Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
When it comes to self-care, leaders need to manage both themselves and their staffs. From sabbaticals to kitchen cabinets to dedicated reading days, association executives have multiple options.
For a few years now, Nabil El-Ghoroury, CAE, executive director of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, has kept a small Tibetan “singing bowl” in his office. Stressed out? Take a small hammer, tap the bowl, and use the soft hum as an opportunity to let your mind reset. “I’ll hit it just to remind myself to slow down,” he says.
It’s an idea that has literally resonated with his colleagues: El-Ghoroury says that the bowl comes in handy in meetings to help “break the pattern” of a stalled discussion. Sometimes fellow staffers even come into his office and ask to make use of it.
Of course, a meditation bowl may not be your preferred means of self-care. More concrete perks like compensation, breaks, support systems, and perhaps a complimentary Fitbit come in handy as well. But regardless of what path they pursue, CEOs who prioritize self-care agree on the need to recognize that doing their job well means also knowing how to step away from it—and that their personal sensibility can have a positive impact on staff as well.
A common mistake first-time CEOs make is to persuade themselves that they don’t need self-care, or that the job is too important to indulge in it. Shawn Boynes, FASAE, CAE, executive director at the American Association of Anatomists, recalled having that feeling early in his tenure, which only meant courting burnout.
“In the executive director role, you can give so much of yourself to the board, to the volunteer leadership, and to the staff,” he says. “And then there’s nothing left for you.”
So Boynes has a few firm breaks from the job: a spa day once a month, workouts in the early morning, international vacations—real vacations—that put the job clearly out of his head. Similarly, Deborah Callahan, CEO at the National Fenestration Rating Council, has taken a cue from Microsoft founder Bill Gates: She sets aside a monthly reading day when she catches up on articles related to her association’s industry, but also leadership books and novels that might prompt her to look at things differently.
Stefanie Reeves, CAE, executive director at the Maryland Psychological Association, has a contract that gives her five annual “floating vacation” days in addition to vacation time and paid sick leave. But self-care doesn’t always require disconnection from the job, she points out: Reeves also maintains a number of “kitchen cabinets” of CEOs who can help her address issues unique to her situation, from running a small-staff association, to being a newer CEO, to being a black female executive.
“Even in the association space, there’s still not too many people who look like me who do this job,” she says. “And sometimes there’s a different dynamic. So I have a broader kitchen cabinet including CEOs of color and state association executive directors who can relate to experiences on a different level.”
It’s one thing for a CEO to recognize the importance of self-care. Persuading the board of those needs can be another.
For instance, when Tracy Petrillo, CAE, was negotiating for her current job as CEO of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, AIHM’s board wanted her to move full-time to headquarters immediately. Petrillo pushed to work remotely part-time for nine months for family and personal reasons, and it worked. “It was a huge risk for me,” she says. “I was the only candidate who wouldn’t come right away full-time to the office. … But I was to a point in my career that I had to say I need to have some life priority as well as growth or development in my career.”
Not every employee is going to be equally enthusiastic about every wellness concept.
David P. Goch, a partner at Webster, Chamberlain and Bean who works with associations on executive compensation, says he’s seen more association leaders negotiating for remote work and time off in addition to more conventional perks like deferred compensation plans and spousal travel—a trend that may increase in light of the new tax law. (See “Will the New Tax Law Change Perks?” below.) But regardless of what terms CEOs pursue, they need to do it with an understanding of how board members themselves perceive compensation.
“None of this matters if your board isn’t prepared for it,” Goch says. “Unless they’ve been properly educated, their frame of reference is their world. And if you’re in an association that is in manufacturing or a similar trade, and the people on the board are actually the practitioners, well, they don’t get mental health days.”
Upon taking her job at NFRC, Callahan made a point of ensuring that wellness was a part of the staff’s benefit plan as well. The group has brought in nutritionists, sponsored wellness challenges, added bikes that staffers can use in a nearby park, and cashed in credit-card points to provide them with Fitbits. At her first staff meeting, she pledged to give wellness issues more emphasis.
“Our vision statement includes things like teamwork and working collaboratively and good customer service and being innovative, but I added the attributes of wellness because that’s important to me, and I wanted to make that important to the culture here at NFRC,” she says. “I wanted to put my spin on it, and then out of that came a better-evolved wellness program.”
Not every employee is going to be equally enthusiastic about every wellness concept. So, for CEOs, communicating sensitively with staffers about their wellness needs is as important as negotiating with a board for their own. Carolyn Woods, CAE, senior membership manager at the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, has seen this in light of her personal experience with depression and anxiety. She says even a general comment in support of workers struggling with mental health issues, and about the benefits the association provides, can be valuable.
Leaders “can proactively talk about mental health without outright asking any of the employees what their situation is,” she says. “It’s really worth investing time educating themselves on ways to support those employees. If there’s one thing I could tell them, it would be that some of your best employees may be struggling with mental illness, and you may not even know.”
That kind of sensitivity can be healthy for both staffers and the organization. AIHM’s Petrillo says she’s seen fewer employee sick days since she implemented a use-it-or-lose-it vacation program, renamed sick days “wellness days,” and encouraged staff to stay off email when on vacation and to take their lunch outside the office.
“Giving people permission to have white space, or permission to share stories for empathy and teamwork—I think that that is really a role of a leader,” she says.
That may have an impact even on associations where executive pay doesn’t hit $1 million, he says, because new approaches to compensation at the high end may create a norm that trickles down to organizations with smaller budgets. “My guess with boards is that they’ll try not to increase the bottom line through income or other benefits but find other ways—and that’s time, that’s vacation,” he says. “It’s still compensation, but the shift is that you’re getting paid to not be there.”