As with the leader of any organization, it takes years of education, evolution, and experience to become an expert in their industries.
This may have you wondering: What does it take to become an association leader?
In this second installation of our “Association Leadership” series, host and Vice President of Sustainability at Can Manufacturers Institute Scott Breen interviews Christina Lewellen, MBA, CAE, executive director at the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools (ATLIS), about her career trajectory, biggest mistakes and learnings, and what it took to grow her organization’s success.
Continue reading below for the full interview, which was edited for length and clarity.
S: Was there anything early on in your younger days that you think led you on the path to success? I saw your early roles were in broadcasting. Was that something you still pull from today?
C: I think my broadcasting roles were the launchpad into association management, and I can tell you why. My teacher senior year of high school was asking me, “What are you going to do?” My response was, “I think I’m going to major in business.” He said, “You’re a really strong writer, you should be one!” I knew those jobs were hard to get, but I felt like they were important jobs someone has to do so I decided to go for it. I double majored in English and communications in college, and my first jobs were in print journalism. Then I got into broadcast journalism. I remember being outside field producing in a hurricane and I was like “What am I doing?” It was one of those moments. In my move back to print, I was hired by an association to be one of the editors of its magazine.
S: So it just so happened that the job getting you back into print was in the association world?
C: I had no idea what an association was; I fell into it. And then in that job I got recognized as someone who starts new projects and identifies new revenue streams. I was advised that if I had business training to go with my communications expertise, I would be dangerous, and fortunately, they paid for my MBA. So, I have that business training, but those early days of being under the red pen of an editor and needing to distill a story to its core allowed me to thrive in business school in a way other students couldn’t. It also helped me avoid the breakdown other associations have with a lack of clear internal and external communication.
S: It’s interesting how the further you get along in your career, you can look back and say I didn’t have a master plan but wow, those various early experiences really set me up well for this later opportunity.
C: Yeah. I have four teenage daughters, and I tell them all the time, you just don't have enough life yet to see that this painful thing is actually making you an incredible human for down the road.
S: You’ve had your career life split up into several associations. Is it helpful to work at multiple associations or do you think there’s another side where staying at one association longer term has certain benefits?
C: That movement was for opportunity and titles toward my goal of becoming a CEO by the time I was 40. The movement had benefits. One is I got good at getting integrated and learning the culture and the lingo of an industry very quickly, which I think again, my early journalism days helped me figure out the story quickly. It also taught me that you need to fall in love with your industry. You have to learn to respect your members and you have to fall in love with whatever widget they are making or practicing. They can tell if you don’t. And if you can’t find yourself falling in love, you’re not in the right place.
S: Speaking of love, what have you most loved about working in the association world?
C: I’ve come to really respect and value the partnership between operations and governance. The 15 people on my board are my partners who have a lot more expertise in certain areas that I do. It’s like I have my own cabinet of thought leaders. There’s nothing more satisfying than a powerful partnership and being able to tell your partners that think you said to do, I did that.
S: How do you foster this powerful partnership?
C: It takes coaching since none of us grew up aspiring to be association CEOs.
S: You didn’t grow up with association leader dolls?
C: That’s funny, we should have those! So that coaching, it’s not just for me, there’s also one for my board. My coach helps me be a better leader, communicator, and maneuver political hiccups within my organization. The board’s coach helps them with governance and operate strategically, as well as with the new dynamic that comes with the board changing each year.
S: I feel like some people fear coaching or they're like, “Oh, if I have a coach, that means I don't know how to do what I'm supposed to do.” But, the best basketball players have a coach. It's good to have a coach that brings outside perspective and checks your thinking. For those like me that might want a coach, what’s the best way to find one?
C: There is a list of coaches that ASAE provides. I would say they tend to be a little bit of the higher end executive level coaches, but not always. You could ask on ASAE’s collaborate message board. Another approach is ask someone you trust in your network to be your coach or provide suggestions.
S: That's helpful. Thank you. Let’s go back to saying you did what you were asked, your operations responsibility. How do you decide where to focus?
C: When I came in, we had to start with foundational pieces. When I came into ATLIS, there was a lot of tasty spaghetti chucked all over the walls. Great people and content but a hot mess of an organization. For my board interview, they had asked me to explain one thing I would do in my first year. I told the board I can talk about any one thing you like, but there is no silver bullet; we have to fix a number of foundational things like governance, marketing, credentialing, advocacy, and membership growth to grow quickly.
S: I love how you didn’t just reply to the prompt but gave them what they didn’t even realize they needed. I want to hone in on foundation building. What does that look like?
C: For one, it’s finances. Making sure the numbers are accurate and appropriately framed. The first call I made was to an accountant I trusted. He will be the first call I make in any job ever. Another example is an employee handbook that details policies and benefits. Even clarity around who we are and what we do.
S: And you were doing this foundation building during the pandemic. Were there any lessons learned from that experience?
C: One was from how we handled our conference in 2021. I came up with a hedge strategy where we did a fully virtual conference two weeks before the in-person only event. The cost to register only for the virtual conference was almost as much as also doing the in-person event. This allowed me to make the revenue I needed, get enough people to the hotel to satisfy that contract, and not have the negatives that come with a hybrid approach. This really affirmed for me that there is an answer to almost every puzzle, but you have to get out of your own head. You have to get away from the way it's always been done. I just try to think creatively about we have these set of needs that we must meet, how can we get there? Rather than all the reasons the answer is no, let’s focus on how we get to yes. And that has really served me well, even past the pandemic.
S: I love that. It’s a very empowering, positive way of thinking. Let’s move from how you think to how you communicate. I saw you won the ASAE Gold Circle Award for best print magazine in 2022 and that this resulted in a 30 percent year-over-year jump in members, not just readers. So you think the magazine drove membership growth?
C: Yes. Let me explain why. My organization is at around 300 members. The organization that represents the heads of independent schools and the organization that represents the business officers of independent schools both have more than 2,000 members. So, my prospect list is way bigger than my membership list. We re-designed the print magazine to go to all our prospects, not just our members, and it goes to them twice a year. This is my biggest marketing expense. It’s worth it because they get to see who we are, what we’re thinking and talking about, what events we’re running, and I’m confident this has resulted in greater awareness of ATLIS and member growth.
S: This is making me think about my organization’s communications. Our newsletters are focused specifically on our members. We could think more about communications we could do to speak to non-member audiences so prospects join and partners view the can industry as thought leaders. For your magazine, how do you create compelling content?
C: For one, we try to hit what members are talking about as well as what they aren’t talking about yet but need to start thinking about. We also focus on highlighting our members. Now when it comes to our marketing, we consider the jobs to be done methodology. Have you heard of this?
S: I haven’t. Please explain.
C: It says products can do different things for different people. I maybe bought a milkshake for sugar to keep me awake while you bought it as a reward for a successful presentation. Applying this to associations, the reason one member joins may not be the reason another one does. So, rather than simply saying we have a new resource, we talk about the job this resource could do for the members, such as “keep your school safe” and “save time this summer when you’re getting ready for the school year.”
S: I love frameworks like that on how to think as it helps open up new ideas. I know you’ve also gotten innovative in your approach to internal communications, using Asana for project management and Slack for chats such that no one on your team sends emails to each other. Was there immediate buy-in for this approach?
C: It has to start at the top. The CEO has to be bought in and not approving something unless it’s done in the appropriate way. You can start with everyone playing with it, but it’ll only have organization-wide impact if everyone is included. It’s taken many conversations as a team about how we make this better. The results have been astounding though. We’ve saved so much time that we moved to a four-day work week. It also helps reduce burnout and the fire hose of emergencies.
S: I’d love to have a system like that since I would think it also helps categorize messages and see the full picture rather than trying to find and understand where things are at from reading email threads. Let’s move into my customary final questions. 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?
C: Association leaders need to look outward at what leaders in academia and the corporate world are saying, as well as follow macro trends influencing everyone, and then be smart enough to understand how all of that applies to your members. That can be a big value add for members.
S: What are you most proud of in your work in the association world?
C: I’m proud of the contemporary workplace that I created. More than half of ASAE’s membership is small staff, meaning nine or fewer employees. I’m a huge small staff advocate. I’m also proud that we are starting from scratch a certification program for technology leaders in independent schools. I’ve never started a new credential before so it’s been a good learning experience. It’ll launch in 2024.
S: Are there any mistakes you made in your career that seemed calamitous at the time but proved to be a good learning moment?
C: One of the mistakes I made regularly early in my career is listening to feedback from people that I wouldn’t have sought advice from. You don’t have to listen to someone just because they have a certain title. But I made that mistake, and it created a psychological disadvantage for a long time in terms of trusting my own abilities and imposter syndrome. You’ve got to listen to your instinct on whether to follow and listen to people.
S: I like that. And last question. If you were writing a tweet to young, aspiring association leaders with your best advice for being an association leader, what would you say?
C: If you hate your members, leave. If you hate your co-workers, embrace the opportunity to improve political and influence skills. If hate your boss, take good notes so you can be a better boss.
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December 18, 2023