CEO to CEO: Proudest Moment as an Association Executive and Reigning in an Off-Topic Meeting Discussion

Associations Now January/February 2012 Issue

CEO’s share their proudest moment as an association executive and give advice for reining in an off-topic meeting discussion.

What is your proudest moment as an association executive?

Being an association executive allows me to feel proud every day. Highlights of the past 17 years include being invited to appear on the Today Show after 9/11 to discuss the increased use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications; awarding Dr. John F. Nash Jr., the subject of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, with our Courage Through Adversity Award for his efforts in fighting the stigma against people with schizophrenia; and being able to help 200,000 people through our Sri Lankan Mental Health Relief Project. But what made my heart really burst with pride was standing with individuals with mental illnesses and addictions at a public budget hearing and knowing that the advocacy I do with them and for them had a strong, positive impact on helping them in their recovery.

—Debra L. Wentz, Ph.D., CEO, New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addictions Agencies, Mercerville, New Jersey. Email: [email protected]

After 21 years, there are so many wonderful moments that it is hard to think of just one. Picking up on something in the recent past, it was having revenues decline 9 percent in 2009, but having expenses decline 17 percent. That year was the best profit year The ESOP Association ever had, with no staff changes and incredible displays of staff loyalty to the community that makes up our employee-ownership world.

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

For me, the proudest moments occur when a junior member of my staff has an opportunity to expand and succeed, thanks to the influence of the people with whom they've worked. Watching them begin to have their own influence in new organizations, grow within the association community, and impact other businesses and professions is a reward unto itself.

—Lawrence J. Lynch, CAE, president, Environmental Association Management Partners, Orlando, Florida. Email: [email protected]

After almost 24 years with the National RV Dealers Association, and 16 as CEO, I asked my board to select a successor CEO. We had been planning for succession for more than five years and had a search process ready to implement. The chairman and first vice chairman requested my input regarding the economy, membership, finances, and staff. I offered that we were at the beginning of a potential growth cycle and we had the talent on staff to take full advantage. I suggested they look internally to find a CEO. Of my two vice presidents, one declined to apply, and the other seemed enthused about the job. The selection committee interviewed him, and he became their choice. I feel like a new father again, having someone who was loyal to me for more than 15 years become my successor.

—Mike Molino, CAE, president, National RV Dealers Association, Fairfax, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

How do you rein in an off-topic discussion at a meeting?

Our executive leadership team has developed clear objectives, and we work to hold each other accountable for staying on course. Our guidelines include establishing an agreed-upon agenda that includes topics provided by members of the group as well as any standing agenda items and reminding everyone that we have agreed to make our meeting run efficiently by utilizing an agenda. We all want to be heard, but we also want to be respectful of our schedules. Offer to discuss an additional item at the end of the meeting if time permits or place it in the parking lot for a future meeting. Many times, we find the item is not as urgent as it was originally conveyed. But getting off topic can be a good thing since it may provide a great detour that may lead our team to an exciting new idea.

—Melvin Tennant, CAE, president and CEO, Meet Minneapolis, Minneapolis. Email: [email protected]

Reining in a discussion requires sensing the proper time to step in. Sometimes, what appears to be off-topic isn't. These are a few of my favorite techniques:

  1. A timed agenda: It doesn't mean being a taskmaster; it simply serves as a guide.
  2. Diversion: This works well if the group is annoyed. For example, invite the off-topic leader to talk with you at the break or in a later meeting.
  3. The parking lot: This affirms the topic as worthy of discussion. People usually relax when they see their issue on a parking-lot flip chart, because they feel heard and know the issue is preserved for later.
  4. Ground rules: Especially effective if set by participants, ground rules set boundaries for when a discussion gets out of hand.

—Mary K. Logan, CAE, president, Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, Arlington, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

I find that it works best to allow the off-topic discussion to run for 20 seconds per person as a way for folks to blow off steam or to do a mental reset. I then guide us back to the task at hand by reminding everyone that we have a full agenda and no one likes to stay in long meetings.

—Norman L. Fortenberry, executive director, American Society for Engineering Education, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

If the off-topic discussion occurs at a staff meeting, I point out that we've wandered off topic and bring the discussion back to its purpose. But meetings of my elected leadership require a more diplomatic approach because, after all, I work for them. Off-topic discussions can be more fun than agenda items and serve as welcome diversions, so I don't intervene too quickly. However, when wandering discussions threaten a group's ability to accomplish its objectives, I will tactfully point out that the discussion is interfering with accomplishing the meeting's intended purpose. I try to avoid placing blame on any individual, especially the person talking when I intervene.

—G. Lawrence Merrill, CAE, executive director, Michigan Townships Association, Lansing, Michigan. Email: [email protected]