While the unexpected challenges of the pandemic presented much uncertainty, associations and their leaders rose to the occasion to find new ways to meet member and community needs. Despite the difficulties, these challenges became more like opportunities for association executives to sharpen their leadership acumen.
We asked five Smithbucklin executive directors to reflect on the past 18 months to share their most valuable takeaways and how they will carry the lessons learned with them in the years to come. From becoming comfortable with managing uncertainty and valuing transparency and over-communication, these leaders embraced the silver linings in a year like no other.
Reflect on the past year. How did you, your staff team, your volunteers, or your members show resilience?
Robin Rone, Executive Director, Apra (RR): My volunteer leaders and the whole Apra membership demonstrated true resiliency by being not only an association but also a true community. The unstinting mutual support, the thoughtful sharing of information, and the mindful approach of the volunteers in developing timely resources during a time of crisis and uncertainty continue to inspire.
Denise Roosendaal, CAE, Executive Director, Institute for Credentialing Excellence (I.C.E.) (DR): We all crave certainty, especially in our decision-making environment. I.C.E. is an organization whose members are rooted in data and analysis. However, 2020 was the year of “Imperfect Information.” As we assessed the economic and health environment, the board and staff had to become comfortable with navigating the gray with limited and fast-changing information. This impacted our ability to analyze the models for the conference, the membership response and needs, and our financial forecasting. However, once we recognized that decisions still had to be made in this environment, we settled in. We focused on what was most important for our members, our profession, and the organization.
Kirsten Shaffer, CAE, Executive Director, National Association of Healthcare Access Management (NAHAM) (KS): I have always had the utmost respect for my colleagues, but wow, my staff team amazed me in 2020. Everyone was dealing with COVID implications, but everyone showed up, every day, asking, “What can I do to help?” We laughed together, mourned our losses together (who knew canceling a conference would be so emotional!), came up with new plans, and celebrated small wins. Now that we’ve made it through, we’re still showing up every day with renewed energy and passion for what we do.
Kim Wiatr, CAE, Association for Clinical and Translational Science (ACTS) (KW): ACTS had to make some tough decisions early on, canceling a 2020 event less than a month before it was to take place. As we continued to navigate the year, it was clear 2021 also would be impacted. Working together, the board continued to face difficult decisions. Because of their dedication to the association, and the resiliency demonstrated throughout, we were able to manage 2020 and beyond.
How do the challenges of the pandemic make you a better leader?
Kim Eskew, MBA, CAE, Executive Director, Society of Pediatric Nurses (SPN) and Society of Gastroenterology Nurses and Associates (SGNA) (KE): 2020 taught me to be flexible, to think outside the box, and truly understand that some things are out of my control. Unfortunately, I can’t control everything! I gained a deeper sense of what I can control, and the impact that I have to make a bad situation better. We often talk about finding the silver lining in a bad situation, and I believe the organizations I serve were able to do that in this past year.
RR: I became far more comfortable with uncertainty and letting go of perfection. In doing so, I saw how great my team already was at this and how they continued to find ways to “kill it” and move forward. I believe the challenges made me more appreciative and clear-sighted about what is truly important for my organization’s success, sustainability, and growth.
DR: I learned that in these challenging times, where every facet of life is impacted, the most important leadership quality is empathy. Everyone had a variety of stressors coming at them that upended their lives. People needed time to adjust and accept the new demands of their daily life. Adjusting deadlines and engagement expectations was the right thing to do. We were all humans trying to cope while still meeting our obligations. Leaders who showed compassion and empathy in this time were in touch with reality and the human side of the business.
KS: 2020 helped to grow my confidence in myself as a leader. While there were many moments that I felt completely unsure of what to do, I focused on taking the next step, working very closely with volunteer leaders, and doing what I knew to be best for my organization. Looking back, I’m proud of my role in leading the board through such an unprecedented situation, impressed with the decisions we made to protect the financial health of the organization, and encouraged by how we supported our members in a tough time.
KW: The challenges of 2020 made me a better leader by increasing my level of communication across the association — board and staff alike. It was imperative to maintain an open dialogue throughout 2020, and by communicating early and often, everyone stayed on the same page.
Share one “leadership lesson” you learned over the past year that you will carry forward into the next normal.
KE: A leadership lesson that was reiterated for me this past year is the value and importance of over-communicating and being transparent. My staff team, volunteers, and members were open to hard truths and changes when we communicated the information that we had. If we didn’t have the information, we were upfront about it.
These discussions are vital for us to have, especially as we move forward to build a stronger organization, together.
RR: What the past year underscored for me is the deep truth in Gwendolyn Brooks’ quote, “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” Self-care is so important, and extending that to your team when you are a leader is critical. I’ll continue to begin each meeting by asking, “How are y’all doing?” and allow time for anyone to answer from a place of honesty and safety — and, when appropriate, leading with my own vulnerability.
DR: Not all crises look the same nor do they impact each industry or profession in the same ways. Sometimes surviving a crisis requires staying the course. Once the initial panic wore off and we were able to meet some immediate member needs with swift action, we settled into reality. That’s when we realized that my organization could weather this storm financially, and we could stay focused on pursuing our strategic plan. Rather than roll up the welcome mat to conserve resources, we continued to invest in programs for 2021. Had we not continued in that direction, we would have been delayed several years.
KS: The best planning in the world can’t prepare you for a crisis like COVID, but strong relationships and transparent, frequent communication can get you through them. In the hardest moments, it was those basic tenets of leadership that carried me through and helped me help my board make the best possible decisions.
I also realized that the crisis forced us to innovate, and the forced innovation created some of the best work we did in 2020. From that, I was reminded that we should be constantly thinking of how we can do better and what we can do that’s new and different — not waiting for a crisis to force our hand.
KW: I’ll remain transparent in the years to come. I’ll work with the board through every challenge, together, and share guidance when needed. With the staff team, I’ll share feedback from the board and continue an open line of communication.