A New CEO's Strategy for Building the Plane While Flying It

Perez-Building a Plane June 1, 2021 By: Angel B. Pérez

An association overcame multiple hurdles by facing challenges head-on. An optimistic—but realistic—leader helped make it happen and led his team to success in several optimal ways, including a surge in membership and new revenue streams.

I began my tenure as CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) last July, when the pandemic was raging, the nation was in political turmoil and undergoing a racial reckoning, and, like most associations, a financial crisis loomed over us. I arrived with an ambitious agenda and a charge from my board to take the organization in new directions. I also arrived at an empty office, with staff working remotely,  and confronted millions of dollars in lost revenue. 

I faced a serious inflection point. 

Should I direct our staff to focus only on the organization’s fiscal health, or should I forge ahead with an agenda for a new, bold direction? I realized I had to do both. I’m a believer in not letting a crisis go to waste, so I did the best I could to “build the plane while flying it.”

Our efforts were not without pain, but a strategic approach to change and crisis management led to some surprising gains. In less than a year, we have seen a significant increase in membership, new revenue sources, foundation grants, new media engagement, and—most importantly—new programming that helped solve our members’ needs.

How did we do it? My leadership team and I followed these important guidelines:

Establish a Sense of Urgency

In John Kotter’s Leading Change, he emphasizes that the first rule of effecting change in organizations is to create a sense of urgency. Multiple global and domestic crises certainly gave us the foundation for urgency, but it was still important for our leadership to help staff understand how the crises were impacting NACAC, and what would happen if we did not change course.

We were transparent about our finances, shared as much information as we could about how our challenges compared to peer organizations, and communicated regularly about the difficult decisions leadership was going to have to make. While it did not make the decisions easier, it helped everyone understand that it was no longer business as usual.

In crisis, leaders must find the balance between being honest and realistic about the challenges, but also paint a picture of what a brighter future looks like.

Create a Sense of Shared Responsibility

Outcomes are always stronger when the entire team feels they own the problem. We needed to ensure that everyone felt responsible for creating solutions. We established cross-departmental teams to work on the most serious challenges. The Membership Action Squad focused on ensuring we retained our members; the Revenue Generation Task Force came up with ideas for new programs and revenue streams; a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion working group focused on our efforts to become a more inclusive association; and a Steering Committee worked on the creation and implementation of staff vision and values statements.

Our success is a direct result of these team efforts, and the staff now centers all of their work based on the values they created together. It’s important for staff members to have a sense of ownership over challenges and problem solving because they will always support what they helped create.

Emphasize Storytelling

Author Simon Sinek reminds us that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Constantly reminding our teams of “the why” is critical to the organization’s success. I remind our team of the values we adopted and created together. It’s important for everyone in the association to understand the vision, to know where we are going, but most importantly—why.

Every time we make a decision, create a new program, or adopt new initiatives, we remind everyone how—and why—it fits into the overall goals and vision. If we achieve our goals, the association and profession will be stronger, but even more importantly, more students around the globe will have access to higher education. That’s the “why” everyone can rally around.

Lead With Optimism

Despite the challenges that crises may bring, it’s important to lead with optimism. In the words of former Disney CEO Bob Iger, “no one wants to follow a pessimist.”  In crisis, leaders must find the balance between being honest and realistic about the challenges, but also paint a picture of what a brighter future looks like. Teams will work hard and rally around a cause when they can imagine what lies on the other side. In an association’s most difficult moments, its leaders must be the most optimistic in the organization. 

Leaders who want to effect change by shouting “the house is on fire,” won’t get very far.  However, those who say “the house is on fire right now, but we will put the fire out…and when we rebuild it together, it will be stronger and the process more rewarding than ever” will get the best results.

Angel B. Pérez

Angel B. Pérez is CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Virginia.