Lessons in leadership, change, and competition from the IASB perspective during a pandemic
At the beginning of 2020, the speaking and events industry was booming. New speakers were entering the marketplace at an unprecedented rate, as thought leadership began to be seen as an authentic addition to their portfolios. More companies were turning to external speakers to address their staff and clients, seeing an opportunity to inspire their people and grow their businesses.
It was a truly exciting time to be part of the International Association of Speaker Bureaus (IASB). When I was appointed IASB President-Elect in early 2020, I knew I wanted to devote my time at the helm to creating a broader culture of education and collaboration in the organisation.
But when the international implications of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, it was clear there would be bigger priorities.
Becoming president in a pandemic
My presidency began a week before the first UK lockdown. Soon, though, it became evident that bureaus all over the world would experience the same regulations — just at different rates. Some countries had already been plunged into lockdowns; others would be within the next few weeks.
The annual IASB conference, which had been planned for May 2020, was promptly cancelled. This was disappointing not just because of the logistical setback; but also because at the time our members needed the IASB most, our best support channel had been effectively shut down.
More than that, the once-thriving events industry that had driven our market was also closed for business. To survive the pandemic, we would need to work together to find new opportunities.
Competition vs. collaboration
As president of the IASB, my focus turned to helping our members deal with their fear for the future. It became my priority to create a platform through which our members could connect with me and each other online.
I’ve always believed that other bureaus don’t need to be viewed as competitors. Taking a collaborative approach allows us to grow the marketplace, so our individual businesses can grow with it.
With everyone going through similar levels of uncertainty — on a personal and professional level — it was important that our members had a safe space to discuss their challenges and offer support to one another.
Adapting to a virtual world
Our online communication channels prefaced the thing that would eventually see our industry through the pandemic: virtual events.
As the world turned to online platforms for social and business interactions, we realised that our industry was at the cutting edge of this new trend. Suddenly, we could offer more than a speaker index: we could provide insights into running successful virtual events.
This was a turning point for speaker bureaus all around the world. From not knowing if there would be an events industry the following week, we had suddenly opened a world of new opportunities. And as an association, we had the tools to empower our members to become experts in the virtual space.
Our members exchanged experiences and advice, creating a support hub that helped individual bureaus flourish. This collaborative approach helped us build the industry back up. Everyone could use the information we had to revive their businesses, positioning themselves as experts in the world of virtual events.
Leading the IASB through the pandemic was a distinct experience — which is part of what made it so rewarding. The IASB helped our members navigate their way through the pandemic, both professionally and personally. As a group, we’ve ensured the survival of our industry through one of the most unique, challenging periods it has faced.
Leaders don’t have to be unwavering figures of strength and ambition. In fact, they can’t always be. Vulnerability and compassion are decisive factors in great leadership, especially when emotions are heightened. As more bureaus started to see the impact of the pandemic, it was clear I would need to put my original ambitions for the association aside, and instead focus on the day-to-day challenges and needs of our members.
Ironically, despite this, we did achieve what we set out to do in those early days of 2020. Through opening up conversations and keeping in regular contact with members all over the world, we created a sense of community and collaboration. Members began to share information and educate one another. And today, our industry is thriving.
Sometimes, as a leader, you have to put big-picture ideas of legacy aside to focus on the seemingly small details. But through doing this in an inclusive, empathetic way, we managed to achieve what we wanted to — just not quite in the way I’d planned.
The future for speaker bureaus
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing more valuable than the here and now. But that doesn’t mean that planning for the future should be neglected altogether. Instead, it should be done in a collaborative, communicative way that gives all your stakeholders an opportunity to have their say.
My IASB presidency ended in April 2021, but I continue to play an active part in the association. I want to make sure we continue to set impactful goals and make them clear to our members. Goals don’t have to be static — they can be fluid and far-reaching, inspiring members to be ambitious.
As an association, our shared experience of the pandemic has made us stronger. Having a universal goal that all our members strived to achieve helped us build each other up, creating a larger, stronger industry. We have a whole new business model that includes both in-person and virtual events, which in time will deliver two different types of value to our clients. Any business that has seen it through to this point is sure to have found new ways of working that will continue to help them weather the ongoing storm.
But it’s easy to lean on one another in times of hardship. The real challenge will be to foster that culture of openness, communication and collaboration as the industry recovers.
This is the key to making sure businesses in any industry continue to thrive: learning lessons, and integrating them into your company culture so they’re embedded in the way you work everyday.
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