CEO to CEO: Low-Cost Operation Tips and Best Constructive Criticism

Low-cost approaches to address association needs and great constructive criticism from staff.

What is a low-cost approach you use to address your association's needs and achieve its goals?

My year as president of a national association began with leading a board of directors used to answering phones and handling day-to-day member issues. I set a goal to help my board separate themselves from operations tasks and focus on governance. This required board training with a training budget of zero. I discovered boardsource.org, an excellent resource for information and low-cost learning opportunities for our board, which helped them realize their roles as board members. They also developed competencies that allowed them to set committee goals and recruit volunteers to handle the day-to-day operations as needed.

—Sylvia Henderson, founder and CEO, Springboard Training, Olney, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

We are a small association without a large membership budget, but we wanted the power of a full-service association management system. Instead of buying a standalone AMS and having it installed in our system, we rent a web-based, world-class AMS. This is a lot cheaper and meets all of our needs. While there are some limitations like customizable options and reports, it works and costs a fraction of what we would pay if we bought the entire system and supported it in house.

—Michael Fraser, CAE, CEO, Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

One of the things we do consistently is put out RFPs for routine services. We have saved quite a bit by bidding out printing and other services each time rather than using the same printer. We learned that we could cut printing costs in half this way. It has worked for other services as well, such as conference calls.

—Willa Fuller, executive director, Florida Nurses Association, Orlando, Florida. Email: [email protected]

The National Environmental Health Association is getting into user-generated content. Using social media to have our members generate content saves us staff cost and offers potential revenue from the sale of some of these products.

—Nelson Fabian, executive director and CEO, National Environmental Health Association, Denver. Email: [email protected]

Our approach [to selecting
consulting services] is to cherry-pick the assistance we need. For example, we decided to engage a firm to market our annual conference. They sent us a proposal that included everything but the kitchen sink. We have professional graphics, meetings, and communications folks, so we didn't need everything. We negotiated the price to 20 percent of what was proposed by simply using those skills from the consultant that we didn't already have.

—John D.V. Hoyles, CEO, Canadian Bar Association, Ottawa. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra: Additional responses to this question

First, we work as a close team with true delegation of duties and power so everyone has a personal desire to be a super performer and have the whole association succeed. Second, we pinch pennies—the board called me Frugal Fred—which lets us be a very cost-efficient operation and give more to our members and staff.

—Fred Hunt, active past president, Society of Professional Benefit Administrators, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

We use free or deeply discounted services online like Constant Contact and Twitter as part of our communications strategy.

—Andrea Rutledge, CAE, executive director, National Architectural Accrediting Board, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Actions speak much louder than words—people definitely notice what you do and whether it's consistent with what you say. An example: I emphasize the need to save money, even small amounts. When I host senior staff "offsites," I have them on our premises, in an out-of-the way room. We have an inexpensive breakfast and lunch brought to us, follow a brisk agenda, enforce a no-smartphone zone, and keep the focus on productive discussions. The meetings have been effective and very low cost, and they set the right example. We're good stewards of our association's resources.

—Jack L. Rives, executive director and COO, American Bar Association, Chicago. Email: [email protected]

I encourage staff to book airline and train reservations as feasibly early as possibly to take advantage of lower fares. For example, Amtrak roundtrip tickets to New York are often at least 50 percent less expensive by booking a couple months early. Also, staff members living near Baltimore/Washington International or Dulles International Airport are encouraged to fly Southwest Airlines, often at significant savings.

—Lawrence D. Sloan, president and CEO, Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

What's the best constructive criticism you've ever received from a staff member?

During an annual performance review with a staff member, I noted her failure to complete an important assignment on time and in accordance with my directions. I'll never forget her reaction: "You're bringing that up now? That assignment was due nine months ago!" Her reaction was an unforgettable and priceless reminder that feedback on performance must be timely. Bringing up poor performance nine months after the fact reflects poorly on the manager, not the employee. This junior employee taught me a valuable lesson I'll never forget.

—Melanie Herman, executive director, Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Leesburg, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

"You need to give me a line of sight." This was great reinforcement of the importance of taking the time to think, craft, tell, listen, and refine the story through words, images, and actions—whatever is necessary. When we're busy and fortunate enough to have a talented, self-directed team, it's easy to paint 80 percent of the picture and assume that the team will deduce the remaining 20 percent. I've learned that the more complex, ambitious, or unconventional the outcome, the greater the investment in understanding required.

—Joel Albizo, FASAE, CAE, executive director, Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, Fairfax, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

When coaching staff, I try to offer specific feedback. "Stop arguing" becomes "I see your email exchanges escalating. You do really well face to face, so meet in person when you notice an email thread going too long." One staff member made a real effort to incorporate my coaching into his work. He asked me to make one suggestion at a time so he could really focus on that area. His request continues to influence me. In performance appraisals, I limit the number of goals to two or three, increasing the prospects for improvement and focusing more on important items closely aligned with our mission.

—Claudia Zacharias, CAE, president and CEO, Board of Certification and Accreditation, International, Owings Mill, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

The most valuable feedback I've ever received is my staff telling me that I say yes too much—that they often feel overburdened with the new tasks and projects coming their way. As an overachiever, I've had to work on this, so I know it's true. However, I don't take that feedback as a sign that I should not accept additional work, but that I involve my staff more in prioritizing what additional tasks and projects we do take on, engaging them in the discussion of what I know to be important, and allowing them to go through the process with me. Inevitably, there are points on both sides, and we often end up somewhere in the middle. I see this kind of give-and-take as essential to any good relationship, and everyone involved feels better and more committed to the goal.

—Lacy Kelly, CEO, Association of California Cities–Orange County, Orange, California. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra: Additional responses to this question

"Don't stay late again and work on that; it will still be here tomorrow. Go home." I am learning that you just can't do everything and you are actually cheating yourself and the organization when you spend an additional 10 to 20 volunteer hours a week doing your job because of increased workloads. It is better to discuss the growing needs of the organization with the board so they can better serve the organization.

—Carol L. Watkins, CAE, executive director, National Dental EDI Council, Phoenix. Email: [email protected]

The most constructive criticism I've received came from my long-serving personal assistant who took me aside and advised me not to take myself too seriously. We had been going through a rough patch in our association with declining membership and poor support for our training initiatives from our core market. Every step we took seemed to be a step in the wrong direction, and I simply couldn't understand why our members had stopped participating in some of our scheduled activities. I took the decline as a personal affront and battled with my own sense of failure.

Fortunately I had the support of the board and, with my PA's positive criticism, I was able to put aside my ego-driven melancholy and work to rebuild our training program into an even more successful initiative.

—Kevan Jones, executive director, Middle East Communications Industries Association, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Email: [email protected]

"God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason." Those were the insightful comments given to me early on in my professional career by a confident account executive who had taken me under his wing to learn the industry. It was humbling; however, it made me think about my own communication skills, which were in dire need of improvement. Sage advice for all of us to follow.

—G.A. Taylor Fernley, president and CEO, Fernley & Fernley, Philadelphia. Email: [email protected]

"Has great ideas but gets distracted easily and juggles too many conversations at once."That feedback was extremely influential and made me realize the importance of inspiring a shared vision. It became apparent that even though my ideas were recognized and eventually adopted, I often left other staff members "at the platform" without real objectives, only to bounce to the next big idea. While being easily distracted by shiny objects is occasionally helpful, it drives others up the wall and negatively impacts results. Consequently, I've learned and stress the importance of keeping agendas and clearly-defined task lists at all times.

—Shane Yates, executive director, Ohio Physical Therapy Association, Gahanna, Ohio. Email: [email protected]

"Don't sugar coat your feedback to staff." Making things sound rosier than they really are can lead to misunderstandings, false expectations, and misguided behavior. As a young manager I thought that always being encouraging and coaching staff to pursue their goals would serve everyone's interest. But when I enthusiastically encouraged a staff member to apply for a position within our organization that clearly she wasn't going to get, my senior staff said "Be realistic with folks. They will learn more by having an understanding of how to achieve their goals, rather than a cheerleader boss that is full of nice sounding but insincere platitudes."

—Karen Thoreson, president and COO, Alliance for Innovation, Phoenix. Email: [email protected]

I've found the best advice comes from those who are leaving the organization. I asked each departing employee, if I could change one thing to improve my managing, what would it be? "You don't listen to people. When sitting behind your desk you are constantly looking at notes or your computer screen when I'm trying to talk to you." After this revelation I determined the only way to change this behavior was to get out from behind my desk and visit with people at a table in the office or in a conference room with a blank sheet of paper to take notes on the discussion. Since changing that behavior I've become a better listener, delegator, and person.

—Allan Hale, executive director, National Electrical Contractors Association, Omaha, Nebraska. Email: [email protected]

I once experienced an incident where an employee had been making multiple mistakes, and then I received a call from a corporate partner about another problem. I immediately assumed the employee was at fault and called their supervisor to discuss the issue and how to proceed. After researching, we found that the employee was not at fault but instead had done everything by the book. As the supervisor left my office, they whispered that they wished I wouldn't have immediately concluded that our staff was at fault and that I should have waited to find out all of the facts. Point well made, and it will never be forgotten.

—Mark Light, executive director and CEO, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Fairfax, Virginia. Email: [email protected]