Can You See Me Now?

Maggie Janssen is the Senior Vice President of Global Communications for one of the largest and most respected non-profit organizations in the world.

Well, not yet.

I found Maggie stationed at a skirted table outside of the Imperial Ballroom.  At the entrance behind her, a diagram has been pinned to the partition beginning a maze of  exhibition panels and displays.  A similar schematic is on the table where Maggie sits.

The ballroom is almost empty and its deflation of energy was palpable.  A handful of people in lanyards milled around, the long day beginning to drape heavily over their shoulders.

Maggie is still smiling.

I introduce myself to Maggie and her supervisor, Elizabeth. They work for Bon Ton, the parent company for a portfolio of department stores, including the local Boston Store.

“What’s going on today?” I ask.

The supervisor, Elizabeth, says, “This is our global vendor fair. We invite suppliers from around the world to present their materials and make bids to produce for our private label.”

“Interesting,” I say, looking from Elizabeth to Maggie.  “Who do I get to talk to about the event?”

Elizabeth, a short bespectacled blonde with a glint in her eyes and sideways smile, points to Maggie. “I’m delegating,” she says with a playful chuckle.

I turn to Maggie and she’s beaming.

“Sure!” she says, clearing the seat beside her.

“So, what’s your role?” I ask.

“I coordinate the planning and logistics for this event.”

“All of it?”

Maggie nods.

“Really?”

Maggie nods again, smiling.

“That’s kind of a big deal,” I say.

Smile.

Maggie’s exact title is International Vendor Fair Event Coordinator – slash- Global Sourcing Specialist.  One day, she tells me, she’d like to be director of events and communications for a non-profit. Just last year, however, she was a new college grad in search of a job.

“I studied PR and business at UW Stevens Point,” she says.  “I started here as a temp a few months after graduation.”

“Not bad for your first gig,” I say.

“Yeah, I got lucky.”

More smiles.

As a temp, Maggie supported last year’s organizers by handling data entry and helping with logistics.  “This is what I want to do,” she says of the experience. She even enrolled in classes at a local community college last fall to earn a certificate in event management.  Maggie’s three-month temp assignment became seven months and, ultimately, a permanent full-time position.

“I was texting everybody as soon as I found out,” she says.  “So excited.”

A facilities manager approaches the table to ask for clarification about the schedule.

“You can go ahead and lock those doors in back,” she says to him. “We won’t need to get in there until eight.”

I ask Maggie whether she’s already started thinking about tweaks for next year.

“I was just making a list,” she says excitedly.  “Like, I want the reception to feel more like a party.  It’s all business around here.”

She notices a hotel staff person fussing with a breakout room door.  “That lock doesn’t work,” Maggie calls out.  “You don’t have to bother with it. Someone’s coming back to fix it already.”

I ask Maggie if any of her family or friends might be surprised to see her in a role like this.

“Not at all,” she says.  ‘

“Let me guess,” I say.  “Captain of your sports team? President of your class?”

Maggie nods with a sheepish grin, “Yeah, I was class president.”

She’s also the oldest of five, three sisters and a brother from a town of about 10,000 people. “It was kind of expected of me to be a leader,” she says. “I’ve always liked pulling people together, making things happen.”

“What’s something else you’re challenging yourself to make happen, outside of work even?”

“Golf,” Maggie says. “My boyfriend is helping me learn.  I’m not too awesome.”

“Not yet,” I say.

Big smile. “Right,” Maggie says.  “Not yet.”

She turns her smile to a trio of women exiting the ballroom, heading toward the elevators.

“Bye ladies,” Maggie sings. “Have a good night.”

“What has been the hardest part about going from temp to official?” I ask.

Her reply was instant: “Making myself known.”

Maggie describes how the layers of management make it difficult for any higher ups to witness her talent. Common with most large companies, rookies rarely gain audience with the top brass.  As the keeper of all the event details this time, Maggie hopes to parlay her logistics intel into a memorable interaction –or two– with her boss’ boss.

For the first time, I glimpse the fierceness and determination in her eyes. Far more than providence or discipline, this young woman is fueled by deliberate and raw ambition. As Maggie spoke, the sudden hard angle of her jaw nudged my imagination forward to the future version of her, with a commanding maturity and series of impressive notches to her resume.

“Has your plan been working?” I ask.

“It’s going well,” Maggie says with a slow smile.  “He’s talking to me. He knows who I am.”

“When this is over, do you start planning for next year right away?”

“Not yet,” she says. “It’ll take a few months for us to process the orders that happen here this week.  As soon as we get back, my temp will start to input–”

“Wait,” I interrupt. “You have a temp?”

Maggie smiles. “Yes.”

Of course. Of course she does.

 

Be a Part of History: Volunteer!

Milwaukee may be known as the City of Festivals, but they don’t just happen by themselves; many dedicated residents and volunteers preserve our culture and promote the heritage of the city annually. The Pfister Hotel hosted the United Ethnic Festivals board holiday party and the volunteer organizers of each of our summer festivals gathered to celebrate the season.

Early in the evening, I met the vice president of German Fest and his wife and while we talked, the celebration of heritage became more important than simply celebrating. The couple (Mr. and Mrs. Rudi Wolf) started to express their concern over how these traditions would carry on.

As the couple remembered concerts and shows they’d seen at the Pfister in the past and compared those stylings to today’s music and the bands they recruit for German Fest, they talked as much about the music as our interest in it…who will continue to appreciate such specific genres? Mrs. Wolf noted, “We hope the young people will come, but…” she ended with a shrug of her shoulders.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard these concerns from long-standing local organizations. Though the Pfister carries with it a rich history, passed on through tenured staff members, other groups and volunteer organizations in the area carry a similar historic burden. Yet, with volunteerism and resources both on the decline, some of the traditions that have supported Milwaukee’s unique “Little Big Town” feel could be at risk.

Wolf talked of the Austrian club her family is a part of and the routines she established for her children—gently keeping them tied to the group through events and duties, hoping they’ll carry on a dedication to these organizations. Though she was concerned for who will contribute these all-important cultural histories to our city when the current volunteers have moved on, I am curious if she realizes just what a success she has already been. She told of her youngest daughter, the one who learned to yodel at a young age (through the association with the club, of course) and continues to do so. Or, if the tales of her four grandsons, who each participate in German Fest and the Austrian club impacted her as much as they did me—all of these young men are clearly an invested part of the heritage and value their role in it.

It made me wonder if it’s just natural to worry about how you pass on traditions to later generations, how you give up power and control in hope of keeping histories alive. And where is the line between ensuring that we keep even the smallest of organizations pulsing through our city—known for its variety of festivals and cultures—and pushing too hard to sustain the traditions of the old at the expense of the potential of the new?  German Fest’s website, clearly a vestige of the new, asks visitors to “BE A VOLUNTEER, help keep German traditions alive and introduce a whole new generation to the German culture of today and traditions of yester year.” Perhaps this technological mingling of spaces young leaders inhabit and ideas and traditions historic families seek to preserve is one step in bridging the gap.

Some of my questions were answered when I returned to look in on the gathering later that night and saw the incredible intergenerational mix that had assembled. Young professionals mingled among seasoned veterans of the city and it was clear that leadership and trust was being passed along, and more importantly, it was clear that worries about “the next generation” having the same passions for tradition may be unfounded as so many gathered on a Monday night to keep the past very much in the present.