Strength of a woman, of a leader

Karen Bolinger, currently PCMA's managing director Asia Pacific, recalls one of her greatest personal losses as well as the strategies she and her team employed to put Melbourne on the business events map during her time as CEO of Melbourne Convention Bureau.


You’ve been described as a triple or quadruple threat in business tourism. What does that mean?
Great question. I guess from a business events industry, I think it’s actually about the network that you bring to the table. I think it’s your ability to source and deliver a piece of business and then also to actually make sure that you get your community heavily involved.

That’s interesting because a lot of CEOs are really good at one thing and then they surround themselves with people who have other strengths. It’s rare when you can be good at all those things.
I don’t know whether I’m good at all those things but I’ll tell you an analogy that I like to use when I’m thinking about building a team around me.

One of the things I learnt a while ago is that you actually have to have three components in your team to make it a successful unit. The first is the Inspirer and the Aspirer, so someone who’s got like that long term vision looking over the next couple of horizons. Then you need a Translator, so someone that actually translates that vision and the aspirations or inspiration, and then you naturally need an Executor, the one who actually gets on with it and delivers, and I’ve learned that I’m definitely an Aspirer / Inspirer. Can I deliver? Yes. But do I like it? Maybe not so much. So play to your strengths.

I actually think that your don’t-take-things-too-seriously approach might be the fourth thing in your quadruple threat. I suspect even your enemies like you.
I don’t know about that! But I think it is the fact that I take what I do seriously but I don’t necessarily take me seriously. And I say that with a little tongue in cheek. I like to deliver, I’m highly competitive and I won’t leave a stone unturned if I’m on a mission.

But I won’t do it at all costs. I will bring people along the journey and take opportunities to break the ice a bit. And once you’ve done that, you’ll find people are more relaxed around you and you’ll also get a lot more honesty and authenticity in a relationship.

A lot of people have watched you from afar and wondered, what did Karen do that made the Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB) so successful in pulling in business, taking it from A$84 million to its highest result of A$500 million? When you look back, what changes do you think you made that turned out to be the game changers to get those results?
Good questions. When I first went to the bureau I was given a few things to do. One of them was to retain the staff I had and build them. The second was to engage further with our stakeholders and our members. And then I had to deliver on those targets. Really big remit, right?

In my 7.5 years at the MCB things changed enormously. But it was really the approach that we would take of our business – building pipelines, identifying the right types of business that fits within your portfolio for your destination, where your government is investing their time and resources.

So that’s what we built around as we decided to develop a strategy that was aligned with our government priorities. As a result, it meant that we were able to really focus our team’s energy and efforts and deliver the results. To be honest with you, it wasn’t as hard as it sounds because we were so focused on what we had to deliver that when we were talking to our clients and our stakeholders locally, and everybody was on the same page.

The other piece was really also about positioning Melbourne. Destinations, in my opinion, have a lot of the same selling factors. if you don’t have a convention centre, a set of hotels and an airport that’s accessible, then you’re not in the game. That’s like basic 101.

So we came up with Melbourne, the intellectual capital of Australia, and that seemed to resonate really well but it also resonated globally so people started picking it up and using it themselves. We had to figure out the one thing that people can’t actually copy out of Melbourne.

That’s how we talked about our philosophy and how we actually approached our business because that’s really in the DNA of our destination. So we then pitched ourselves as team Melbourne and people would say to us, “oh my goodness, you actually really do work together as a unit”.

I remember things like when we did the Lions Convention bid to bring up to 20,000 people and we had this amazing, themed dinner on the stage at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Center. And we had present, the Lord Mayor, the CEO of the airport, the CEO of the City of Melbourne, I had the GMs of nearly every five-star property in the city. You name it, people were there and the Lions representative who did site inspections around the world said: “I’ve never been to a destination that has actually had that many people out in force. You said you wanted it (and I’m seeing the proof).”

I think many outsiders were surprised when you left your role at the bureau in April 2019 because you were on this winning streak and were leaving while at the top of your game. The farewell press release hinted that a significant personal loss contributed to that decision. Can you tell us what happened?
More than four years ago my son took his life. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to live with, which is why I say Covid is comparatively very easy to deal with, in my opinion.

If you’re a parent and you’ve ever lost a child, it’s not certainly something that you can ever accept but you’ll learn to live with it. He was our only child and the circumstances in which he passed away was just a double whammy. And being the very resilient person that I am, I went back to work pretty quickly because I had to stay busy and I just didn’t want to really think about what happened. So I think I only had a couple of weeks off and went straight back into work.

At the same time, we were merging Visit Victoria with MCB, so there was a huge, huge amount of pressure and I felt very obligated to deliver on all of the things that I said I would do in a business sense but quite frankly – hindsight is an amazing thing – I was actually probably running away from what I had to deal with. So I got through all of that and I knew in my heart that I probably wouldn’t have stayed with the merger because it probably wasn’t where I wanted it to be from a professional stance, as much as I’d loved everything I’ve done.

I had many conversations with my Chairman around this. And then I guess as time went on, I decided that I physically and emotionally couldn’t do this and I hadn’t had a holiday in a very long time, to the point where I think my board told me I was a liability on the books and I needed to go on a holiday, so I took one for five weeks.

We went travelling and I came back and told myself: “You know what, I need to re-think what this looks like for me and reform.” And it was there that I actually started the conversations with my Chairman which went on for about three or four months and I was incredibly fortunate that I had an amazing chair to steer me through that.

I didn’t really know what I wanted, to be honest with you. I thought I wanted a break. I thought I wanted further education and professional development. And he would keep pushing for an answer for what the change I needed would look like. So I went away on a holiday and then sought some external counselling from a career advisor, and of course all my cheerleader friends about what I should do. But I didn’t need cheerleading. What I needed was someone to tell me, if I walked away, would that be a career disaster?

My Chairman gave me options, for example, to take six months off, because I had so much sick leave it wasn’t funny. Eventually, we met again and we cried together, plenty of times. I can tell you one hundred percent, it was really awful because he was like: “I don’t feel like I supported you.” To which I responded: “Well, I don’t feel like I got the support from the business but I didn’t know what I needed either.” Also, I’m pretty resilient and that type of thing is not an easy thing to go and ask for support for.

In the end, I decided to leave because if I just took extended time off, I knew I would be thinking about the job the entire time and I didn’t want to do that. And I was very fortunate that my Chairman accepted that and he took care of me by staying in touch, ringing me every now and again to see how I’m going. And I stay in touch with my successor Julia Swanson at the bureau and I’m very proud of her for stepping up to the job.

In hindsight from my experience, I think when you’re a CEO sometimes you live for the title vs actual life. And I’ve realized that there’s so much more to life. If people want to be my friend because of my title, then they’re probably not my friend. So I’ve had to work through all of that stuff and related identity issues. But I’m in a good place now.

But the personal challenges haven’t stopped?
No. My husband was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in October last year. Hospital visits are obviously an emotional rollercoaster but I’ve decided to put a positive view on it. I did the same with my son as I’m naturally more positive than negative.

And I think that makes a difference in how you view the events of your life. But I’m not saying it’s easy. There are days when I do have a negative view and ask: “Why me? What did I do?”. I think in the first couple of days after my husband’s diagnosis I railed against the world and probably used a few swear words in there. But then I would get up and just go, you know what, you can live there, or you can choose not to. And I’m choosing not to.

How do all these life events give you perspective, especially when it comes to work-life balance?
I’m not a very good role model. I was born in this world to just be a worker bee and there is a satisfaction that you get from that. And I can tell you that when I quit work, I was super nervous about how I was going to stay busy because I just naturally have to be busy, even though I do know when to stop and relax.

But busy is my natural mode so I did go away for three months because I knew that would be the only way that I could stop working. We went to the States, travelling around there and it was really nice. We did sightseeing, we did the tours, caught up with family and read books.

When I got back I was emotionally in a better place to then start thinking about what (the future) could look like and create more balance. But with Covid, I think we’ve all dived straight back into that madness. This environment has been super intense but I’m fortunate with PCMA because I’m with them three days a week. They might be three very long days with overnight and early morning calls but I have the free days to compensate.

So if I want to go out for a walk or visit the hairdresser’s, I can do that without feeling guilty about having to get back to work. I’m not the best role model, but I do believe that you do have to have a balance and I think Covid’s really given me that. Also obviously my husband’s recent health issues have made me realize that I can say no to a 12 hour day. Instead, I’m actually going to get out and go walking and do something for me.

It’s rare to get such an honest and frank conversation in this business. Thank you so much for trusting us with your story. Do you think people can get better at becoming resilient?
Resilience often comes from a little bit of your personality and all of us are different. From a mental health perspective, they say it’s something you have or don’t have and it’s absolutely not a criticism. I think of my son, who was this beautiful, sensitive, young man and resilience was tough for him. This is even though both of his parents are super resilient people. We have to provide people with skills and tools and medication in a case like my son’s to build themselves into more resilient human beings. So it’s not a cut and dry answer. It’s really broad and very individualised.

If you think about it, even in a workspace, we all deal with different personalities. There are people who can take constructive criticism more than others… and that’s actually about resilience and about how you deal with it and handle it. It’s interesting, one of the things I’ve learnt a lot about is regarding judging and being less judgmental, more open to being understanding or empathetic. And I’ve always been fairly empathetic but even more so for probably more vulnerable people in our society, especially during Covid.

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