Mary Larkin, president of Diversified Communications, a Portland media company that publishes digital products, magazines and plans and hosts conferences and trade shows worldwide, sat down with Press Herald CEO Lisa DeSisto at the Roux Institute to talk about leadership and navigating tough times. A surprising resource for Larkin: tapping into her experiences growing up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland for resilience and perspective. Here are some of her thoughts.
Know your business very well. After getting her degree in international business, Larkin first worked for a newspaper in sales, then went to a trade magazine where she switched from selling ads to planning events. Since it was a four-person company she learned how to do everything — from planning, to operations and promotions – an immersive experience that stood her well when she applied for a job at Diversified after receiving her green card in a lottery. She joined the company in 1997 and rose quickly to become show director in 2000.
Be a great listener. In 2016, she became the interim head of Pri-Med, a Boston company eventually acquired by Diversified that focused on medical education. Larkin lived part time in a Boston hotel for nine months forming relationships with the Pri-Med staff – executives and rank-and-file — to help with the transition. Through that experience she realized her best tip for making people comfortable with change: listening.
“I was visible to them,” she said. “I was in the office, I was present.”
Be collaborative and a little bit pushy. Larkin defines her leadership style as collaborative, “although my staff says I get my way,” she quipped. She says she tries to be supportive, very honest and transparent. But she said she also pushes people out of their comfort zones. “It’s their career as well.”
Don’t shirk from hard decisions. Larkin said she was brought up during The Troubles, when Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland were fighting over whether to remain in the U.K. or join the Republic of Ireland and British forces were brought in as peacekeepers. The roughly 30-year period was marked by bombings and street fighting before reaching a resolution in 1998.
That experience, she says, has made her unafraid of hard decisions. It helped her navigate whether to cancel a huge seafood trade show held annually in Brussels after the city was bombed by ISIS in 2016. People were terrified. The trade show was scheduled four weeks after the attack, and Larkin knew it was key to the financial success of many of its vendors and attendees.
She ultimately made the decision to go ahead with the event. Among the things she considered was the community reaction to a shooting in Northern Ireland where seven people died. A week after the shooting, the tragedy had dropped from the news. People had moved on.
She thought about that as her staff fielded thousands of phone calls about the seafood trade show following the Brussels bombing.
“Psychologically, and this happens every time, day one people are in shock and nobody wants to talk about it. Day two, they’re starting to ask questions … can you give us a heads-up. Day three, people are like, OK we need a decision … they need to know what they’re doing.”
Larkin decided to go ahead with the show, allowing staff not to travel if they didn’t want to and working with the city to strengthen security for the event. People were relieved the event went on and it helped create a renewed sense of normalcy, she said.
Don’t underestimate the value of face-to-face contact. Attendees to recent trade shows and conferences also sought some sense of normalcy after COVID wreaked havoc on in-person gatherings. Larkin said Diversified invested in digital products to move some of the conference content online, but acknowledges people engage better and get so much more out of meeting in person. They resumed their normal event schedule in August 2021.
“The value of face-to-face was strengthened and proven during COVID,” she said.
She believes the same can be true in the workplace. More than 200 people work in Diversified offices in Portland where they have the option of working remotely or in the office or a hybrid arrangement. Larkin said management tries to be as flexible as possible, and encourages people who are coming into the office to be there mid-week so there will be a critical mass of people working together.
Larkin said she is concerned the company loses something from its culture when people aren’t physically working together.
“It’s that serendipity. You know when you don’t know there’s a problem until you have that meeting after the meeting? Those problems don’t get solved.”
Portland as a host city? Several years ago, Diversified moved its premier seafood trade show from Brussels to Barcelona to better accommodate its growth, she said. Brussels had 18,000 hotel rooms while Barcelona had more than 50,000. Access, infrastructure and accommodations are the key drivers in being a good host city, which prompted a question from DeSisto about what Portland has to do to capture more conference business.
“Portland has an opportunity for the smaller rotating event, that smaller conference,” Larkin said noting that a successful event needs hotel rooms, conference rooms, loading docks, and more to run large-scale events. “But there is an opportunity for that niche conference that rotates … it would be good for Portland to get on the calendar.”
Embrace new opportunities to drive inspiration and engagement. For inspiration, Larkin said she loves talking to people in her industry and has learned a great deal about leadership from that. Additionally, she took a leadership course at the Kellogg School on Management that “was life-changing for me.” She said her work in trying to attract more women to conferences where they only comprised 10 percent of attendees naturally lead her into working on women’s leadership issues.
She also gets inspired by growth and energy. In her 27 years with Diversified, she has helped steer it from a small, Portland office to more than 450 employees with offices worldwide.
“I get inspired by growth, and energy, and a new idea or a potential acquisition,” she said. “That’s really inspiring because it’s exciting for the team, it’s exciting for the company … you thrive off of that. That energizes me.”
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