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Beyond the Beginning & End: My Leadership Lessons with WIPA

Reflections on leadership by WIPA Past President Meghan Ely

If there is one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that I’m really great at the middle of things. 

You see, my origin stories tend to be lackluster. I decided I wanted to be in weddings on a drive to the grocery store in college, and I got the idea of being a publicist because a high school career test told me to do it. My endings aren’t that much better, often channeling T.S. Eliot in a “whimper-not-a-bang" sort of way. 

My WIPA International Board journey has followed suit. I was recruited by my friend (Kevin Dennis) with the promise of simply having to create the monthly newsletter (chuckle). Now, after 2,722 days, 90 board meetings, and countless SOP revisions, I’m going to miss my last board meeting to get LASIK. Whimper, indeed. 

So, for today, I want to focus on the middle—specifically, all the good stuff I soaked up. Despite my mistakes, I hope the lessons I've learned provide you with a solid foundation for your leadership journey. 

Recruit for your weaknesses 

You are not great at everything, and the sooner you realize that the further you will go. My initial challenge in serving on the WIPA Board was obvious: I had zero chapter-specific experience. Once I got past the initial panic, I surrounded myself with people who knew better. I quickly realized that there’s where progress lives—and aimed to fill my gaps. 

Be grateful for the dissenters 

Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” I found that I especially learned from the members and leaders who pushed back the most. In fact, if we could work through our respective frustrations, we often became the best and most productive colleagues, if not friends. 

Intrinsic motivation makes all the difference 

The happiest industry leaders are the ones motivated and rewarded by personal satisfaction. If you can be fulfilled without ongoing Board acknowledgment or external recognition, you’re likely to accomplish more, stay engaged longer, and leave with a positive legacy. Be your own cheering squad. 

The small wins grow into bigger wins 

In July 2017, I found myself on the short end of a nominations process that required a significant overhaul. It took a year board break, ample research, finding an ally in my friend Amelia Cooper, and endless rewrites to end up with a fairer, more welcoming procedure. All in all, it took six years, one month, and 24 days.   

The glacial pace of associations requires an unlimited amount of patience. But when you do reach the desired outcome, there’s no better feeling of accomplishment as a leader. So don’t lose hope; keep chipping away. 

People first, always 

We are in the business of people, and that doesn’t change when you step into the role of an event association leader. Yes, there are policies and bylaws and rules (namely, Robert’s) to follow, but in any decision, I always took a pause and considered the impact it had on the individuals, as well as the risk over reward. I only regretted decisions that skipped this step. 

You’ve got to know when to fold ‘em 

The gift of an Immediate Past Presidency is that you’re handed an expiration date. Not everyone gets that opportunity. Instead, it’s on them to make the move—a decision made far trickier when their good work has turned the organization into what they wish it had been at the start. But Renee Dalo said it best: leaders build leaders. And that final step in the leadership journey, making space for others, turns out to be the most important one. 

And finally, your legacy is what you make of it. You and you alone decide how much you want to invest in it. So do your best to live the length and width of your years as a leader, so you can be guaranteed that the good work continues when you've moved on to your next adventure. 

As you forge your path in leadership, consider: What will your middle look like, and how will it shape your legacy? 

*Editor’s Note: I could write an entire article about the contributions Meghan Ely has made to this publication, as well as our sister publication, Catersource. She was one of my first gifts of knowledge and assistance when I took on the editorship of Catersource in 2014 and a continuing bolster when I added SE in 2020. - Kathleen Stoehr

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