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Intro to AI Webinar

The last 15 months have been a time of evolution and constant change that look to be with us for a long time. It’s not the first time a CEO has had to revise their playbook, and it provides the perfect opportunity to design more effective ways of doing business moving forward. 

An expert panel of association leaders — including Virginia Petranacosta, MBA, CAE, Executive Director of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety; Adam Levy, Executive Director of the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association; and Julia L. Chang, CEO of the American Society of Addiction Medicine with moderators Pamela Kaul, President of Association Strategies, Inc. and digitalNow and Fusion Productions co-founder Don Dea — spoke during SURGE about how the CEO playbook has had to change in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we gather their insights as association leaders looks to the future of the industry.

What’s changed in leadership – and what’s the same

Our humanity has come through in so many ways – did you ever imagine you’d be working full-time at home with kids running in and out, the dog barking, and the doorbell ringing as you try to meet the complex needs of all of the stakeholders you serve?

This has become part of real life that we're sharing with our leaders, our members and our staff. It’s a new look for many leaders, but the mission-driven focus is a constant. How do CEOs stay focused on the mission of the organization when the physical space and the demands on their time have shifted?

Understanding that we’re all in this together and be compassionate

The first thing to recognize is that everyone has been experiencing these profound shifts in the last 15 months. It’s crucial to act from compassion for your employees and members.

With time, this compassion will extend to yourself and what you are struggling with, too. Building up the well means realizing it’s okay to feel terrible sometimes because no one knows 100% what they are doing right now. This helps you to stay grounded and to reset. 

This self-compassion also prevents you from acting out of insecurity or fear of failure. Take your years of experience and act from a place of confidence and security, depth of knowledge, and heart.  We’re all in this together. 

Share more about yourself as a CEO

Along the same lines, it’s crucial to share the details of your life — don’t hide the chaos. It can be challenging, especially if you are generally a more reserved person who prides themselves on keeping work and home life separate. 

But letting employees and members peer behind the veil is a great way to rebuild your association’s culture as you come back to work (whatever that might look like!). All of your relationships will need to be renegotiated, and this is a good first step.

Cultivate flexibility

Flexibility is going to be the key as we slowly begin to re-emerge from the incredible challenges of the past 15 months. If this time has shown us anything, it’s that everyone doesn't work the same way.  There may be someone who wants to be in the office full-time; others are more interested in fully remote work (or a hybrid approach). 

Flexibility considers not what employees are individually looking for but also how to support our teams for success. 

Related: What the pandemic taught us about leadership Learn More >

Provide employees (and members) tools and resources

Part of the flexibility above is making sure we provide employees with the tools and resources they need to do their jobs. Chances are good that your office is made up of different demographics in terms of work experience and age. Different people will require different tools based on these factors, and it’s your job to remove any obstacles that prevent your employees from feeling successful and competent in their work.

The same thing is true for your membership. When we adapt offerings and pivot, it’s crucial to understand that our members are also at different stages – they have different learning curves and comfort levels with technology versus more traditional methods. 

By providing appropriate tools and resources for members, you’ll see a high level of engagement from people who were uncertain at first but become enthusiastic once they realize that the tools you have provided them really  work.

Get practical and document procedures

If your company has never before had any kind of remote policies, plans, or procedures, documenting them as they are implemented is critical.  This might be something as simple using your meeting platform to do a screen share, record the process being taught, and store it in an easily-accessed folder for reference. 

Be creative in culture building

Some of the virtual networking technologies might not be perfect imitations of real life, but you don’t need perfection. As we begin to come back together, it’s crucial to help employees and members re-build a new culture in creative ways. 

This might mean offering a variety of options – a mix of virtual and small, in-person events if possible.  Making progress forward is the goal even if everything doesn’t work for everyone.

On the agenda for CEOs

For all of the struggles in the past 15 months, we have seen some incredible innovations and creativity. How do you keep what’s working and bring it forward?

Make decisions based on clarity, not reaction

There was a lot of reactivity when our offices headed remote, but we can leave that behind. Seek clarity in decision making moving forward. This might mean changing ways of doing in the past -  a big blowout annual meeting, for example -  in favor of better, more effective offerings moving forward (a virtual conference with some in-person events).

Resources exist to help CEOs maintain clarity as we make decisions instead of simply reacting to the challenges that will surely continue.

Stay disciplined  - and innovate

Choosing how we work as the world opens up is a matter of being disciplined and continuing to innovate. If your employees prefer virtual meetings and working remotely, push that forward.  Invest time and attention and commit to working with what’s working. 

Virtual tools also provide the opportunity to bring many of your members together. This is what drives value for associations, and it’s what we want to capitalize on. The practicality of virtual networking being more affordable and accessible is going to give it momentum on its own, but it requires discipline to stay consistent and innovation to stay engaging.

Address social justice

Issues of social justice were centered in 2020, and this has created challenges for CEOs across industries. While it is easier for some organizations to take a stand than others, inaction is not an option as we push to the next level.

One way to work towards social justice is to look at training and education, the offerings of the association, and the process for electing board members. Although multiple views can exist in the same associations, politics and work are merging, and we need to be responsive. 

Top three challenges ahead

Being a CEO has changed dramatically in the past 15 months. Much of what you are called to do doesn’t appear on a traditional position profile or job description. 

So what are the three leadership skills most important for CEOs post-pandemic? 

#1: Cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset and resourcefulness 

There are more pivots coming. It’s time to let go of traditional orthodoxies. Let’s embrace and adapt new approaches and take calculated risks.

#2: Gaining clarity and building agency

Tap into the pool of resources of colleagues and their experiences in the industry. Use these understandings to take risks and make decisions from a place of clarity.

In this same vein, it’s time to empower people to understand how they can be better employees through mentorship and teaching. This decentralization gives everyone the tools they need to cultivate agency when we are not all in the same room.

#3 Leading from within

Leading from within means that it’s time to focus on authentic leadership that honors not only who you are as a person and a CEO but also who you serve in terms of the employees and the members. The core values that lead you to your work are the same ones that will help lift you up when more challenges arise. Lean into that authenticity, and lead from there.

Suzannah Kolbeck
Post by Suzannah Kolbeck
July 5, 2021
Suzannah Kolbeck writes, paints, and rides horses in Baltimore, MD. She is the author of Healing Where You Are: An Introduction to Urban Foraging.