ASAE Executive Leadership Forum Recap

A meeting room with a speaker leading a session. July 9, 2024 By: Lancey Cowan, CAE

The power of place for complex conversation

For many years now, The Executive Leadership Forum has provided a uniquely engaging opportunity for professionals from across the industry to gain practical insights and strategies to lead their teams forward. With 2024 being an election year it is to be expected that discourse of all kinds will be at an all-time high, making the theme of this year’s ELF, Divergent Beliefs and Civil Discourse both timely and pertinent. At a time in our history when society is more polarized than ever before, association executives are tasked with the challenging responsibility of facilitating, moderating and navigating their membership base effectively. Recognizing this, ASAE thoughtfully crafted this event out of their desire to lead by example. Creating space for each of us to share, learn, and most importantly grow as leaders in our communities.

Tasked with delivering meetings of value to over 11,000 ARVO members, my organization must stay on top of the concerns and preferences of our base as they represent diverse backgrounds and career stages. In addition to the increased focus that we place on inclusivity, we constantly strive to ensure that our programming acknowledges the professional and personal development of every attendee. It’s no easy task, but one that is at the heart of our work. So, this begs the question, how do we dip our toes into the murky waters of complex conversations? And I challenge us all to consider this: the power of place.

Understanding that the destination selection process can be daunting, I’ve reflected on my recent visit to Toronto for the ELF and have come away with a few thoughts to share. Combined with some practical advice that has served me well over the span of my almost 25 years in this industry, I hope to inspire fellow association leaders to a brighter, less intimidating future. They say nothing is constant, except for change. So let’s embrace that sentiment, and change the way we see the role of destinations as part of our association strategy. We can rally together as leaders and spur each other on to deliver programming that resonates deeply with attendees by engaging with destination partners in a truly meaningful way. Here are three takeaways from the Executive Leadership Forum 2024 that demonstrate the power of place:

  1. Use the content of your program as a compass for authenticity
    With a focus on divergent beliefs and how to address the complexities of productive discussions, it was clear that choosing the right location would set the stage for success. To foster the trust and engagement of attendees, it was crucial that everyone felt safe to let their guard down. The forum benefited tremendously from landing in a city with such a global perspective. Offering a sense of openness, diversity and a progressive culture naturally made everyone feel at ease regardless of where they arrived from. Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, and Canada’s diversity capital being home to more than 250 ethnicities. Toronto is a place where attendees feel welcome because they can see themselves reflected in the vibrancy of the city. An unexpected comfort that is not easily replicated elsewhere.
  2. Engage local expertise beyond the industry
    Featuring an incredible line up of authoritative voices on association leadership, the ELF also tapped into Toronto’s knowledge capital to provide a different perspective on community and culture. Jesse Wente, an award-winning writer, speaker & pop culture philosopher provided a fresh take on the industry steeped in his personal experience living as an off-reserve member of the Serpent River First Nation. Having access to thought leaders with demonstrable depth, and high cultural IQ is another invaluable factor that speaks to the power of place. Toronto has a unique DNA, a city that genuinely thrives on curiosity and new connections. This too provides the safe space needed to engage in conversations around inclusive leadership through potentially divisive times.
  3. Above education, seek inspiration
    Aside from the practical skill set, strategy development and opportunity to network with colleagues and friends, the ELF also sought to fill the event with a renewed sense of hope. While we are still determining if what we are experiencing is in fact the “new normal” or if additional change is on the horizon, there was a definite feeling of positive energy and forward thinking. Conversations about value-based decision making and organizational guidance can often be riddled with ideological differences, but in the end I believe that the executive leaders present at the ELF were seeking inspiration. They have vision for the future of their organization, but it can only be fueled by willpower for so long. Leaders need encouragement too. Toronto offers a rare mix of innovation and artistry that has proven itself as a source of inspiration for those who choose to meet here. Globally recognized for both its colorful entertainment offerings and its role as the economic engine of Canada, the city fills your cup from the inside out.

Lancey Cowan, CAE

Chief officer, Meetings and Community Engagement, CAE at Association for Research in Vision and Opthamology