Sébastien Desmet, head of membership at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), talks to Holly Patrick about striking a work-life balance as a young father, pushing yourself and executing projects well, not fast.
How did you come to be head of membership at UITP?
The path to finally finding the position as head of membership at UITP was centered around my commercial experience, from start-ups to stock market-listed companies. I also undertook a business
and organisational coaching course which helped leverage my interpersonal skills. As head of membership, I bring my business skills and people skills together.
Would you say you’re a people person?
I’m genuinely interested in how a person works and going beyond just making profit. If you have two similar companies, it’s the people that are going to make the difference.
What does a typical day in the office look like for you?
I’m responsible for a team that ranges from two to seven people across global offices, so first I’ll coordinate with them and that
can take quite a bit of time given we have 15 offices worldwide.
Then there’s my own prospection and personal relationships
with members and potential members. And then there’s 10 per cent of my day which is taken up by strategic reflection on the
future of the membership, how to take on the development, the retention, and then there are project-based activities such as
improving CRM (Customer Relationship Management), or the relationships with other parts of the world. I would say that
would be a typical day.
"There is a new strategic wind blowing through UITP and it’s a people-first strategy."
How did the Covid-19 pandemic change the way you work?
I started this role in January 2021 and starting a new job in the middle of a pandemic is something quite special. I met one person who handed me over a computer and all the rest happened behind a screen. But it has its upsides because I got to meet everyone in the same way, on online meetings and there was much more flexibility in arranging meetings.
We now have a work-from-home policy with two days a week in the office. As a young father, it provides me with an amazing quality of life because I can drop the kids off at the nursery and collect them whenever I want. I might continue to work when they’re home but it’s about striking that work-life balance.
How did the Covid-19 pandemic change membership methods for growth and retention?
There is a new strategic wind blowing through UITP and it’s a people-first strategy. It’s about understanding our members and asking them what they need and want. But in terms of growth, the pandemic affected parts of the world differently. In Eurasia, for example, if an association isn’t physically present, you’ll have a
harder time growing the business than if you were face-to-face.
However, the pandemic has made a lot of people comfortable with meeting digitally, who wouldn’t have been comfortable with doing so before. Retention is a bit more of an ambiguous market. We can easily connect with members through the digital aspect, so we can stay in touch, benefitting communities that can’t easily travel and it’s doing a lot for gender representation within our membership too. We did the research and found that women would be less likely to travel to events taking place overseas. The new digital aspect of meetings allows more women to participate.
"Do you invest in getting better at what you’re already good at or do you invest in sharpening the parts where you could improve?"
What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
It’s knowing that I contribute to making cities and people’s lives better. Public transport is the vehicle, but it touches on so many aspects of life, including work. For those who still commute to their workplace, knowing that they can rely on public transport to
get them there will enhance their journey as opposed to losing hours sitting in rush hour traffic. Knowing this gives me a good sense of purpose.
Also, because it’s an international organisation, when we have meetings with all the teams, we often spend 50 per cent of the time catching up on life, politics and what’s happening where they are. I enjoy the people-focused aspect of the role. Specifically for the membership part, it is knowing the association is doing well and is growing, which means we are financially stable and can have more impact.
What has been a difficult challenge to overcome in your career?
Understanding and leveraging the skills and competencies I had as a young professional so that I could match myself to every situation. I have always tried to push myself and go outside of my comfort zone, but it matters to stay genuine, so you must understand yourself and how you work. It’s important to strike a balance and ask yourself what to invest in.
Do you invest in getting better at what you’re already good at or do you invest in sharpening the parts where you could improve?
What is the best piece of professional advice you’ve received?
Do something well, rather than doing it fast. And make decisions for the long term.
Interview by Holly Patrick