Des Mclaughlin, divisional director of Grass Roots Meetings & Events, on why events are the perfect leadership platform
Forget email, forget social media, text messages and even the phone. Time and again we are taught the leadership benefits of face-to-face communication. Sure there is science to back it up, theories around body language, posture, and the huge multiplying factor of a third dimension. However, let’s face it, we all know from our own experience that the best relationships are those developed through face-to-face, physical reaction. Sure, you can meet people online, conduct conference calls with a global board or even interview key staff over video. But the best work is achieved when you all sit down together.
The real question though – should you be sitting down, standing up, leaning against a bar or competing with each other. Events have evolved to take on many different forms – how many have you tried and most importantly, which are of real benefit to you as a leader?
Let's not get bogged down in the differences between a meeting and a conference – the primary one being size and therefore the ability and way in which people in the room can interact with each other. Let’s therefore say that a meeting is not dominated by largely one-way communication to an audience but instead allows for free flow of information and direct response from the audience.
For a leader, the meeting is a powerful tool, it is a place to bring together small groups and influence them in a focused and direct way. A meeting is a place for action – true, there are reports and updates but their role is ultimately to facilitate conversations that lead to results. The strong leader will give each person the opportunity to air their views in a controlled manner, options and solutions for almost any situation can be discussed and most importantly the outcome should be one of satisfaction, time well spent and specifically assigned goals and activities.
A conference on the other hand is a leader’s chance to bring larger groups together and communicate en-masse. Modern event technology means there are now far more opportunities for audience engagement and feedback (even methods whereby they set the agenda) but there is no getting around the fact that a conference – particularly the keynotes and key content – are primarily one way communication. Again this is a real opportunity for leaders.
A conference can be an opportunity to inspire and galvanise, it can lead to creative thinking and new ways of working, it can radically shift the perceptions of an audience but only when handled in the correct way. Not all leaders are naturally gifted speakers, content needs to be considered as do methods of delivery. Leaders considering the use of a conference as part of their engagement strategy need to be very honest about their own ability not just to lead and inspire but whether they can do so on stage – and if they can't, what format can the conference take to achieve the same results – there are numerous options.
Team building days
One of the most used leadership events is the dreaded Team Building day, which is conceptually fantastic but in reality falls short more often than not. What could be better than bringing a group together to complete some form of activity under your leadership, it highlights challenges in a team, leadership skills and far more. However, it quite simply isn't always appropriate – does it really help the leader of a finance team to know that their number two is terrified of heights? Just because someone can lead a group through an assault course doesn't mean they can lead high-end negotiations!
Team building should start with the objectives – what are you trying to achieve, where are you trying to lead your team, what does the future look like? It should also have definable objectives – what will success look like? Only after those questions have been answered should you start thinking about the actual activities and delivery methods.
This should also have an honourable mention as an event type that can be of use to leaders and managers, particularly as it is an effective way to communicate to highly targeted audiences. Hospitality often provides unique one to one time, particularly as people seem to open up so much more in the relaxed atmosphere of a corporate box, golf course, spa, restaurant etc. It is a chance to understand an individual's needs and challenges, work with them and ultimately steer them down a specific path for the benefit of all.
As part of an overall employee management and benefit process, incentive travel is also very effective as a reward based method of leadership. It should however be noted that the leadership element and opportunity for communication should probably be based more around the overall employee benefit system, rather than the event at the end of the process. Incentives are by their very nature a prize so the real value for both leader and team is the process of reaching the end goal.
The hybrid meeting/event
Finally it it worth making a note about the rise of the hybrid meeting/event. I started with comments reacting to the fact that technology is taking over and we need to spend more time face-to-face. Hybrid events recognise this trend but also recognise that fact we are a global economy supported by a transient workforce – it is possible to live on one side of the planet and work for a boss on the other side.
Hybrid events create a balance between the face-to-face and digital, bringing together those that can meet whilst making the experience as good as possible for those that can't through a host of gadgets, online platforms and tools. They also create a longevity that few stand-alone events achieve due to the need for an online presence that often lasts far longer than the event itself.
Successful leaders and managers balance a wide variety of skills but the ability to communicate and engage with the people around them is perhaps the most important of all. Events offer a unique opportunity to meet face-to-face, an opportunity that should be used as often and as effectively as possible.
Des Mclaughlin is Divisional Director of Grass Roots Meetings & Events, part of the world’s largest performance improvement and event management company. Des studied hotel management at Westminster and is a qualified marketer with more than 30 years of industry experience. He founded HBI in 1991, which became one of the UK's leading venue procurement agencies prior to its acquisition by Grass Roots Group in 2008, where he now heads up the Meetings & Events division, providing a range of event services through offices in six countries.