As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Neeson, CEO of global video production company Dreamtek. Since joining Dreamtek in 2010 as an employee and equity owner, Victoria has been paramount in the company’s growth and development, helping Dreamtek grow from a 6-person company to a multimillion-dollar leading production house, with prestigious clients such as Google and Facebook. Victoria became CEO in 2016 and since then has been responsible for overseeing Dreamtek’s global business and portfolio of services including Virtual Events, Video Production, Managed Services and Studio Builds.
Thank you so much for your time! 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 started in video conferencing working for a company called Reuters (which is now Thomson Reuters). A project came into the department that I was working for at the time to investigate the use of video conferencing at Reuters with an objective to reduce business travel. I became part of the project team to select the best global solution, purchase and deploy video endpoints to key offices around the world as a pilot (London, Sydney and New York). Within 9 months, we had reduced the travel spend between these regions by approx. 40%. I stayed within video conferencing for a few years and built a video conferencing service within Reuters that actually won a few awards for our innovative use of video conferencing technology — it’s quite a common place now but we were one of the first companies to video conference worldwide the funeral of a Reuters Alumni in the UK.
I then went on to work at Dresdner Bank (now CommerzBank) for ten years which was a pivotal point in my career as this is when I started assuming responsibility for new areas and technology, becoming more of a multimedia specialist as opposed to just an expert in videoconferencing. It was at the Bank that I learnt a lot about service delivery in a Global Business and it’s actually how I was introduced to Dreamtek. Dreamtek was selected as a vendor to help support our newly created broadcast studio and were specifically assisting us with post production. I got to know the 6 people who worked at Dreamtek at the time very well and when the time came for me to transition out of the Bank, I became an equity partner at Dreamtek. I have been at Dreamtek for over 10 years now.
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?
When I was in my late-twenties working at the bank (Dresdner), we were supporting an event which included a live video link to Tokyo for a major multi million business deal. We’d set up the virtual event, conducted some limited testing and were ready to go live. Everything and everyone was in place, including a room full of 100 people ready to be linked up with the client in Tokyo to ‘settle’ the deal. We hit the GO button and nothing happened. A blank screen. Then all eyes turned to me.
I immediately ran to the control room in an attempt to fix the problem with the team but unfortunately we couldn’t fix the issue and the whole deal ended up being abandoned. I subsequently got called into a room with a handful of very senior people at the Bank where it was explained to me that the deal was worth millions of dollars and that they were holding me accountable for the revenue loss.
Whilst it wasn’t necessarily funny at the time, I can laugh about it now! The lessons I learnt from that mistake is to never make assumptions when working with live events and technology. Anything can go wrong and you must always be prepared. Rehearsing, testing and failover are three very important words to me now.
The other key learning was around accountability and the importance of outlining risk. Facing this type of situation head on, being transparent and clearly explaining the issue is a far better approach than escape!
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 two people in my career who I’m eternally grateful for.
The first is Jon Larson, my first manager at Dresdner Bank who gave me my big break. I was working for a company called Genesys as a consultant and was on assignment at the bank delivering multimedia services. After working with Jon for a couple years in this capacity, he approached me and offered me a direct position with Dresdner Bank which I graciously accepted. This was a real turning point in my career. Jon was instrumental in my career not just for having confidence and trust in me, but for mentoring me in those early days and helping me navigate through the very complex world of IT in a Global Investment Bank.
The other person is Stephen Ashton, who was my manager later on in my career at Dresdner Bank when I was in a more senior position. He was responsible for guiding me into new territory and hierarchy, assisting me with growth and progression, championing me and helping me become one of the few female Directors in IT at Dresdner Bank. I will always credit Stephen for recognising my potential and helping me reach a significant milestone in my career.
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?`
When I joined Dreamtek, despite it being an established business, we had a goal to diversify the portfolio of products and services we offered and to reach new markets, therefore we really had to start from scratch and reinvent ourselves. I guess you could say that we were almost a startup with entrepreneurial leadership.
Our vision was to align ourselves to corporate customers and become a strategic partner for all things video. We were able to offer a turnkey service to help customers create, produce and distribute video content and become leading experts in video technology. With our innovative background and strong focus on technology we have been able to build strong relationships with long standing global clients. This hasn’t been easy as we made a clear decision at the outset to organically grow our business. There were certainly times when this caused frustration and slowed us down, but it also allowed us to be agile and make quick decisions which is undoubtedly part of our success story. So whilst our growth has been organic, it has still been impressive in terms of headcount and revenue. When I joined Dreamtek we had six employees in the UK. We now have 150 employees worldwide with entities in the UK, USA, Singapore and Ireland. We have come a long way from less than $1million revenue to $18million last year and still growing!
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When you work in the live events and production industry, you will most likely find yourself dealing with difficult and pressured situations, therefore I am very used to leading a team through this.
I follow a few guiding leadership principles which are focussed around following my instinct, staying firmly in control, setting a good example, balancing risk and being open and transparent. These principles are what I believe have guided Dreamtek through this global pandemic.
There has been no more uncertainty than within the past 12 months and it has been incredibly challenging for myself and the employees both professionally and personally. It’s become more and more interplace that you have to be empathetic to the situation and understand how individual employees are dealing with what’s going on. It’s been a very scary time for a lot of people and as a mum myself, I’ve had a very good understanding of how difficult it’s been for parents to cope in this situation, it’s been an impossible situation.
On the other side of the coin, I do still have a business to run so it’s been a case of finding that balance. In terms of leading the business over the past year in what has been a very uncertain time, it’s about being able to make fast decisions, remain motivated and positive. It’s so important to make sure that your positivity comes through to the rest of the team — which is even harder in a remote world — and make sure that your team understands that we’re going to get through this and explain how we’re going to get through this. For us, this was devising a strategy from the moment the UK went into lockdown on how to pivot to a hybrid and remote support model and just marching forward with our work, taking each day as it came.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say that it’s making sure you remain positive and that you motivate your team to believe that everything is going to be okay. Especially within the past year or so, I’ve found it so important to lift morale — we’re living in unprecedented times and we’ve never lived through a global pandemic! It’s also important to focus on the areas of your business that are strong and utilise this moving forward.
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 truly believe a leader has to be empathetic during challenging times. It is important to demonstrate understanding and recognise individual issues. Be honest and communicative, have open dialogue and address concerns. This has always been the foundation of Dreamtek’s culture and this really worked to our advantage during the pandemic. We have been able to find unique ways of continuing to connect employees and motivate them whilst all being stuck at home. We have organised fun events to finish off busy and stressful weeks, virtual cocktail making evenings, live music events, exercise classes as well as regular coffee chats between global teams that are specifically designed to allow staff to connect with people they may not otherwise know or interact with.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Transparency and honesty. I think your team holds a lot more respect for senior management when you’re open and honest about the business. It also motivates them to reach goals as they have visibility of the wider reasoning.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader must be instinctive and have courage in their conviction. Be bold and prepared to take risks, but give thought and understanding to the impact of your decisions.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle is to remain calm and be in control. I am human at the end of the day and there are days when I do struggle but I think as a leader, it’s important to remain positive for the most part and step up as a team member.
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?
I think there are some common mistakes that have been made. There is one constant when owning and growing a business and that is change. You need to be able to adapt quickly and understand where you need to be proactive and reactive. If you stick with the status quo then you will be left behind. Don’t try to do everything yourself, bring in the experts when you need to and accept you can’t do it all. There may be a short term financial impact but the long term gain is immeasurable.
In a technology business, you also need to offer flexibility and innovation to your customers and often businesses will limit the types of technology they will offer. We have learnt that working with your customer, understanding their goals and then matching the technology and solution specifically to their objectives is the best possible way to get the desired result and build trusted partnerships.
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?
During the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were very focused on making sure that we were servicing and supporting our existing clients first and foremost, this was the first strategy we implemented during this difficult time for the industry and overall economy. As a digital events business, we clearly had the capability to pivot quickly and help our client base move to a virtual event environment given our expertise and experience delivering this technology and service to existing customers for many years. Once we had stabilised our existing customer base, we then began working on innovative ways of offering our services to new customers focussing on remote technologies and solutions. The virtual events industry now plays a huge part in the day to day success of businesses worldwide and we are fortunate to be a part of this. As a consequence, we have seen 40% growth this year in our virtual events division.
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.
- Lead with empathy, especially when it comes to something that is so unprecedented. Everyone is going through their own struggles so being approachable is really important for gaining that trust and support from your team.
- Be flexible. In times of uncertainty, you need to be able to take each day as it comes and be prepared to deal with situations you’re not used to. Just this past year, I’ve had to adapt to having a company that works from home and work through all the changes that have come with it.
- Don’t panic! It’s so easy to rush into decisions when you’re stressed and things are out of place but it’s so important to remain calm & collected. Take a deep breath and you’ll be able to handle the situation much better.
- Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to take a risk. At the end of the day, you know yourself best and as a leader you know what’s best for your team, company and client. Trust your gut instinct and don’t be afraid to take a risk. As a leader, sometimes you need to be that person who is willing to get stuck in and take a leap of faith; somebody has to jump first!
- Learn from your past experience and mistakes! We’re all human and we all make mistakes but learn from these and use it to move forward as both a leader and an individual.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from Oprah Winfrey; “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for”. I fear that sometimes (and more so back when I was starting out than now) that women are not heard and don’t progress because they just don’t have the courage to stand up and ask for what they want to further themselves in their careers. I knew from a young age that I wanted to succeed in business and I learnt very quickly that I needed the courage to have a voice in situations that I may not have felt comfortable in. This has undoubtedly contributed to my success.
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