by Sarah J.F. Braley | January 01, 2014
Is There a Planner Ceiling?
In February 2012, Heather Sharpe, senior event marketing manager of Telus, launched Sherpa Group, a meeting planning company in Vancouver, British Columbia. "There was nowhere for me to go after I was promoted to event marketing manager," she says. "A lot of people working on meetings and events had to make lateral moves into other departments, in a lot of cases leaving events behind. The only way to get to a certain management level or salary level was to go to an event company or to start my own."

Industry headhunter Dawn Penfold agrees there is a ceiling if you want to stay in meetings management, and she isn't surprised Sharpe opted to strike out on her own: "If you want to move up, you're either going to move out into a new area within the company -- like human resources, communications, sponsorship, fundraising or procurement -- or you go start your own company. It's up or out." - S.B.
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On the surface, Shannon Burke's recent promotion to director of conferences and meetings for the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Va., seems like a natural progression. The previous director left in August; Burke, the associate director of conferences and meetings, was named interim director. A few months later, she was given the full title.

But it was hardly a given. During that test period, Burke, who is CMP certified, orchestrated NACAC's annual meeting for 5,000 attendees (and solved the technical glitches that arose during the event) and made sure the group's meetings stayed on track.

Burke wasn't just in the right place at the right time; she was "able to reassure our CEO that we would be able to deliver what we had promised."

For most of us, the opportunity to rise to a clear-cut challenge that might segue to a promotion rarely occurs. A more proactive approach is smart, and it begins with a plan, says Dawn Penfold, president of Meeting Jobs LLC ( Ask yourself the typical questions: Where do I want to be in five years? What do I need to do right now to get the ball rolling? What's the next step, and the step after that? Who can I talk to who will be on my side?

Some specific advice:
• Be visible. If you want to be promoted, you need to speak up, prove yourself to be the go-to person in your organization, earn the respect of those around you, says Penfold. "Be a company person if you want to be promoted internally," she notes. "Look good, dress well. Higher-ups will watch you. You have to be the cultural fit. "

Shannon Burke feels this attitude was instrumental in paving the way to her new position. "Keep your eyes out for opportunities that aren't necessarily in your job description, so when you have a window, you'll be able to step up to it," she advises.

Also, make a name for yourself outside your organization, branding yourself as an expert in some type of planning or part of the process. Burke, for example, is a PCMA member, currently co-chairing the Capitol Chapter's communications committee, a move that could lead to more involvement in the national hierarchy. She is similarly involved with the D.C. area's Association of Meeting Professionals.
"Internally, be the go-to person, and externally, the expert," Penfold stresses.

• Use your reviews. While working for Telus Communications (the Verizon of Canada), Heather Sharpe went from event marketing manager to senior event marketing manager, using her annual performance review and semi-annual input from her supervisor to mold her goals and groom herself for her next position.

"It was always a great idea to get objectives set out for me during my review and then to track them throughout the year," she says.  

• Document your achievements. In one way or another, meetings are meant to improve the host's bottom line. "Developing methodology for tracking return on investment shows that you are working strategically," says Penfold. "It's not enough to say, yeah, I did this. You have to justify it."

Sharpe kept a running log of each project she worked on and its effectiveness, using actual numbers to analyze the success and also keeping copies of congratulatory notes from those she helped along the way. "I could go back and prove I had hit all my objectives," she says. "I was responsible for my own analysis."

• Look beyond your gender. According to a survey of 1,039 U.S. working women conducted by the Gallup organization this past summer, 15 percent said they have felt passed over for a promotion or opportunity because of their gender.

Meeting planners are a traditionally female group. In fact, M&C's 2012 Salary Survey (available here) revealed that more than 80 percent of planners are women. Those who want to move into the director's chair or the C-suite need to learn a new language.

"Things have changed, and the route is a little more open," says Penfold, "but women still have to learn to play the politics and the games. Watch how men do it. They are very visible."

• Talk the talk. Male or female, anyone who wants to move to a new tier has to first learn the language of that tier. "It's not just the knowledge, but the 'corporate speak,' the ability to talk at the same level while still showing respect," says Penfold. "Where does a planner learn that? By listening, by building confidence, by networking with the right people and knowing the value of your role as it relates to the bottom line."

Learn what motivates the people who run the company, and how to talk about the meetings you run in terms that will draw these top executives' attention. Show you have your organization's goals in mind at every step.