New and Seasoned CEOs Talk Leadership

By: Summer Mandell

Whether you're a brand-new CEO or a veteran, talking with other execs at any stage in their careers can be an eye opener. Here, a first-time CEO and 10th-year executive interview each other about what it's like to be in charge. (Titled "CEOs Talk Shop" in the print edition.)

On an August day in St. Louis during the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo, Anne Gardner, RCE, CAE, and Steve Echard, IOM, CAE, met for the first time. Gardner, less than a year into her role as chief executive officer at the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors in Virginia, and Echard, in his 10th year as a CEO and executive director at the American College of Rheumatology Research & Education Foundation in Atlanta, questioned each other about their experience as association executives. What follows is their informal conversation on the challenges of leadership, covering everything from managing generational gaps to being a mentor.

Anne Gardner: How do you lead the organization while you're still learning your job?

Steve Echard: What I learned when I first got the CEO job was that it's important to understand and learn where the association is, where the board is, and what kind of things they're doing before you jump in and start trying to change everything.

When you come in with new ideas, their first reaction is going to be, "You don't know us. You don't understand our culture." Your first action should be to listen and observe for a few meetings to determine what could be changed and how you should go about doing it. Then they will start to realize that you understand the organization.

Listening and observing will also help you figure out how to get changes made. Rather than saying, "Here's my top-five things that are going to change, and this is how we're going do it," find out who you need to talk to, who the board person is that you need to be the champion of that change. The ability to change things is very reliant on your ability to experience what [the association is] going through before you introduce change.

Gardner: One of the things that I have had to remember is, "Go slow. Be tempered." At the same time, the board brought you in to effect change, and they're going to want to see in that first year what you're made of, can you fit into the organization, learn, and contribute new ideas simultaneously.

Echard: When you arrived in this new organization, how did you find the situation? What were some of the decisions that you thought that they needed to make right away, and how did you go about bringing that to their attention?

Gardner: The search committee that I worked with was fairly consistent in addressing what they felt their challenges were, and so when I went through the search process and then when I arrived at the organization, I didn't feel that there were a lot of surprises waiting for me. I knew that there were a few critical issues. The largest issue that the board, through the search committee, was able to articulate with me was a sense of readiness to reinvigorate the association. They were not stagnant, but at a place where they were ready to take off for their next great adventure, if you will. And so they were looking for a new approach, a new sense of consistency.

Echard: As a follow-up, how do you make sure that you have the right board members? What traits or characteristics do you currently have versus what you need?

Gardner: One of the things that I see a need for in my environmental scan of the organization is that we have an opportunity to build stronger relationships among our peer associations. And we are in a situation where we have an opportunity to add new directors and new voices with relationships outside of our immediate sphere and our immediate focus. As we start addressing the board's challenge to go in new directions, be expansive, [and] identify places where innovation may already be taking place, [we need to] bring in new voices and expand that awareness on the board level. Also, bring in voices where [board members] indicated that they want to grow and make sure that we tap subject-matter experts and thought leaders who have expertise to come onto the board this next year.

Echard: Right, because no matter how long you've been in the position, you're always looking ahead to ask, "What kind of talent do we need on the board? What's missing?" For me, even listening to how you do it gives me ideas on how to reinvigorate the board with new talent, but also with new people that others may not know very well. I think a lot of boards focus on the people they know as opposed to a fresh, new face.

Gardner: Absolutely. That actually dovetails into one of the questions that I had for you. You're approaching the decade mark [as a CEO]. You've probably seen some repetitive patterns within your leadership, within your staff. How do you keep yourself fresh? How do you keep yourself innovative for 10 years?

Echard: In my mind, I don't think anybody can just sit in their office and create new ideas. Asking staff is a great resource. But one of the things I emphasize in my organization is for key staff, senior staff, even some of the younger staff to attend other associations' events to network.

Ideas come, for the most part, from other people. You can come up with your own ideas, certainly, but it's all about diversity. One of the things that my organization celebrates is diversity of thought. Often you're going to have a hard time creating diversity on your board of directors. Every organization struggles with that … especially if the whole industry is a certain demographic; it's very difficult to have diversity of thought. So one of the things you can do as a CEO is bring in that diversity from other organizations or through people who are accomplishing great things.

Gardner: That's great, because what really resonates with me in what you said is how you employ not only your own resources and your own networks, but you've empowered your staff team to be part of that creative feed. And you're sending them out to those networks.

Echard: One of my key goals as a CEO is developing my staff and creating a place where people want to be. Even if some people leave, even if some people find another job somewhere else, they have the experience of working with me and they'll talk to people about it … . You just never know where your next staff person is going to come from, and creating a culture where you're pushing people to advance in their career helps you build a culture of acceptance and the idea that [your organization is] a great place to work.

So let me ask you another question. What are some of your biggest staff challenges? Do you have any staff challenges … where there are two generations of people working together and where you have issues? How do you handle that?

Gardner: It is interesting because in these first 10 months, I'm still getting to know some of the motivators. I know the personalities at this point, but I'm still uncovering the motivators for some of the relationships and behaviors that I've observed so far, and so with that I think I would say that I'm in an interesting position being in between generations in the workforce. I've seen the biggest difference between the millennials and the boomers.

It's been an interesting thing because I'm not forcing them into the room together and just saying, "Work it out." That will not work. Instead, I give them collaborative projects, but in these exercises I'm very clearly protecting the millennial from feeling overpowered and outgunned. And maybe this isn't the right approach, [but] I'm keeping the boomer out of feeling like they're the parent by letting them know that if they have issues with the project, they need to come back to me. And so in some ways, I'm trying to act as an interpreter because I do understand the motivators of both.

I'm from a very small office team. There are only nine of us, and so that also has a different dynamic. What I'm doing is I'm trying to provide millennials in the room [an opportunity] to make mistakes without feeling that they're going to be pounced on the minute they make them. … And the boomers just need to know that someone understands that our work environment is not the way it used to be. Are you facing similar challenges?

Echard: Oh, yeah. Many people are very different than the stereotype of a millennial or a boomer. So we are having the same issues as people from both groups try to achieve success in the way they think is best, and they don't always agree. You're giving them a project, there's something they're supposed to be accomplishing. The person in charge, who may be from a different generation, has a certain way to go about doing it, and the other person would have done it completely differently, and so those are some of the issues that I struggle with because they both come to me.

Gardner: I wanted to ask you, why are you a mentor? Why is it important to you?

Echard: You learn two things from your mentors: the things you want to emulate and the things you would never emulate. Although those are two very different things, they are equally important.

Being a mentor provides another perspective. It provides perspective on your areas of weakness and on things you don't realize you're not doing well.

It's important to understand that as a mentor, you want to be forthcoming and say what you feel. As a person who's being mentored, you want the mentor to do that, to be open and honest. But you have to take some of that advice not necessarily with a grain of salt, but realize it's just another perspective.

The final question that I have is: What plans do you have for when you're not around or when you finally leave? What are your plans for making sure that the association is still in good hands?

Gardner: It's a personal belief of mine that I should never feel that I'm ready to leave until there is someone capable on the current team to provide continuity of leadership for the organization. Maybe not the number-one choice, but someone should be able to fill that position the day I leave.

I work to give my staff team support and also the development opportunities so that somebody from the team feels comfortable wanting to step up. Hopefully, the work that we've done together has been inspiring and rewarding enough to encourage their move to the CEO role. It is especially gratifying to see the spark and professional growth of association staff members when they tackle new tasks and are capable of more responsibility for the organization. I hope that I have shared enough of myself and the steps I took along the way so that there's someone who's chomping at the bit to take that opportunity when I'm ready to exit.

Summer Mandell is associate editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]