Learning with TBOE

Laura Schwartz at The Business of Events conference TBOE

Pillars of engagement lead to success, says ex-White House employee

Posted on June 7th, 2019 in Industry Insight, Leadership

The Business of Events 2019 conference was closed out by international keynote speaker Laura Schwartz, a former director of events at the White House.

Laura spoke to the audience about her career trajectory. Starting as an unsure student, she became an intern at the White House and slowly worked her way up, ultimately serving as director of events during Bill Clinton’s administration. Since then, she’s written a book, hosted TV shows and regularly talks on the world stage.

Pillars of engagement

Laura attributes her career – and personal – success to what she calls her pillars of engagement. These questions and mindsets help her orientate herself and push her towards her dreams. These are:

  • Regularly asking ‘who am?’ and ‘why am I here?’
  • Sharing information to help others
  • Re-framing optional as opportunity
  • Weighing up options by the return on experience

Explaining their use, she said, “Those pillars of engagement weren’t just something I had to think about when I went to college, they weren’t just something to think about when I got to university and started working at the White House, or during the White House or after, I think about those pillars every single day.”

“Because through our lives, we’re gonna have to check ourselves. Through our transitioning careers, we’ve got to check ourselves. Through different relationships, personally, we’ve got to check ourselves. Those pillars of engagement? They’ll see you through.”

Asking questions of yourself

Watching a presidential debate, the running mate of a surprise candidate opened up with a joke: “Who am I? Why am I here?”. Although it got a laugh from the audience, for Laura it was profound – and remains so today.

She said, “I sat there in my dorm room and I thought to myself: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? I knew who I was. I was a young student who wanted to work in communications. I wanted an internship at a good company. Why am I here? I’m here because my sister went here.”

“Luckily, I engaged myself with that question so then my answer could lead me to where I needed to be.”

“I turned to always asking myself randomly – maybe once a week, maybe once a day – ‘who am I, why am I here?’. I started realising that the better we know who we are, the better we know what we can give.”

Sharing information

While we all like to feel important – and having certain knowledge can give us that feeling – a well-run organisation has a free flow of information. Not only does it make things easier for your whole team, it also frees yourself up to do other tasks rather than having to continually field questions.

Laura said, “The more we empower others with information, the better we guarantee our success. We’ve all worked with men and women alike who love to hoard information, I did at the White House, and those people were so obstructive to the final outcome.”

“When we share, we empower. Other people think that if they don’t share then you gotta come to them to ask and now it makes them more powerful. Not the case.”

Re-framing optional as opportunity

No matter where you work, there are likely tasks that you don’t look forward to. However, going into them with a negative attitude means you’re not going to make the most of your time, no matter what you’re doing.

For Laura, her optional was going in early, staying late and asking if she could do anything extra to help when she first got to the White House. Other people in her situation were happy to do the basics of a 9-5 and add to their resumes, but Laura saw the opportunity to really impress.

She said, “When it comes to engagement, you’ve got the option to engage at this networking happy hour, you’ve got the option to come in early or to stay late. Or you can look at it as an opportunity.”

“It completely changes your mindset. When we’re positive about what we’re doing, we’re more likely to get a positive outcome.”

Valuing return on experience

In the events space, we often talk about return on investment. But in our personal lives, Laura says that sometimes we need to think about return on experience instead.

For Laura, this came when she was volunteering at the White House and a paid position became available – something that most people would jump at – but for events it might mean trying to do something for guests that gives them a wow factor but doesn’t necessarily lead to an ROI.

She said, “A receptionist position opened up and they asked me if I’d take the position. I actually said no, because I was learning so much as a volunteer. I was able to be not just tied to the desk answering phones, I was working with some of the staff and I was even travelling a little bit.”

“I looked at it as ROI vs ROE: the return on experience. What was of more value at that time? At that time, the return on experience at 19 years old was more important to me, and of more value. I took a bit of a gamble on return on experience. That’s what led to everything that came later.”

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