Friday, June 27, 2008

Training for the IronMan: A Conference Worker's Guide

(NOTE: This post is dedicated to hundreds of my colleagues who will be literally running our upcoming quadrennial mega-event. You know who you are!)

I spent last week in Barcelona where my organization is going to hold its World Conservation Congress of 8,000 people, which we have been blogging about these past few months. During my trip to Barcelona, we visited the Congress centre and saw the various rooms and halls, and most importantly were given some very practical tips about the centre, where we would be spending around 10 days of our lives, day and night.

On my way home to Geneva from Barcelona, I read an article in the inflight magazine about two London office women who decided to do the Ironman triathalon. The story explained their learning and preparation for this grueling competition, which includes a marathon, 112 miles of biking, and 2.4 miles of swimming. You need to be competent at everything to finish - similar to our Congress. You might be a mild-mannered project manager for 355 days a year, but at Congress you can take on the role of media spokesperson, usher, VIP handler, translator, and high-level panelist in one day, with super quick changeovers between each.

And like the Ironman you need to prepare yourself if you want to finish in one piece. No showing up the day of the race and lining up at the start (or the registration table). For our Congress, preparation means practice of these new roles (I took my media training course today), getting rid of your sleep deficit, and taking care of that low grade cold you have been nuturing for months. Hard work and many nights of minimal sleep will find your immune system a real pushover - probably on day 2 of the Congress.

Another thing the Ironwomen learned in their preparation for the event was that you need to learn things you never imagined you needed to know. Like how to fix your own bicycle - during the race, no one is going to stop and help you fix a blown tire. They are too focused on their own race to even notice, or be able to stop and help. Our Congress may be the same, with everyone flying in every direction preparing for any of the 40 simultaneous events at any given time. When your caffeine withdrawal is giving you a whopping headache, and there are 300 people waiting at the coffee bar, you need to be able to produce your own solution. What about a thermos of coffee that you made that morning in your hotel room? (bring your travel kettle, instant coffee and thermos - sorted). When you just need a glass of wine at the end of the day - know where the nearest supermarket is, and pack your corkscrew. Lay in some nutritional snacks, proper meals will be few and far between - think of those Ironwomen and their protein bars, water bottles, energy drinks.

And don't forget the proper kit and gear. You might not need the wetsuit and onesie, but something that will work for day and the evening reception (that you will never have time to change for), a fanny bag that you can wear even if you are on the podium - so you don't have to retrace your steps over the last few hours to look for the bag you left under a table somewhere. And the essential thick soled shoes (think miles of granite floors, with not a centimeter of carpet in sight.)

And at the end of your test of extreme endurance, you will have the great satisfaction of knowing that you could do it, you finished it, you learned some new things about yourself and your co-racers, and perhaps can help advise the next group of Ironmen and women, or Conference workers, on how to prepare, and hopefully enjoy, this once in a lifetime experience.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Taking Your Work Outdoors

You don't need to be a farmer or a tree surgeon to work outdoors. Even office workers benefit from a bit of fresh air and fresh perspective sometimes.

Today we did our team's mid-year performance assessment, and because it was hot, and there is construction right outside our office window, we decided to have our 2 hour meeting out back of the building in our break area under the trees. It was cool and fresh, and the context was so different that I cannot help to think that the unusual setting encouraged us to have a different conversation than the one we might have had in our more institutional office space.

As a bonus, we also got a new perspective on what work means for some of our colleagues. First we saw a co-worker walk by in a pair of chest waders and a long stick. Following that was another colleague in a long T-shirt and barefeet (and noticeably missing a pair of trousers). Before this blog post gets an X rating, I must say that (upon query) they were draining the bog in our natural garden (a beautiful wetland area with all native Swiss species). We enviously watched another work style in our office, one that happens outside more often than not - and what's stopping all of us from taking our work outdoors more often? Have a meeting? Need to have a different conversation? Take a walk!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

"Thanks for the reminder – much appreciated!"

31 out of 40 workshop organizers prefer quick reminders two days before a deadline – or so my learning from last week tells me.

In preparation for a week of ‘Learning Opportunities’ during the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, October 2008, I am in regular contact with 40+ organizers of workshops. All are busy people in jobs spread worlwide, offering to share their skills and build the capacities of others to use them.

Over the course of the remaining 4 months - as we put together an online application system for participants, prepare the official Congress programme, develop detailed agendas, collect biographers and supporting materials and make these available on the web – there will be a lot of communication between us. I need to make sure that they continue to cooperate and make my life easy. And I need to help them to help me.

Last Friday was our second deadline (revised titles and session descriptions please). I sent out the request and some guidance two weeks ago. Little back by Wednesday, so I had a decision to make. Sit tight, wait and - come Friday evening - send emails chasing all those who had failed to reply with an impassioned plea and the threat of exclusion from the applicants system? OR a polite, ‘quick reminder’ that afternoon to those i’d not yet heard from. Needless to say, I chose the latter and happily, moments later, in came responses: "Thanks for the reminder – much appreciated!" By Friday evening all had come flooding in. The lesson: help people keep to agreements – it feels good all round.