My Story
14.03.2017 16:30

Don’t be backward about coming forward. 

Joanna Lawlor shares her journey to becoming Global Events Director and her advice for getting ahead. Read on to hear her story and how being thrust into a situation totally outside her comfort zone helped to shape her approach to her career.

ICE Global Events Director at AstraZeneca must be a huge responsibility, tell me a bit more about your role.

JL As part of the Global Medicines Development organisation, I am part of the team that manages our attendance at all globally-led major medical congresses. Typically we have exhibition booths where we present clinical data and/or commercial information to healthcare professionals, helping to educate them about our drugs, clinical trials data and the disease area in general. Our exhibition spaces can be as big as 7,700 square feet and congresses take place in a number of locations around the world so there is a great deal of logistics involved. Ensuring compliance is also a significant part of the role, as our industry is highly regulated. I work with a team of 13 events professionals who deliver work for the global organisation and the Science Units within AstraZeneca.

ICE What do you enjoy most? JL: Probably the greatest feeling is that moment when the event has finally kicked off and all the months of planning culminate in an engaged audience. But I also love the planning process. Putting an event together is like conducting an orchestra; each individual needs to know when and how to deliver in the correct way and at the right time to ensure the symphony comes together and we have an impactful result! There’s also the satisfaction that we hopefully have a positive influence on patient health by increasing the education of healthcare providers for them to be able to make informed decisions. ICE: How did you start out?

JL After gaining a combined degree in Spanish and French, I started life as a trader in Far East Equities at what is now UBS in the City of London. After a year of living out the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture, I went backpacking for a year. On my return I started working as an office manager for a company. I ‘fell’ into events after I had to organise an office move for 80 people and realised how much I loved the planning and logistics. If I look back, I realise that I’ve always enjoyed organising things from my shoe cupboard at home (all in clear boxes, with photos on the front!), to my school Open Days. So with the wisdom of understanding what I enjoyed, I went on to look for a role specifically in events and joined an agency in Dublin. I have never looked back.

ICE What is the best career advice you’ve been offered?

JL Perhaps the best career learning experience for me was being pushed out of my comfort zone and asked to present to 700 people at a company meeting. I was used to overseeing the build of the stage, not standing on it! However, it taught me to be bold and now I tell people ‘don’t be backward in coming forward.’ On the back of the confidence I gained from that presentation, I created new opportunities for myself by going after what I wanted. I was no longer scared of the outcome.

ICE To get to where you are now, what has been your biggest challenge?

JL Until people get involved with running an event, they often don’t realise how complex it is. In my early career, I had once been introduced as the ‘events bunny’ and ‘the person who organises the tea and coffee.’ Overcoming those perceptions and proving that what I do adds value has been key to advancing my career. My presentation at the company meeting was a turning point as it gave me the visibility and credibility that helped me get the role I have today. To explain, following that presentation, I was invited to join a high level strategy meeting that I would never normally have been involved with, and from there went on to call the Global head office and I asked to join another project that I felt I could add value to. It’s important to have the confidence to speak up, to challenge when appropriate and not to be afraid to go after what you want. If you don’t, you may never know what you truly are capable of.

ICE In your view, what makes a good leader?

JL Honesty, as a pillar of trust, is key to leadership. It is a two-way street so a good leader must encourage a culture of honesty. I also think that people really respect someone who is willing to ‘muck in’ and work alongside them. When I worked at an agency earlier in my career, the Client Director came back after a client dinner to stuff envelopes with us in Logistics until 2am. I was really prepared to go the extra mile after seeing that level of commitment, and I have never forgotten the impact that had on me. Where possible, I like to be very involved with my agencies and not have the obvious agency/client divide. I like to remind them that we are one team, and we all have the same objective; to deliver a successful event and have a happy client.

ICE How do you continue to develop yourself and your skills?

JL Obviously I try to stay on top of the latest information for my industry and this is helped by being Vice President of IPCAA (International Pharmaceutical Congress Advisory Association). When time allows I read publications like C&IT and Event magazine. Events such as Confex, IMEX or Square Meal are also a way to keep abreast of news and trends. Probably the most important aspect of my development is seeking regular feedback. Whether as part of a project team or for my annual review, asking for input from colleagues helps me improve the way that I work and my leadership skills. I employ the same philosophy with those I work with, to make sure they always know what is expected of them.

ICE What do you see as the biggest challenge for the industry at the moment?

JL Most everyone is facing budget pressure. Attempting to do more with less is a real challenge. Despite the focus on reducing cost we are all being asked to innovate which can seem daunting at times. One of the reasons I joined the Steering Committee for the ICE Awards is because I think it is really helpful to showcase innovation. There is so much that we can learn from one another as corporate event planners by looking across industry sectors and finding inspiration in winning ideas and sharing past challenges.

ICE Any words of wisdom for those wanting to get ahead in the industry?

JL Hands on experience is invaluable so look for opportunities to get your hands dirty working at different types of events (e.g. carrying out unpaid work at a charity event or working as a hostess for a gala dinner evening etc.) makes all the difference. Having spoken at the Event Academy (formerly Ashdown Academy) on the merits of agency versus client-side experience, I would advocate the benefits of starting out within an agency environment. That enables you to see a wide range of events, learn various aspects of the trade and build your network. You will also find out that the Events industry is not as glamorous as some people like to believe! Importantly, don’t be backward about coming forward! I still remember a woman who approached me after a speech I had given, with a great question, a personal detail and her own business card she had had printer herself. She stood out from the crowd and wasn’t afraid of doing so.

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