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Leading when change is the new normal

How the digital transformation affects leadership in the events sector

Author: Matthias Schultze, Managing Director GCB German Convention Bureau e. V.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Harvard professor John P. Kotter identified "leadership" as a key skill for success. In his publications, he analysed the difference between managers and leaders, concluding that leaders are essentially visionaries. While management is all about organising, planning and controlling, leadership is about creating a space for creativity, innovation and change. However, what does this really mean for leaders in the digital age and, more precisely, for our industry: Faced with the digital transformation, how do we as leaders in the events sector have to adapt and change our leadership style?

Leadership skills

No doubt, there are certain established skills and abilities that always apply to leaders; some core elements, so to say, that have not changed over the decades: Leaders need to have a vision and must be able to communicate it clearly. This does imply motivational skills and a certain amount of charisma. Leaders must be capable of building teams and, in order to succeed in this, they need to really know the people they work with and their respective talents. In that sense, leading means enabling and putting people in the right positions where they can thrive and contribute.

Leading when change is the new normal

Based on this, let's take a look at the current situation that leaders face in virtually every industry, not least in the conference and meetings sector: First and foremost, we are faced with change. Not just once or now and then. No, change is now a constant. Technological advances come fast and quick; how we live and work is transformed. Our industry as a platform for knowledge transfer and networking mirrors what happens in society; therefore, leaders in our industry do not only need to be able to adapt to this change. They need to anticipate changes and actively shape them.

This effectively means that in our digital age, with its focus on globalisation, knowledge and the breaking-up of hierarchical forms of organisation, traditional attributes of leadership need to mix with new elements. There is no way round the fact that technology is now part and parcel of our life, which means that leaders should be open and willing to contribute to the digital transformation without leaving the "human factor" aside. Keeping up with tech developments and their potential effects is a must. More than ever, as leaders we need to be interested and curious. And our industry presents the perfect environment for this. In fact, because of the inherent nature of meetings, we should be better equipped to handle change than leaders in other industries. Networking and meeting people from around the world are not just something we basically do on a daily basis but also a key source for learning new things, developing new ideas and shaping the future. And, as pointed out by Karina Kaestner, Head of Sales Business Partner at DB Vertrieb GmbH: "Official and unofficial networks are key for successfully mastering the challenges of the digitalisation. Our knowledge society increasingly depends on thinking and working in networks. We have to understand that the era of the 'lone wolf' is over, be it on a personal level, as a team or company."

Collaborate, don't rule

Let me also briefly highlight the decline of hierarchies in favour of more horizontal structures that the digital transformation has brought about. Digitalisation and bureaucracy do not go very well together. Instead, cooperation is key - and there's a new generation of professionals out there that has different ideas and concepts in this context. In many ways, millennials shape the future of work: not status and power but transparency, meaningful work and collaborative approaches are what matters (more) to them. In the meetings industry where we also need to fulfil the requirements of a changing audience for more interaction and more experience-led approaches, leaders should tap into that and make sure to build appropriate frameworks.

As Stephen Rose, Marketing & Communications SVP at Siemens, stresses: "It is a leader's role to create the right kind of environment in which our colleagues can bring events to live and, of course, also to act as a coach and as someone who is by their side in this process of transformation." Discussing the topic with IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer, she pinpoints another vital aspect when talking about what makes a good leader: "You can actually be a leader in any part of the business and in any role you're in. It's not about waiting for someone to tell you what to do but to ask questions, be proactive and take responsibility." And being able to lead people who have this (necessary) "leading mindset" is vital in our changed, digital environment.

Coming back to the initial question of how we as leaders in the events sector have to adopt our leadership style to the challenges of the digital transformation: As a whole, our industry is in a good position to handle the constant changes we are faced with. As digital leaders, we need to make sure to stay abreast of developments while at the same time, mentor and take our teams with us. Advancements in technology and the ensuing changes in our society are a challenge, yes, but they also provide exciting opportunities - not least, for developing better leadership.