Converting Your In-Person Conference to a Virtual Summit

Is your organization accustomed to holding real-life gatherings for scores or hundreds of its followers, shareholders, customers or members? If so, what should it do in these pandemic times? Are large-scale, virtual events as simple as they seem?

In October last year, I got lucky. A colleague included me in the execution of his two-day online summit. Thousands participated from around the world, and based on what I learned, I subsequently launched two such events of my own. My most recent effort, CaribHRForum Virtual Conference featured over 1350 participants, with 75 speakers spread over three days.

While my learning curve has been quite steep, here are some shortcuts I recommend to scale this challenge, even in a world of continuous, disruptive change.

1. Get the Business Model Right

Like many activities of this nature, there is a commercial reality that must be addressed in order to produce a material benefit. While it might appear easy to copy other online events, that’s a mistake if the organizers’ goals aren’t exactly the same as yours.

To illustrate, some hosts are happy to increase the size of their mailing lists. Others just want to sell a specific product to a narrow audience. The point is, your organization must define the outcomes and target dates it wants to attain from the venture.

For example, at the start you must choose which crowd to attract, what topics to cover, which technologies to use, what skills are needed and more. These are strategic decisions which should be driven by your organization’s vision. That’s not to say the past should be ignored: but you should assume that you are looking to attract a younger, more tech-savvy version of your traditional audience.

By now you may realize: this is not simply about making a virtual carbon copy. Instead, this activity should complement your new post-COVID strategy and the best way to accomplish this is from a blank canvas.

2. Hunt for Skills

Unfortunately, the team of folks you relied on to pull off your in-person events may find itself lacking. The skills needed for a project of this nature are vast, deep and changing from one month to the next. As such, it’s unlikely that you will find them all at once. In other words, expect team members to be in a relentless learning mode as they grapple with evolving technologies.

For example, you’ll need folks who are skilled in internet marketing, website design, customer service, online community management, copywriting, image and video editing, event handling, speaker selection/training and more. While some of these may appear to be traditional capabilities, the virtual expression of them is unique.

Case in point: A skilled graphics designer accustomed to a traditional role may not understand the difference between Instagram Story promotions versus those in the Feed. Facebook’s advertising platform may be incomprehensible.

The bottom-line is that managing the skills needed for a virtual conference is a game of constant vigilance. Few organizations can afford to hire an external specialized team so you must use volunteers or employees. They will only possess a subset of the skills you need so get everyone in learning mode from the onset.

3. An Early Start

Most organizations under-estimate the need for a business model that works and the skills which are needed. Consequently, they start working on their online conference far too late.

This has a compound effect: an overdue start means a lesser choice of speakers. This, in turn, makes the event unattractive to your audience. They may conclude that you’re only offering a glorified webinar: heavy on splashy graphics and light on content. Unfortunately, fewer attendees means less revenue.

A late start may also push you into offering live presentations, versus those which are pre-recorded. While this may seem to be an easy substitute, it actually translates into a frantic last-minute struggle to bring together interviewers, interviewees and the audience in real time. Throw in different time zones, imperfect technology and a tricky supply of electricity or Internet access and you have a recipe for stress.

In these pandemic times, these are challenges you may not be able to avoid. Accept the fact that you are creating an experience that is distinctly different from ones you have undertaken in the past, and that direct comparisons to pre-COVID times add little value.

The truth is, in-person gatherings in large numbers are unlikely to resume in 2021. In the meantime, many of your audience members will become accustomed to the benefits of virtual conferences and summits, and start to prefer this option.

Embrace this aspect of the new normal as a unique capability to be used long beyond the time when herd immunity sets in. Instead, it will probably be a requirement your audience demands, a feature your organization will offer over and over again in the future.

Originally published in the Jamaica Gleaner.

How to Listen Productively in a Negotiation

The task of negotiating with other people is part and parcel of business-life. However, many hate having to do so, and a large percentage do so ineffectively. One cause is that most focus on the quality of their speaking, fixating on what they need to say. By contrast, masterful negotiators take a different approach: deep listening.

Years ago, I had the fortune of picking up “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. This classic book on negotiations outlines several principles; one of which is to listen keenly to uncover the true intent behind someone’s position.

The idea is simple enough: when people are in a negotiation, the job of making requests of their counterparts is unavoidable. On the surface, it seems to be a battle of wills: each side asks for what it wants repeatedly, until the other concedes or refuses. The best tactic is to figure out how to get what you want, while giving away as little as possible.

However, Fisher and Ury advocate a different frame: a “Win-Win” in which both parties benefit. As you may imagine, there are a number of positives to be derived from this approach, even though it requires more skill. Among them is the ability to listen powerfully to what the other party is not saying aloud.

The fact is, each of us asks for stuff we want all day. However, especially when the stakes are high and emotions are raw, we unwittingly hide our true needs and emotional wants behind words. It simply feels too risky to be honest.

But we aren’t being sneaky; it’s just that emotional intent doesn’t translate neatly into actions or objects. For example, a husband who asks his wife to make a cheesecake for his birthday isn’t necessarily asking her to procure a baked good, and may be upset when she purchases one from a store.

For him, the intent is to experience her love and care which means seeing her sacrifice time and attention in the kitchen making the cake from scratch. He may unwittingly want to relive a memory provided by his mother.

But his actual words: “Would you bake a cheesecake for my birthday?” don’t convey his entire intent. Therefore, the mismatch between the two could result in a marital spat, or in the business world, a failed negotiation. How can you get past this sticking point if you find yourself in a similar spot?

1. Notice the mismatch

Skilled negotiators know how to use their intuition to discern such subtle gaps. Something deep inside them indicates that all is not well. However, you may find that your MBA-like training leads you to pay attention to the logic of what is happening: the discernible facts.

But that’s not enough. Furthermore, detecting uneasy feelings is necessary, but not sufficient. Once the inner shift is realized, you must translate the sensation into accurate words.

“It seems that we are making progress, but something inside tells me that we are missing a big part.”

This is a bold step: it’s a request to stop the negotiation in order to investigate a mere hunch based on intangible emotions. Unfortunately, most people self-censor, telling themselves: “Don’t be silly – just move on!” When they do so, everyone loses.

If you’d like to move past sticking points in your difficult conversations, it pays to tune in to your inner feelings, and speak up.

2. Probing for Underlying Commitments

If you do call a time-out, and things seem stuck, it could be that you are giving the other party exactly what they are asking for…but it’s not enough. This is a moment when your intuition can help you probe for deeper reasons.

“I know you asked for cheesecake, but why do you want that for your birthday?”

This is a masterful move in any negotiation because you are probing behind the stated position to see why it was raised in the first place. But this is more than curiosity.

Going deeper opens up the range of possible solutions. For example, the smell of home-cooked cake on a special day could be satisfied by other kinds of baked goods which are easier or less expensive to make.

When you expand the number of options, a Win-Win becomes far more likely. Plus, when you probe their hidden commitments it shows that you care. It’s as if you are setting aside the overt demand for cheesecake in order to give the other person what they really want.

In this context, this kind of listening is powerful as it invents brand new outcomes which neither side could predict beforehand. Without explicitly saying so, the two opposing sides are now working as a team.

For a breakthrough in negotiations, start by deeply listening beyond the words to yourself, and the other person’s true needs.

This article first appeared in the Jamaica Gleaner –

Part Two: Can’t You See I’m Working!


At 10:00 a.m., Jennifer Williams, Account Manager, asked Jerry and Glenda to report to the conference room for a meeting.  The unit had a deadline to compile a report for the Managing Director the following day for the client account on which they were working.  Jerry and Glenda dash toward the conference room, complaining all the way.

“These people always put so much pressure on you with these deadlines, man,” grumbled Jerry.  “They don’t give you a chance to get in the door!”

“That’s the truth.  I barely got a chance to put my bag down and now there’s a meeting.  I didn’t even get a chance to finish my portion yet.  How can you finish anything when you’re in meetings all the time?”  Glenda commiserated.

As they entered the conference room, they each raised their defenses in preparation for the tongue lashing they were sure to get from Jennifer.  Sure enough, Jennifer was very annoyed that they had not made much progress in their work and said that she wanted to see each of them individually to assist them with meeting the required deadline.  Her conversation was quite the same for both.

“I know you are working toward the deadline, but I also notice that you spend a lot of time either on the phone, in idle conversations and on breaks.  While I don’t want the kind of work atmosphere that is always about work, it’s important that we recognize the importance of meeting these deadlines.  If I’ve set one, it means that someone has set one for me, and it’s because of a commitment made to our clients.  What can I do to help you meet the deadlines?  Are you having a challenge with your assignments?”  Jennifer queried.

“No,” is the abrupt response.

“Can I help you with anything?”  Jennifer persists.

“No,” is yet again the curt reply.

In short, both employees are angry about being confronted about their productivity issues and feel that they are being picked on and are unappreciated.  In Part One, we were introduced to Jerry and Glenda, who reported to work but clearly demonstrated that they were not working.  What follows is what many managers in The Bahamas experience:  the challenge of managing productivity.

The Challenges
1.    Anger and Resentment
Employees may feel angry or resentful about being confronted about productivity issues. Like Jerry and Glenda, employees feel if they are ‘at work’, then they are working and do not understand the difference.  They may express this anger in various ways:
•    Passive Aggressive Behavior
Defined as a learned behavior from childhood borne of controlling parents or authority figures, persons that exhibit passive aggressive behavior do not openly express dissatisfaction because they feel they will lose approval; however, they hide their negative emotions in behaviors that indicate that something is wrong.  Passive aggressive behavior is expressed through sarcasm, procrastination, poor performance, missing deadlines, losing documents, absenteeism and lateness at critical times or other forms of sabotage like damaging equipment, computer systems, and even the personal assets of managers.  Their attitude quietly says, “I’ll show you!”
•    Aggression, Abuse, and Violence
The other extreme of passive aggressive behavior is aggression.  This person is not afraid to push back with open, hostile confrontation, criticism, name calling, shouting, cursing, and even physical violence.  This behavior still indicates feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem and this learned behavior is a defense mechanism used to have people keep their distance and in essence, not inflict hurt or pain on the abuser.
•    Withdrawal and Low Morale
Another way of dealing with confrontation and constructive criticism is to withdraw completely, losing interest in their work and in the company on the whole.  They will withdraw their support and commitment to the manager and team, feeling unappreciated and targeted.
•    Decreased Productivity
The one result of challenging the lack of productivity can yield the same result: reduced productivity.  Again, a form of withdrawal and passive aggressive behavior, the worker may feel if the manager has a problem with his or her work, so by working even less, in his or her mind, means why do any more if what is done does not satisfy?
•    Feelings of Inadequacy
At the root of many of these feelings and behaviors can be inadequacy and low self esteem.  Criticism is taken as a personal attack, an expression of disapproval and lack of acceptance.  At the core, these feelings translate the manager-employee conversation about performance and productivity as, “You don’t appreciate what I do.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t please you so why do I even try?  You don’t understand me.  I can tell that you don’t care about me at all and what I’m going through.  I’m doing my best.”  You will note that this language is all inwardly focused, more about the self and the relationship with the manager rather than the work and the performance levels – the real issue at hand.

How can managers deal with these challenges effectively?
The Strategies
1.    Open Communication
Try as much as possible to cultivate a working relationship of open, honest communication that is based on a relationship of mutual trust.  Good communication on both parts will help both manager and employee to understand each other, share feelings, and clarify and confront issues.
2.    Clear Goals and Expectations
Knowing why the work and deadline are necessary and what the performance expectations are help employees to perform at required levels.  Making sure that there is real understanding about tasks and standards is critical and often both managers and employees have a different perspective of what is expected.
3.    Clearly Communicated Consequences
Discipline is almost as dirty a word as work, and one of the hardest things for some managers to enforce.  Consequences for lack of productivity need to be understood by all.  Not only does it mean not meeting targets, affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire team or department, but it can even mean lost time, customers, and profits.  What does all that loss translate to over time?  Lost benefits and lost jobs.  Persistent offenders must begin to feel the consequences of these impacts, even up to the point of termination.
4.    Training, Coaching, and Mentorship
Poor productivity can mean low skills or confidence in completing certain tasks.  If the employee does not feel comfortable enough to admit that he or she really isn’t sure about what to do, it will be hidden in a lack of productivity.  Probing conversations, observation, and analysis can determine if this is the case.  Watch for signs like excuses, blaming, getting others to complete the work, lots of errors, and waste.  Managers will then have to determine whether employees need to be trained, coached one on one or mentored by the manager or another high-performing employee to increase skill and confidence levels.
5.    Praise and Recognition
As simple as this may sound, some people stop performing when their efforts are not recognized, appreciated, or rewarded.  In this age of Generation Y or Millenials especially, they are motivated by the WIFM rule:  What’s In It For Me?  Many are motivated by money and recognition.  Others do not need public acclaim or monetary rewards, but just knowing that their work is noted and appreciated is enough.  Even though some managers feel that salary is reward enough, employees – even managers – want to know that what they do has added value and meaning not only to themselves as professionals, but also for the department and manager, and the organization as a whole.

How can HR help?  Two ways are by providing management development initiatives to help managers cope with these workplace challenges and create forums where both managers and employees can openly (and anonymously) express why they may not be performing optimally and address them appropriately.  And finally, one that I hear most often: support the efforts of the managers to discipline and correct negative behaviors while providing mechanisms to recognize and reward improvements and achieved targets.


That Dirty Word: Work!

These random thoughts express my observations of people, places and issues in the Bahamian workforce.

If you watch the typical Bahamian workplace through the course of the day, you may see something like this.

Jerry and Glenda arrive at around the same time, exactly 9:00 a.m. After settling at their respective desks, Glenda determines that she needs some tea because getting the kids to school on time is such a mad rush in the mornings and with the terrible traffic, there is hardly enough time to get on the road and be on time. So, of course there’s no time for breakfast. Glenda heads to the office kitchen where she finds Gina and Rhonda already having breakfast while the tea kettle boils. She joins the animated conversation about the awesome conference that was going on at Rhonda’s church this week.

Jerry bought a .99 cent breakfast combo, and the stench of tuna salad, steamed ham and grits with butter waft pervasively through the office, leaving a lingering cloud of grease and onions hovering over the cubicles. He has a report he has to complete so he can’t take the time to stop and eat breakfast in the kitchen. “Let me make a call to my Rotary president first. I need to confirm the agenda for tonight’s meeting.” Jerry spends about 20 minutes on the phone with the Rotary president who sends him an email that he asks him to print for the attendees. “Sure,” Jerry says, and makes 50 copies at the copy machine on the second floor. It’s now 9:45 a.m. and neither Jerry nor Glenda has actually started to work, even though they are both at work.

The day continues in the same fashion. I’ve seen some workplaces where the team’s greatest focus was the discussion about where they were going to get lunch from that day. Or the folks that use the lunch hour for other business and bring their lunch back to the office to eat it, using up yet another half hour of the work day. Let’s not forget the holy hour that begins by 2:30 p.m. every afternoon: ‘school pick up’, where every parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, brother or sister has to pick up at least one child from school. The traffic again at this time is horrendous and the stressful worker may make it back by 3:30 p.m. but by this time, is feeling so drained and unfocused that this time may be spent on sending texts, instant messenger, the telephone or more water cooler chat until 4:30 p.m. Of course by now the witching hour is approaching and as soon as the hour hand moves toward the 5 if not before, the exodus for the exit begins. Do not try to get served at 4:55 p.m. You will be told by that clerk, anxious to leave and frustrated because you have come to block her departure, “We closed.” All accompanied by the customary ‘suck teeth’ and look of disgust.

Yes, it seems as if work is a dirty word for some workers today. Why is it that managers and heaven forbid, customers, get the attitude and rolling eyes and ‘suck teeth’ when they ask people to do what they’re being paid to do? Is that what our workplace has evolved into? What causes this lack of connection in the workplace between the work and the worker?

My observations have been the following:

1. Management
Staff may not be motivated, inspired or held accountable by managers. As a result, they are not interested in the work that they are assigned. Perceived favoritism, manager’s inability to lead or discipline others in the team or the manager’s own lack of knowledge about the job may also contribute to this attitude. It’s almost like school children. When I was in the classroom early in my career, you got the most out of your students if they liked you. If they didn’t like the teacher, they didn’t like the subject. When you engaged the students, they loved the subject. The same seems to be true today at work.

2. Lack of interest in the job
It amazes me how little passion many employees have for their work. It amazes me even more to find that the more people I talk to reveal that they are not doing what they love to do. As they get older and add to their responsibilities, and increase their debt, they feel trapped in a job that pays but does not deliver meaning or worth. Therefore, it becomes a mindless, heartless routine. Dr. Myles Munroe, author and speaker, describes at as ‘people being preoccupied with their preoccupation.’
3. Boredom
The unchallenged worker becomes unoccupied very quickly. Either he has mastered the task or he has not been given enough to do for his skill set. It is important to know the full capabilities of the team so that work can be evenly and fairly distributed according to their interest and ability. Otherwise, the idle worker will only be a distraction to the rest of the team and perhaps even become a discipline problem, be chronically absent, or worse, venturing into entrepreneurship with company resources and on company time…”I don’t have anything else to do, I might as well do what I really want to do” is the cry. I have even seen workers who clock in and leave to go to another job and maybe come back – if you’re lucky.
4. Low skills
Low skill levels can cause an employee to feel overwhelmed by the tasks assigned and the easiest thing to do is not do anything at all. They may hide behind other deadlines, other employees completing their work, or avoiding their manager altogether. There is hope for these, once they admit they need help, and observant managers diligently get to the root of the matter. Additional training and coaching can turn this situation around if handled with patience, genuine interest and care for that employee’s development.
5. Disillusioned about the company
If an employee feels disgruntled, he or she may feel that by being unproductive he or she is hurting the company through their spiteful, passive aggressive actions. And to some degree, they are right. Lack of productivity does affect the bottom line but the catch is when you don’t perform, you can be disciplined or dismissed for your lack of productivity. It is always best to listen to your disgruntled workers. Some complaints may just be from those who feel the company can never do enough to satisfy them but at the root of many a complaint, is the source of a deeper underlying problem in the workplace that may demand an intervention.

While management has tried to put measures in place to decrease distractions for the worker: limited internet access, onsite cafeteria, policies about company phone and cellular phone use, and tougher managers to enforce the policies, productivity is still an issue in many workplaces. Whatever the reason for the unproductive workforce, it is the responsibility of a good HR professional with the cooperation of the entire management team to assess the tenor of the organization to determine what needs to be changed, refined, or improved so that employees are engaged and happy to work rather than the opposite.