After spending 29 years at SHRM, most recently as vice president of events — where she oversaw a staff of 12, served on the organization’s senior management team, and was responsible for SHRM’s signature Annual Conference and Exposition, which attracted more than 20,000 participants last June — Lisa Block decided “it was a good time to take my leave and go in a different direction.”
“Around Christmastime” last year, she said, she thought she would make that search her full-time “New Year’s activity.” But it ended up taking her less than a month to find a new place to employ her talents. She met up with Dave Lutz, CMP, managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, with whom she had worked on a number of different projects at SHRM, at PCMA Convening Leaders in Pittsburgh in January, and it was there that “we pretty much decided,” Block said, “that this was the right thing for both of us. We know each other pretty well, and there’s a big mutual admiration society going on.”
Convene talked to Block just as she was digging in to her new role at Velvet Chainsaw as executive vice president of conference strategy in March.
What interested you in this opportunity at this stage in your career?
I think the opportunity to work for a variety of different organizations is an exciting one. While my job is certainly not business development, I’m hoping that my connections will help open some doors for some organizations that Velvet Chainsaw is not already working with.
Can you describe your new role?
In a lot of respects, we’re a relatively small team, so we all get involved on the big projects. My expertise is in the design and strategy and people management practices around events. That’s the kind of thing I think I will probably be weighing in on the most. I think what’s exciting to me is the opportunity to learn from my colleagues who have all different kinds of expertise and experience so that we can provide the most well-rounded approaches to our clients as possible.
What interests you most about this new position?
I think a combination of broadening [my scope], the whole approach of the not doing but the thinking, and the strategy and the experience piece — which is more theoretical rather than practical — is going to be really interesting for me, because I’ve really focused a lot on taking strategy and making it into reality. I think that what I’ll probably do is bridge a little bit more for our clients that gap of the big idea to actually how you do it.
What are the biggest differences you’ve seen in the design of business events since you started out in the industry?
I’ve worked in large and small events a lot over my career. I think the whole idea of how do you design an event that delivers ROI, creates more stickiness, is fun and exciting and modern and energizing is a real challenge for organizations. The ones that really want to do that on whatever scale are the ones that are going to survive in this world.
The biggest changes I’ve seen is first to be very mindful of what your attendees and members are looking for, and then helping to guide their direction by surprising them with things that they didn’t even know that they needed or wanted. It’s also making sure that you’re delivering just-in-time information for them so that they can justify their time away from the office, the expense, etc., and that they leave feeling more motivated and energized and closer to the community that you’ve helped create for them. At SHRM, we were very mindful about that in terms of being brand forward. It doesn’t mean anything unless you create the experiences that people can connect to while they’re in attendance.
I think we’ve also been very thoughtful about the fact that nobody leaves behind their real life anymore when they go to an event and that, particularly in HR, crises come up all the time. We are very comfortable with that. We created, for example, overflow areas where people can go to participate in a session, but if they have to take a call halfway through, then they’re not having to fight to get out of a room. They can just get up and walk away from watching the screen and listening to the content, and then come back to it if they need to.
We also created what we call our smart stage, which is our take on sort of a TED-like environment, which has become extraordinarily popular. We’re always mixing it up and trying new things and seeing what sticks. Even with the sticky things, we’ve changed the menu, morphed them over time, and tried to have the experience be different and a little bit unexpected.
What have you learned about the business of human resource management in your decades at SHRM that you’ll bring with you to Velvet Chainsaw?
That’s a good question. I have tremendous respect for the HR profession and for the people in it. I feel like working for a mission-driven organization has been incredibly important to me. I have been fascinated by watching the profession evolve and the professionals develop a much greater impact and business acumen and really making a difference for the millions and millions of employees that our members work for. It sounds funny to say they’re changing the world, but really, they are.
I think the leadership and navigation and how you work across organizations and how you treat people and the importance of culture are all things that I think I can bring to working with the clients in the next phase of my career. That can be very specific to their meetings, but can really make a difference in how successful they are.
Your new career move resonates with the Boomer generation, many of whom don’t want to retire as they approach their 60s. Tell me about this transition for you.
It’s a really interesting topic, and I think a very loaded one for a lot of organizations and for a lot of people. A lot of us are in that around 60 age bracket where we’re looking at what is the next phase of our life, and traditional retirement is really not something most of us are interested in — feeling like we still have a lot to contribute but wanting to do it maybe a little bit differently. For me, this is a choice. I’m not getting pushed out, but I know that there are lots of people who are in positions where, particularly women, who once you hit a certain age, there are fewer opportunities, and certainly fewer opportunities for growth.
For me, this move to working with a smaller, more nimble team and working remotely and doing probably a good bit of travel, suits my lifestyle very well. I think that it is going to give me a little bit more flexibility. In this kind of world, you can work from just about anywhere and you can stretch and grow and try new things in a pretty interesting and challenging environment, but you’re also doing it a different way.
I think that’s what excites me the most is the range of different kinds of organizations that I’ll be working with, learning from, and hopefully, contributing to. I’m passionate about this industry and about live events. To me, this is the perfect move. I don’t know that I could have done this 10 years ago — I’m not sure I would have been wise enough to see it as an opportunity 10 years ago.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.