Q&A: Michael Williams, Chick-fil-A Leadercast
On May 4, a number of world-renowned leaders—including CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts and college football head coach Urban Meyer—will gather in Atlanta for Chick-fil-A Leadercast, a one-day event meant to empower future leaders worldwide. Leadercast was started more than 10 years ago by leadership expert and author John Maxwell, and this year’s event, one of a number of events produced by Giant Impact, will be broadcast to more than 125,000 people around the globe. Michael Williams is the executive director for the event and is tasked with lining up speakers, locking in partnerships and simulcasting the popular event. Social Media Editor Jennifer Garrett spoke with Williams about his goals for the event and the technology it takes to broadcast the event to viewers worldwide.
What is the purpose of Chick-fil-A Leadercast?
Our big goal is to change the leadership culture of America—really the world, but starting where we are—from pride-based leadership to humility-based leadership. [Giant Impact] does that through events as well as through custom leader development, where we work with a lot of Fortune 500 companies for leadership development with CEOs and their teams.
Why is it important to align sponsorships, like you’ve done with Chick-fil-A, with the mission of your organization?
Our internal talk is we want to find people with the same DNA as us—people who have a high amount of quality service and operational excellence. When we have global brands that stand for those same qualities, it is assurance to the world and reiterates the quality of the event. It’s also a risk for us. When we put a national sponsor’s name on it and they have some sort of negative press, it affects us. So we look at who we want to emulate our message.
How can planners seek those kinds of partnerships?
We’ve always gone at it with the attitude of relationship before any opportunity. We don’t even talk about sponsorships until we’ve added value in some way to that sponsor.
Why do you simulcast the live event?
If our goal is to change the leadership culture of America first, that’s a huge number of people. Studies show if you can change 1 percent of a given population, you start to see a culture shift. You see that throughout time. You look at the Civil Rights movement—if you start to get 1 percent of the population to stand up for an issue, you see that tipping point. We looked at working class America, the everyday leaders in America, and if we can have an impact on 1 percent of them, we will shift the culture. That number is actually 2,301,315 people. That’s our BHAG—our Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. We can’t do that with one event. We’ll cap out. We’ll have 5,000 to 6,000 at the live event in Atlanta. Simulcast allows us to empower influencers throughout the world.
More than 800 host sites simulcast the Atlanta event live to attendees present at their venues. How does that work?
They buy a license to simulcast our event, and they turn around and sell tickets to their public. We have host sites that do it for all different reasons. We have chambers of commerce that want to do it as a way to raise funds. We have churches who do it as an outreach to a local community. We have entrepreneurs who do it because they want to be life coaches and this is a great way to bring clients in around leadership. About 30 percent of our hosts are corporations simulcasting internally for their own company benefit: Apple, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s Pizza and Oracle.
How do you attract host sites?
We promote through social media. We’re following folks on Twitter and adding value and sharing content with leadership experts there and on Facebook. We take part in a lot of other events and trade shows. We partner with a lot of other organizations who have community influencers involved and we reach out to them with a message of, “We truly want to partner with you to influence your community.” We do that through a variety of technology, through email blasts and through Chick-fil-A. They have a raving fan database they send messages to about the event.
How do you encourage host sites to have a similar experience to the live site?
It is completely up to them. Anything we do at the live site we share. We share minute-by-minute [plans], we share creative. We view host sites as partners, and every day we’re constantly striving to get better at how we equip our host sites. We do webinars, letting people know what we’re doing, the ways we are engaging people, and we encourage them to share best practices between each other.
What are some creative ways you’ve used social media?
We’ve created a private group on Facebook of all of our host sites. You have 800 people who are community influencers or are bringing this into their companies, and they share best practices. It’s amazing to watch that from the inside.
How do you engage followers?
We’re reading and following our raving fans, and retweeting and interacting with them. We want to know who’s following us and reach out to them because a lot of them have incredible stories and incredible things they are saying.
What about on-site at the event?
The last two years we’ve been a trending topic on the day of the event on Twitter. We do creative things during the event encouraging people to use our hashtag. Last year, we were trying to get a response out of Ryan Seacrest. He’s a big Chick-fil-A fan, and so Tripp [Crosby], our emcee, told everyone to tweet Ryan Seacrest and ask him if he would have lunch with Tripp next time he’s in L.A. or Atlanta. Now you have 125,000 people tweeting Ryan Seacrest with our hashtag, so now it’s interactive. We ask people to tweet in questions to our speakers and we have a backstage interviewer, Michael Hyatt, who’s interviewing speakers when they come off the stage and really looking for the questions from the audience on Twitter. Also, leading up to the event we’ve done twitterviews—interviews over Twitter—with John Maxwell and Suzy Welch. We’re lining more up for this year.
What is the Choice video contest this year?
This year, the theme is all about choices. The choices we make on a day-to-day-basis—the small choices—tend to lead to macro results. We opened a contest where we’re giving a $5,000 reward for the best 10-second video clip that illustrates a choice being made. We’ll use all the videos at the event and create a larger, longer video.
Why is engaging your community in this way important?
It guides us when we are coaching speakers and specifically ask them to speak on some of these topics. It’s really important for us to listen, not just push information out, “Hey, here’s a good leadership tip,” but really asking a question on Facebook and on Twitter and engaging to hear what people are saying.
Has social media changed the way events are planned?
One hundred percent. In the past, we’ve had this speaker vetting process to see who is going to speak at our events, and it’s just been us deciding. Through social media, we can ask who you want to see on stage and we get a list of names. Then on top of that, people are tweeting about it and it’s giving access to the speakers. If all of a sudden 10,000 tweets say I want Suzy Welch or Bono to speak at Leadercast, then Bono is getting all these tweets and thinking, “What in the world is this Leadercast thing?” Then, when we reach out to them, they say, “I was wondering about you guys.” It’s done so much to help bridge access to these speakers.
How has it changed the event itself?
Especially in a simulcast world, you’re so distant. How amazing is it that I can literally be sitting in South Africa and tweeting Tim Tebow a question that gets answered right then and there? The level of engagement and ownership one attendee feels is absolutely tremendous.
Tell us about the production involved in the Atlanta event.
We want everyone who comes to the live site to be wowed, so we look at sensory in production—what they hear, what they see, what they smell, what they taste. We use LED lights and huge screens and interaction pieces. Last year, we had fire jugglers and we did a Coke and Mentos explosion on stage. Also, sound—we bring in great musicians. We’re constantly asking how we can engage all the senses and make it something that all fits into the theme.
Why is it important to be creative?
People won’t engage if you’re not. A lot of people think, “I can’t spend the money to be creative,” and then they wonder why there’s 200 people who showed up at their event when they were hoping for 1,000. You’ve got to give people an engagement, and that comes through creativity. Spending the time, the energy and the money creating these wow moments and sensory experiences are what make or break an event.
What if they don’t have your budget?
I wish we had twice the budget. I’m amazed when I walk through and see what our team has created when I know what the budget is. Where our team gets the most creative is when we have a very, very, very tight budget, and then ask, “How do we use what we have?” We’re forced to be creative at that time. Throwing money at something takes no creativity.
What inspires you to do your job?
Any event planner who’s doing a large event of some sort has to build an incredible team around them, who know what they’re doing, who are working in their unique skill sets and abilities. I get the most joy out of watching attendees’ faces, seeing the experiences that people are having, and hearing the stories of change, and then to be able to look at my team and say, “You did this.” As the leader of this team, the true joy and the true excitement comes when I can hold a mirror up to the team and say, “You have done the most amazing job at transforming life all around the world.”
How do you encourage your team?
As a company, we really try to reward character, competence and influence. The executive team calls out and appreciates those folks and the team. We also celebrate stories from host sites and attendees. To be able to share these stories, to get a letter in the mail, or a tweet or a Facebook message that talks about the power of impact, and to be able to hand that off to [my team] and say, “This is because of you. Thank you.”
How do you relax after an event?
Run and hide. Most of our team goes dark for a good while, a week or so after the event. A lot of us take vacation. I’m an entrepreneur. I love starting things and having my hands in a lot of things, so I make sure on days when I’m unplugged on the weekends, I really unplug. So I encourage the team to take true free days after the event and leading up to the event. I think it was released recently that event planning is one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in the world, and we all understand why. When we are rested and rejuvenated, we actually work in our most creative zone.
What’s your best advice for fellow planners?
Have a system where you can unplug completely. Turn off your iPhone for a 24-hour period. Turn off your email. Be unreachable. If you can’t turn your phone off, you’re not a good leader. Your team needs to be empowered to make decisions when you’re not around.
What can you not live without on-site? My phone and my assistant.
What’s your favorite book? “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins.
What’s your favorite music? I love hip-hop. I love a good beat. I love dancing and having a good time. Hip-hop makes me smile and usually makes people around me smile.
And your favorite quote? “Be the change you want to see in the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi