that may improve meetings operations or ROI. The key word is ‘may.’ There is the risk that the new ways of team building won’t engage attendees, the virtual meeting will prove less successful than the face-to-face version, and so on. This quality — a willingness to take risks — tends to need development among meeting professionals, States observes. “We’re not necessarily an industry of first adopters. When you’re planning meetings, it’s crucial to have everything buttoned up — and you want to have the perfect experience. And that means sometimes risks aren’t taken,” she explains. “We’re rather risk-averse. And so oftentimes meeting professionals need to practice risk taking.”
Accepting Responsibility: When things don’t go right due to a team member’s negligence or incompetence, great leaders are willing to ‘step up to the plate’ and take responsibility when addressing their internal or external client. “I give my team all the praise they can be given, and if there is a problem or something went wrong I am as responsible as anyone else on the team, and I am willing to say to the client, ‘We made a mistake, I am responsible,’” says Abram, who oversees about 10 staff members and a variety of contractors.
Yet, this overarching responsibility should be accepted because one is the team leader, not because one feels a sense of ownership of the event. No matter how high on the corporate ladder the planner is, he or she should keep the right perspective on whose meeting it is. “I don’t think of it as my event; rather, I produce the event for the stakeholder,” Graham says. “I don’t personalize it, which I think is key, because that way I don’t have an ego about it. Having an ego doesn’t really help you in my position.”
Assembling a Capable Team: Hiring great team members, whether staff or contractors, paves the way for successful leadership. The more capable the team is, the easier it is to manage them, and the less management they will need, in fact. “I need someone who’s creative, innovative, enthusiastic, takes direction well and can work independently,” Graham says in summarizing her ideal staff member.
Arguably, ‘enthusiasm’ is the most fundamental trait. “So many different types of people bring so many different types of skills, and so what we try to do is find people that have the right mindset, the right attitude — serving clients is in their DNA,” Abram says. “And then we train from there.”
Along the same lines, Schenk explains that “You can teach many things, but what you can’t teach is attitude and personality. So if you have someone on your team who has the right attitude and the right fit, you can teach them any skill. I’ve been very lucky that I have people with a wonderful attitude, and we’ve been able to grow them professionally.”
Facilitating Communication: The importance of effectively communicating with team members is a platitude in the leadership literature. Without clearly explaining the details of a project and defining expectations, it’s unlikely the team will perform optimally. Somewhat less discussed is the importance of facilitating communication; ensuring team members communicate adequately with each other and with other stakeholders. As Schenk explains, her leadership role includes serving as the “conduit for different teams.” Making sure everyone is on the same page is “almost a full-time job for me,” she says. “For example, I recently sent an email out to three of our presidents because we’re changing the format of our convention next summer, and there are all these side conversations going on. ‘We may be doing this, we may be doing that.’ So I took it upon myself to reach out to the presidents and said, ‘We need direction from you. Let’s assign people to carry out these tasks. Let’s stop the false rumors and start a dialogue.’ The discussion needed to start, so I initiated it.”
Abram also ensures there are open lines of communication among her staff, and that helps in preventing or resolving conflicts. “We have a policy as a small company that we don’t talk about one another if we have a problem. You go straight to the other person, or you come and talk to me about it,” she says. “It has been so successful. We talk about it when we first hire someone and say ‘This is our philosophy.’”
Delegating Tasks: Along with risk taking, States identifies delegation as the area where the meeting professionals likely struggle the most when it comes to leading a team. That’s because planners often have a background of being very hands on and personally involved in all the details of a project. In a leadership position, they must let go of that approach to some extent and trust in the abilities of their team members. Delegation can be a hard skill to learn, and there is always the temptation to micromanage once one has delegated. “I truly believe that when you’re hiring somebody, whether it’s internal or external, you’re hiring them for their skills. So what you don’t want to do is hire somebody and then tell them how to do their job,” Schenk says. “I can lead and direct them in things that I need; however, how they get the job done is their concern.”
At the same time, a great leader doesn’t just delegate and then remain on a pedestal. He or she will be involved to some degree in the projects that team members are carrying out, even if just as a source of general direction and feedback. This gives staff a sense that the leader is also a team member. “I want them to respect my leadership, because I’m a part of that team,” Abram says. “I’m not just telling them what to do and going off and doing my own thing.”
Motivating Team Members: Effective leaders have always been sources of encouragement, and strive to elevate their team’s morale. Words can always be backed up by tangible morale boosters. “I do try to show appreciation regularly with gifts and dinners to recognize work that has been done,” Schenk says.
Part of motivation is also delegating tasks that help someone grow in their role, so the individual doesn’t feel stagnant. “We have a fairly new hire and she’s come on so strong; she’s better than we ever thought she would be at this point,” Abram says. “And so we’re starting to get her more small programs and guide her through them. I’m boosting her confidence because she has the ability to do everything at this point. I talk with her before a client call and let her know how I would recommend she do it, for example.”
Evaluating Performance: The difficult aspect of this skill is learning how to constructively criticize, and learning not to take a tone of hostility when a team member has dropped the ball. “It’s a tough thing for me personally, but I feel that if I don’t tell them exactly what they haven’t done appropriately and how it could be done better, I really am not doing them justice,” Abram says. She describes her approach as “conversational,” where she engages the person in a dialogue about the poor performance instead of launching into a tirade.
Developing these qualities and skills as well as others may not be easy, depending on the person. Some are naturally risk-averse, or have a hard time not micromanaging, or find it difficult to criticize another’s performance, for example. But thankfully there is no shortage of resources for leadership development, and plenty of meetings-specific resources. Graham highly recommends MPI’s Certificate in Meeting Management Program, which she completed at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. For women planners in particular, there is the aforementioned Women in Leadership Certificate Program, also offered by MPI. States emphasizes that “Many of the skills, such as strategic problem solving, innovation or creativity, are ones people may or may not innately have, but they’re all skills that can be learned.” Toward developing the leadership skills a given individual needs, the program utilizes tools such as CliftonStrengths at www.gallupstrengthscenter.com, to assess where participants’ strengths lie.
For those who prefer reading their way to becoming better leaders as well as careerists, Graham recommends three titles: “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins; “Grit,” by Angela Duckworth; and “Basic Black,” by Cathie Black.
With all the challenges involved in becoming a great leader and then actually guiding a team on its way to success, what’s the payoff? “The best part is watching my team work together and achieve amazing results and being so proud of them,” Abram says. “I love it when my team knocks it out of the ballpark.” From a career perspective, heading an events department can allow one to directly collaborate with the C-suite. “One of the best parts about leadership is having a seat at the table, being able to be the subject-matter expert with our executives,” Schenk says.
Toward gaining that seat, an aspiring leader should take advantage of any opportunity to demonstrate to upper management that he or she understands the strategic role of meetings in the company, and is not just immersed in logistical details. “Share with senior leaders how you are utilizing meetings to truly drive change and positive growth for the business,” States advises. They’ll see you’re thinking like a leader, and perhaps like someone who deserves a promotion. C&IT