Manager's Notebook: Killer Meetings
EHS professionals are dying to go to some meetings; others bore them to death
- By Richard MacLean
- Mar 01, 2005
All environmental, heath, and safety (EHS) professionals at some point in their careers will be directly responsible for a segment or all of a large group meeting, conference, workshop, or forum. Indeed, corporations spend enormous resources getting people together for or sending staff off to these networking and learning experiences. For trade associations and professional societies the stakes are even higher: some receive half or more of their annual revenue through their key conferences. So, what are the best practices that meeting organizers use? Even if you don't plan to run one of these events in the foreseeable future, there are telltale signs of quality that may indicate whether or not a meeting is worth the time and money to attend.
I am invited to speak at a lot of annual EHS corporate meetings, trade association events, and professional society conferences. One such invitation arrived this morning as I began writing this article. I'm rather picky over which ones I go to (although monetary compensation is certainly a motivating force for a mercenary soldier such as myself). Back in my General Electric days, I organized the annual EHS meeting for the corporation. Since then, I have supported many companies by planning and participating in their conferences. This experience, in addition to attending a zillion meetings throughout my career, prompted me to conclude that I may know a thing or two about meeting planning. Here are some highlights.
Planners sometimes lose sight of where the real costs are in these meetings. Do the math. A two-day corporate meeting with 100 company employees easily may represent a quarter- to a half-million dollars, much of it in salaries alone. Although the money is not aggregated into a single cost center, the planning should be of the same caliber as that invested in any other discretionary EHS project of this magnitude. Don't focus on the $2,000 cocktail hour or the $5,000 speaker, instead focus on the satisfaction of the crew that the company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get to your meeting.
Attendees fully recognize that the work is piling up back at the office. They expect (demand) some real value for their time. This payback may come in three forms: extremely valuable information; an excellent opportunity to network; and/or a really enjoyable time. Some meetings do extremely well in one or two of these areas; the outstanding ones hit all three on the mark. We'll examine each individually.
One would assume that information exchange is the primary meeting objective and, thus, the one most likely to be accomplished. Not so. It is the area that is often the weakest for several reasons. First, organizers may not focus on an overall theme that cohesively links the presentations together. The meeting may be a hodgepodge of topics under the umbrella of "environmental excellence" or "future visions of sustainable development" or some other inspiring title, but with little to back it. Attendees may leave remembering one or two outstanding presentations, but they might not be inspired to any broader understanding of the issues and wonder why they wasted their time attending all the other sessions.
Second, structuring a meeting can be a challenge if there are wide spans in the audience's background, interest areas, and responsibilities. Engineers typically want the nuts and bolts, the "how-to" sessions; managers want strategic material on business issues. Most large trade association events and professional meetings have plenary sessions of general interest followed by a number of break-out sessions structured to meet the various needs of the attendees.
Some corporations may have the environmental, health, and safety functions split organizationally; but when it comes to planning a key annual event, these departments should work in harmony to arrive at a well-integrated meeting. There is just too much overlap in these functions to keep them separated, not to mention the cost to get these same people together for two separate meetings.
The most flexibility exists in structuring corporate meetings; the well done meetings do not just exchange information, but work the group in break-out sessions to formulate company strategy, identify priorities, and build strong work teams for follow-up projects. They structure the meetings to provide key information upfront in plenary sessions (usually from the CEO/CFO/COO/VP of EHS, plus noted external speakers) and then challenge the audience to use this information and their own vast knowledge-base to solve problems or create competitive advantage. In other words, the company gets tangible deliverables through these large, face-to-face exchanges that would be next to impossible to achieve otherwise. Now that's real value.
And finally, the overall structural stuff is important, of course, but ultimately it is all about the individual presenters. They need to connect with the audience and be recognized and respected as subject-matter experts. Great speakers know their audience and custom tailor their presentation accordingly. Unfortunately, the great speaker is all too often substituted with the "available speaker;" namely, someone who is willing to come to the meeting and present for free and who may have some knowledge of the subject no matter how remote or stale.
Few organizations can afford to pay honorariums plus expenses for all speakers; unpaid speakers dominate the agendas of most venues. Government agency employees, academics, staff from large companies, or consulting firms make up the mix. The key question for any organizer is, "Is he or she the best speaker; one who will not just give the politically correct party line or brag about themselves or their organizations, but will deliver the cutting-edge facts and interact well with the audience?" If the answer is "No," then they owe it to their audience to consider getting the best.
Sometimes organizers go after "trophy companies" that have established reputations for a particular accomplishment or expertise, but the actual speakers may present poorly delivered, canned talks. There are other risks. For example, at a recent professional society meeting I felt that there was almost an ethereal separation between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and the have-nots were in a clear majority. By that I mean that speaker after speaker showcased world-class programs with the audience asking themselves, "How can I do these wonderful things in my company?" and, more than likely, feeling frustrated.
One of the benefits of being in my line of work is that, like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, I get to peek behind the curtain in these leadership companies. I invariably find a mix of program quality. No company has their act completely in order and the public image is usually much better than reality. But, for many of these attendees, whose exposure to leadership companies is mostly through these presentations, the gap may seem daunting and insurmountable.
One person at the conference commented to me in private that one of the most memorable presentations at a previous conference was a speaker that openly discussed the struggles he encountered trying to make progress in his company. Another colleague recently told me that he does not go to some professional or trade meetings because he is tired of hearing the upbeat, essentially, public relations presentations -- he wants substance and a deeper understanding of the issues and the "how-to."
Trophy speakers who are at the cutting edge are hard to get or charge for their services. Corporations will often be willing to pay this extra expense because they recognize that the "big bucks" they are shelling out are associated with getting their employees to attend in the first place -- the point made earlier.
Speakers should be screened in advance and selected based not just availability, but on a proven track record that delivers quality audience interaction (as opposed to a "talking-head" presentation). To avoid the "PR" drone mentioned earlier, they must be willing to share the unvarnished truth. Organization Resources Counselors and The Conference Board do an extremely good job screening and selecting presenters. I have reviewed agendas of meetings from these and other organizations and marvel at how they are able to pull together such notable presenters.
There are exceptions to this "screen-the-presenter" rule. Some of the most popular speakers are front line, inexperienced presenters that can connect directly with their peers. They are particularly effective at corporate meetings. Their honesty and straightforward "that's-the-way-it-is" style is refreshing.
There are two components to good networking. The first being a good mix of people. The best meetings have a cross section of individuals with varied perspectives. For companies, that may mean some business types (management, planning, finance, marketing, etc.) along with the usual EHS suspects from inside and outside the company. For trade association and professional society meetings, that may mean a group that shares a common passion, but may come at the issue from the corporate, academic, government, or EHS activist community. Getting out of the all too prevalent "group-think" mentality is stimulating.
Some planners purposely try to attract or limit such mixes through graduated conference fees: academics, students, and non-profits at discounted rates and consultants and vendors at premium fees. Consultant and product vendor-feeding-frenzy conferences are to be avoided like the plague. However, consultants and vendors are sometimes rejected out of hand, with little regard as to what they can add to a conference as presenters. For example, I recently asked one planner (who commented that he would try to further restrict consultants at the next annual conference) how he would categorize John Elkington, a consultant, and arguably one of the world's leading thinkers on sustainable development. His response was, "A consultant."
Speakers and consultants of John's caliber, such as Carl Frankel, Joel Makower, Jacquelyn Ottman, Amory Lovins, Frank Friedman, and Bill Thomas, are also authors and widely recognized thought leaders. To lump them in with "Joe the waste disposal vendor" is ludicrous. And, they can bring a greater perspective of their field of specialization than can most corporate EHS managers.
The second component of networking is structure. There needs to be sufficient time between sessions and engaging areas available in which people can mix and mingle. The 2004 annual NAEM Forum was particularly effective in this regard.1 Aside from the usual receptions -- breakfast gatherings and evening functions -- the group effectively used the lunch break to draw participants to the vendor displays with the strategic placement of tables throughout the hall where the food was served.
To paraphrase the pop singer Cyndi Lauper, attendees just want to have fun. They prefer Scottsdale to Altoona, Pa., in February. (Trust me, the reverse is true in August.) Locations perceived to be boondoggles can be an issue, however, since it is hard to hold a straight face when questioned why you need to got to Maui for a conference. But the truth is that some of the best places can be cheaper than "optically neutral" places if you plan well in advance and secure off-season rates. This brings me to the next point: professional logistics support.
Clearly, the EHS professionals need to pick the topics, set the structure and objectives, and screen the presenters; but for major meetings, it really helps to bring in the professionals to plan and coordinate the logistics. NAEM excelled in this area at their 2004 Forum in Orlando, Fla. Not only did the event run smoothly, but it was coordinated to include significant others at the social events. Space does not permit me to list all the small, but important, details that were attended to.
The point is that having a major meeting come off without a hitch is both a science and an art. Few EHS professionals, on their own, can work their way through all the potential glitches or opportunities. There are even cost-saving opportunities if you have a negotiator on your side that understands the jargon of "rack rates," "comp rooms," and so on. For big conferences, this is a must; but even for large corporate meetings, it may be advisable. For example, Schering-Plough, based in Union, N.J., used WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives (WTMI) of Chicago for its highly successful 2004 annual EHS conference in Puerto Rico.2 I used a similar meeting planning company at GE. The key is to not use a local travel agency plucked from the Yellow Pages, but a firm with experience and a reputation for excellence in planning.
The best corporate meetings focus on a few key challenges. They have great presenters who generate enthusiasm and sessions that yield tangible deliverables. Large trade association and professional society meetings may involve a more complex span of coverage, but the underlining success factor is the same: attendees want the unvarnished truth on emerging issues and case studies and suggestions on how to manage these issues. They want practical and pragmatic sessions that can generate ideas leading to competitive advantage. An endless stream of politically correct spin and public relations pitches contributes nothing but ego stroking. A successful corporate meeting takes planning, proper structuring in keeping with meeting objectives, and careful selection and screening of speakers.
1. Formerly the National Association for Environmental Management, now called NAEM, The Premier Association for EHS Management, www.NAEM.org.
2. WTMI is an operating unit of WorldTravel BTI, www.worldtravel.com, Nancy Muse (budgeting and planning), Erin Beckway (onsite coordination).
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.