LDI 25th Anniversary Leadership Insights - Cindy Brewer

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Above all else, what do you believe is one key characteristic that makes a successful leader? How do you apply this in your daily life as a leader in the workplace? The key to being a successful leader is to be an ardent listener, fierce cheerleader, and a “WE” leader. Leaders should always use “I” to take the blame and “we” to take the praise, leading with a team-first, not self-first, approach. “We” is a central theme of servant leadership, and if someone wants to be the boss, they must be a “We” leader.

How do you keep morale high and spark inspiration among your teams? Our team has worked hard to create a collaborative environment where our LEOs can brainstorm their wildest ideas. We spend a lot of time together, and the family mentality we embrace makes it easy and fun to bounce ideas.

We frequently host creative lunches and company outings, giving everyone a chance to connect and share ideas. Because we want our employees never to stop learning and growing, we support the attendance of dozens of industry shows, conferences, and professional development programs.
LEO highly values recognition and invests in award submissions for our top performers. We also present annual LEO Pride and LEO Gives Awards to those who go above and beyond in their work and participate in philanthropic initiatives.

Tell me about a mentor who shaped your leadership? While I never met her personally, I’ve adopted my guiding principles from the late Pat Head Summit, former coach of the UT Lady Vols basketball team, and inspirational public figure. She led her teams with the following principles:

    • Respect yourself and others
    • Take full responsibility
    • Develop and demonstrate loyalty
    • Learn to be a great communicator
    • Discipline yourself, so no one else has to
    • Make hard work your passion
    • Don’t just work hard, work smart
    • Put the team before yourself
    • Make winning an attitude
    • Be a competitor
    • Change is a must
    • Handle success like you handle failure

What values are most important to you as a leader? The most important value to me in terms of leadership is empowerment. I work to empower the people around me, investing in the development of my team and prioritizing a “get to” vs. “have to” mentality. These two simple words have the power to change one’s mindset, perspective, and approach to work and life. These words enhance joy, productivity, performance, and change a complaining voice to an appreciative heart. So often, we feel like we don’t have a choice, as if we are imprisoned by the expectations of a world that forces us to do things we don’t want to do. But we do have a choice. We can choose our attitude, our actions, and how we view our lives.

What is a leadership lesson that you’ve discovered throughout your career that you wish you could have learned sooner? If there is one thing I wish I could have learned sooner, it would be how to assess the impacts of unplanned change, adjust course, and then communicate and support my team. With the onset of the pandemic, I was reminded that change management is a leadership-induced process that involves transformational organizational change that leadership controls and sustains. It requires dedication, involvement of employees at all levels, and constant communication. Transformational change is strategy-driven and stems from the top of the organization. Its origin may be from needs identified within the organization and it requires the active engagement of the whole organization.

If you could tell your 20-year-old-self one thing, what would it be? I would tell my 20-year-old-self to trust the process. My college major was communications, and I aspired to be an investigative journalist and transition into broadcasting. When I graduated in 1991, the Gulf War hit, and jobs were hard to come by. That ultimately led me to tourism sales where I found my greatest joy and passion. Trusting that things will work out, working hard to reach your goals, and having fun along the way is the most important piece of advice for any 20-something.

What advice would you give to professionals who are stepping into the leadership space? I believe that we are all better, stronger, and more innovative together. When leaders learn to become better listeners, they have more confidence to embrace change. Be humble, be appreciative, and give back to those who helped you along the way. Learn when to let things go and when to stand your ground on the things that are most important to you.

The best leaders know that learning never stops. What steps do you take to ensure you keep with personal and professional development? Internally, we support any of our employees with industry certifications by reimbursing their course and exam fees and giving a $500 base bump in their salary should they achieve the certification or pass the exam. All we ask is that the employee remains employed with us for 12 or more months after the certification. This is a practice we’ve had in place for 20 years, and we’ve pushed dozens of CMPs (Certified Meeting Professional), DMCPs (Destination Management Certified Professional), and Cvent-certified LEOs out into the industry. As a leader, I’ve put my efforts toward peer collaboration over the years, putting time into WBENC peer groups like We Thrive and Share The Green programs. I also recently took a week out to participate in New Memphis Institute’s LDI: Next Step Program, and it was worth every minute. Some of the takeaways from that program are processes that we’ve rolled out internally for our organization in 2022.

Leadership extends far past the professional landscape at work, but into the broader Memphis community. Why do you believe it is crucial to make time to serve in other ways in the 901? (Can include how you serve—other boards? Volunteering? Mentoring?) As a company, LEO believes in giving back, and the best way we can do that is to do what we do best to benefit the causes we love most. Throughout the years, we have volunteered time, donated in-kind, and supported organizations that work hard to make a real difference in our community. Some of those that mean a great deal to us are St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, National Civil Rights Museum, and the Jay Uiberall Foundation. We’ve created a company culture that genuinely values giving back, with more than 30 philanthropic causes collectively supported through our LEO Gives initiative.

Tell me about a time when you felt most challenged in your leadership? How did you rise above? Well, the pandemic was one. Another is this trend of the Great Resignation. People will come and go from your organization throughout your tenure as a leader, and you get pretty used to it. My younger self used to take it personally. My pre-pandemic self took it mostly in stride. My post-pandemic self is taking the approach that it’s meant to be and that we’ve built a culture that is not for everyone. Instead of feeling discouraged, I am proud of what we’ve built and own it. I can put my head on my pillow each night, knowing it’s a culture of support, collaboration, lots of love and appreciation, philanthropy, community, and a genuine desire to see people succeed and do well personally and professionally. And at the end of the day, all leaders are human beings first, and relationships matter most.

Why do you choose to lead in Memphis? I’m Memphis born and raised and a product of The Hutchison School and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I began my career in tourism sales for the Nashville Zoo before joining Hard Rock and eventually Beale Street. I loved selling Memphis as a competitive meeting destination, and I totally resonated with the Grit ‘n Grind mentality. This eventually led me to open my own company, Destination King. We’ve since merged with another company to create LEO Events, added office locations in Nashville and Chattanooga, and produced events worldwide. Memphis is my home. Just last weekend, my family traveled to St. Louis for the weekend. On our way back, as we approached the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, we played “Walking in Memphis” and cranked the volume in the car. We sang at the top of our lungs coming over the Bridge, entering Memphis and seeing products that we are so proud of in our skyline that have shaped our lives – like the Renasant Convention Center, for one. (I might have had a little Clark Griswold happy cry in there somewhere along the way as well.)

Leadership can oftentimes feel lonely, but it shouldn’t be. How do you believe leaders can best navigate and address this pressing issue? Peer networks, peer exchanges, and a great group of girlfriends and mentors do it for me. Professionally, I participate in three peer groups where I learn from other leaders (some like me and most not), navigating leadership and life together. We help each other out and try to make each other better. Personally, I rely on my friends. I have a group of friends that graduated from Hutchison with me that lives all over the US. We text on a group chain almost weekly. When I’m struggling with something at work and put it on the chain – they usually laugh at me. They love me and don’t care who I am, what I do, or how busy or stressed I might appear – mainly because they are equally as stressed out in some way unique to them. Our threads usually recenter me, make me laugh, and put my world back into perspective.

Share with us your biggest takeaway from your LDI experience and how would you convince another leader to take part in the program? The biggest takeaway from my LDI April 2010 experience was to create a culture of giveback in your community. By November of that year, a small group of us founded the Jay Uiberall Foundation, a grantmaking organization that is still thriving today. We’ve granted almost $1M back into our community over the past ten years and $120K this year alone to organizations like PURE, Star Academy, Reach Memphis, and others.

The road to being a leader isn’t only paved with success, but a lot of trial and error. How do you adjust your next steps to combat failure? Failure is going to happen. It’s what you do with that failure that makes you bigger, better, and stronger. And each time, you learn from it and make a mental note never to allow that to happen again.

What is your hope for the future of Memphis? I’ve built a career around the success of Memphis as a leading and competitive meeting and convention destination nationally. And I would love nothing more than to see it be mentioned in the same realm of considerations with cities like Orlando, New Orleans, or Las Vegas in 20 years. We’ve built such incredible, diverse, and authentic product offerings here, and the people who work in our industry in Memphis are the best of the best. That said, we need more major convention hotels to land downtown to sell more room nights and visitors than we can currently accommodate. If and when we host an NBA All-Star Game in Memphis, then our work is done (perhaps not really, but it would be a coup).

What has been your great accomplishment in your career or what are you most proud of in your career? Honestly, I’m most proud of the folks who have been a part of the LEO family over the years – those who have been with us for 10+ years, as well as those that have moved on to other equally amazing things in their lives. Whether they know it or not, I’m their biggest cheerleader. Recently, I had a former employee tell me that my nagging, pushing, and instilling in them to have a keen attention to detail to everything in life has been the cornerstone that shaped their career to this day. And let me tell you something, this person is uber-successful, and I’m so proud of the person they’ve become. Those moments are worth gold!

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Cindy has more than 25 years of experience in hospitality, destination marketing and management, event planning, and public relations. As Principal of LEO, Cindy oversees all external and internal marketing, business development and finance, and philanthropic efforts. She got her start in the events industry in tourism sales with attractions, golf resorts, and the Hard Rock Cafe. Eventually, she managed parades, festivals, and corporate events for the iconic Beale Street. Since co-founding LEO Events, she has overseen major events including the grand opening of Bass Pro Shops in the Pyramid, as well as the 50th-anniversary commemoration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., alongside the National Civil Rights Museum. In response to changing industry dynamics with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cindy formed CANVAS, a membership organization of top-performing event makers from the biggest brands and organizations in the nation. She moderates monthly CANVAS Conversations video conference forums for members to discuss current situations and developing guidelines. Cindy was most recently inducted into the “Smart Women in Meetings Hall of Fame” by Smart Meetings Magazine and has been named “Top 500 Influential People in Events” by BizBash, “Power Player” by Inside Memphis Business, and “Top 25 Super Women in Business” and “Women Who Lead in Hospitality” by the Memphis Business Journal.

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