March 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Risen Stars March 1999 Current Issue
March 1999
Julie T. Prazmark
Senior Vice President

Risen Stars

How five planners worked their way into the EXECUTIVE ranks

By Sarah J.F. Braley

Is meeting planning a dead-end job?
In the general business world, the path to the top is well defined, with vice president, president and chief executive officer the final title prizes in the hierarchy. But for people working their way up through meeting planning, the top often seems to be department director, and the path to the executive level requires a leap to a whole different area of the organization. This doesn’t mean, though, that planners can’t move beyond meetings into a top-level position with an impressive salary.

With the volatility of today’s business world, however marked by mergers, downsizing, centralization, decentralization and the elimination of entire departments some of the old rules for achieving the executive rank are shifting. The key word for surviving and advancing is flexibility.

“Organizations are changing so rapidly and dramatically that you can’t predict five or 10 years out whether the organization will even be there,” says Charles Garfield, Ph.D., author of Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business and Second to None: The Productive Power of Putting People First (both published by Avon Books, New York City). “We used to be able to make certain assumptions in a hierarchical organization: Doing good work over a long time assured us of being secure and moving up in our field. The workplace of the ’90s has changed in that regard. What makes a person valuable now may not be the same as what made that person valuable in prior decades. We’re being required to be multiskilled.”

That’s good news for planners who want to advance beyond the meeting world. Putting on even the smallest event requires a multitude of talents. The way to get executives to take notice and approve a promotion is to redefine those skills in executive terms. (See “Skills to Tout,” page 58.)

“The real issue for planners is this: The only value anybody ever has is in the eyes of the beholder,” says Thomas F. McDonald, a clinical psychologist based in Escondido, Calif., who conducts business seminars on becoming a strategic player within an organization. “If you feel the perceptions people have are not you, you need to change them.”

This isn’t a question of self-esteem, he adds: “Most planners find self-worth through the logistics work. But if a planner wants to open up the doors within the organization, [he or she has] to make a switch to the strategic side. You have to say, ‘I can really contribute more.’” This means getting involved in meeting content and making sure what is being imparted directly furthers the goals of the organization. If a seminar or an event does not fit that criteria, a planner may have to take a chance and show the executives why the event should not be held.

Planners looking to advance also can help the process by creating and nurturing relationships with people in the executive ranks. “Try to find someone you respect and whose work habits you can emulate,” says Jennifer Brown, CMP, owner of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Meeting Sites Resource. She knows about finding a mentor: That is what helped her go from executive assistant to a regional chairman to director of meeting services during 20 years at Price Waterhouse before going out on her own.

Are there risks involved in trying to move ahead? Absolutely. Planners who take a job that requires new skills are taking a gamble. Those who implement meeting-content changes are taking chances. When planners let their bosses and colleagues know they want to aim higher in the organization, they’re taking a risk. And they probably will experience a small failure or two along the way. But as the following five planners illustrate, the satisfaction in jobs well done, in challenges overcome, in new skills learned outweighs the potential downsides.

Julie T. Prazmark
Senior Vice President
Members and Member Services
American Trucking Associations
Alexandria, Va.
To those who thought of Julie Prazmark as “just” a party planner, she said, “I don’t just arrange lettuce.” Knowing some people viewed her that way, however, convinced her to change that perception. The more professional she was, the more respect she earned, which helped her move from a public relations job at the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va., into meeting planning at Smith, Bucklin and Associates in Chicago, then from manager to group vice president at Cahners Exposition Group in New York City and on to her current position at the ATA.

Prazmark, an Army brat, was used to moving often. As she worked her way from one position to the next, she learned everything she could from those in the positions above her, seeking out a mentor at each organization. “When I was at Smith, Bucklin, I learned an awful lot from Joy Lee, who was the queen of the industry at the time,” she says. From Bob Krakoff at Cahners, she learned the intricacies of an organization’s finances and how to be an attendee marketer. At the ATA, Tom Donohue (who has moved on to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) helped Prazmark become familiar with every aspect of the association’s business. “He loved to do what I love to do most, which is make money to bring revenue in so we can keep dues low. Now I have a new boss, Walter McCormick, who has brought technology into my life,” she says.

In her nine years with the trucking association and its 3,700 members, moving from vice president of convention services to her current senior vice president position, Prazmark has increased the educational content of the meetings significantly.

Her own learning has been just as important to her success: Adding to a master’s degree in personnel and counseling, Prazmark has taken advantage of her membership in the Professional Convention Management Association to learn about presentation skills, personal development and strategic planning. She is also moving up at PCMA; if all goes according to plan, Prazmark, now vice chairperson of the organization, will be chairperson of the board in 2001.

Nothing presented as big a challenge for the 45-year-old mother of two as trying to be a great mom while continuing to be a professional. “When I had my first child, it was such a shock to the company,” she says. “I didn’t have a woman above me who could say, ‘Go ahead, take two months off.’ I came back to work two weeks after my daughter was born.”

Prazmark’s five-year plan now is to become a CEO: “I would love to run an organization.”

David Kliman, CMP
Vice President
Corporate Administration and
Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. Novato, Calif.
“The best advice I ever got came from my grandfather: Be nice to everybody because you never know who will offer you a job,” says David Kliman. While working as international sales manager for The Plaza in New York City, Kliman followed his grandfather’s counsel and it paid off. A client, then CEO of the Fireman’s Fund, invited Kliman to join the insurance company as director of corporate events.

Over the next 12 years, Kliman added travel management to his duties and spent 1995-’96 as president of Meeting Professionals International. In 1997, he joined the executive ranks at the insurance company. Planning is no longer the 42-year-old’s main function (he hung on to what he calls “the good stuff” arranging incentive trips), although he oversees the meetings department. “I’m very much involved in the business practices of the organization, ranging from real estate to advertising to communications and general services,” says Kliman, who is one of the 91 senior officers at the 8,400-person company. They are all part of a planning group that determines the company’s direction and communicates it to all of the other departments.

Kliman wasn’t consciously ready to change jobs when his current position became available, but it was a natural step. “I didn’t have ants in my pants, but I was aware that I was coasting,” he admits. “I needed a bigger challenge.”

Kliman’s leadership experience with MPI led higher-ups at Fireman’s Fund to trust he could handle the promotion. In the events department, Kliman was in charge of four people, but at MPI, he was onstage speaking to thousands of fellow planners and suppliers. Now he has 135 people working for him.

Learning as much as he could about his company’s culture and working that knowledge into the content of the meetings he planned helped ready him for becoming an executive. “It allowed me to see things in a different way,” Kliman says. Yet, the transition wasn’t easy: “In the first three or four months, I didn’t know what I was doing. There was a huge amount of information that I hadn’t been privy to. Now it’s sort of second nature.”

James L. Lynn
Assistant Vice President
Communication Services
McDonald’s Corp.
Oak Brook, Ill.
James Lynn is a little surprised to find himself occupying the office of assistant vice president. During his more than 20 years as a planner, Lynn has avoided the spotlight, concentrating on the task at hand and letting the results speak for themselves.

“My only goal was to do the best job that day, that month, that year,” says the 52-year-old, who entered the hospitality business as a hotel bartender. “I wanted to go home knowing I had done my job the best I could.”

Lynn worked as both a supplier and a planner before accepting a job at McDonald’s headquarters. He started learning about the industry while in hotel convention services, moving to hotel sales and then sales at the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. He switched to the planning side in the mid-’70s when he took over Kiwanis International’s annual event for about 17,000 attendees. He was 29. “I don’t know why I crossed over,” Lynn confesses. “I guess it was a new challenge. But I was in way over my head.” After he joined the fast-food giant in 1980, the convention department doubled to two people; together they handled conventions, board meetings, road tours for restaurant managers and many other events.

The convention department Lynn now oversees has grown to nine people. He’s responsible for a creative services group (including general session producers, graphics and video departments and A/V), managing the company skyboxes at Chicago’s Soldier Field and the United Center, as well as the corporate aircraft and travel departments. Lynn also handles negotiations with the company’s travel vendors.

Lynn considers his climb at McDonald’s natural within the company but perhaps unorthodox for the rest of the corporate world: “McDonald’s is based upon entrepreneurial spirit. The company allows you to accomplish your assigned tasks by telling you where they need to go but not telling you how to get there.”

He also thinks there was plenty of luck involved and the support of a competent staff. “People who are a little insecure don’t surround themselves with brighter people out of fear; that’s a big mistake,” Lynn says.

C. James Trombino, CAE

Conferences and Professional Development
Metal Powder Industries Federation
Princeton, N.J.
In March 1951, Jim Trombino’s parents probably weren’t dreaming of a long and prosperous life as an association executive for their child. That year, they left Italy with seven-month-old Jim and passed through Ellis Island in its last months of operation as a door into the United States. The association business, however, became his life’s work. By the time he was in high school, Trombino was working as an office boy at the Metal Powder Industries Federation in New York City, and later moved with the association to Princeton, N.J.

More than 30 years later, the federation is still his home, and its 3,500 members are his family. Trombino is one of four directors who report to the executive director, and he is responsible for all of the non-dues revenue services. “In the beginning, someone must have recognized that I wasn’t challenged enough, and I started working in our publications department processing orders,” says the 48-year-old director of conferences and professional development. “I took that department over and made it into a viable, income-earning element of the association. Over the years, I was handed almost every other area, including finance, accounting, membership and meetings.”

Trombino was often young for the positions he took, but he never felt the challenges were beyond his reach: “I was creating these departments as they happened. I created learning curves for the people who followed me.” As a manager in his 20s, he ran into some tough times when he hired people who were older than he, “and I was such a perfectionist back then,” he remembers. “I’ve mellowed over the years.”

Maintaining excellence among his staff has been Trombino’s mission. “My success is built on my staff, keeping them happy, motivated and challenged,” he adds. “I have a very participatory management style. And that’s worked, because they’re still here.” In fact, several people he’s hired have now been with the organization for 15 to 25 years.

Evelyn Laxgang, CMP

Event Management
Schaumburg, Ill.
After 18 years at Motorola and more than 25 in the meetings industry, Evelyn Laxgang is blunt about moving her career forward: “I never said no.”

She started out by taking the usual entry-level position administrative assistant with the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons in Chicago (the association has since moved to Rosemont, Ill.), rising there until she was working for the director who handled all the meetings. Laxgang headed to Motorola in 1981, again starting in administration, making a conscious decision to work for an organization that offered opportunities in many different areas.

“When a job in training was posted for a conference planner, I threw my hat into the ring,” she recalls. Laxgang got the job and held it for 12 years, during which she helped build an entire department of meeting planners for the company’s training facility and then a global events department.

Now Laxgang is poised to jump to the executive echelon: “If all goes well, I will replace the gentleman above me when he retires.” At that time, she expects to become director of CEO events and sports marketing programs. Her duties these days are less straight meetings and more sports marketing, creating sports programs for the company’s officers and working on human resources functions, reporting to the strategic marketing office.

To downplay the risks involved in getting ahead taking on extra work with short lead times, dealing with new personality dynamics in new departments Laxgang has viewed them as opportunities to be creative. “I took on projects that were pretty challenging,” she says proudly. “A lot of people had the word ‘fear’ in their vocabulary and wouldn’t go forward. I would say, ‘I can do that.’ I love to create something that has never been done before.”

Like most planners, Laxgang has run into those along the way who had no idea what she did. “When I came in, people didn’t know what meeting planning was; I was constantly explaining the role,” she says. “I usually say I’m a project manager because people in the technology industry can get their arms around it.”

Laxgang has also paid close attention to her own education. She went back to college, graduating from Chicago’s DePaul University in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in international business and a minor in cultural anthropology. And even with a family and a busy job involving a lot of travel, she managed to accomplish that goal in the standard four years.

Still, she is realistic that her final steps to the top may take another couple of years. “You have to be tremendously patient,” Laxgang observes, “and not step on people’s toes. Because if you do, you’re out.”

Skills to Tout

Planners already have many of the skills needed to become top executives, says Charles Garfield, author, consultant, speaker and clinical professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco. Here is how Garfield redefines planners’ abilities.

Technology pros. Meeting planners evaluate the technologies needed for a number of situations and then hire and manage people with the technical ability to handle those areas. “These important skills are often overlooked,” he says.

People persons. Planners manage multiple teams in many areas, which Garfield calls a managerial skill with a strong human resources emphasis. They hire, train and retain the best people, whether within the organization or on an outsourcing basis.

Project managers. Meetings have time lines, missions and agendas “like a little organization with a shorter life,” he says. To manage all these areas, planners have to function as executives.

Salespeople. Planners in both associations and corporations demonstrate sales and marketing skills. Seminar topics chosen, speakers hired, brochures written and other incentives created to increase attendance or build enthusiasm all prove the planner’s abilities in this area.

Consultants. “Planners have a basic executive ability, the ‘art of the long view,’” adds Garfield. “They are usually prepared, like any good executive, to answer the question, ‘How will this meeting further the goals and missions of the organization?’”


Prepping for a Promotion
Once planners have decided to pursue a higher office in the organization, psychologist Charles Garfield suggests they follow these four steps to achieve their goals.

Step one: List what skills you have and then redefine them. (See “Skills to Tout,” page 58.)

Step two: Determine what you want out of your career and where you see it going. “Don’t sell yourself short,” Garfield advises.

Step three: Identify those in the organization who can help you actualize this plan. Don’t look for mentors, he says, look for allies: “You want to align yourself with somebody who has faith in you and sees your potential at least as well as you see it yourself.”

Step four: Create a realistic, flexible time frame. And, because of the fluctuations in businesses in the ’90s, be prepared to readjust your time frame and your plan when circumstances dictate. “In the old days,” says Garfield, “you could develop a five-year plan or a 10-year plan and stick to it. But now you can’t do that.”


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