Skip to main content
Intro to AI Webinar

In this “Association Leadership” series interview,  host and Can Manufacturers Institute Vice President of Sustainability Scott Breen interviews Tori Liu, president and CEO at the Association for Intelligent Information Management (AIIM). The two discuss growth, leadership, information management, DEI, and more.

Continue reading below for the full interview, which was edited for length and clarity.

S: Let's start with the early career life stuff. Is there anything you did or experienced when you were younger that you think set you on this path to success? Was it maybe something in your theater and dance background?

T: Yes, theater is probably a huge part of my success because very early on, I learned how to get comfortable with discomfort and rejection when I went to casting calls and auditions. With most casting opportunities, you are never 100% the right fit. You must stretch yourself to fit the role. I like the thrill of challenging myself to reach for something that might not be the right fit or might be viewed as something that's beyond me. 

Of course, second guessing comes along with stretch goals. I don't think the second guessing has ever gone away. Perversely, sometimes I don't think I'm good enough for this, but I enjoy living in that state of discomfort. I view the process of pursuing opportunities as a learning experience. 

S: I imagine that helps gives you the thick skin because you're more looking at the positive and that regardless of what happens, I still had that learning experience. And so when did associations come into your life then? 

T: This response makes me feel really old, but I found my first association job through a classified ad in The Washington Post.

S: Like in the physical newspaper?

T: Yes, I remember highlighting the ad like they did in old movies.

S: I love it.

T: At the time, I was still really set on having a career in theater, but I needed part-time work to pay the bills. I had an acting teacher once tell me that if you can find passion and joy in anything else besides theater, then do that. I got a job as a part-time administrative assistant, answering member phone calls and assisting staff. I ended up falling in love with associations since it was more outward focused. I felt like I was helping society by helping the members who called in.

S: I hadn't really thought about it like that, but it's very, outward focused, like you're saying. It's not about you. And this first job was with the Global Cold Chain Alliance?

T: Yes. I stayed there for almost a decade, and during my tenure, I worked my way up. Initially, I was doing marketing and communications for them, but the beauty of a small association is that often they're more willing to accommodate staff interests and strengths. I also had a great boss that allowed me to experiment so I had many different experiences at that organization that have been invaluable throughout my career. 

S: Yeah, that's such a gift to be able to add to that toolbox and then be able to say, I can do this, I can do that. It reminds me of what Jay Karen told me in a previous association leader dialogue that because he did so many different things, then when he became the boss, it gave him more credibility with everybody because he had done many of those responsibilities, whereas if he had just stayed in his one silo, it would be hard to be the boss of someone on something he had never experienced.

T: Truthfully, I will admit when I was in the middle of my career, at that director level, I thought that diverse experience was a disadvantage. I worried that because I had spent all this time being a “jack of all trades,” I wasn't that proficient at being an IT Director or Marketing Director. It led to a lot of self-doubt at the time, but now I agree with Jay and that diversity is now a strength for me and a personal point of pride.

S: And then you mentioned enjoying working in associations because you can help others. Is that kind of what you most enjoy about it?

T: Yes, I love helping others, but I also love interacting with people. Associations inherently are about working to find commonality, building relationships. I really like staff, the board members, the members I have been fortunate to work with throughout my career. I've been fortunate to work with a group of people in all of my roles where they're deeply passionate and they genuinely want to help communities and improve the world. 

S: That makes sense. Yeah. And then I see on LinkedIn you've got so many letters after your name. I love it. One, I didn't recognize is the CIP. I was looking at the AIIM website right before this and I was like, oh, this is their certification. So did you do that after you joined AIIM because you're like, oh, I should probably get the thing that we're pushing out there?

T: I didn't already have the Certified Information Professional (CIP) credential. When I started at AIIM, one of the metrics for success that the board set for me was to become acquainted with the industry so that I could adequately serve as a spokesperson for the industry. The CIP was a way for me to learn about the industry and establish my credibility representing this industry. 

S: And then how has it helped? Like what's been kind of like a lesson or two learned from it that that you've applied?

T: The CIP was eye opening. I don't know if you experienced this when you took the CAE, but just the exercise of studying is so informative.

S: Definitely. For instance, I didn’t know about unrelated business income tax (UBIT) before studying for the CAE.

T: That's what the CIP was for me. It created a foundation for how to manage one of your organization’s greatest assets – information and data. It covers everything from how to collect data to how to create workflows and process automation to really leverage that data to how to get rid of data when it needs to be archived or disposed of. 
We have found that the organizations that do a better job of managing their information enjoy reduced costs, faster time to market, increased revenues and cash flow, and increased business agility. 

S: Let's talk about your current role at AIIM. You're responsible for overseeing this hybrid association that transforms how organizations manage and leverage information. That’s such a big topic. And this is something I struggle with in my role, even within just sustainability in the can industry, I can do anything. How do I determine those objectives and the key results so that I'm focusing on the right things and I can determine whether I'm being successful in it?

T: I love that you asked about OKRs because we use them at AIIM. Our objectives and key results are set in collaboration with the board. The board helps set the priorities, which become the objectives for how we will accomplish our vision. Those have a 12-month time stamp. Then staff does a bottom-up approach and develops the key results. And then we collaborate with the board to say, “Hey, here is our vision for how we're going to reach this objective. Do you agree?” It's a collaborative process.

S: And it's every year you're going through that?

T: Yes. I just introduced OKRs last year, and we rolled out a new strategy in October.
Our objectives are organization wide. We're so small that we don't have team-specific objectives.

We only have four objectives. Under each of those objectives is typically two to four key results that are measurable and ambitious. The key results last for three months. So, it's an agile system. 

We moved board meetings to the start of the quarter to coincide with the OKR closeout and the development of new key results. At each board meeting, members see our plan for the quarter. We update the board on all the key results but do a deep dive on a couple key results to get invaluable feedback. I present the board with strategic discussion questions in advance with tons of background material. There’s no presentations. Just discussion.

S: Wow, that sounds like a very active board and a tight feedback loop.

T: Very tight. It's a lot to manage, but ultimately it’s worth it because our Board members can engage in more strategic discussions while working with staff to drive the organization forward.

S: And then at the macro level, how do you actually come up with the organization objectives?

T: We worked with strategic planning consultant Jeff De Cagna to develop a new governing intent or norms for the board. One of those norms is we actively listen to members. So, I spent the first three months of our strategic planning process going on a 90-day listening tour. We also did two asynchronous online collaboratives with members where we asked questions about the future of the industry and the organization itself. We combined that intelligence with user experience data from the website and other analytics. Then, we took all of the feedback – the good and the bad – and distilled those down into our priorities. 

We developed those priorities with a foresight lens. We have to look at how we solve the needs of today's members, but also how do we solve the needs of our members in the future. This entire foresight and listening exercise took about seven months.

S: What was the name of the exercise?

T: The end result is called a strategy system, as opposed to a plan, because it is an adaptable system. In the exercises, we mapped out what is going to happen in the industry and what shifts we expect two years from now and ten years from now.
The process had its ups and downs. The board and staff were certainly fatigued by the end of it. I learned a lot from that process around how to keep people continuously engaged. I also learned it’s good to engage a third-party consultant in a strategic planning process, but, ultimately, the plan is yours and you must take ownership over the language and approach. The executive director must be intimately involved in the development.

S: Yeah. And then if you own it, I imagine then it's more likely to be successful because you feel like it's yours.

T: Yes. There was more buy-in from the Board when we personalized the excellent product our consultant gave us. The members like the Strategy System, too. We've done three town halls with members and the feedback has been positive.

S: That’s great! And then going back to this governing intent, I don't know if I've heard that before. Is that something that stays constant or is revisited regularly?

T: Our vision, purpose, and governing intent stay relatively constant. They’ll be in place for at least three years. We've started including the governing intent and the board norms in every single board book, and the chair reminds the board at every meeting that this is how we're going to conduct ourselves in this meeting. Importantly, the Board set and enforces these high expectations for themselves.

S: Yeah, very cool. I want to talk about information management as an association. You all are so focused on how information is managed and leveraged. How do you do it as an organization? Do you use association management software (AMS)? And then for however you do it, how do you make sure people are inputting the right information?

T: We're looking at what our tech stack should be going forward, but what I've inherited and what we're currently using is HubSpot. HubSpot is our AMS even though it's typically considered a marketing platform and a customer relationship management (CRM) system. Then, we use Box for file share and Slack for collaboration. AIIM has been a remote workforce since 2017 so it already had this whole virtual workplace ecosystem before the rise in popularity of Zoom or Teams.  

The way that we get adoption for new tools is through experiential learning. A couple of months ago, we implemented a new project management tool called Clickup. Our approach was to provide basic orientation and then encourage everyone to start working in it. We also made sure that we found a tool that had a really robust resource library. We readily share lessons learned and new features that we have discovered. We also recognize that everyone learns differently. I have staff who just wanted to jump in and try to build stuff and do things. Then I had other staff that wanted to watch tons of videos first and learn how to exactly use the tool. I think you must accommodate different learning styles when adopting a new tool.

As far as ensuring the quality of the information and actually managing the information, we started to make data management and information management part of more job descriptions so people know that it's not just the responsibility of one person. Establishing that data management is a shared responsibility has helped improve how we view and manage our data. Data is a real asset for us and the fuel for our marketing and communications. We already have a very strict policy around marketing contacts where if somebody hasn't engaged with us in the last six months, we take them out of everything.

S: Wow! Okay, so I read that your focus at AIIM is on fostering a culture of foresight, innovation, and inclusivity. With foresight, I know you were talking about the exercise you had the board go through, what's going to happen in two years, ten years, but is there something you do personally to help understand what's coming around the bend beyond asking the board what they're seeing? 

T: My goal is to figure out how to make it a habit. It might end up being informal conversations with a small task force of members outside of the board that gets together each quarter. 

S: Having a different group makes total sense. And I wonder also if it makes sense to include people outside of the industry.

T: Yes, that's a great idea!

S: And then how, and then how do you encourage innovation within the organization? Is it just telling everyone to fail fast, fail forward or that I'm not going to get on you if you fail?

T: That's a big part of it. I've tried to create psychological safety around experimentation on staff. We’re a small organization. We have very defined finite budgets, and it makes staff nervous about experimenting too much. But the reality is, if we're going to transform the organization and grow, we must get more comfortable rolling the dice and investing a little more in something new. 

I would say 50 percent of our key results is now new stuff. It's experiments. I tell people it’s ok to experiment as long as we take some lessons learned away from it. We’ve gotten more deliberate about retrospectives after every major project or program.
I've taken some risks myself. One of them didn't pan out last year. And I was very open and intentional about sharing with staff that while this initiative was not financially successful, here's what we learned from it.

S: And then DEI seems to be a focus for you too. Like, how have you gone about being intentional with that? Any roadblocks or unexpected results or benefits?

T: Yes. With so many big priorities around the strategy and the transformation and, frankly, the sustainability of the organization last year in my first year, we couldn't rush into DEI full force. We took a more segmented, grassroots approach. We focused on younger professionals first. Next, we are renewing our focus on women in the industry and earlier this year members formed our first BIPOC group. 

What I've learned is that this segmentation as opposed to a sweeping DEI initiative has been effective for us. It gave us focus. I can clearly explain how efforts to empower or advance a specific group will benefit the industry and association. I can connect it very specifically to a business outcome. When it’s more focused, it’s more tangible and people get excited about the effort.

S: That makes total sense. And then I did want to ask you more about membership touches, whether it's at AIIM or your previous roles. How have you found is the best way to keep members engaged and understand the value of the association so that they don't fall into that category of they haven't touched anything for six months and then they're gone?

T: I still think one of the best ways to keep members engaged is to create and encourage volunteering or micro volunteering opportunities . For example,  participating in my listening tour was a micro volunteer opportunity for members. People really like having a sense of ownership and contributing. It's important that those contributions then get translated to actual results and work. I was really clear with members who participated in the listening tour about how I would use their feedback. 

S: It makes sense as an organization because then people are more engaged and then they're more devoted members.

T: Yes, they become ambassadors for us. This is important since people listen to their peers more than the association.

S: So let's maybe move into this last section. What's something that you feel like leaders of associations versus leaders of other sectors need to be particularly skilled at or pay attention to?

T: Effective storytelling. One of the big differences between associations/nonprofits and other organizations is that our leadership is transient and evolve at a faster pace than in the private sector because of our governance model and the board changing over every year or couple years. It helps ensure that associations are not static, but one of our responsibilities as association professionals is to provide continuity and good stewardship through those transitions and make sure that board members are appropriately onboarded. We must tell the story of the association and share it with new leaders. 

S: It sounds like a tough balance, you know, maintaining the consistency but allowing for new ideas and new perspectives to influence it, improve it, but not wholesale change it because the process is so hard to even establish it.

T: It's infinitely more interesting though, isn't it?

S: Yeah. I agree. And then what are you most proud of, of your work in the association world?

T: I'm really proud of Association of Women Technology Champions. That was an organization that I helped co-found. Advancing women in the technology space is something I'm passionate about, and I'm so proud that I had even a small part in contributing to that in the association community.

S: That sounds like a fantastic organization. And then are there any mistakes you made in your career that seemed calamitous at the time, but proved to be a good learning moment?

T: Yes. I became a manager before I was ready. I was managing people before I was ready. I've been fortunate in my career since then to have had management training and executive coaching. But when I was assigned my first direct report, I did not know how to coach another person, collaborate with them, or even delegate. I don't think I was like terribly unpleasant, but I do think my inexperience as a manager impacted the quality of my report’s experience at that organization. I think a lot of that is the hubris of youth. I assumed I knew how to do this and I didn’t reach out to my boss to ask for help and training.  

S: This is interesting because I haven't had too many people directly report to me. It's certainly a hole I want to fill in my abilities and experience. I'm sure experience helps but what is a management training or course that you did that you would recommend?

T: For me, my management course ended up getting hired by ASHA, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. ASHA is very intentional about building and fostering a coaching culture. In a coaching culture, you don’t manage people. You coach them.  ASHA was like a master's program in management. However, there are also great courses on LinkedIn and with the American Management Association. I also highly recommend seeing if your employer will invest in an executive coach for you if you are new to management. 

S: Got it. And then when I hear coaching, I think of coaching as helping you be better in your job, not coaching you to be a better manager per se.

T: Yes, but there are coaches that can help with both. I have staff that report to me now that are coaches themselves, and I do see part of my obligation is to support them in their quest to be a better coach.  A lot of our one-on-one conversations are about the opportunities and challenges they're having with their teams.

Years ago, I created this little agenda for one-on-one meetings where we discuss priorities, positives, problems, and possibilities. In other words, I want to discuss the areas of focus, wins, roadblocks, and new ideas. I have found that really simple agenda has elicited some really interesting conversations.

S: The four P’s! I like it. So, okay. And it's interesting as you're talking, I'm kind of getting the difference of coaching versus managing.

T: Having an understanding of how you want to manage and treat people is important. If you Google coaching versus managing, there's so many cool resources on what a coaching conversation looks like versus a management conversation.

S: I will explore that. And last question here, if you were writing a tweet to young aspiring association leaders with your best advice for becoming an association leader, what would you say?

T: Focus on your personal hierarchy of needs. When looking at association opportunities, look at the (1) basics and make sure you are fairly compensated; (2) ensure the opportunities will leverage and enhance your skill sets and strengths; and (3) make sure you love the mission, industry, members, and culture.

S: That's good. You want to make sure you have a job and you like your job, but then that extra layer of working for the right association.

T: Yes. That's important to consider. You get better at looking for red flags on culture in interviews. In one interview, the interviewer wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and I knew I didn’t want to work in that organization.  Trust your gut.

Scott Breen
Post by Scott Breen
March 20, 2024
Scott is the Sr. VP of Sustainability at Can Manufactures Institute. He has a unique background with policy and legal training; deep knowledge of sustainability and the circular economy; and experience in project management, stakeholder engagement, and communications. He also is the co-host of successful podcast: Sustainability Defined.