IF CHRISTINE DUFFY had been a few inches taller, we might never have heard of her. Her first career goal was to be a Pan Am international flight attendant — but she was turned down because she did not meet the height requirement.

Duffy had aimed for the skies as a way to break into the travel industry. Her mother is French, and although Duffy grew up in Philadelphia, she spent a lot of time traveling to France and throughout Europe with her family. “That's where I caught the travel bug,” says Duffy, who is bilingual. The experience also gave her a love of European culture and an appreciation of cultures around the world, she says.

After being turned down as a flight attendant, she figured the next best thing was to join the travel business, and after a short stint at Rosenbluth Travel, she joined McGettigan Partners' group department in 1982. The meeting and event management company was handling clients such as the American College of Physicians, but was best known for organizing high-profile events, including Grace Kelly's wedding. As McGettigan grew, it developed expertise in the pharmaceutical meetings arena.

That expertise was one of the factors that spurred travel giant Maritz to acquire the company in 2001. By that time, McGettigan Partners employed 500 people and had gone through three acquisitions. Duffy, who had started as program manager, had moved up to executive vice president, president, and COO. In October 2004, she was named president and CEO of Maritz Travel.

Duffy has also risen to leadership positions in the meeting industry. She founded Meeting Professionals International's Women's Leadership Initiative, and is MPI 2005 chairwoman, a position that begins in July. “I never thought I'd be taking the job of CEO of Maritz Travel and chair of MPI in the same 12 months,” she laughs. When we caught up with her for a phone interview, she was commuting between Philadelphia and St. Louis, where she will be based as Maritz CEO. She is waiting to move until her son finishes sixth grade in June. (Her 19-year-old daughter is a freshman at Penn State University.) We asked Duffy how she has achieved her success while balancing family responsibilities, and what advice she offers to other women in the meeting industry.

MM: What were your goals in founding the MPI Women's Leadership Initiative?

DUFFY: I realized that while the majority of people in the industry were women, they didn't have a voice. There were a few women in the industry whom I had admired over the years — Charlotte St. Martin [executive vice president of sales and marketing, Loews Hotel Corp., New York City] being one of them — and I wanted to give back to an industry that's been good to me. For me, giving back meant focusing on [how to help] more women rise to leadership positions across the industry.

MM: What obstacles do women face in this industry?

DUFFY: Some of the obstacles we put in front of ourselves. The research that the WLI has done has shown that women's focus on detail — which makes us very good in this business — may also stand in the way of our taking on bigger and more strategic roles because of our lack of confidence and [reluctance to] let go of the details and delegate to others.

The greater and broader the responsibilities that you take on, the less you are able to control the details and the more you have to trust others to handle them. There are women who are able to focus on the big issues, but even if they've delegated the rest, they may still stress and worry about it to the point where they're not able to maintain that balance. Men tend to look much more at the bigger picture.

That's not to say that there haven't been barriers for women to rise to leadership. But if we continue to focus on the barriers — whether it's the good ol' boys or the glass ceiling — it's not productive. Let's focus on those things that we really can control and make change happen.

MM: What about salary inequity?

DUFFY: All the research — not just for this industry, but for lots of industries — shows that women still make less than their male counterparts. Most enlightened industries and their HR departments should be working hard to fix that.

But are women willing to ask for more? What do they believe their worth is? Women are more uncomfortable asking, and there are probably good reasons why we're uncomfortable, but my message is if you don't ask, it's not going to happen. There's nothing worse than people taking on greater responsibility and feeling that they're not being fairly compensated. That builds up a lot of resentment; it builds up this cycle of feeling like a victim, which becomes negative for the individual and for the organization.

MM: What is your advice to women who encounter difficult situations, such as sexual harassment?

DUFFY: Never compromise yourself or your beliefs or your principles. There are ethical guidelines in place at most companies, but at an individual level, we all set our own guidelines. I don't believe making those compromises is ever worth doing.

MM: How do you balance your personal and professional commitments?

DUFFY: My husband has actually been a stay-at-home dad for the past six years. That was a big decision that we made as a family when I began to take on more responsibilities and travel. Also, I've been blessed that I've had my immediate family near me. McGettigan's culture has always encouraged that balance between business and personal [responsibilities]. Being stressed-out catches up with you. You can't work 24/7 and be productive.

MM: What attributes enabled you to become a successful leader?

DUFFY: A lot of it goes back to focusing on those things that will have the greatest impact, surrounding yourself with the best and brightest people and trusting them, and not trying to control every detail. That didn't come easily to me. Over time, you learn that if you don't operate that way, you'll either burn out or you won't be successful. I received honest feedback from managers and mentors who said, ‘If you want to take the next job up, you've got to be able to let go, and you've got to think about succession, and you've got to be developing others.’ We don't move people out of positions if we don't feel that there's somebody behind them who can step in. That holds women back.

MM: What is your advice to people entering the meeting industry today?

DUFFY: To really have an impact in an organization and to develop a career, you need to think about all of the opportunities that are emerging in the industry. I believe there will be a role for people with meeting experience, whether they're from the supplier side or planner side, in procurement jobs. Procurement and strategic sourcing has become a huge profession evolving from the old purchasing job. I talk to a lot of procurement executives who say: If I could find someone who knows the meeting and events business, I could train them on strategic sourcing and procurement models. That's a completely new career path that didn't exist five years ago.

MM: What is your advice to meeting planners seeking to become leaders?

DUFFY: Be aware of the broader industry and the dynamics that are going to shape this industry for the next five to 10 years — how you can leverage those to benefit your employer. Don't be threatened by outsourcing. Look at outsourcing as a way to free up your time, to be able to focus more on the strategic work.

MM: Tell me about your volunteer work.

DUFFY: I was on the advisory board of the Metropolitan AIDS Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance in Philadelphia. I'm looking forward to getting involved in the St. Louis community. It's important to be involved in your community. We could all spend 24/7 working. Balance gives us a healthy perspective and brings more value to our organization.

Up Close with Pharma

One of the most fulfilling aspects of her meeting industry career has been the opportunity to see the pharma industry up close, says Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel. She began handling pharma clients when she worked at McGettigan Partners in the early 80s. She dealt directly with executives, such as the vice president of sales and marketing, some of whom became her mentors.

“I was exposed to brilliant people and I found the work they were doing very exciting,” she says. What is so appealing about the pharma industry? “The whole process of bringing a drug to market, the FDA process, the marketing, all the complexities and at the same time all the good that [the drug] does for patients — being close to that, seeing the patients and the thought-leader physicians in those disease categories,” Duffy says.

The pharma field is not only exciting in terms of drug development, but it is a leader in the meeting industry, she says. “A lot of the trends that we see [in the meeting industry] do start in pharma.” One example is meeting consolidation, a trend that started in the mid-'90s when McGettigan worked with a major pharmaceutical company to track meeting spend across the company and consolidate meeting management. Now many of the major pharmaceutical companies have implemented meeting consolidation programs, and other corporate sectors are following their lead.

While government regulators have focused on the pharma industry, now they are also investigating the insurance industry. “Pharma's learned how to manage [government scrutiny] and how to self-regulate,” says Duffy. “[Other] sectors can learn from that.”