Mickey Schaefer, CAE, began her career in the seventies when “women wore suits and bow ties to show that we were in management,” and meeting professionals were thought of as nothing more than party planners. Now, almost 30 years later, she and other women have achieved leadership roles in the meeting industry — and the industry itself is regarded with much more respect.

Schaefer has been instrumental in creating those changes. Starting her career with a 10-year stint as executive director of the Missouri Academy of Family Physicians, she then switched to the supplier side, becoming national sales manager for the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City.

In 1984, she joined the American Academy of Family Physicians in Leawood, Kan., working her way up to vice president for administration, meetings and conventions, membership, and strategic planning and marketing — a title that reflects the breadth of her expertise and vision. Now, she is leaving the AAFP and moving to Tucson with her husband, who is also retiring. Not that Schaefer is really retiring — she plans to start her own business, something she says she has always dreamed of doing but was so content at the AAFP that she didn't pursue it. To those familiar with her dedication to her career, it won't come as a surprise that her new company will focus on the meeting and association industries.

In addition to working for the AAFP, Schaefer has served in leadership and volunteer positions with many of the meeting industry organizations, including the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association and the Professional Convention Management Association. She is the driving force behind the Convention Industry Council's Accepted Practices Exchange, an industrywide initiative to standardize procedures and forms used in the meeting industry — and she will continue as chair of the APEX commission at least through 2005.

We asked Schaefer to reflect on the changes she's seen in the last 30 years and on what it takes to become a meeting industry leader.

What is the biggest positive change you have seen in the meeting planning industry?

Schaefer: I really think APEX is one of the biggest things that has come along for this industry in a long time — I think the industry should brag about itself. The collaborative aspect of APEX is something that I hope will translate into everything we do across organizations, so that we are working together instead of separately to effect change. That's why I've helped carry the ball with lots of other dedicated people to try to make sure that we're all retiring someday leaving this industry a little better than it has been.

What is the biggest negative change?

It's not a change, but something that is ongoing: “I want to still do it my way.” We need to break our old habits and think about what's best for the industry and not just what's best for our own organization.

In the first profile we did of you in 1998, you said that the accomplishment you were most proud of was mentoring other women. Is that still true?

Coming of age in the '60s, when women were still not doing much in business, I've tried the best I can to show that we are committed to our jobs; we're not women's libbers, but we want to be taken seriously. Charlotte St Martin [executive vice president of sales and marketing, Loews Hotel Corp., New York City] and I and a lot of other women have been trailblazers, tapping on that glass ceiling and making sure that we've paved the way for the women who have come behind us. I saw a great cartoon that showed a little girl sitting with her elbows on her desk and her head in her hands, looking up. In 1970 it said she was dreaming of becoming a secretary and now she is dreaming of becoming secretary of state. That says it all.

What obstacles and challenges do women today face in the meeting industry?

Not as many as there used to be. Maybe just [salary inequality]. I'm paid just as much as my male counterparts in the industry and so are the other women on our staff; that's comforting.

What attributes helped you become a successful leader?

Treating everyone with respect. My mom always said you're no better or worse than anyone else and that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. I think those are really good words to live by. The comments I've been getting from people [in response to my retirement from the AAFP] are that they've appreciated my positive outlook and my way of diffusing contentious issues. I always try to find a way to make sure everybody feels like they've had a say.

I guess I'm visionary — I've never really thought of myself that way, but over time I've come to realize I've enjoyed thinking ahead, [asking] how can we do better. [You need to] think big and not just think about your individual department or your job but about how the work you're doing can be changed or how to make the organization better. If you look at the meeting managers who have risen up into the director spots and on up into the vice president spots, they naturally do that. They learn more about adult learning and distance learning; they look at ways they can make their meeting more exciting to the attendee.

How do you balance work and home life?

Since I don't have kids, that made it easier. I made a decision to be home on weekends — I will kill myself to get home on a Friday night, even if it is late, so I can wake up in my own bed on Saturday morning and fix pancakes. [My husband and I] try not to work on weekends any more than we have to. We take vacations. And we make time for ourselves — we'll have dates.

If you take work home, you can get in a rut. What happens is you put stuff in the nighttime pile or the weekend pile and then you end up doing that work on the weekends or at night. If you discipline yourself during the week, you're still going to get as much work done. I cautioned some of the people at work who are workaholics to make sure they're taking time for themselves. You can work so hard and so long and get so burned out it takes you twice as long to do something.

Looking back over your career, how would you say the role of meeting planners has changed over the years?

Organizations value meeting planners more than they used to. Planners are asked more often to be on project teams. We've seen that at the Academy — some of the people who have really shined in our meetings area have been asked to be in different work groups because they have strong skill sets. Meeting planners think three or four steps ahead and that's a wonderful intuitive skill set that a lot of people don't have.

Good planners realize they need to demonstrate ROI [return on investment]. It's just good business to know what value you bring. Cari Rodriguez, CMP, manager of our meeting services department, has a white board outside her office and each time a planner in the department saves money negotiating or planning a meeting, it's added to the total on the white board. They saved the organization more than $300,000 last year. It's a motivator, and it's visible when the CEO comes down.

What is your advice to meeting planners seeking to become leaders in our industry?

The leadership tracks offered by PCMA and Meeting Professionals International are excellent, exposing people to staff development work and strategic planning. Read things that are [outside the scope of] your normal work; and learn about strategy and the vision of your organization. Get hooked up with two or three mentors who you feel would help you in your career. Keep in touch with APEX developments and make sure you're using all the new ways of working. Take care of yourself, and don't be afraid to have fun.

Mom the Mentor

She has been a mentor and role model for women in the meeting industry, but when asked who her mentors were, Mickey Schaefer, CAE, says a lot of them were men. She mentions her former bosses at the American Academy of Family Physicians, Robert Graham, MD, “whose group process skills were exceptional,” and William J. Myers, from whom she learned “good business skills and how to handle things politically.” But, she says, her most important mentor was her mom, who passed away in 1996.

Her mother did not have a full-time job outside the home, however, says Schaefer, “she was always volunteering.” One of her projects related to healthcare. In the small town where they lived, Memphis, Mo., the nearest hospital was 45 miles away. Determined that the town needed its own hospital and nursing home, Schaefer's mother led the charge, serving on the inaugural board of directors.

“Our little hospital and nursing home are there because of her,” Schaefer says. “I watched that [process] while I was in high school. I'd watch her cry when she got off the phone because people were screaming at her that they didn't want their taxes to go up, and she'd say, ‘This is the right thing to do.’”

Schaefer's passion has been the establishment of industrywide standards; she spearheaded the Convention Industry Council's Accepted Practices Exchange. Like her mother, she ran into opposition when she tried to achieve her goal. But she says she drew inspiration from her mother's perseverance. “Sometimes when [the APEX process] was rough,” says Schaefer, “I'd think about my mom and her passion, and how she stuck to her goals.” Sometimes when [the APEX process] was rough,” says Schaefer, “I'd think about my Mom and her passion, and how she stuck to her goals.”