How a virtual event reconnected its leaders to reengineer its future success
Imagine you are working for a company that:
- is publicly listed, but then gets sold into private equity;
- has a parent company, but then regains independence to go it alone;
- sees a quick succession of executive team changes, during lockdown, including a new CEO;
- embarks on a radically new strategic direction; and
- implements a major reorganisation.
It’s a safe bet that you may be feeling a little overwhelmed.
Now imagine you need to get everyone enacting that new strategy and reorganising in the year COVID strikes and nobody can meet face-to-face.
Well, that’s exactly what happened at ViaCon – a leading European designer, engineer and manufacturer of sustainable Bridges and Culvers, GeoTechnology and StormWater solutions.
The executive team had envisaged a two-day, in-person, management conference with their top 60 leaders in the Autumn of 2020. Its purpose: For those senior leaders to better get to know their new executive team, understand the new business strategy and, most critically, their role in delivering it.
ViaCon’s exec team held out for as long as they could but, as the Autumn conference date inched closer, it became apparent a traditional conference wouldn’t be possible. Cancelling wasn’t an option. Leaders were crying out for clear communication to offer their teams better direction, and the company’s new owners were expecting to see progress towards sustainable and profitable growth.
It was at this point, with just six weeks until the management conference was due to take place, that ViaCon turned to Axiom. They wanted their conference, but now they urgently needed Axiom’s help to deliver it virtually.
“There were some critical challenges to overcome to successfully deliver this event,” says Axiom’s Managing Director and the event’s co-facilitator, Chris Carey. “The time frame we had to organise, the enormity of the business change to communicate, and the need to retain participant engagement throughout two full days, that were already blocked out in leader’s diaries. The key was to design an outcome-focused event, with lots of variety, interactivity and plenty of breaks – then to deliver at pace,” says Chris.
The first thing Axiom did was carry out some advance research with participants. While there hadn’t been a management conference for a while, the new strategy had been shared. Axiom wanted to gauge understanding of the strategy and how these senior leaders were feeling about it. The result: COVID had negatively impacted communication and there was therefore a degree of confusion, uncertainty, and patchy understanding of the strategy.
Axiom used the insights from this research and the latest iteration of the strategy and the detail behind it, to co-create with the client, an event that would truly meet the needs of its audience, and the Executive Team. So that upon leaving these senior leaders would be able to inform, excite and inspire the wider workforce to deliver against the strategy.
“If you want to get from point A to point B you have to know your starting place. Often businesses focus on where they want to get to but it’s impossible to plan how you best get there, if you have no idea where you are setting off from,” says Chris.
“That’s why advance research is so valuable. It can tell you where your people are today – and that informs your how you position your content. Most powerfully it also signals to your people that you are listening to them, that you value what they have to say, and that the event they are going to invest their time in is going to be worth it.”
Having established that evidence-based starting point Axiom:
- worked with ViaCon’s executive team to design a highly interactive agenda;
- prepared and coached the company’s 10 presenters; and
- offered best-practice advice on presentation content.
Axiom then carefully selected ‘Jam’ digital meeting technology and partnered with ‘Crystal Interactive’ as its tech provider to seamlessly deliver the event. This digital platform enabled real time voting and immediate on-screen polling results, small break out rooms, and live questions. A key consideration was ensuring this event neither looked, nor felt like a run of the mill Zoom or Teams call. It needed to be an event.
Participants challenged and checked their understanding of the strategy as speakers presented its different elements, by raising their questions, observations, and reflections live and unedited. To encourage that interactivity and candour, all participant contributions were anonymised. If something resonated, others ‘liked it’ to help prioritise questions for answering.
“The interactive functionality is excellent. We get more out of this as participants than in a normal face-to-face meeting.”
ViaCon participant feedback
“This is transformative tech,” says Chris. “Those introverts who never raise their hand to ask a question at a big in-person conference do with this tech. And for any leader, in other client organisations, who has thrown open the floor only to receive an odd-ball question that has no relevance to the matter in hand – eating time and disengaging the rest of your audience – this tech avoids that. You can see the questions your audience most want answered because they move up the ranking ladder in front of everyone’s eyes. One question at this event was so important nearly half the audience wanted it answered.”
“Interactive technology is an opportunity to discuss the most burning topics instead of those topics that get voiced first.”
ViaCon participant feedback
To inject a sense of occasion, so often missing form virtual events, Axiom produced a film clip to play at the event’s open and close. This two-minute montage, created from existing ViaCon footage, was set to music. Its upbeat tone served to remind participants of all they had already achieved, despite the pandemic.
60 participants dialled in from across Europe, with Chris co-facilitating from Crystal Interactive’s UK studio. A key benefit of having a skilled external facilitator is that they not only keep the event to time and on track but can provoke participation by offering an ‘outside/in’ perspective.
“It can be hard for someone within a business to tell a senior leader you need to move on, yet it’s critical to respect your audience’s time. What repeatedly comes through in participant feedback is that they appreciate strong timekeeping – it keeps them far more engaged,” says Chris.
An expert facilitator is also invaluable when something doesn’t quite go to plan. During this event, all participants were dialling in from home. Just as one speaker was about to present, they suffered a technical failure. Rather than go to an unscheduled break, a professional facilitator can adapt an agenda to keep the show on the road. On this occasion, Chris pulled forward an interactive quiz. This gave the speaker time to reset and then strongly present – keeping the event on track.
Variety and participant involvement were key to holding attention throughout. So, as well as keeping each session short, Axiom used a wealth of techniques to involve people – like appointing reporters. Reporters weren’t official speakers but drawn from the audience, to summarise the key points following each session. This gives participants an opportunity to hear from a variety of voices.
Axiom also helped dispel a common misconception that virtual events mean everything must be digital. With a little advance planning, Axiom developed Personal Action Plans which they sent to every participant to print off locally. Leaders then used this bespoke, event branded, agenda driven tool to jot down their reflections during each session. This has a three-fold benefit:
- It gives participants a welcome screen break.
- Handwritten notes help people better retain information.
- All key messages are in one place for easy future reference and onward sharing.
Axiom asked participants before the event how well they understood the strategy and how achievable they thought it was – Via the tech, Axiom then asked the same question after the event – both scores shifted significantly higher.
The only ‘score’ that really matters though, following any leadership conference like this, is that those leaders leave with the clarity, confidence, and tools they need to onward communicate – acting as catalysts for action within the wider business.
That’s why, in addition to shifting understanding, ViaCon’s leaders also left this virtual conference with the tools they needed to act. In addition to their Personal Action Plans, Axiom also produced a cascade pack together with a highlights showreel of the key plenary presentations for onward sharing with their teams and the client put steps in place to measure the effectiveness of the cascade.
“Great work. Great moderation. Great event.”
ViaCon participant feedback
What our client says
“This virtual event, and our partnership with Axiom, served ViaCon exceptionally well. Axiom provided a great medium for running our conference. The interactive possibilities for involving participants, and for so many to share their views in a crisp way, were better than had we held this event face-to-face. Given where we were with our strategic implementation, the clear communication, both at and after our event was very effective. It led to high engagement levels – strengthening morale and providing clear focus on our future direction.”
Stefan Nordström, CEO, ViaCon
“I joined ViaCon amid the coronavirus pandemic when it was difficult to meet people face-to-face. But it was a big year for ViaCon and we had to rally everyone around our new strategy – we couldn’t wait until we could meet in person to do that. It’s difficult when you are new to a business and can’t meet your colleagues in the traditional way. This virtual event positively surprised me. Its interactivity meant I started getting to know my new colleagues, both professionally and personally, in a facilitated way. I also presented critical aspects of ViaCon’s new strategy, so I’m also grateful to our partners at Axiom for the time and energy they invested not only with me, but with all our speakers, to ensure our presentations and performances were the best they could be. Thank you.”
Helena Wennerström, Chief Financial Officer, ViaCon Group
“I continue to be impressed by Axiom’s consistent professionalism, I’ve partnered with the Axiom team for over a decade; indeed, this is the third organisation I’ve invited Axiom to partner me in. I do so because they help make the complex simple and super easy for us to deliver as clients. This time we co-created a virtual event together, at very short notice. Axiom helped shape the agenda, coach the speakers, design the interactivity, provide the platform and facilitate for us, so we could all focus on what we do best, in this case articulate and drive up engagement with our strategy. If you are looking to host an event either online or off, and want a partner that will bring expertise, energy, and enthusiasm then give Axiom a try – they won’t disappoint.”
Mattias Hakeröd, Chief Human Resources Officer, ViaCon Group