Episode 21: Becoming the Leader You Needed Early in Your Career feat. Tan Wells

by | Dec 12, 2022

Angela Alea speaks with Tan Wells, VP of Client Services at Freeman about career growth, family, and having a life in live events.

What we’re talking about 💬

  • The importance of female representation in leadership.
  • The importance of creating safe spaces for issues to be raised and resolved.
  • How you can become the kind of leader you needed early in your career.
  • How to model behavior that cultivates a great crew environment.
  • Why empathy is the most underrated crew skill.

Listen 🎧

Watch this Episode 📺

Read the Transcript 📚

[00:00:18] Angela Alea: Welcome back to Corralling the Chaos. Today we wanna talk about career growth, family, and having a life in live events. as a woman, this will be an interesting take given the event industry has historically been male-dominated, but we’re certainly seeing that change, and so today we’ve asked Tan Wells to join us, given her 20 years in the industry.

[00:00:51] Angela Alea: Currently, tan is the VP of Client Services at Freeman. Throughout her career, she has worked as a producer, a designer, project [00:01:00] manager for a variety of. In 2005, tan joined Freeman AV as a production manager where she worked her way from managing events to managing staff to managing a branch as a director of operations.

[00:01:13] Angela Alea: She later moved to the events and exhibit side where she oversaw event producers t’s ability to bring humor and a sense of calm to the chaos. Of show site has earned her praise from collaborators on all sides of event planning. Welcome Tan Wells to the show. We’re so glad you’re here. Oh, thank you.

[00:01:31] Tan Wells: Love that introduction.

[00:01:32] Tan Wells: Thanks so much.

[00:01:34] Angela Alea: Yeah, no, we’re excited to dive into this topic. So, you know, I’ll tell you what, what prompted this topic was, we got an email that said something along the lines of, you know, hey, I’d love to hear an episode about women. In the industry and how to be treated appropriately. And she went on to say she struggled with that on site when she first started and how to juggle being a woman and a mom and a male-dominated [00:02:00] industry.

[00:02:00] Angela Alea: And so I remember reading that and then others come in and you know how things come in waves. Then all of a sudden you start hearing that, that question often. So I’m like, you know what? We should dive in and, and talk to somebody about that. So thank you for, for helping us dive into this chart. Sure.

[00:02:14] Angela Alea: It’ll be great to hear your take as. . Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I would love to. Um, but tell us what, what was it like when you first started working in events? Tell us what that landscape looked like then. So

[00:02:26] Tan Wells: it started a long time ago, uh, but I was in college and I was very fortunate that I started at the Center for Performing Arts as a stage hand, you know, slinging cable focusing.

[00:02:38] Tan Wells: Sting, whatever was needed, unloading trucks the whole bit, but the leadership there was sort of mixed male and female. And so I think that representation in leadership is really key. And I kind of got my footing before I realized it was a male dominated industry. [00:03:00] Right. So I was very fortunate in that, and I had that confidence, which I feel like is the thing that is needed to demand appropriate treatment sometimes, is to feel confident in your skills and know what you know, right?

[00:03:15] Tan Wells: Because sometimes you feel like, wow, did I make a mistake? Did I deserve that comment? And what you said from from your listener, makes me think a couple things. There’s different ways to be treated appropriately. If there’s a harassment issue, I, I don’t feel like that’s what we’re talking about today. I don’t feel like, like a HR level harassment is what we’re discussing.

[00:03:36] Tan Wells: That’s a whole other ball game, which there are appropriate avenues to take that. I feel like this is more like the microaggression, like, Hey sweetie, you gonna break a nail? Doing that sort of undercut kind of comments that we get in the field. Mm-hmm. , did

[00:03:51] Angela Alea: you get comments like that in the field? . Okay.

[00:03:55] Angela Alea: Interesting. Well, that’s why we’re doing this segment, right? So, and I,

[00:03:59] Tan Wells: um, [00:04:00] some of them are jokes like, and I think

[00:04:05] Tan Wells: as the person working, what is your relationship with the person who made the comment? What is their attitude? What is the attitude of the environment? Are they saying this to be funny? Do you have the relationship already with them? Where like, it is funny because it’s like a joke between you. , like there’s so many layers to this, right?

[00:04:26] Tan Wells: But what’s crazy about our industry is it’s all about teamwork, but a lot of times we show up and have to accomplish things in a team that we’ve never met before. And so you don’t have that depth of a relationship to have that familiarity. And so you have to be careful with the kind of comments that you make to people, and they just really shouldn’t be.

[00:04:45] Tan Wells: people’s appearance or their gender or about any of the things that you know is on the list of things you can’t control about yourself, right? It should just be, uh, until you get to know people, professional level, communication. So in terms of being, you know, [00:05:00] treated appropriately, treated with respect, treated like the other crew members, given tasks that you can do.

[00:05:05] Tan Wells: Can you do this? Yes, you can do this. Okay. If I’ve said I can do. , believe me that I can do it unless you’re seeing something that says I can’t. Right. Um, yeah. So anyway, when I started I was in a very positive environment, so I was very lucky for that. But then as I moved on to other venues and other locations, like, oh, there’s luck, I , it’s all look at.

[00:05:28] Tan Wells: Um, and so you get little comments and I think there’s always a calculus of when do you speak up. and it’s really important to speak up. What does speaking up look like? If you get the kind of comment that bothers you, I don’t think it’s profitable to turn around and just tell that person in a public forum that, that they just offended you because you then embarrassed that person, that doesn’t get you very far.

[00:05:58] Tan Wells: That just sets up a negative [00:06:00] relationship with that individual for the rest of your time working together. when I’ve had incidents later in my career that have bothered me, I’ve taken time, gathered myself, like written some notes about like, what was it that bothered me? Gone back to that person and said, Hey, I need a minute.

[00:06:17] Tan Wells: We had this interaction. You used this terminology for me. Like, Hey, sweetie, or you said this thing that undercut my position that was gender-based. I’m not comfortable with that, and I don’t think you meant. You give ’em a chance to like say they didn’t mean that .

[00:06:34] Angela Alea: Yeah. Cause I do think, I mean, I think you’re right.

[00:06:38] Angela Alea: You know, I love the fact that you’re saying, you know, don’t do it in public because. Call me an optimist. I am, I always will be, but I genuinely don’t think that the majority of these circumstances there’s ever any ill intent mm-hmm. and, you know, anytime I’ve, I’ve kind of approached somebody with something similar, you know, it, it’s a [00:07:00] delicate balance, right.

[00:07:01] Angela Alea: Of trying to not make them uncomfortable, but letting them know they’ve made you uncomfortable. Mm-hmm. . And I think every single time that that’s happened, They’ve apologized. They’ve been mortified, right? Like, because it’s not ill, it’s not their intention the majority of the time. And so I think that’s a big part of it too, is being able to have those one-off conversations and kind of get to a good place together and then be able to laugh about it.

[00:07:24] Angela Alea: Movement, right? Most of the time

[00:07:25] Tan Wells: that has resulted in someone apologizing in our relationship, being strong, fine, moving forward in a way that that doesn’t happen again. And I think it’s important, especially if you’re in a position. leadership, right, that you do those things because if you can’t do it for yourself, how are you gonna do it for other people?

[00:07:47] Tan Wells: Sometimes it’s actually easier to do it for other people, right? It’s easier to take a stand for somebody else. You’re like, you didn’t treat this person right, like, fix that. Then be like, come up and say you, you offended me. Like it, it can actually be harder for yourself. So I think you are [00:08:00] doing that hard work.

[00:08:01] Tan Wells: There are times to let it go too, right? , you are on a site for one day and you’re not gonna see that person again. It’s somebody that’s not gonna have a big effect on your life. It’s somebody maybe who you can tell is just set in their ways and it’s not gonna change, but doesn’t impact you. Maybe in that case, you can inform someone like you or someone with Lasso if you’re working through a company like Lasso, right?

[00:08:26] Tan Wells: You know, there’s other avenues that you can take. So you think through those. Um, to, to address

[00:08:32] Angela Alea: the situation. I agree. We always say around here, one of our values is believe the best. Mm-hmm. , right? Which is assuming people have good intentions and Right. Like you gotta kind of pick your battles and, and assume that there, there’s no ill intent.

[00:08:45] Angela Alea: Um, , you know, suggested. Well, tell me, when you talk about leadership, did you, when you first started, did you have any women role models? Yeah.

[00:08:54] Tan Wells: So again, going back to that first environment, I did, I had women leadership there [00:09:00] and, um, they were, they were really great. It was women. Um, there was like four folks who kind of ran that center for performing arts.

[00:09:08] Tan Wells: The two women were Gretchen and Lee, and they were great role models. Um, Showing that women were in leadership roles and they were great leaders themselves. They were trying to corral a bunch of college kids. So I mean, their their lives were not easy, um, just trying to get the work done, but they really taught us to be professionals along with the couple guys that were there working.

[00:09:31] Tan Wells: Tom and Dave, um, show up on time, which is 15 minutes early. Label your cables, you know, take instruction from the visiting crew, like all this stuff, right? Like it, it was how to work in the field and. really created great crew and we’re, we were very proud that we got complimented right with these crews that didn’t wanna come in and work with a bunch of college kids over the road teams that, that were like, what is this?

[00:09:55] Tan Wells: And then we impressed them. Right? So like, that was kind of like our thing then. And so [00:10:00] they modeled understanding, they modeled, um, collaboration. They modeled listening, which. , you know, an academic research sort of classically feminine attributes in leadership, and those were not always so well accepted.

[00:10:17] Tan Wells: Now we see those, right? When you le read your leadership articles, it’s like, oh, everyone needs to collaborate. You have to listen. You have to be empathetic. 20 years ago, that was just coming around, right? I will also say I’ve had some male role models who have used those skills and. and I commend them because that wasn’t always acceptable for men to do those things.

[00:10:44] Tan Wells: And they made space for female leadership to come and take its place where, where it should be as it is today. Right. So I had those women who were really impactful in my life at the, the beginning of my career, and then had the opportunity to work for some men throughout my [00:11:00] career. Specifically gentlemen, bill, who I worked for, um, I was working for a college.

[00:11:05] Tan Wells: and he was just the most empathetic leader you could imagine. And I thought, oh my gosh, like this is the kind of leader I would wanna be for my staff. And then you could see that really opposed to these other guys that he was leaders alongside who were get it done, go, go, go. More aggressive, more dictatorial.

[00:11:28] Tan Wells: I don’t say they’re dictators, but you know, just like more, um, command and control. Right? That sort of classic. So that, and, and then some men that talk very openly about their family lives, which I think also makes way for female leadership. So we, I’ve had some really great role models that allowed space for female leadership as well as female leaders.

[00:11:50] Tan Wells: You know, at Freeman we have Harry Freeman Parsons, who’s our chair and a member of the Freeman family. So, I mean, that’s like my ultimate role model. She’s been role model. Since [00:12:00] Freeman, um, but also a number of strong female leaders through Freeman. We started in, I think, 2005 with the, uh, internal, uh, diversity initiative to increase female leadership, which we’re now about 50% female leaders

[00:12:14] Angela Alea: because of that.

[00:12:15] Angela Alea: Very nice, very nice. Yeah. But you know what, you’re right. You, you bring up a good point. You know, when it comes to being empathetic or talking about your family, that’s not a, a male or female thing, right? Both. Great things to bring to work with you. Bring, bring your empathy, bring your leadership, bring your listening, uh, bring your family, right?

[00:12:35] Angela Alea: There’s no such thing, like in my wor there’s no such thing as work-life balance. They are all one and the same, right? They all kind of, that’s just the world we, we live in today. And so, um, I think bringing your family to work, right? Your whole self to work. And that means I have a family and I’m a mom, or, you know, the, the, the men just say, yeah, I’m a dad and I’m a husband and that’s important to me.

[00:12:56] Angela Alea: You know, I. It’s okay to talk about whether you’re a [00:13:00] male or a female. I think those are just good things to do because I think it lends itself to authenticity, which, um, I think is a really strong component of, of good leadership as well. Um, so you talked about talking about your, you know, being able to talk about your family.

[00:13:14] Angela Alea: Tell us about your family and how you juggle having a career alongside a family in an industry that, um, is really hard.

[00:13:24] Tan Wells: It’s the wild industry. Um, so I have a husband and I have two boys. They’re 11 and 13. So we’ve made it this far, which is the success in and of itself. Um,

[00:13:35] Angela Alea: so you started your family while having a career in events?

[00:13:39] Tan Wells: Yeah. Yeah. And I will say that I made the transition into like leadership, leadership so that I could have a family, right? So. , you do make choices along the way. Women who are considering like a leadership role now will ask me about that, and I say, yeah, if you’re in leadership, you get a little bit more control over your life.

[00:13:59] Tan Wells: You can make a [00:14:00] little bit more, you work all the time, but you work a little bit more on your own schedule. Mm-hmm. , which means that you can construct that around maybe some of your kids need. I’m a big believer and it takes a village. . I mean, you just

[00:14:13] Angela Alea: can’t do it because it does without support. Let’s just say it because it does take a village.

[00:14:18] Tan Wells: It takes a, you cannot do it without support. And I think the supportive partner, whether or not you have kids, right, like so some people are gonna elect to have children, some people are not. Mm-hmm. regardless, you, you have a household that you live in, that you maybe have a house plant. I mean, something needs to get taken care of, right?

[00:14:34] Tan Wells: Like mm-hmm. , you have to have a supportive partner who. . It’s not just like verbally supportive, but actually is supportive to you. Even if you’re on your own, you might need, you know, family nearby, take care of that house, plant with you, pet sit, like, yeah, whatever it is in your life, you need support. And so I think what’s interesting in our industry is sometimes we used to see like those lone wolf kind of people who are just on the road all the time and [00:15:00] didn’t really seem to have, you know, a, a developed home life.

[00:15:03] Tan Wells: And it’s like, no, I. , what are you doing? Sometimes that became the road family, which is really great to see. Also, like that’s nothing wrong with that, right? Even people who work together all the time support each other, and that’s wonderful. I’ve seen really close, um, relationships between crew and then you start to support each other, um, becomes like family, but you need those connections, right?

[00:15:25] Tan Wells: It’s, it’s, it’s those human connections, those deep relationships that help us outside of work. Work is not everything. So wherever those are coming from, it takes time and effort to develop those just like it takes the time and effort to put into work. So that is key to me that you get that support. We didn’t have family here when we started having our kids.

[00:15:48] Tan Wells: Mm-hmm. . And so it was some friends from work, it was some friends from church, it was some paid support. Like sometimes you just need to find quality. Help that you can [00:16:00] pay babysitters or, you know, whomever

[00:16:02] Angela Alea: that Yeah. Just to bridge the gap. I, I hear you. I think, uh, yeah, I, I think to be in. industry, whether you’re male, female, have a family, or don’t, to your point, right?

[00:16:12] Angela Alea: There’s, there’s obligations, whether it’s pet sitting or, or just, it’s just life, right? Yeah. We all need that village. We all need those connections, certainly in this industry where it’s not a Monday through Friday, nine to five. Um, and, and that makes it hard. And we recently had, um, Nate Nicholson on to talk about, you know, Life of traveling and he’s got, you know, a number of young kids and, and he talked a lot about the same things that you’re saying too, right?

[00:16:40] Angela Alea: Where he’s got a wife who’s supportive, he’s, you know, has certain things and a framework set up where he’s very intentional about when he is on the road versus when he is at home. And so I think at the end of the day, we all just do the best we can and we gotta surround ourselves with good people who are supportive of us as well.

[00:16:55] Angela Alea: And in turn, we’ve gotta be supportive of them. And so I think that that connection. [00:17:00] And building that community around us is certainly key, especially in this industry.

[00:17:05] Tan Wells: Maybe like a decade ago, I had a new staff member come to me and say, how do you balance everything and how do you travel and how do you, like, how do you have the whole family life thing?

[00:17:15] Tan Wells: And I didn’t think through what I asked her do. I asked her to go talk to the guys in her department who were, she was like one of two women out of like a dozen people to ask how they did. And the answer they gave is, we have wives, . Oh God. And I was, I knew in that moment, like I lost her, right? Mm-hmm. . And uh, I think that’s one of the differences between men and women and, and a decade ago too, that as much as society’s evolving, a lot of the home life organization still falls to.

[00:17:52] Tan Wells: and we don’t have wives usually. I mean, some of us do, but right. There could be two WI families. Yeah. Um, [00:18:00] but it, it is not that easy of just like, I’ve put everything on this other person usually Yeah. For a wine. Yeah. Um, and so I do, ever since that moment, that’s when I’ve really come around to like the village idea and like, you need support systems and it’s, it’s about the multitude and it’s not one other person.

[00:18:17] Tan Wells: You’re just gonna need help from your friends, your family. and your partner. Mm-hmm. , uh, or, you know, however that, that plays out. Cuz that was really instructive to me that maybe the guys aren’t gonna give with the best advice, .

[00:18:30] Angela Alea: Right. Right. But it, you know, it’s also on us too, to know when to say no to things, right?

[00:18:38] Angela Alea: Mm-hmm. to not over commit to do a good job prioritizing things. Right. Because, I mean, you’re in a leadership role now. Mm-hmm. and. As leaders, there’s a lot that’s put on you. Right. And so sometimes you might have to delegate, right. Or you might have to. Oh, for sure. Right. And, and I think that’s part of it too.

[00:18:58] Angela Alea: And I think as, um, [00:19:00] women, or at least I’m not gonna say all women, I’m, I’m gonna speak for myself. Sometimes it’s hard to say no. And we try to be everything to everybody. And at the end of the day, we’re really bad at all of it. You know, I always laugh because it’s like, you know, my value system is. . I’m a wife first.

[00:19:18] Angela Alea: I’m a mom. Second. and everything else kind of falls behind, right? With work being a big number three, um, very few days do I practice that. However, even though that’s what I aspire to do, um, there are a lot of days that I am all in on lasso number one, and then maybe my kids and then my husband, and then there are other days I rock being a mom first and then, you know what I mean?

[00:19:40] Angela Alea: It’s just this, yeah. It’s just this ever-evolving, um, challenge to try to do that and I. I think that’s okay. And we don’t have to be perfect all the time. We’re, we’re not ever gonna get it right. And I think that’s okay. I think that, um, Having the [00:20:00] judgment and the grace that we give to ourselves to say, you know what, it’s okay.

[00:20:04] Angela Alea: And also surrounding ourselves with people who are supportive of that too. Um, I just, I just think that’s life, you know? And we can’t, we can’t rock every job like a rockstar every single day like we want to. And I think as soon as we realize that that’s just not possible, things begin to come together.

[00:20:20] Angela Alea: It’s okay.

[00:20:22] Tan Wells: And it’s okay to like tell people your priorities, right. . I do think that again, even though things are changing in the world, there are a lot of assumptions. Mm-hmm. , if you are a wife, if you are a mother, if you have a job, if you are, if you have a job and your husband has a job, there’s a lot of assumptions that people put on about what that means.

[00:20:42] Tan Wells: And maybe that doesn’t mean the same thing to you. And so maybe you just say, well, no, um, actually dad is gonna take care of those. and then like, move that person over there. Right? Or like, no, this one’s mine. And that one’s that other person’s, or like, actually, you know what? My mom takes care of that for us and like we’re gonna, [00:21:00] you know, and it’s that delegation that we do kind of sometimes feel guilty about in our personal lives.

[00:21:05] Tan Wells: That is okay, but you have to, again, speak up for yourself and sometimes you’re like, oh, am I supposed to do everything? Yeah.

[00:21:11] Angela Alea: Well, what advice would you give to women who are considering a career in event. .

[00:21:19] Tan Wells: So to any person considering a career in events, I would say look really hard at the lifestyle cuz of the things that we’ve been talking about.

[00:21:28] Tan Wells: It’s long days, it’s gritty environment, it’s physical work, it’s grueling, you know? But it’s also super rewarding because you at the end of the day, turn around and go, we built this and it’s really cool. Anyone we bring in from outside the events industry, we always kind of say, it’s gonna take six months for you to figure out if you like it here, right?

[00:21:46] Tan Wells: Mm-hmm. . in that time. Do you like that? And do you have the support system that would let you do this? Right? Yeah, I think it’s exactly what we just talked about. I had no idea. [00:22:00] No idea. When I was in college, you know, you’re in college, you’re like, oh, this is fun, I’ll do this. And yeah. You know, maybe a parent or somebody steps in like, oh, this name’s like

[00:22:08] Angela Alea: crazy

[00:22:09] Angela Alea: Yeah. You’re

[00:22:09] Tan Wells: like, cause it’s fun. And then like you kind of like construct it as you go. And I think now we kind. have some tools to tell people coming into the industry like, Hey, it’s a little crazy, and like, here’s what it’s actually like and what you might need to know. So just, you know, eyes wide open.

[00:22:24] Tan Wells: Do you have the support system? Do you wanna live this kind of lifestyle? It’s a lifestyle job. It’s not just go do it. You could yeah, totally earn the same money doing something else. Uh, yeah. Uh, this. , you, you’re

[00:22:37] Angela Alea: all in. Once you’re in, you’re, you’re, mm-hmm. all in. There’s no such thing as dipping your toe.

[00:22:41] Angela Alea: Exactly. Yeah. Because it gets you. Yeah. Well, you’ve clearly moved up over the years, um, into management roles within Freeman, so what do you think has led to a successful career in events for you?

[00:22:56] Tan Wells: You know, being willing to do the work. You know, you get [00:23:00] on site and. Want to jump in where it’s needed in the planning.

[00:23:05] Tan Wells: You jump in where it’s needed. You’re willing to speak up, listen to people, speak up for yourself, for others. I think those are the things that have led me into leadership. Um, , I naturally organize things. Like, I joke that if I won the lottery, I’d still like organize events cuz it’s all I know how to do , like I just naturally organize things.

[00:23:25] Tan Wells: Um, so I mean that helps for sure. But I do think it is those actual like sort of, uh, feminine leadership qualities that we talked about earlier, that it’s trying to listen to people, give ’em what they need. I work for a great guy. He always said give people the tools and get out of their. Um, and I like to be able to do that.

[00:23:42] Tan Wells: And then people respond well, and when people respond well to you as a leader, you, you get more people, you get more responsibilities. Um, so being willing to do all of that as well. Not everybody wants to do that. We talk about women and leadership and there’s sort of a lack of women’s CEOs when you, you know, read [00:24:00] about that.

[00:24:01] Tan Wells: And, um, and part of it’s knowing what you wanna take on. Part of it’s that saying no, and like, how much do you wanna take on how much responsibility? is enough responsibility to balance with what you’re doing in your own life. And so, I don’t know. I’m, I’m happy with where I am, luckily, and, and, yeah, enjoying the things that I’ve gotten to

[00:24:21] Angela Alea: do.

[00:24:22] Angela Alea: Yeah. Well, you’ve clearly paved a great path for yourself. I mean, Freeman is, um, They’re just doing some great things. Um, they’re, they’re known for yeah, certainly supporting women, um, as well. And they, you know, yeah, their fingerprint is on all sorts of things that, um, are just fascinating and great. So they do fantastic work and so good for them for creating the framework for people like you and for other strong leaders to step in and, and do their thing as well.

[00:24:51] Angela Alea: Um, so. To you, and thank you for being on the show. I think there’s a number of, of takeaways we have today. I think, you know, [00:25:00] first is it it takes a village, whether you’re a male or a female in this industry. To be in this industry, you have to have a support system, number one. Um, number two, I think specifically for women.

[00:25:12] Angela Alea: We need to give ourselves a little bit of grace and realize we can’t be everything to everybody at all times, which I think is, is really important. And then I think also, you know, just being a woman in a male dominated industry, um, having the confidence of knowing where to draw the line mm-hmm. , and then having the courage to know how to maneuver through it in the right way, which is, I think, a really important point that you made.

[00:25:38] Angela Alea: So. For any women out there considering an, an career in events, it is a fantastic ride. Um, there’s so many great things. I think more and more women are joining. Um, the reality is our industry, we need male and female. We need all sorts, right? So there’s with 38% of the industry leaving during covid, [00:26:00] you know, we hope that so many of you are considering a career here because it’s.

[00:26:06] Angela Alea: A great time and chapter in your life to get to participate and create really cool things and the satisfaction by doing that. And yeah, you do get to make really good money too, along the way, which is, which is not too bad. Um, but lots of good nuggets in here. I appreciate you all joining. If you like what you hear, please hit subscribe.

[00:26:25] Angela Alea: For anybody who has questions or comments, reach out to us. Podcast lasso.io and thank you. Thank you. Thank you Tan Wells for joining us today and sharing your story with us. I really, really appreciate it.

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