‘Great Leadership Starts with Self-Leadership’: How Middle Managers Fit in the Events Industry

Sally Foley-Lewis has collaborated with more than 15,000 leaders across organizations to help middle managers achieve productivity, confidence, and ultimately, high performance within their organizations. She will share her insights at PCMA APAC’s The Business of Events, to be held April 15–16 in Singapore.

Author: Casey Gale       

“The future success of the business events industry hinges on recognizing and elevating the strategic role of middle managers in navigating complex challenges and seizing new opportunities,” said Sally Foley-Lewis, who will speak at PCMA APAC’s The Business of Events conference.

Sally Foley-Lewis started her career as a recreation officer at a psychiatric hospital. “Not a common career starter role, right?” said Foley-Lewis in an email interview with Convene. Yet this was the experience that ultimately set her on the path to becoming the middle management leadership and professional development expert she is today, helping middle managers tap into their highest potential at organizations from Microsoft to Coca-Cola.

“From that position onward, I have been helping to skill, engage, and motivate people,” she said. “The role taught me so much about meeting people where they are at, and to remember that everyone has more going on than simply how they present themselves to the world.”

Foley-Lewis, who is based in Brisbane, Australia, will be presenting herself to a portion of the world — PCMA APAC’s The Business of Events conference audience — as a keynote speaker on April 15 at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. She recently spoke with Convene to share a preview of her talk, “The Future of Middle Managers,” key tips for harnessing self-leadership, and the future of work with AI in the mix.

So many professional development leaders are focused on either developing new talent or C-suite roles — what prompted you to focus on middle management?

I’ve seen and experienced “the middle” from every vantage point: [I’ve been] below and reported to middle managers. I’ve been a CEO and led middle managers, and I’ve been a middle manager. I could see how powerful this role really is and experienced how neglected this cohort is. Learning and development have been predominantly tech skills and fundamental leadership without really customizing programs for amplifying the leadership of this cohort. Middle managers traditionally would have to fit into programs designed for frontline leaders — too basic for their context — or maybe selected for senior or executive programs that are pitched too high or used as some form of reward. Middle managers have unique development needs — for example, they need to translate the strategy into tactics and operations and then analyze the outcomes from that activity in order to inform and influence strategy.

You teach productivity and self-leadership — what are some of the greatest hurdles individuals face when trying to improve these skills? Is there one quick tip you can share that might help our audience improve (slightly!) in these areas?

Great leadership starts with great self-leadership! Self-leadership is based on numerous behavioral theories, but in essence it’s about influencing oneself. When this is done effectively and efficiently, the result is high performance, great productivity, and better profits. One big hurdle to productivity and self-leadership combined is a lack of boundaries. When you don’t know or identify and then set and articulate your boundaries, you open yourself up for being unproductive and pulled in all directions, leading to eventual burnout and even resentment. For example, if you don’t discuss, agree, and set clear workload boundaries, then you inadvertently may be sending the message that it’s okay for others to keep adding more and more work onto your existing workload, including adding work that should be done by others. Without a boundary and without holding that boundary, you could easily let your core work slip and you may work longer and longer hours, increasing your stress levels. You may have heard, “‘No’ is a sentence.” I don’t subscribe to this completely. Simply saying no to someone is not really polite, so I suggest a more helpful approach. For example:

  • When you are not the right person to do a task: “No, not me, but Bob could help as he’s an expert in that.”
  • When the time is not right for you: “No, I can’t help right now, but I can help in [nominate when].”
  • When the task is not right: “No, I can’t help with that task, but I can help with X task.”

Can you tell me about your keynote, “The Future of Middle Managers” and how it applies to the business events industry?

In my keynote, I delve into how middle managers are the pivotal backbone of any organization, acting as crucial conduits between strategic vision and operational execution. I argue that in the rapidly evolving business landscape, the role of middle managers in fostering innovation, facilitating change, and driving performance has never been more critical. By investing in the development of middle managers, companies in the business events industry can enhance their adaptability, improve team engagement, and significantly boost event outcomes through better execution and innovation. I also highlight practical strategies for empowering middle managers, including leadership training, digital tool proficiency, and fostering a culture of continuous learning. Ultimately, this keynote underscores that the future success of the business events industry hinges on recognizing and elevating the strategic role of middle managers in navigating complex challenges and seizing new opportunities.

Do you see artificial intelligence (AI) as something that will help or disrupt middle management in the future?

AI presents a fascinating paradox for middle managers; it is both a disruptor and an enabler. On one hand, AI can streamline operations, automate routine tasks, and provide data-driven insights, thereby augmenting middle managers’ capabilities to make informed decisions and focus on strategic initiatives. This transformative power of AI empowers middle managers to excel in their roles by shifting their focus from transactional activities to leading with a vision, fostering innovation, and driving organizational change. However, it also necessitates a pivot in their skill set towards understanding and leveraging technology, managing teams in a digital-first environment, and leading with empathy in increasingly automated workplaces. AI’s impact will depend on how organizations and middle managers adapt to these changes, viewing AI as a tool for enhancement rather than a threat, thereby redefining the essence of leadership in the digital age.

The Business of Events theme is “Unbound: Shape the Next Horizon.” What does that mean to you in relation to the work you do?

The theme resonates deeply with the essence of my work…. It speaks to the liberation from traditional constraints and the encouragement of forward-thinking leadership that navigates beyond current challenges to shape future opportunities. In relation to middle management, this theme underscores the need to empower these pivotal leaders to think and act beyond the confines of their current roles, enabling them to innovate, inspire, and drive change. It aligns with fostering a culture where middle managers are equipped and encouraged to explore new paradigms of leadership, leverage emerging technologies, and cultivate a mindset geared towards continuous growth and adaptability. “Unbound: Shape the Next Horizon” encapsulates the journey of transforming middle managers into visionary leaders who can navigate the complexities of today’s business landscape to chart a course for tomorrow’s success.

Casey Gale is managing editor at Convene.

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