Pieter Swart Never Stops Learning

Author: Christopher Durso       

Pieter Swart, CMP, CMM                            Founder and Managing Director, Conference Consultancy South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

EDUCATION Thirty years ago, my priority after leaving school was to earn a living. Full-time studies were not an option, and neither was any form of qualification in what I’m doing today. Instead, I opted for focused, career-driven short courses to refine my organizing skills.

This approach allowed me to develop competencies in administration, diplomacy, negotiation, personnel management, financial management, project management, business management, risk management, and entrepreneurship. The most valuable industry-specific courses were Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) in 2006 and Certification in Meeting Management (CMM) in 2010.

MY FIRST INDUSTRY JOB A parliamentary officer for the National Department of Health in South Africa, where I learned about meetings, government, and governance procedures and processes, and perhaps also importantly about politics — for instance, how to formulate a response to questions, especially from opposition party members.  

MY PREVIOUS THREE JOBS My previous three jobs span almost two decades, during which I made a transition from diplomacy to business-meeting management: professional conference organizer and consulting head of conferences and special events, Foundation for Professional Development, 1998–2009; assistant director of multilateral affairs, National Department of Health, 1994–1998; private secretary to the South African minister of health, 1990–1994.

WHAT I DO NOW I’m a team member of a group of highly skilled and experienced professionals in the company I founded 20 years ago. I’m the accountability officer. My job is to facilitate the direction of our company, and establish and expand relationships with our key stakeholders, seeking opportunities for innovation, sharing knowledge and experience with colleagues, and contributing to the professionalization and advancement of our industry.

FAVORITE THING ABOUT MY JOB To be at the forefront of everything, to learn something new every day from every person I engage.

MOST INFLUENCED IN MY CAREER BY One is the person who launched me into my professional career by allowing me the opportunity to become involved in the planning of the first multilateral conference ever hosted in South Africa (the Commonwealth Ministers Conference in 1995), a year after South Africa’s return to the international community. She is Ingrid Van Eeden, with whom I still have contact, and who at the time was director of the International Health Liaison, a unit within the National Department of Health. From her I learned the value of acquiring knowledge and continuing education, but more importantly the virtue and skill to share knowledge.

The other person who most influenced me is my first recurring client as an independent professional, Veronica Du Preez, former CEO of the Institute of Internal Auditors South Africa. Veronica taught me to be inquisitive, to find the meaning and purpose in everything I do, to ask the question why until I got to the “absolute” answer. I have found inspiration to so many initiatives locked in “absolute” answers to questions.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY BIGGEST PROFESSIONAL MISTAKE This could be a rather long story, but will keep it to the gist. I was assigned coordination responsibility for a UNICEF visit to South Africa by HRH the Duchess of Kent in the summer of 1995 — before mobile phones and the internet in South Africa. After several months of meticulous planning, attending to every minute detail of an exhausting trip that would take her to seven sites in five provinces (covering the whole country) in four days, we finally got to three days before her arrival.

Being diligent in managing risk, I was on the lookout for weather. And so it happened, a cold front moved into the country. I phoned Kensington Palace to advise on the turn of weather that may affect arrangements. This lead to a complete change of wardrobe (designer outfits made specifically for the trip over several months) to winter clothing — which I realized when I saw the duchess for the first time as she stepped up to the aircraft’s door on a perfectly windless summer morning, with moderate sun in the aftermath of the cold front. She was dressed in attire fit for a snowstorm.

The learning I have taken from this incident is that different people have different perceptions on the interpretation of information. The duchess being from London (and being used to sub-zero temperatures) and me from Pretoria (where single-digit temperatures are the exception), we had different experiences and expectations of “cold front.”

The take-home message is, never communicate perceptions when facts exist. What I should have done was to communicate the facts (drop of temperature from 30°C/86°F to 20°C/68°F), and allow the receiver of that information to interpret the relevance, impact, and implication. On the bright side, we departed cordially. I did not have to win Wimbledon to receive a kiss from the duchess.

MY NEXT BIG CAREER GOAL To continue to grow and become the best person I can be for my colleagues and our clients.

MY ADVICE FOR YOUNG MEETING PROFESSIONALS If you made it to this point, becoming a meeting professional and seeing a future for yourself in this profession — you have the talent. This is not an industry for anyone; you need to be wired for this job. No task should ever be beyond you — having that experience is worth its weight in gold. Continue to learn, become a life scholar, read widely, and share your knowledge and experience with industry colleagues; we learn best from each other. Never forget to find enjoyment in what you do.