April 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions - Signature Deals - April 2001

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April 2001
Diane ContriscianoDiane Contrisciano

The Next Step

How to land a promotion

By Carla Benini Photograph by David Barry

  Diane Contrisciano has a success story to tell. It begins in 1982 with a secretarial job in the marketing department at Mellon Financial Corp. in Philadelphia. Soon, she is one of two employees chosen to build the office’s meeting planning department from the ground up. “We learned by the seat of our pants,” she recalls.

Nearly 20 years and thousands of meetings later, Contrisciano has earned a coveted position at Mellon, one not commonly held by members of the corporate meeting planning community: assistant vice president.

Contrisciano attributes part of her success to the industry she works in. “Fiscal responsibility within banks sometimes determines salary grades,” she explains. “I handle a lot of money.”

But she also has shared the typical career challenges of the corporate meeting planner, including the struggle to define and defend meeting planning within a company whose core business is totally unrelated. “What we do is a little less obvious,” she says. “We’re not making loans or generating revenue.”

To protect her position, Contrisciano long ago learned to wage a public relations campaign starring herself. When she received verbal accolades from clients within the bank, she asked them to put their comments in writing and send them to her manager. If her supervisor congratulated her on a job well done, she’d copy her boss’ manager at Mellon’s headquarters in Pittsburgh. As she puts it, “If you’re going to get promoted, people have to know who you are and what you’re doing.”

Contrisciano is a poster child for an industry where the opportunities for promotion let alone to an executive position seem relatively slim. M&C contacted dozens of corporate meeting planners in an effort to collect career-affirming stories. We found surprisingly few. One planner called the profession a “cul de sac,” where you “drive in and park.” Another told us of her 10 years of service at one firm without a single title change. Still another has taken over meeting planning at a corporation of 1,500 employees, but this cherished assistant to the chairman says her boss will not promote her because it would mean finding a replacement.

Meeting planners face other obstacles to promotion. Corporate event organizers often are mistaken for “party planners.” They risk being perceived as nonessential and thus are not seen as deserving of a higher position.

“What used to be the corporate ladder is now the corporate stool,” says Sharon Jordan-Evans, president of the Jordan Evans Group, a Cambria, Calif.-based firm specializing in executive coaching and leadership development. And with fewer levels of management, “there is phenomenal competition for a select few jobs,” she adds.

In agreement is Dawn Penfold, CMP, president of the Meeting Candidate Network, a New York City-based search firm serving the meetings industry. “The closer meeting planners get to the top of the ladder, the fewer of those positions are available.” A disappointingly short ladder forces many planners to forget notions of promotion within their current firm and look to fill a vacancy at a higher title elsewhere. But even that has its limits: Penfold says the majority of meeting planning positions are in middle management.

Without a clear development path for meeting planners, Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys lost Sonal Daphtary, CMP, as manager, meetings and events. “My expectations are that when you get to an organization, you learn, you grow, you build, you climb the ladder,” says Daphtary. “If there is nothing there to set your goals on, why would you stay?” Daphtary moved on to become manager, global marketing services for Radnor, Pa.-based KPMG Consulting Inc. “At Unisys, I was doing strictly logistics. I wanted to do more than that, get into marketing,” she says. “In the meetings department, it wasn’t going to happen.”

On the other hand, by the nature of the job alone, planners are well positioned to make smart career moves. For one thing, corporate meeting planners typically work across several departments and with a variety of people. Such access is a considerable advantage when exploring a new direction or a higher post. The job of planning also demands that one be an expert project manager and negotiator, skills consultants peg as promotable. The trick, experts say, is in communicating those skills to your boss, or maybe another supervisor, when gunning for a promotion.

More ways than up
The trick to laying out a contract template or addendum, says Pastor, is understanding one’s meeting needs so thoroughly that the group’s priorities are part of the planner’s demands. All other points become negotiable “wish list” items.Most people look at a promotion as the next rung on the ladder. But in today’s corporation, which is structurally much flatter than in earlier years, there might not be a next rung.

That’s what Judy Benaroche-Johnson, CMP, discovered. For years she served as national sales manager with Sunbelt Motivation & Travel Inc. in Atlanta, where the few positions above her were held by longtime employees. She eventually left to join EHarden Meeting Management in Carollton, Texas, where she recently was promoted to president. Looking back, she says her career at Sunbelt had “no place to go.”

In cases like this, consultants urge planners to think not just about the vertical promotion, but a lateral move or even going a few notches down to gain experience in a different aspect of planning. “It’s more about, ‘How do I promote my career?’” says Beverly Kaye, Los Angeles-based president of Career Systems International Inc., a retention and career development consulting company headquartered in Scranton, Pa. “The idea of thinking broader has been around for a long time, and yet all of our training, thinking, even party talk, is centered around, ‘What is your next promotion?’”

Thinking laterally could mean considering a position in human resources that allows you to hone people management or conflict resolution skills. It could mean remaining within your department but realigning job responsibilities according to your strengths. Want to gain experience in corporate training? It might mean accepting a job at a lower pay grade. Perhaps that seems totally contrary to the whole notion of a promotion, but consultants says it is important to adopt a new mindset when it comes to career advancement.

“The biggest thing about realignment is that when you choose to move down or across, people will say, ‘You didn’t make it,’” says Kaye. “You have to be strong enough to know what you want, and then act upon it.”

Taking stock
Once professional horizons have broadened, planners need to examine exactly what kind of skills they want to employ. Some questions to ask yourself: Do I like handling people? Am I service-minded? Am I a relationship builder? A team builder? Do I like listening to people? Do I like to work with data?

In other words, if the next rung within the department is managerial, and you prefer working with numbers more than people, then management is not a wise move. “It begins with an understanding of who we are in order to determine our path,” says Harold Weinstein, chief operations officer of Caliper Corp., an international human resources consulting and assessment firm in Princeton, N.J.

“Don’t assume that just because it’s a bigger paycheck, it will be a better deal for you,” adds Beverly Kaye. When offered a new position, give the job careful consideration before making a decision.

If possible, talk to someone on the same level or in a similar position about the specific pressures and headaches of the job. How late does the person work? Is it difficult to get any time off?

If the job would be a first-time managerial post, other serious factors come into play. Kaye says she often deals with employees who have ascended to manager and then want desperately to go back to being an individual contributor, because they didn’t understand the pressures of the new job.

Penfold also warns planners not to get caught up in titles. “Titles are a corporate culture, not an industry culture,” she explains. A director in one company might have less responsibility than a manager in another firm. In fact, says Penfold, some managers have 20 employees reporting to them.

The campaign trail
If you are interested in a promotion within your department, do not assume your supervisor knows you want it. Take the initiative during a performance appraisal to voice specific professional desires, whether it’s to manage people for the first time or to handle the department’s budget. Another strategy is to discuss the tasks you most enjoy and to seek ways to do more of them.

A great opportunity to network and show off your skills is to volunteer to organize a company’s charity program, or be part of some project outside your daily realm of responsibilities. Harry S. Chambers, president of Trinity Solutions, a training and consulting firm in Atlanta, recalls a planner who volunteered to help the company remodel and relocate to a new office. The job involved hiring contractors and organizing others throughout the company. “That was her ticket to a promotion,” says Chambers, “because the organization realized the quality of her skills.”

Consultants agree that the people who get promoted are those who don’t wait to be assigned a task. “Fill a vacuum, and do it on your own time,” says Weinstein. “People who are likely to get promoted are those who have taken the initiative to identify needs within the organization and demonstrate their willingness to fill those holes.” Or, as Chambers puts it, “One track to promotion is doing the job before you get promoted. It can be a burden, but you can prove yourself.”

Annette Luczak says an active pursuit of additional responsibilities helped in her climb to become second vice president of treasury management services at Chicago Northern Trust Co. “Within the past five years, I’ve re-created my job entirely,” says Luczak, whose original position with the firm was largely relegated to filling out trade show registration forms for employees. “I used to handle the logistics. Now I inform employees about trade shows.”

Luczak also creates the content for programs for which she once handled registration.

It’s not about you
To move up, focus not on your own need for a promotion but on why the organization will benefit if you take the next step. “The same thing goes for raises,” says Chambers. “I’m not compelled to give a raise because someone is in debt. You need to illustrate what you can do and what the proper compensation is.”

Part of what helped Luczak ascend the ranks at Northern Trust is that the bank began to view meeting planning as a bona fide profession.

“In the past it was left up to sales,” says Sue Spurlin, vice president of marketing for the treasury management services and Luczak’s supervisor. Today, she says, “The bank recognizes that the meeting planner plays an important role in the marketing mix.”

Luczak says she never would have advanced so far 10 years ago. A supportive boss helped her raise the bar for her own career. “My manager cared about what I did, so I did everything I could to make the job what I knew it could be,” says Luczak. Once an auxiliary task, meeting planning is now an official title within the corporate hierarchy.

Change is good
The volatile nature of today’s business world often can mask opportunity, says Price Pritchett, president of Pritchett Rummler-Brache, a Plano, Texas-based consulting firm. He believes an acquisition, merger or other major change in a company creates a situation where planners can shine, especially since corporate messages often are handled through sudden, last-minute meetings.

Randy Wertheimer seized the day when the founder and CEO of Star Trax corporate events in Southfield, Mich., left the company to start an online venture. At that point, “We [all] stepped up to grab more responsibility,” says Wertheimer, an eight-year employee of the firm who joined while in college. When the CEO left in summer 2000, Wertheimer was promoted from account executive to vice president of sales. Today, he is a partner. Wertheimer’s winning formula for rising to the top: “Loyalty to your organization, to clients and a mindset to do whatever it takes.”

Excellent client service also has paved Diane Contrisciano’s path to the executive ranks. She makes an extra effort to build close relationships with the middle-market lenders at Mellon Financial Corp. Her goal is to understand clients to the point where she can anticipate the kinds of functions they will turn out for she knows who likes baseball games and who likes art exhibits. Says Contrisciano, “You need to align yourself with those people who will make sure you’re recognized.”

Promotable employees communicate openly and are talked about favorably. “You need to manage your reputation,” says Jordan-Evans, who warns that being quiet or shy can be misconstrued by peers and supervisors as a lack of enthusiasm. “You might just not feel like talking, but that helps to create your reputation.” Talk to trustworthy co-workers who will speak frankly about their perceptions, she suggests. “Find out what the buzz is about yourself.”

Price PritchettPerhaps you can hear your grandfather saying it: “Back in my day&” promotions were awarded to employees who devoted many years of service to a company. And the better title did not always come with more responsibility; it was a means of saying “thank you.”

“In the past, people were promoted because they deserved it or because they had the potential to grow into the job,” says Harry S. Chambers, president of Trinity Solutions, a training and consulting firm in Atlanta. “Those days are over. Today people are promoted because of what they can bring to the table. Do they have the ability to cut costs, increase productivity, impact a revenue stream, do things faster and cheaper?”

Another notable change: More responsibility doesn’t always mean a bigger staff. In fact, says Chambers, some people are promoted for the express purpose of streamlining operations and reducing staff.

Corporate cultures designed to help move an employee up the ladder are now virtually extinct, sources add. Supervisors of yesteryear were more likely to play an active mentoring role, working with employees to help them progress along a chosen career path.

“We have to assume much more responsibility to manage our careers,” says Price Pritchett, president of Pritchett Rummler-Brache, a Plano, Texas-based consulting firm. “We have to self-manage our careers and self-manage our morale.”


Harry S. ChambersA few years ago, technical skills might have given planners an edge, but no more. Those skills are now mandatory, say consultants. Organizational skills are more likely to catapult a career.

Planners can start by being organizational task masters with what is already on their plates, so they will project the ability to handle more responsibility, says Harry S. Chambers, president of Trinity Solutions, a training and consulting firm in Atlanta. “It’s about not having 72 hours of work piled up on your desk.”

Companies are looking for planners with “strong supervisory experience of full-time people,” says Dawn Penfold, CMP, president of the Meeting Candidate Network, a planning industry search firm based in New York City. While planners often temporarily supervise contracted help, hiring managers look for someone who can mentor, grow and retain employees.

Also important are versatility and project management expertise, says Harold Weinstein, chief operations officer of Caliper Corp., an international human resources consulting and assessment firm in Princeton, N.J. “Not only must you have the ability to conceptualize the project, you also need to get the right people together and function as a team leader to build consensus.”


IMAGEWhat do managers look for when doling out promotions? All too often, employee and employer have vastly different answers to that question. Marian N. Ruderman, research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., studied this discrepancy by analyzing 64 promotions in three companies. Among her findings:

Good work only gets you so far. Employees were very focused on, ‘If I work hard, people will notice and I will be promoted,’” says Ruderman. In reality, the process was found to be subjective. “Being good is insufficient,” says the researcher. “It’s not like employers ask, ‘Who is the best convention planner we know?’” Ruderman found 48 percent of the promotions occurred within the context of a reorganization; in 22 percent of those cases, supervisors mentioned “being in the right place” as a reason for the promotion.

Skills might not matter. Managerial positions did not necessarily come with a skill set. Indeed, 20 percent of the jobs were in some way customized for the employee, either to help him improve a skill or to capitalize on one.

No one’s looking at your file. Performance appraisals were rarely considered when offering a promotion, says Ruderman. In fact, formal methods of assessment seldom came into play. Managers relied more on what they knew about the person or what their peers knew.


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