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Project Your Voice: Talking About Growth Through Facing Down Fears with Yolanda Simmons Battle

By January 8, 2023January 9th, 2023Projection

This is the fourthpost in our “Project Your Voice” series where we talk to meetings professionals about their experience in the industry, what advice they have for others and their hope for the future.

In this Q&A, we sat down with Yolanda Simmons Battle, from the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). With a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, Yolanda is passionate about helping others within the meeting industry face down their fears and find their seat at the table.

Q: How did you get started in the meetings industry?

A: I had no idea there was such a thing as the meetings industry when I was going through school. One day, my mother’s friend asked if I could come fold invitations and stuff envelopes for an awards dinner at the American Bar Association (ABA). When I had finished, she asked, “Could you come back tomorrow? I have something else for you to do.” Before long, I was working as a temp, and eventually I was hired on part-time by the director of the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession at the ABA.

I learned all I could, and soon found the meetings industry to be a very interesting place to be. There is a misconception that running events is just like planning a birthday party, but I soon found out how challenging and exciting it is to plan professional meetings. There are contracts and negotiations and cross-collaboration with speakers and venues; the result is an event that becomes the kind of experience that brings people together and big things happen.

Q: Was there a mentor that inspired you? 

A: I was so fortunate to work for Rachel Patrick at that first job. She not only encouraged me to learn all I could––and in fact paid for my first year of membership in PCMA––she taught me the most important lesson of my professional career. She sat me down one day, after I had been at the ABA for about four years, and asked me, “What are your plans for the future?” At first, I was worried she wasn’t pleased with my work and was trying to get rid of me, but her intention was to guide me towards bigger things. I had reached my potential at the ABA. There was no room for me to grow in my current position, and it was time to look elsewhere.

Everyone can benefit from this type of mindset, but women in particular should take note. Every five years you should take stock of where you are. Do you feel challenged, fulfilled, and like you are moving towards something? Or do you feel stagnant and frustrated? If you have any apprehension, it is time to reevaluate your life and make some changes in order to get where you want to go.

I live by this––have a goal post to look at. Your goals may change over time, and that’s ok, but you need to keep measurable goals in front of you. If you don’t do so, you aren’t working towards anything; you are just working.

The encouragement of my mentor led me to move on to a new position at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and now AHIMA. I have in turn encouraged others to look for their own growth opportunities. Some people are shocked at this mentality, but I think the younger generations understand it, and, after the pandemic, older generations are seeing the value in taking a hard look at priorities, too. Thinking about your future isn’t a sign of disloyalty, and it doesn’t mean you have to leave the association you work for. It is more about evaluating what you are producing, what you are giving, and what you are getting in return. When you have a true, honest conversation with yourself, you can let go of stress surrounding things that do no good. You have the power to make the change that you are looking for.

Q: What advice do you have for others choosing a path similar to yours?

A: First, decide if you love this. I feel like with this career path, you have to love it. A lot of times it’s a thankless job. People who are outside of the industry don’t really understand what you do, so they don’t get the scope of how hard it can be, and how it can wear on you. Of course, there will be days where you don’t like your job, but at the core, you have to love it.

What we do is not rocket science, but truthfully, not everyone can do it. Be honest with yourself about what you can do and what you’re willing to give of yourself. For example, I know that I don’t have the personality and skills of a sales person, but I am incredibly passionate about seeing my ideas come to life. When a bare exhibit hall begins to fill up – and turns from nothing into a whole new universe for the attendees – I am constantly reminded why I do this work. No matter how tired I am, that adrenaline rush right before a show starts is such a great feeling.

That said, I wish I would have known earlier in my career that those in the hospitality industry often go unseen. To be honest, I have had hurt feelings on more than one occasion due to this. You can put your all into an event––literally sweat and tears––and no one even says thank you. Over time, I have learned that it isn’t personal. There are a lot of people who don’t really understand what we do. That is not a reflection on me or my work. Understanding this sooner would have saved me a lot of heartache.

I also wish I had found my confidence sooner. There were times I second-guessed everything I did, and I wish I would have wasted less energy on that and been more confident in my own decision-making skills.

But maybe my most valuable piece of advice is this: Do it afraid. When you feel outside of the circle, introduce yourself, even though it is scary. When you don’t know the answer to a question, push through your fear and ask someone who does. Acknowledge that fear is not a weakness; it is something happening inside your body. When you can say, “this scares me,” and then do the thing that scares you anyway, you are showing your power. Assuming you are safe, do it afraid. Otherwise, you will always be stuck.

Q: Are there any specific resources you go to in order to help you grow professionally?

A: I like to call myself an eternal learner. I try to read as much as possible about a variety of subjects. I have the added advantage of a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, which gives me a fundamental understanding of behavior.

Outside of that, I look to professional associations like the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). And I like to listen to SKIFT webinars to keep tabs on what is new and get inspiration for things to try at my own events.

Q: What is your hope for the future? Are there areas you think our industry still needs to improve?

A: I believe we have made progress in a lot of ways. We have a more diverse meetings industry than we used to. There are more women who are in c-suite and senior director positions. We see more people of color or those with disabilities in leadership positions. As more different voices sit at the table, we are creating an atmosphere where everyone feels their voice is heard.

In other ways, I feel we have moved backwards. A former executive I worked with once referred to the meetings team as “tables and chairs.” I am not a table or a chair; I am a free thinking human being with ideas and hard work to contribute. We should respect each other as an entire industry, instead of separating people into groups of planners, salespeople, foundations coordinators, etc. We are all collectively in this industry together.

We used to be more relational, and I feel like some of that is gone. I would love to see us bring those relationships back to the forefront. I believe being very intentional about looking at the whole person will help individuals feel seen, and at the same time, it will help our industry grow.

Additionally, I’d love to dissolve some of the myths about the meetings industry. Outsiders don’t always see our value. In reality, meetings professionals contribute a lot of value. We connect people, we help curate opportunities for new ideas to be formulated. We lay the foundation where new products can be collaborated on. We are an important part of generating revenue across the world (not just revenue, but real solutions to problems). We help provide the space so the experts can answer the questions that keep them up at night that ultimately help others. It is past time that our contribution was widely recognized.

If you or anyone from your organization would like to be a contributor to the “Project Your Voice” series, please let us know at projectyourvoice@projection.com.

More from “Project Your Voice”

[Part One] Talking About Inclusion, Diversity and Finding Your Niche with Josh Henry, SPIE
[Part Two] Talking About Connection and Responsibility with Cassie Mancera, AAOMS
[Part Three] Talking About Making a Collective Impact with Paula Eichenbrenner, AMCP Foundation