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Old Dog, New Tricks

How to lead a 95-year old company with a learning mindset. 

As with so many organizations, Freeman runs on a fiscal year that begins in July. So why is it that every December I find myself reflecting on events of the past 12 months? I feel compelled to assess not just financial growth, but how we’re doing as a cultural enterprise made up of thousands of souls whose blood, sweat and tears have made success possible for 95 years. How can I begin to contextualize it all? 

Freeman is a values-based organization. But if I had to single out only one value to celebrate this year, I’d say it’s our learning mindset.  

I suppose having an eagerness to wrestle with and master new concepts, products, and technologies is a requirement for anyone who wants to thrive in the events industry. It’s certainly part of Freeman’s DNA. And yet, even though this learning mindset is nothing new, it seems more valuable, more relevant, and more strategically essential than ever. And if the prospect of learning something every day is more intimidating today, it’s also more gratifying. 

The new norm for live events integrates both in-person and digitally streaming content, forever changing the way we think about audiences and the metrics of success. Our metrics now include our commitment to COP27 Zero Emission pledge, which puts greater pressure on our employees and partners to rethink habits of a lifetime. 2022 also afforded us the opportunity to walk the talk in terms of DEI. In this era of the Great Resignation and a tight labor market, even though we were lucky enough to bring back many furloughed employees, we still hired hundreds of new employees in 2022. There was a lot of pressure to recruit, onboard, and train these new hires, but our human resources team was deliberate about prioritizing our mandate to engage diverse people, perceptions, and ideas. Our culture of innovation requires it; we are better for it. 

And here’s a bonus. Because many of these new team members are also new to the event industry, they’ve had to quickly learn a lot about a business that, to outsiders, has been shrouded in mystery. They are learning that we travel incessantly. We work long days, most weekends, and often on holidays, because that’s just the nature of the gig. It’s a hard lesson, but our beloved newbies are learning it and embracing the opportunity to travel, to practice a huge variety of skills, and to collaborate with empathetic coworkers while helping people connect in meaningful ways. 

This infusion of new blood points to another aspect of the learning mindset I’ve observed this year. As the average age of our workforce grows younger, the sensibilities that drive a learning mindset are shifting in good ways.  

Younger employees can pretty much run the world from their mobile phones, are impatient with cumbersome processes, and demand system improvement. In terms of DEI and Sustainability, they are all in. Best of all, I have seen some co-mentoring in action as veterans take new hires under their wing and both learn new life hacks. 

The people of Freeman — and I like to think this is true for people in general — are also learning to find harmony in all aspects of our lives. We are learning to fulfill demands on our time by being flexible in how we approach each challenge. We are learning to nurture wellness and resilience. We are giving ourselves permission to embrace opportunity even if that brings some risk. 

They say life is for learning, and I’m blessed to spend my life around some pretty sharp people with important lessons to teach. So, how do you lead a 95-year old company with a learning mindset? You listen. Heading into the new year, I want to get better at listening to learn. That way, with each person I meet, I can become more informed, more empathetic, more appreciative, more understanding, and maybe even more interesting. It’s a mindset we can all cultivate. 

Blessings to you and yours this season. May you learn some amazing things in 2023. 

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