Maintaining a solid sense of self is one of the best ways to cope in difficult times, says New York City-based psychotherapist and organizational consultant JOAN WESTREICH. Faced with extraordinary challenges, the best meeting planners will reach out to colleagues and get creative, she says. Westreich counsels individuals as well as nonprofits and companies, including financial firms, for whom she provides executive coaching and staff training. She spoke with us recently about the perception issues facing financial and insurance meeting planners — and how to stay strong in the maelstrom.

Financial & Insurance Meetings: Meeting planners in the financial and insurance sector are facing huge perception issues around their 2009 meetings. Is it logical that they would also feel personally undermined?

Joan Westreich: Given the abundance of ink directed at this industry, it is certainly logical that meeting planners would feel personally undermined. Nonetheless, it is important to maintain a belief in your center, your core feelings about yourself. Like the Dow Jones Averages, public perceptions of your industry may fluctuate wildly, but a solid sense of self — encompassing your values, motivations, and purpose — will help you weather these challenging times. It will also provide a solid footing from which to embrace new business opportunities.

FIM: What can planners do to counter the perception that incentive meetings are politically incorrect?

Westreich: First, you must truly and authentically believe in what you're doing. I would suggest that it is a sign of strength to be able to tolerate the skepticism of critics. Likewise, it is a sign of professionalism and well-honed survival skills to become your own best public relations person and deftly and knowledgeably address potential criticism even as you set about reframing the discourse.

FIM: Many meeting planners are going under the radar as much as possible, believing that if they don't talk about their meetings, the press won't pay attention. Is this a wise strategy?

Westreich: No, I don't believe that this is a wise strategy. In our all-news-all-the-time culture, some intrepid reporter or blogmeister will get wind of your meeting and will, you can be sure, expose it. We've seen ample evidence of this.

FIM: How can people find their strengths?

Westreich: Think about situations in which you felt most effective or experienced the greatest sense of empowerment. What was it about those situations and what did you contribute to the process that led to a desirable outcome? I would caution you not to discount your own important contributions or to attribute the success of a particular project or meeting to a convergence of favorable events. Instead, I recommend that you own your strengths and build on them.

FIM: Are there new opportunities for thinking creatively and turning meetings into assets instead of liabilities?

Westreich: In times of adversity some people hunker down, take no risks, and hide under the desk, so to speak. But I believe that in tough times the best meeting planners get creative. They will realistically assess the shifting environment, and through brainstorming and collaboration with colleagues, will strive to develop new paradigms — and to find opportunities where previously none existed. Maybe it's time to shake up the way you manage your meetings. Maybe inertia has led to missed opportunities for developing a new breed of smaller-scale or more creative conferences. Maybe having to do more with fewer resources will foster innovation and teambuilding: Visualize a favorite low-budget film that packs more creative and emotional payoff than a bloated star-vehicle. You may not enjoy being on the receiving end of the press's or stockholder skepticism, but it's a good way to develop more critical thinking about how and why you plan and execute meetings the way you do.

FIM: Planners are also worried about their jobs, and about keeping their meeting departments intact.

Westreich: These are realistic concerns. Given my bias as a psychotherapist and organizational consultant, I always return to self-care. No matter the maelstrom swirling around you, difficult times demand a commitment to extreme self-care. If you want to put your best professional game forward, do not skimp on sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction, medical checkups, etc. In anxious times we yearn to be with colleagues who are healthy, strong, calm, and rooted in excellently performing current tasks while looking toward the future.

Sidebar: Survival Tips

In the current landscape of a national recession punctuated by workplace insecurity, your personal world may suddenly seem like a frightening place, and you may be dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness, says psychotherapist and organizational consultant Joan Westreich. Here are some of her tips on how to survive — and thrive — in difficult times:

  • Ticker:

    Maintain your sense of self. Don't equate your identity with criticisms leveled at your industry or your company meetings.

  • Embrace your community. This is a time to reach out to trusted colleagues, mentors, and mentees, and to support one another.

  • Do not succumb to a “bunker” mentality at work. To the extent possible, this is a time for enhanced communication and information sharing within your department and your company.

  • If you are in a position of authority, consider providing a safe place within the office for colleagues to freely share all of their ideas, thoughts, and feelings. It can have a powerful reparative effect on a department, particularly if you are able to bring in a skilled facilitator.

  • Marriott has begun replacing the 24 million plastic key cards that it purchases annually in the U.S. with those made of 50 percent recycled material. The move is projected to keep 66 tons of plastic out of landfills.

  • The average respondent to the National Business Travel Association's 2008 salary survey was a 47-year-old female manager with nearly 16 years of industry experience and an average total compensation of $97,383.

Related article: Motivating Meeting Planners