CEO to CEO: Intangible Skills and Budget Shortfalls

Association CEOs share their perspectives about what intangible skills a CEO must have and and about how they are coping with budget shortfalls.

What are the intangible skills it takes to be an effective CEO, and how do you acquire them?

The first and most important skill is knowing and understanding your strengths, your purpose, and where the passion for what you do is based. Once you truly understand what you are good at and what you bring to the table, then it becomes easier to use those personal assets in leading and motivating staff and volunteers to create a stronger alignment toward achieving the vision and mission that has been set for your organization. A great read to better utilize your own intangible skills is the book The Accidental CEO by Tom Voccola.

—Stacy Tetschner, CAE, executive vice president and CEO, National Speakers Association, Tempe, Arizona. Email: [email protected]

CEOs must forecast likely outcomes to situations. I focus on establishing trusting relationships with my stakeholders and studying human behavior. These efforts have enabled me to better interpret people and circumstances and anticipate likely outcomes.

CEOs need to be leaders of action and inspire others to do the same. For me, action is a result of feeling prepared and a belief in the alignment of the objective with my skills and abilities. Therefore, I focus on aligning projects with people who have the right skills and helping stakeholders develop that sense of preparedness.

Flexibility allows me to respond positively to changes of plans. Maintaining a positive attitude and remaining solution focused allows me to better handle such situations and deliver better solutions.

—Jonathan Vaughn, executive director, Quest International Users Group, Lexington, Kentucky. Email: [email protected]

In my experience, one of the most important intangible CEO skills is the ability to "pick winners." What I mean by that is having good instincts to discern in advance which big issues or initiatives or ideas are likely to be successful and then decide that you are going to put major time and resources and commitment—your own and the organization's—behind those initiatives rather than others.

I'm not sure how one acquires this, but natural selection is definitely at play here. Nobody gets it right 100 percent of the time, but if you're going to survive and be effective as a CEO, your batting average for picking winners had better be pretty good.

—Marty Saggese, executive director, Society for Neuroscience, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

I'm not sure that I can claim to be an effective CEO, because the board, membership, and staff are the best judges of effectiveness, but in more than 35 years in the association business I've learned a few lessons:

  1. Be open to listening to your friends, admirers, and, most importantly, your critics. Even if the fault is not entirely yours, own it.
  2. Find the common ground, but don't steer far from your "true work" compass of your association's vision and goals.
  3. The volunteer leaders of associations are wise. Listen to their counsel, help them to be the leaders they want to be, and trust their judgment. They represent your membership and their experience is an organization's best guide.

—Anne L. Bryant, CAE, executive director, National School Boards Association, Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

How are you coping with budget shortfalls while still providing value for your members?

Number one is anticipation by budgeting worst-case scenarios so that the budget comes close to actuality. Number two is to engage all personnel to pinpoint what needs to be reduced in a worst-case scenario, with an understood goal that reductions in spending should be internally directed, creating staff sacrifices, versus externally directed, affecting member services. The world is not perfect, and sometimes the reality becomes worse than the anticipation, and reductions are made in ways that members notice. In that case, the key is to provide a consistent message to the members or customers addressing why certain services, such as coffee and snack breaks at meetings, are eliminated.

—J. Michael Keeling, CAE, president, The ESOP Association, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

In a short phrase, we are doing more with less. How do we do this?

  • We have reduced our staff by 20 percent (some reduction in force, some attrition).
  • The entire staff has taken temporary pay reductions and has had no raises for two years.
  • Everyone on staff has picked up additional duties to compensate for the reduced staffing level.
  • We have drastically reduced our travel and entertainment expenses, advertising expenses, and tradeshow expenses.
  • We have shuttered some programs of marginal interest.
  • We have worked hard to not only continue our previous high level of customer service but also to continue to innovate and add products and services of value that our members need to also succeed in this economy.

—Garis F. Distelhorst, CAE , executive vice president and CEO, Marble Institute of America, Westlake, Ohio. Email: [email protected]

In our case, we have substantial reserves, and we are using them to supplement our deficit budgets to continue services at the same high level. As a result, we have the same number of members we had two years ago in a construction-industry association in Nevada where construction unemployment is off the charts.

—Bob Benedict, CAE, executive director, Plumbing, Heating, Cooling Contractors of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada. Email: [email protected]

Thankfully, as a young association, we are growing and have not had to deal with budget shortfalls. However, parts of our members' businesses have certainly been affected and that has been noticed by the finance committee and the board. Examining all costs closely and seeing where savings can be made is critical now. You provide value by finding the programs and services that have the highest use and most value to all members. Some niche programs that only serve a small population may need to be put on hold or altered in some way. Also, focus your attention on the programs and services that directly affect and help you reach your strategic goals.

—Martin B. Tirado, CAE, executive director, Snow and Ice Management Association, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Email: [email protected]

Video Extra: CEO to CEO: Transparency in Leadership

D.A. Abrams, CAE, executive director of USTA Eastern, Inc., explains how his organization maintains transparency with its members and why it's important.