Fit for transformation: effective leadership post COVID-19
ICCA’s Thought Leadership series aims to cut the clutter and draw on diverse expertise to examine the transformation of the association meetings industry. The first session of 2021 brought together ICCA CEO Senthil Gopinath, Paddy Cosgrave, WebSummit CEO, and John Knell, Intelligence Agency co-founder. They tackled the challenges leaders and event organisers are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic and what it takes to overcome them.
Reconsider what it means to be resilient
If organisations are supposed to be like athletes, flexible and agile, John Knell believes that pre-pandemic, “We were more like couch potatoes.” John attests that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how we can be fit for change, as leaders and as an industry. In his presentation, John laid out some leadership tests for the post COVID-19 world.
The first test is flying without an instrument panel. “You can’t chart a clear course, but you can keep making intelligent, creative, course corrections,“ he advised. “Whilst leaders can’t project certainty right now, they can display the right behaviours, such as humility and empathy, and ask the right questions.” John said those questions could include: What is most important right now? And, what can we change, or influence now, that could pay off later?
The other key challenge for leaders in this moment is to understand that delegates and employees might look the same when you see them again in-person, but they’re not. The pandemic has changed all of us. We’ve seen our employers and service providers innovate, experiment with new ways of working, new technologies, and new services. So, your employees and delegates will be expecting that recent openness to innovation to continue. People are going to question returning to business as usual. “Leaders need to recognise that this moment is coming,” said John. “Really pay attention to your people right now, and don’t lose this precious moment to reset and innovate, whilst sustaining what you already value most about your organisation and your offer.”
Organisations should use this moment to examine their cultural protocols. Leaders can make themselves available for virtual coffee breaks to connect with their team members without talking about work. They can consider how their workforce might need to re-skill to meet today’s challenges. Senthil provided the example of the newly launched ICCASkill. ”With this new initiative, we solidified our approach to education in 2021 as an integrated process. It is fundamental that we cross-skill and re-skill within our community.”
Lastly, John explained that leading in uncharted times means rethinking leadership. Every preconceived notion is under the microscope, including what it means to be resilient.
Organisations should examine where they’re really creating value and what is at the core of what they do.
Rethink your core: Web Summit goes online
Paddy Cosgrave outlined what it looks like to reimagine the central elements of your business. When Cosgrave first launched WebSummit in Ireland 10 years ago, 150 people from the tech industry met in Dublin. In 2019, more than 70,000 delegates gathered in Lisbon, representing nearly every country in the world. WebSummit also now has several spin-off events, such as Collision in Toronto and RISE in Asia. When it looked like face-to- face events were going to be impossible in 2020, the team decided to move online.
However, Paddy said they also quickly realised the software to create the experience they desired didn’t exist. “For us, the key to any trade show, event, or conference is networking. To replicate the magic that happens in the real world when people are meeting each other, you need to focus on networking.”
The WebSummit team expanded on software they’d been developing over the past decade to bring their core business to an online setting. “We build software to handle every aspect of events,” said Paddy. It took their team of in-house software engineers 10 weeks to build a platform that received overall positive feedback from the online attendees. But, Paddy stressed that their method is probably not the ideal solution for everyone. “I think for most event organisers, trying to build the software yourself is a very expensive experiment.”
Just because face-to-face events might be possible in some countries by mid-2021, the investment in new technology doesn’t necessarily have to go to waste. Paddy explained that much of the technology that’s emerged for producing events during the pandemic have enabled pre-networking which can make the event more efficient for attendees. “The digital platforms are very complementary, especially when running ahead of time as opposed to simultaneously. It enables people to make much better use of their limited time face-to-face.”
Senthil agreed that utilising this new technology is essential for our industry to keep closely connected until we are able to meet again in-person. “We need to be more creative about how we engage our community and we need to embrace new, innovative tools. This is the way forward.”
ICCA leading the way in 2021
When Cosgrave’s team saw the implications of the pandemic on their events they took fast, decisive action. That’s the kind of dexterity that Senthil said needs to be channeled towards transformation in the meetings industry. “There's a lot of optimism with vaccines coming out. We need to embrace new business models and new ways of working.”
He detailed the conceptualised approach ICCA is taking for regional meetings to help clear the way for a faster comeback of international meetings. Creating a new perspective amongst event professionals is also key. “If we can create a changed mindset within our stakeholders, it will enable us to move quicker than we think.”
Furthermore, Senthil encouraged ICCA members to shift focus during this time of recovery from their ROI to their ROC, or return on collaboration. “Through collaboration we can begin to see a return on investment once again. Perhaps not at the level to which we previously aspired, but we will gain the most through collaborative effort. It’s the most successful way of operating.”
Senthil gave the example of the ICCA Congress 2020, which involved more than a dozen government policymakers and facilitated a dynamic and productive conversation about how our industry can move forward within required protocols. These vital conversations are still continuing on the local level.
“Each one of us has a role to play in global advocacy. We can increase awareness and share best practices within our community, cities, and countries. We are all ambassadors for our industry.”