Paul Miller of Questex

    We Spoke to Paul Miller of Questex on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Miller.

    As CEO of Questex, Miller is responsible for shaping Questex’s growth strategy and enhancing its offerings to better serve its customers as the leading information services company focused on the experience economy.

    A visionary leader with a keen ability and track record of growing businesses, Miller has a passion for creating winning cultures and high performing teams. Miller has led and grown businesses with revenues ranging from $30 to $250 million in both privately and publicly held companies. Miller was a member of the Executive Leadership team that completed the sale of Penton to Informa for $1.2B.

    Prior to Questex, Miller was President of Informa’s Industry & Infrastructure Intelligence where he brought a high level of innovation and creativity to help customers achieve superior ROI on marketing investments. Earlier in his career, Miller was President of Penton’s Industry Group where he was responsible for a broad portfolio that includes energy and buildings, design engineering and sourcing and manufacturing and supply chain markets. Miller had a long, successful career with UBM where he held several management positions. His last position was CEO of UBM Tech where he drove the business unit into digital content and services, as well as international expansion into Europe, Asia and Latin America. He started his career with Reed Business Information.Miller is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (MCiM). Miller earned a B.A. (Hons) in Communication Studies from Sheffield Hallam University (UK) and graduated from Chartered Institute of Marketing with a Diploma in Marketing.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    I have been in the information services and events business for my whole career.

    After graduating in the United Kingdom with a degree in Communication Studies, I was looking for a career in the “media” area. I started at Reed Business Information in a telesales role selling recruitment advertising. The graduate recruitment scheme at Reed was a terrific training and development experience and I met many lifelong friends there.

    From Reed I joined CMP Media (later UBM LLC) where I had a long career holding several management positions in the electronics portfolio and then in the technology portfolio. It was CMP that offered me the chance to relocate from the UK to the USA and begin a journey that has been very fulfilling. My last position at UBM was CEO of UBM Tech where I focused on leading the business unit into blending digital content and services with live event experiences, as well as international expansion into Europe, Asia and Latin America.

    After leaving UBM, I became President of Penton’s Industry Group where I was responsible for a broad portfolio that includes energy and buildings, design engineering and sourcing and manufacturing and supply chain markets.

    I was a member of the Executive Leadership team that completed the successful sale of Penton to Informa for $1.2B. After the acquisition, I became President of Informa’s Industry & Infrastructure Intelligence where I brought a high level of innovation and creativity to help customers achieve superior ROI on marketing investments.

    I joined Questex as CEO in September of 2018.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    After about six months of telesales, I was promoted to an outside sales role. The training was intensive, with many tips and tricks covering all types of scenarios, including the business lunch. I skipped over many of the details thinking them rudimentary. A few weeks into the role I was able to book my first ever business lunch with an important client. I ordered the shellfish platter and proceeded to embarrass myself as I went digging for flesh only to splatter myself, the neighboring table and the client with pieces of crab, lobster and crayfish. When relaying the story to my boss, she asked if I had read the ‘tips and tricks’ as page two began with “what not to order” when on a business lunch — number one was “Do not order shellfish platters where you need to use tools to get to your food.” The lesson was that you should never underestimate the expertise of those who have spent time trying to articulate learning and lessons from their experiences. Always take time to read through documents even if you think you know the material or it is tedious. Even today I make myself read through lengthy legal documents from start to finish.

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    There are so many people that I am grateful for. At all junctures of my life there are people that have had a profound effect on me and who have helped me on my journey. If I had to choose one person, it would be Steve Weitzner, former CEO of UBM, Ziff Davis and Summit Media. In the 1990s, Steve promoted me to lead the digital business within our group but two years later asked me to “come back” to print media as Publisher of EETimes. I was reluctant as I believed that digital was the future and print would struggle. Steve managed to frame the move as one where I would learn to lead a large ($50 million) brand with a diverse set of job functions. He did it in a way which focused on my aspirations and goals ensuring that my ego was put in check. He also stated that the challenge would be that I would be the first non-editorial publisher of the brand in two decades and that was something he thought was a necessary cultural change. It was a seminal moment in my career that led to record revenues for EETimes in the year 2000, followed by the crash in 2001 where I had to deal with significant adversity for the first time in my career. Steve also taught me that a leader can be transparent, authentic, not take themselves too seriously, communicate often and never forget the value of every member of the team. All of these lessons I carry with me today.

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    Questex has been an information services and events company for over ten years. When I joined the company, it had grown via acquisition and was managed by unit with each focused on their specific goals. We decided that one way to unlock the value of the company was to break down the silos and create a culture of collaboration. To enhance this we created Centers of Excellence where we concentrated skill sets and approaches that could help us scale. We also realized that we needed a vision and purpose for the new business.

    Earlier this year we created new purpose driven messaging for Questex. We help people live better and live longer. Questex brings people together in the markets that help people live better: travel, hospitality and wellness; the industries that help people live longer: life science and healthcare; and the technologies that enable and fuel these new experiences.

    Helping people live better and live longer is our quest and bringing them together through business experiences is how we do it. I truly believe that businesses can have a significant impact on the markets it serves as well as wider society.

    In addition, another one of my goals was to make Questex easy to work with. Not only do I feel that it’s vital to provide employees with the information and support they need to do their job, but I want customers to want to do business with Questex because we are easy to work with.

    Recently, we have took a deep look at where we need to do better and have worked with our employees to reset the company focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives that will have a significant impact on our purpose driven culture.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    I have managed businesses through many difficult times including 9–11, the SARS pandemic of 2002–03 to the financial crisis of 2007–08. All of these challenges enabled me to learn how to be a better leader.

    In 2011, I was CEO of UBM Electronics when the earthquake hit Japan, causing a tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi accident. It was a disaster for the semiconductor industry and personally I had spent many years in the country finding the right partners to launch EE Times, our flagship brand, with and, our editor in chief, Junko Yoshida, who is a dual US and Japanese citizen. As clients struggled to sort through the scenarios caused by the disaster, Junko and I had a late night conversation desperate to find a way to help. The idea we discussed that night was brought to life as a special issue of EETimes where we donated every dollar of profit to the American Red Cross (over $130,000) relief fund. My team worked miracles as the industry rallied around us to make donations themselves and were forever grateful for our leadership.

    The lessons I learned that I believe apply to leadership at all times but particularly in times of adversity were to act fast, assemble a team of people from diverse areas of the company to solicit opinions and then move. Communicate transparently, authentically and often but remain focused on executing decisions learning along the way what is working or not working and changing course based on this data. In times of adversity, I believe a leader needs to create a vision that the team can strive towards — simply “surviving” or “hoping for the best” doesn’t work.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    I don’t recall ever considering “giving up.” There have been times when progress was elusive and when I was dealing with a huge challenge with a toxic culture that was severely draining. The motivation to drive through comes from a variety of sources. On a deeply personal level I come from a working class background and was the first person in my extended family to go to a university. There were many people who helped me at the time from teachers to close friends and I continue to try to surround myself with great people. In fact, I would say that Questex is navigating the adversity of today because we have great people at the company by design. My eldest daughter was born with a congenital kidney problem that resulted in numerous tests and, eventually, a large operation at the age of three. Her suffering and resilience taught me a very compelling lesson that work “problems” pale into insignificance when compared with human health issues. Her strength through that time still keeps me grounded today. Lastly, I played a great deal of soccer in my younger years and went onto coaching my daughters teams. This experience taught me that there is always a way to win — even if you’re playing the best team in the country. Through hard work, team work, preparation and, a little bit of luck, you always stand the chance of winning. I always try to focus on the path to winning even when it seems all hope is lost. Nothing beats the feeling of watching your team overcome adversity and win against all odds.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    The most critical role is to assess the situation quickly and focus on what you can control. Then communicate to the team what we are going to focus on, how and why it matters. Show the route out of the challenge to a better future and drive that route. Make sure that everyone knows they have a part to play and that your tolerance for risk has increased in challenging times to ensure that people try things that can help.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    I stay in constant communication with the Questex team. Whether it’s through a personal blog that I email to employees, Town Hall presentations with live video and Q&A, monthly newsletters and emails. I share critical business information and also person information on how my family and I are managing during the pandemic. I am active on Yammer and also have an open door policy where employees are encouraged to reach out to me. I will also often randomly video call employees to thank them for what they are doing in consultation with the executive team as people need to feel seen, heard and appreciated. We have a quarterly awards program, called the QAwards, that received more nominations than ever in the pandemic environment and the quality of the nominations are very high. It was terrific to see the entire company congratulate the winners on our most recent Town Hall. It really comes down to communication — let people know how we are doing, let them know how I’m coping (and make that real), let them know what is working and celebrate the wins, get to know their personal situation and be empathetic and celebrate ideas and innovation.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    Be totally authentic and as transparent as possible. It’s never easy to deliver difficult news to anyone. I believe in delivering the news personally whenever possible and I ensure that I am fully prepared for my statements and for the questions that I will receive from employees. I am also a big believer in telling the entire team at the same time to ensure that everyone hears the news simultaneously. I give as many details as possible and I am direct in my presentation of the information. Lastly, I focus on what these decisions mean for the company, our customers and Questex’s future. It is also necessary to be consistent in these behaviors to build trust with the team that when you deliver difficult news, they know it has been thought through and is not a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    Questex is an information and events company with a portfolio of 70% live events and the pandemic has been devastating to our company. In 2020, 118 events were planned and only ten were floored delivering only 10% of revenue. The Live Events industry forward is still an unknown.

    The first thing we did was to revisit our three year strategic plan and aggressively critique its relevance in the current environment. After a robust set of discussions, we came to the conclusion that our core business of connecting buyers and sellers through engaging content was as relevant as ever. In fact, we decided to accelerate our plans to enter new markets such as higher education and artificial intelligence as they were being disrupted or were disruptive given the current environment. We focused on areas that were very relevant such as our Life Sciences and Healthcare verticals and then focused on solutions that work in this environment such as digital events, webinars and the like. The strategy provides the ‘north star’ it’s just that the path has changed. The result of this is that Questex’s digital revenue is growing by a 25% year on year and our marketing services solutions surpassed 2019 full year revenue by 13% by mid-year.

    We are continuing to focus on our digital growth until it’s safe for our customers, partners, sponsors and our employees to floor Live Events. Questex’s digital success has been successful due to the culture of the company, which emphasizes curiosity and honesty — creating a trusting and entrepreneurial environment that allows for quick pivots.

    As we look to the future of Live Events, we have created the Questex Event Directive, a three-phased event preparedness plan that outlines immediate and long term proactive measures. In addition, we are looking at what the future of Live Events means. We are exploring smaller, regional events in experiential spaces including outdoors, VIP/high quality attendee experiences and hybrid events to expand audience accessibility. We have also launched a number of virtual events in the short term that we expect to remain ongoing.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    The number one principle is to spend time with your customers. They will help in crafting a strategy and vision for the business and then to revisit that strategy often. Do not be afraid to challenge all orthodoxies, but once you have set your course, put the collective shoulder of the organization to the wheel to move towards the goal and solve your customer’s problems.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    Here’s my take on the three mistakes I see businesses make:

    1. Paralysis — the business just gets stuck and behaves like a ‘deer in the headlights’ not knowing how to move or when to move. They engage in deep analysis of all of the issues but become overwhelmed.
    2. Focus on the numbers and only the numbers — of course, it is important to understand cash flow, forecasts and costs but, if that is the only area of focus, companies forget that they succeed or fail based on their people and you must communicate with your team to keep them motivated and utilize them as a source of ideas.
    3. Flailing around/shiny toy syndrome — in difficult times there are many very clever solutions that emerge, and an organization can become enamored with a technology or some solution that promises to cure all ills. However, your customers want to be confident that you can deliver results and often, new technologies and solutions are not quite ready for prime time or your support teams are not up to speed and you quickly begin to disappoint customers.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    Again, if you stay close to your customers and listen carefully, they will often provide answers. In a difficult economy, it is essential that you assess your products and markets. Some would have been struggling in good times and they will not do well in tough times. Others may be very relevant in tough times and need more investment to help them thrive. At the same time, understand that the entire competitive set is struggling as well so make fast decisions and execute quickly as that can give you momentum (one of my favorite words in business).

    Reset goals. Maybe profitability will be hit for a while so utilize that reality to try things that were on your growth map. Minimum Viable Product strategies help you try and learn fast.

    Research new, up and coming markets that are seeing disruption with long-term growth to enter into. We have entered higher education and artificial intelligence, to date.

    We have expedited Questex’s business strategy, reformulated the future of events and made a strong pivot to digital. Live events were replaced with virtual events which expands data insights and digital communities.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    1. Be transparent, authentic and honest

    When it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to have a deep and elongated effect on the live events business I decided to create an informal blog named the “Quarantimes” that allowed me to share stories on the personal affect the situation was having on me and my family creating an authentic “we are in this together” atmosphere. Then, more formally, we have shared the financial impact on our revenues and profits through formal Town Hall presentations ensuring that the entire company understands where the business is and how they can affect things positively. We have not hidden any information, despite some being uncomfortable, with regard to the level of sharing.

    2. Communicate often

    In addition to the regular informal Blog and Town Hall presentations, we have also created a monthly newsletter and I regularly call individuals unprompted around the world to thank them for their efforts. The team has responded extremely positively to this communication commenting that they feel fully informed and that we are leading the company well through adversity.

    3. Listen and be empathetic — solicit ideas and opinions from all areas of the organization

    Instead of just communicating one-way, listening to what team members are going through and what ideas they may have is a necessity in adversity. From conversations with the team it was clear that they were struggling with work-life balance in the Covid-19 environment and one employee mentioned that she was a trained yoga instructor and would like to help with stress management. We created a six part series that she leads every other Friday afternoon through the summer and then decided to give employees the alternate Friday afternoon off to focus on themselves. This followed the reaction that we received for giving employees a “mental health” day off in June, which had a major impact on morale. All in all, employees feel heard, they are part of Questex’s mission and we have begun to see great ideas merge. A super example is that we retrained our Singapore live events team to stage and manage virtual/digital events and they launched their first digital event in a matter of weeks after the training.

    4. Share best practices and encourage collaboration

    This is something that is baked into my DNA. The saying: the “best collaborators win” over those with the best products, solutions or individuals — it’s true. We instituted a “steal this idea” section of our Town Hall presentations sharing things that had worked and to encourage other groups to try the same. This now allows us to launch new solutions faster such as our virtual events and cut time to market. We have baked this into our culture ensuring that sales, marketing, content teams for instance attend regular council meetings to share best practices. From this, we manage sales pipelines more efficiently, help out where needed as a leadership team and generally build on learnings of success and failure.

    5. Be even more curious — read more, network more and connect more

    When the pandemic hit hard, I immediately went searching for some context that I didn’t have personally. This crisis was different from the global financial collapse in 2008 and different from the 9/11 terrorist attack. From reading about the Spanish Flu of 1918/19 to listening to podcasts focused on the historical outcomes of massive shocks, I was able to frame a potential route out of this. One podcast in particular stated that most crises wedge open cracks that were evident before the actual crisis hits and to focus on these as you know where there are issues that will be amplified by the crisis. It enabled me to see what positives we could take from an awfully negative daily news cycle and we have begun to see what we need to do better in the future while not losing sight of the day to day details that have to be met to ensure that you get the chance to fight for the future!

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    “Smart people learn from everything and everyone, average people from their experiences, stupid people already have all the answers.” — Socrates

    I’m a huge believer in the value of curiosity — there is something to learn from everyone you meet, every country you travel to, every book you read and every meeting you have. Never believe you know it all or that you are the smartest person in the room because you’re not. I believe that this curiosity has helped me to be confident in the company of brilliant people and to find even the toughest challenges have an element of fun and enjoyment if you’re open enough to trust the moment.

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    Twitter: @PaulMillerCEO