Your company wants you to produce a teleconference for a group of sales execs. But you know that this group doesn't like teleconferences, and that they won't be as engaged — and it won't produce the results you're looking for. What do you do?

“Often, managers know what they want — not what they need. And most don't want to take no for an answer,” says Suzanne Turner, who spent a year as associate manager for medical education at Organon Inc., West Orange, N.J., and has 10 years of program management experience. In February, Turner joined the Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Continuing Professional Education, Boston, as associate director of new programs and development.

While many companies view meeting planners as clerks — the people who book the flights, rooms, and food — Turner says planners are poised to play a more critical role in content development.

How It Worked

She speaks from an unusual vantage point: Under the direction of Turner and her manager, Michelle Waiser, Organon's planners were transformed from travel logistics people into a program services group.

“The transition from logistics to strategic partner was never formal,” says Turner. Training was as-you-go and on-the-job. But Turner and Waiser were committed to the transition — its growth and the meeting planning department's acceptance of more responsibility — which drove its success.

“As the brand teams [managers] grew more confident with the skills of their program coordinators [planners], they came to rely on their recommendations,” she says. Today, the group's program managers are responsible for all aspects of events: recruiting the speakers, coordinating the meeting materials, establishing the venue, and more.

The transition is ongoing. “A program coordinator is only as good as his or her track record. If there are staffing changes — and there always are — a new manager may not be comfortable with the coordinator's role until the coordinator has proven his or her skill.”

And vice versa. New planners have to prove their worth to the team before they are accepted as strategic partners.

Educate Yourself

How do you start making that kind of transition where you work?

The first step is to educate yourself about all aspects of the program, Turner explains. That means getting to know the company and its culture. Know the goal of the meeting or event, and plan the meeting around that objective.

“It isn't necessary to be an expert, but you must understand the needs of the audience,” she says. “There are many resources out there, like the Web, that will get you up to speed on content.”

In most cases, she adds, management will be focused on everything but the meeting or event and need your guidance. Planners in pharmaceutical companies, for example, need to know about continuing medical education guidelines and the new Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's ethical code, which forbids anything but modest meals. “Inevitably,” she says, “there will come a time when a manager will ask a meeting professional to include a component in the program that violates the PhRMA code — a dinner, or some form of entertainment — because they're unaware of the extent of the regulations or the company's interpretation [of the code].”

That's easily translatable to other industries. If the company asks you to include a component that would look extravagant to stockholders — a seemingly expensive hotel, for example — it's your responsibility to say, “I understand your reasoning, but that might not be a good idea, and here's why.

“It takes time to prove that you are a team player, making decisions with the company's best interests in mind,” says Turner. “But once you do, you can bring all your knowledge to the table, and they will be more apt to take your advice. And that will make your life easier.”

Learn to Say No

But just how do you say no to people up the ranks?

Let's go back to that teleconference that you know from past experience just won't work. Executives will want to get together to network and talk with peers. Start by questioning the logic. “You can say, ‘Let's take a look and see if that will be the most effective way,’” says Turner. “It often depends on your audience.”

But a teleconference might be just the thing for a sales force spread across the country that can't get away from the office for more than a day. “It's the planner's job to know and to recommend, not just to take orders,” says Turner. “It's your responsibility to convince them of what they need, not just give them what they want. It's never just about saying ‘No.’ It's about saying, ‘Here's why.’ And there are times when you might have to say, ‘I'll do what you want me to do, but you might not be happy with the result.’”

For example, prior to working at Organon, Turner encountered a client that requested a series of advisory board meetings in each of its sales regions. But she wasn't given enough time to recruit participants.

“I strongly advised my manager to let the client know that the meetings wouldn't be successful unless the time line was expanded, or to turn the business away,” she explains. “My manager refused, and basically said ‘yes’ to the client in order to win their business. I worked as hard as I could to deliver the programs, but the first three were highly under-attended. I had e-mailed my manager my reservations, and when the managing director of the company called me on the carpet for the poor turnout at the programs, I printed off a copy of the e-mail.

“It all comes down to documentation and persistence,” she says. “I probably should have gone over my manager's head to his boss with my concerns, but I wasn't comfortable doing that. So I protected myself, but not my company. I would have been better served if I had done both.”

A final piece of advice: Never do anything that costs money without getting it in writing. “That way, you've covered yourself if you go over budget.”