READY MIND. I get a good night sleep the night before, get in the zone by getting up early, doing a meditation, eating a healthy breakfast and plan my journey giving myself enough time to arrive in good time, calm and relaxed to get going. Game face on.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Fanus.
Michelle has 19 years event design and project delivery experience starting her career with UBM and Informa with clients such as The Economist, Nursing Times and African Farming magazines plus more. She is a member of Meetings Professional International (MPI) and lectures on Events Management at University of West London, Anglia Ruskin University and Kings College, teaching more than 200 students on private Diploma and degree courses. She has worked with global corporates, celebrities, Government ministers and key pioneers in different fields, is a published and contributing book author and has designed and delivered events all over the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Iwas born to Caribbean parents in Hackney, a multi-cultural neighbourhood in East London, England. A number of children born in that era were 1st generation British children born to West Indian immigrants. My parents came to England with my grandparents in the last 50s (my mother was 7, my father was 12 years old). While my mother worked full time, I was raised by my wonderful grandmother Muriel Fanus, my Auntie Trudy and my Uncle Elmo. I had a stable, lively and fascinating childhood — with lots of Caribbean family functions — weddings, holy communions and parties. I was raised a Catholic so went to church with my grandmother every Sunday, made my 1st Holy Communion when I was 7 years old and my Confirmation when I was 13 years old. We were part of a very close knit St Lucian community in those days. In and out of each others’ houses. My grandmother spoke Creole (which is a fusion of various African languages and French) — she spoke to me in Creole, I responded in English, so as a result, I understand our language. My tongue is a bit slow with speaking, but I manage! The great thing about growing up in Hackney was the diversity of neighbours in the community — from white, Black, Asian, Cypriot, Greek and middle eastern people. I had a number of friends from different cultures. I started school when I was 7 years old and loved it from day 1. I loved learning and enjoyed playing with other children. With encouraging teachers I developed a talent for Chemistry and went on to do a degree at Kingston University, following with a Masters in Materials Science.I also played a lot of netball and dipped into athletics for a bit — playing in tournaments and joining sports meetings in London and around the UK. I played netball for Kingston for 4 years while I was there and continued to play for various clubs close to home for at least the next 20 years.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
Raised by my Caribbean grandmother instilled a lot of self-discipline and independence into my character so as a result, I am very driven and ambitious. Although I had built up an exciting and successful 10 year career as an events professional, I always knew at the back of my mind that the greatest success came from setting up and running your own business. It became my dream to start my own business by the time I was 40 years old.
That time came when I was indeed 39 years old. I found myself in a job I did not enjoy, in a terrible company and worst of all I had the most awful experience of being bullied by my boss. I decided that now was the time to go it alone and work for myself and I’ve never looked back. That was July 2009.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
This would undoubtably be Paula Milburn — my mentor. I met Paula as a young professional at UBM, nearly 15 years ago now. I already had about 6 years experience and obtained my first leadership role at UBM. She was a senior level executive and was one of my internal clients. She quickly took me under her wing, giving me advice on how to handle situations, manage our external clients and partners and navigate the internal landscape at UBM. She put me forward to go on my first business trip to China. I returned with her to manage the same conference 6 years ago! She was (and still is) a fantastic sounding board. She is no longer at UBM, but with her immense experience, smart thinking and fair character I still consult her on various business ventures and how to handle difficult or tricky situations.She was my client for 10 years and has become a very good friend.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I was managing a very challenging conference in Abuja, Nigeria about 5 years ago. We had the Minister of Power and the Director General of a major public sector organisation as keynote, opening speakers on the agenda. The day before the conference I was advised that they would only be able to attend the conference in the afternoon, so I spent the rest of that day re-scheduling the speaking slots and pulling in favours from existing speakers and my wider network to pull a new agenda together for the next morning. After a very stressful half day (which felt like a week), I managed to get a new agenda together with all new speakers and a new conference Chairman who was a replacement. I had not been able to speak to him myself (always a mistake!) but various people in my team and within his organisation had agreed for him to arrive at our agreed time and chair the conference. The time came to start the conference, and there was no sign of him. I now had his phone number so called him several times, but got no answer. The conference room was full of nearly 500 delegates, all waiting in anticipation. My stress levels were pretty high but something told me to make an announcement in the conference room — asking for him to make himself known to me. Low and behold, there he was sitting in the front row of the conference delegation! My stress levels were pretty high but something told me to make an announcement in the conference room — asking for him to make himself known to me. Low and behold, there he was sitting in the front row of the conference delegation! My stress levels were pretty high but something told me to make an announcement in the conference room — asking for him to make himself known to me. Low and behold, there he was sitting in the front row of the conference delegation!
Lesson learnt: always try and speak directly to a speaker to brief them fully and adequately so we are both clear on expectations, plans and agreed actions. If I had spoken to him directly the night before, I would have told him to either come find me or inform a member of my team who he was when he arrived or to just sit on the stage so we would have known he was the replacement! He slipped in as a delegate, never told anyone who he was and we were none the wiser! A very funny story that we still laugh about today.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I would advise a young conference professional to:
- Think thoroughly about what they want to achieve, to plan their career path and set clear goals.
- Always be professional, no matter what the situation you are faced with. Deliver your best at every opportunity. You have no idea who is watching.
- Try not to burn any bridges — make and keep friends, you never know where opportunities can come from. It’s a very small world and people are connected.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m going to be cheeky and name 2 books for very different reasons. The most inspiring book that set me off on my spiritual, follow your dreams pursuit path was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. He is one of my favourite writers and I have read pretty much all of his books. His writing is inspirational, with well constructed, deeply moral and profound characters. I experience a shift in my perspective after reading every one of his books. Truly inspiring and always a wonderful read.
On a business level, I was fired up by Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson. That’s all about how he launched and built up his businesses. This book resonated with me because it gave me a different perspective on risk. I find myself quoting this saying when I am considering any new venture. You have to throw caution to the wind, do your research and take a calculated risk in business sometimes so this book re-affirms that belief for me.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference”
For me this really cuts to the chase whenever I face a challenge. I can automatically understand what I need to muster up the courage to change, that I need to be humble enough to accept what I cannot change and to be mature and wise enough to figure out the difference in each situation. A brilliant quote that I use unconsciously pretty much every day of my life. It has helped me to transform many situations, to breathe and get through others and to just simply walk away in those exceptional circumstances if I choose to!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I used the lockdown period of the coronavirus to review my business and pivot, so I have re-branded from Dynamyk Events to The Conference Director. This shift involves moving to more high level strategy, training, senior level decision-making support work. I have created a new website, written articles for my industry press and posted on social media to support my re-positioning.
The re-brand has presented the opportunity for several joint ventures:
- The launch of the Hospitality Academy with Orchid Consulting. This is an online and (post Covid-19) face to face training company — upskilling people in hospitality in Nigeria and West Africa. There is a huge skills gap in the sector and lots of opportunity for poverty alleviation, job creation and entrepreneurship with the right training and development provided across the region. We have a number of the major hotel chains in the region on board for when we launch in 2021.
- I own an online video yoga platform (Dynamyk Yoga) where I collaborate with yoga teachers to run yoga retreats. We successfully delivered our first one to Tuscany in April 2019, but due to the coronavirus our next one is postponed to October 2021 to Sicily. Yoga is a transformative practise that helps with anything from anxiety, stress and depression to stiff joints, back pain and mobility issues. It helps to slow the mind down, calm the heart rate and relax the body.
- My 3rd venture is a start up business called Funktion which is an online venue finding search engine. We are currently recruiting venues in and around London to be featured. This will help the bounce back of the events industry, helping organisers (private and professional) to find a variety of different venues according to their search criteria. As an organiser myself, I have found these platforms very useful — saving me a lot of time.
- Finally, because of all the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter controversy, I feel that the black community needs to heal. We rarely speak about our experience outside of our friendship groups and families, so I wanted to create a safe space for this to happen. I’ve got together with a wonderful yoga teacher and a counsellor to plan a Black Girls Yoga & Pampering Retreat in the UK in 2021. I’m having lots of fun with this one!
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
- Planning. I plan everything. Time, tasks, deliverables and end result. I find the breakdown of the massive task or responsibility really helps me to understand how much time and effort will be required. Quantifying and understanding this is a major part of the management of the stress related to the whole thing. I keep a diary, a sketch notepad for planning and mind-mapping ideas which is really useful for putting plans down on paper.
- Mind-clearing/Clarity. I tend to need a clear mind to be most productive and give my best. That means I need to remove any distractions, unnecessary demands on my time and delay or remove any non-urgent tasks or projects. I do tend to snatch back time if I think I could be using that time more wisely, so don’t be afraid to delay, postpone or even cancel something if it isn’t necessary to fulfil right now and you need to free up time to fulfil the immediate tasks that need completing. Just be honest with whoever is involved. We all get it and they will understand. That in itself helps me to clear the decks and my mind at the same time and prepares me for the task at hand. Freeing up and making time and space to get things done is a huge part of managing stress and not feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, getting up earlier,going to bed later or working on a weekend might be an inevitable solution to get everything done, but make sure you take that time back with days off during the week or a holiday to re-charge. Working evenings and weekends should be the exception, not the norm.
- Creativity. I am at my best when I am energetic, inspired and motivated. Yoga, meditation and taking care of my mind, body and spirit is how i get there. Walks in nature, swimming, spa, regular yoga practise, daily meditation and pampering are all what I call ‘Me Time’ or what is typically called ‘self-care’ and help me to bounce back, keep going and give my best. I do all of this on a daily and weekly basis. Saturdays are my re-set, me-time Days. I don’t typically work on Saturdays.
- Balance. Having fun, enjoying family time and sharing huddle time with friends is where I get my balance. Watching films with my partner on evenings and weekends and doing fun activities with my stepsons and nieces all help me to stay grounded and keep things in perspective. Don’t forget the friends and family around you to enjoy time with
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
For me, getting ready for a high pressure situation e.g. a conference, a speaking slot or lecture opportunity is all about PREPARATION. Being ready!
How I get ready:
- PREPARE MATERIAL IN ADVANCE. I make sure I have all my material prepared and ready to go and I always rehearse! Whether that’s for a meeting, a presentation or a lecture. I make sure I plan and prepare everything in advance
- POWER OUTFIT. I have my ‘go-to’ power suits and dresses that make me feel fabulous, so I prepare these the night before.
- READY MIND. I get a good night sleep the night before, get in the zone by getting up early, doing a meditation, eating a healthy breakfast and plan my journey giving myself enough time to arrive in good time, calm and relaxed to get going. Game face on.
- ROLE PLAY. It’s always useful to play back or forward the situation you will be going into. I use visualization to see myself successful in that situation. Play out in your mind all the different scenarios of what can happen and how you will deal with it. Preparation and being ready for every eventuality is key and part of getting ready.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
Yes I use a variety of techniques depending on the situation and how much control I have of the outcome.
- BREATHWORK. The square breath can be used to help keep calm, de-stress and think clearly. You breath in for 4 counts, hold the breath in for 4 counts, breath out for 4 counts and hold the breath out for 4 counts. I also use the Fire breath to energize, motivate and give me courage in any situation. This is an abdominal breath as a pumping action to the stomach, released as a panting sound through the nostrils.
- MANTRAS. Before every speech President Bill Clinton used to say ‘It’s Showtime’ in the mirror to himself. I love this so I do this before every presentation! It really helps to get me in the zone.
- RE-VITALISING YOGA POSTURES. Most people are scared of going upside down, largely linked to being out of control. I do a Headstand inversion every morning. It gives me new perspective, reminds me that anything is possible and that I am courageous. I typically hold for 10 breaths and do a visualization during that time.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
In yoga, the power of developing focus during balances is called DRISHTI. This helps develop laser focus while off the yoga mat as well. Drishti is maintaining a soft gaze with the eyes open to a focal point — ahead, upwards or to the floor. I apply drishti when I am working, clearing the decks, removing any distractions and focusing in on the task at hand. In a practical sense, I let my team know I am closing my office door and shutting myself away and not to disturb me. I also put my phone on silent and don’t read any emails. Un-divided attention!
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Good habits have helped with my discipline, focus and being my best at all times.
Some success habits have been:
- Healthy eating and feeding my mind nutritional foods.
- Regular exercise to stay in shape — I swim twice a week and do yoga 4 times a week.
- Drink lots of water and keep hydrated. I keep a bottle of water on my desk and in my bag when I am travelling.
- Good time management — develop the disciple of not getting caught reading emails for long periods of time and wasting time on social media. Conduct short, productive meetings.
- Work life balance — I always take lunch, go out for a walk or take time away from my desk to eat, chat to my partner, phone a friend or family member or go outside in the sunshine.
- Knowing when to switch off- I know when I am feeling energetic, so when I am tired, its time to turn off the computer and rest. Tomorrow is another day.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
The best way to develop great habits is to understand the benefits of those habits to you. Why are they good for you? How will they help you achieve your goals? Getting to the why of something is a great motivator for change. Habits help us get to where we want to be. It is also something we have complete control over. It starts with ourselves.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Getting in the ‘flow’ is all about being ‘present’ in the moment and totally absorbed in the task at hand. That is largely about being focussed, not distracted and being fully immersed in what you are doing. Your mind needs to be clear, breath flowing freely and you need to be calm to be in the flow. Meditation helps to get into this state more easily and without effort. Avoid multi-tasking and do this task whole heartedly without doing anything else at the same time. Flow results when you give something your undivided attention. To get into flow choose tasks and hobbies that you love doing and enjoy and therefore totally immerse yourself into. It will then be effortless.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Poverty alleviation will touch and impact the whole world so I think skills development, professional training, entrepreneurship and business education is the best tool to bring people out of poverty in the most deprived parts of the world, e.g Africa and Asia. Business education is the biggest secret, so worldwide business education through conferences, training courses and programmes will help to change the world as we know it. My hospitality academy joint venture in Nigeria/West Africa is a part of this vision with economic development at the other end of that spectrum.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I’d LOVE to meet Michelle Obama (The Obamas). Michelle Obama is a true inspiration, a role model and guiding light for all black women everywhere. I see her and understand exactly what I should be doing and how I should be living my life. She is clear, open and transparent and I loved reading her book Becoming and listening to her book tour interviews.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have a website www.theconferencedirector.com
My latest posts, articles and news is always pushed out via LinkedIn. My profile is here https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelle-fanus-13613312/
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.