by Sarah J.F. Braley | June 26, 2017
Recognizing that the large majority of meeting planners are women -- by a margin of about 80 percent to 20 percent -- Meeting Professionals International launched the Women in Leadership: Executive Leadership Skills Certificate Course earlier this year to help members navigate the organizational ladder as it looks today.
M&C had the opportunity to take the four-hour course during MPI's World Education Congress at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas this week, sitting in with about 35 women looking to expand their responsibilities and voices both within their current organizations and in future positions. The course started with some preconference homework, as participants were asked to take the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment and were given case studies of six industry leaders to evaluate. The six women profiled were Norma Dean, director of specialty sales for Delta Air Lines; Tammy Routh, senior vice president of global sales for Marriott International; Laura Schwartz, former White House director of events, TV correspondent, author and speaker; Cindy D'Aoust, president and CEO of Cruise Lines Internation Association (and former COO of MPI); Samme Allen, cofounder and CEO of the Sequoia Partnership, which consults with event venues around the world; and Angeles Moreno, CEO and founder of Creative Dots, which analyzes the educational needs of organizations.
Following that exercise, program leader Kristi Casey Sanders, CMM, DES, HMCC, director of the MPI Academy, started with a quote from Catherine Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte: "In the global marketplace, women remain the most untapped natural resource."
Sanders asked the women to stand and form three groups indicating whether they think the glass ceiling exists, they aren't sure or they don't think it exists. The group was split relatively evenly, with several participants saying they hadn't experienced the difficulty of moving up or being passed over for a male colleague themselves, and others citing incidents of gender discrimination in their current or former workplaces. Some also said that when they encounter gender bias, they feel it is up to them to find a way around it.
The room then dissolved into table conversations around what is keeping the participants from advancing, such as stereotyping, brutally long work hours and a lack of family-friendly work policies. The lively discussion also took on the case studies, evaluating the choices the six women had to make to get where they are today. 
Among the choices and actions identified by the class:
• They took risks, and took the opportunities presented to them;
• They all found mentors;
• They volunteered to do additional work out of their comfort zones;
• All of them took responsibility for their own careers;
• They were willing to sacrifice in other areas in their lives, meaning they could not maintain what many would define as a perfect balance;
• They nurtured their teams;
• They surrounded themselves with the right people; and
• They are all lifelong learners.
Strengths the six women exhibited were:
• They took criticism well;
• They were curious;
• They were self-aware (understood their strengths and weaknesses);
• They were adaptable, not scared of change;
• They were dynamic and passionate;
• They were able to improve continuously;
• They exhibited charitable, service-oriented leadership styles; and
• They were entrepreneurial, even within their organizations.
From this exercise, participants also identified five lessons learned:
1. Mentor up and mentor down.
2. Create an inclusive environment.
3. Make friends along the way.
4. Trust your instincts.
5. The most important one: Do not participate in girl-on-girl crime, meaning women should be supportive of their colleagues who are also striving to improve, which helps women as a whole to be seen in a better light in the workplace.
To see if they can nudge the bar upward on their careers, attendees were encouraged to try something outside their comfort zone and perceived abilities, and to be careful not to create a box for themselves or others.
"You don't have to act like a man to be a leader," Sanders said.
Moving on to challenges and solutions, Sanders noted that women looking to move up the ladder often say they have trouble being taken seriously, taking risks and learning how to foster the environment they want. And there are those pesky sacrifices that have to be made, difficult choices when weighing how to spend personal and business time.
"The work life balance is a total lie, it's a myth. You have to make choices," she said. "Challenges are opportunities, they are a gift. A lot of time obstacles are opportunities."
One of the exercises participants went through in preparation for the course had them answer these questions:
• Do you see yourself working at the same company in five years?
• Why/Why not?
• If you could make money doing anything, what would you do?
• What would you like to learn?
• Where do you want to be in five years?
Using that information, the last part of the program was an hour-long mentoring session, where participants paired up to discuss their challenges and help each other articulate a path for moving forward. When asked if they learned anything surprising about themselves in this process, one woman noted, "A situation I thought was negative is actually positive." Another revealed, "I learned that everything I wrote on the paper had nothing to do with what I really want."
Participants walked away with an action plan for the next couple of months, to help them make their next move. Sanders also is moderating a LinkedIn group for participants of the course, which will take place five more times this year, in New York (twice), Florida, Nevada and Texas. Click here to learn more.