Twice yearly, Gov. J. Kevin Stitt has a Leadership Summit that brings Oklahoma agency leaders together with their respective cabinet groups. It’s a chance to discuss barriers, challenges and wins, and to give kudos to their teams.
“It’s one of those events that really allows the agencies who may feel siloed to collaborate and gain useful information as well as tell everyone else what they’ve been going through,” said Sophie Preston, director of internal training at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
This year, the in-person summit – anticipating over 200 attendees – was scheduled for June 16. However, with no regard for tradition, the coronavirus pandemic trampled hopes of an in-person event.
COVID-19 hit the world like a wave, washing away any sense of normality and precedence. However, it has offered opportunities to grow and overcome unexpected challenges. In this case, the team in charge of organizing the governor’s Leadership Summit searched for resources to virtually hold a huge, previously in-person event.
At the end of May, Preston collaborated with previous event organizer Susan Perry and Sam DuRegger, director of statewide customer experience, to explore options.
“Susan reached out and said, ‘Okay. We don’t know where to begin because we have 200 leaders that usually come. We have 10 or 11 … cabinet areas that usually meet with their groups. … What do we do about doing it virtually?’” Preston said.
Small groups led by cabinet secretaries are a big component of the Leadership Summit, and Preston and DuRegger knew the importance of preserving this aspect.
“We came to the team with a few options for platforms,” Preston said, “and all options included breakout rooms so they could keep that really valuable piece of meeting with the cabinet secretary groups.”
The governor’s team pushed the event date back to July 16 and chose Zoom as the virtual platform. This challenged Preston and DuRegger to find a Zoom license for roughly 300 people and space that could host Gov. Stitt, state Chief Operating Officer John Budd, cabinet secretary Mike Mazzei and any other cabinet secretaries who wanted to join in person.
They shouldered the responsibility of project coordination and execution, but knew they couldn’t pull it off alone. The pair reached out to Susan Donnelly, a director of training at the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Donnelly’s agency not only had the ODMHSAS Training Institute equipped with audio and video equipment, but also had experience hosting Zoom trainings and the right licensing.
Though Preston, DuRegger and Donnelly formed the core, their team needed breakout room producers and technical support to run the Zoom account and audio functions. Representatives recruited from ODMHSAS, the Department of Rehabilitation Services and Department of Human Services stepped up to the task.
“We asked permission to collaborate with other state agencies and other state partners, and we were given the go-ahead,” Preston said. “So we brought them in and the [ODMHSAS] Training Institute managed to create the Zoom meeting with nine breakout rooms and then organize the whole agenda.”
The next step was to communicate with everyone who planned to attend the Leadership Summit and give them specific instructions on preparing for and joining the event.
“So, we did a communication campaign – an email campaign – to make sure everyone knew, No. 1, download the Zoom app. You gotta have it. No. 2, pre-register. And then, behind the scenes, we were assigning everyone who was pre-registering into their correct group.”
The team had to reach out to the cabinet secretaries and, using 2019’s summit list, update their groups on the roster. More secure than an in-person event, a virtual platform with layers of added security prevents a person from joining if their name is not on the list.
Another challenge stemmed from the knowledge not every cabinet secretary had experience with Zoom or virtual facilitation. What better time to learn a new skill than during a pandemic?
“We sourced some of the best trainers [with] the State of Oklahoma to be … breakout room producers,” Preston said. “So, we got a team of 11 trainers. We spent three hours on separate occasions training them in what to expect.”
The team had three weeks to organize and train everyone, and project planning was rigorous. They worked all hours. More than once someone woke up in the middle of the night with a troubleshooting idea and the team would log on to discuss until everyone was on the same page.
“The level of preparation the core three – me, Sam and Susan – did meant that we couldn’t have done anything differently,” Preston said. “I have never been able to say that about a training before. I … feel so grateful. … We knew it was probably one of the most high-profile events that we had seen, ever. So, there was a lot of motivation there to get it right.”
The team was ready to execute a seamless event. Thanks to agency collaboration and countless hours of troubleshooting and communication, they knew they had a plan for everything that could go wrong. However, Plans A, B and C didn’t prepare them for an unexpected hurdle.
The day before the Leadership Summit, Gov. Stitt tested positive for COVID-19.
Preston said she thought it was a joke when she first heard, but unless the local news had made a grave error, it was true. The governor had COVID-19, and her team would have to alter its approach to the event, if not postpone it altogether.
“All right, everyone, what’s Plan B?” Preston asked that day. “Because what we haven’t prepared for is for the governor not to come to his own summit.”
Preston’s group was told the show must go on, but the governor and anyone he had had physical contact with had to join from their quarantine locations. Furthermore, after his shocking announcement, Gov. Stitt was too busy to do a practice run to ensure he could successfully join the virtual event.
The morning of the summit, Preston hoped for no technical difficulties. Zoom notified her team as each attendee joined. They worked quickly to check names off the 200-person checklist, manually assign everyone to the correct breakout room and give co-host roles to the cabinet secretaries. Minutes before the 8:30 a.m. start time, however, the governor had yet to log in.
“So, 8:25, Kevin Stitt joins,” Preston said. “And I’m like, ‘Governor’s in. We’re good. We can start at 8:30. The main guy’s here.’ And then he leaves again. And at 8:28, Kevin Stitt joins. … And then he leaves again and he doesn’t come back this time. And so, we’re behind the scenes like, ‘Who has a line to the governor because we’ve just lost him again?’”
About 26 minutes later, one of Preston’s teammates succeeded in getting the governor in, and the 2020 Leadership Summit began at 9 a.m.
When it came time for the small-group portion, Preston and her team surfed the breakout rooms to check on each group and make sure everything ran smoothly.
Unfortunately, the cabinet secretary for one group was unable to join last minute, but the team had planned for that. Rather than leave 14 people sitting idle, the producers followed a script, which explained the situation and offered a choice – either stay in the breakout room to discuss the preplanned topics and take notes to send to the absent cabinet secretary or go back to the main meeting area and take a quick break. The group chose the first option.
“There were so many opportunities for chaos and it didn’t happen. We were just so prepared for it,” Preston said, noting the teamwork was the best she had ever seen.
The team sighed in relief when they had successfully completed the event, and Preston attributes the victory to their collaboration, knowledge and experience.
Since the Leadership Summit, Preston said other organizations, state and federal alike, have reached out to ask how her team did it. She refers them to the ODMHSAS Training Institute, which was integral to the summit’s success.
“People have definitely been asking and are interested in running their own virtual events with breakout rooms,” she said, “because the value of being able to meet in groups within a meeting is huge.”
Despite the success of this virtual event, Preston said she thinks most people still prefer to meet and experience human connection at an in-person setting.
“With that being said, we don’t know how long this … COVID-19 era is going to last, and there will be a need for more events like this.”
Many people describe the pandemic as unprecedented. However, with teamwork, flexibility and a dusting of Get Stuff Done magic, OMES and our partner agencies will continue to set new precedents on our path to serve Oklahoma.
We thank each member of this team for a job well done:
- Sophie Preston, Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
- Susan Donnelly, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- Sam DuRegger, Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
- Emily Gise, Department of Human Services.
- Drew Burks, Department of Human Services.
- Mark Ferguson, Department of Rehabilitation Services.
- Pam Mulvaney, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- Zachary Parker, Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
- Lisa Fortier, Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
- Anish Peringol, Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
- Aegeda Riggins, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- Lyndsay Holder, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- Jennifer Lamb-Hornsby, Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
- Blaine Bridges, Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
- Allison Woodard, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- Jessup Thomas, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- Nick Cole, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.