When it comes to climbing the leadership ladder, successful. volunteers keep an eye on the next rung, while helping those behind them.
Addy M. Kujawa, CAE, executive director of the American Association of Orthopaedic Executives, has faced a challenge common to a lot of association leaders. She has plenty of talent available to fill a host of volunteer slots at AAOE, from committee work to president of the board. But that same talent has often been skittish and uncertain about what exactly volunteering demands.
Staff has struggled to provide “enough direction for them to understand what we need, how they can effect change, how they can participate, what the expectations are, what the time commitments are,” she says. “It just seems to be really hard to nail that down and put it in a package that is appealing to members who are already ridiculously busy.” To that end, Kujawa has hired staff to develop a program to clarify the skill sets and expectations for each level of volunteering at the association.
What works for AAOE won’t necessarily work for every association. But leaders at every level agree that the most successful volunteers thrive thanks to a mix of self-direction and encouragement from the organization. And while a grasp of nuts-and-bolts elements of association management are valuable, especially at the upper reaches of the board, the so-called soft skills—negotiating, communicating—can mean just as much.
Starting Out on the Leadership Ladder
Cecilia Sepp, CAE, president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Administrators, has long experience in the association world and once served as president of a writers’ association. But she recently joined and volunteered with a new organization, the Association for Strategic Planning, prompting her to rethink how best to navigate those first rungs of the volunteering ladder.
For one thing, she’s more comfortable asking staff for assistance, requesting information about committee structures and expectations. Indeed, one of her tasks as a chapter leader is to help improve that documentation, producing short videos that make expectations explicit. Just as important, she sees more value in getting to understand an association’s particular culture early on.
“Organizations are mini societies,” she says. “Whenever you go into a new society you need to learn how that society’s culture works: the rules of interacting with other people, the language, how we do things, who are influencers, who are knowledge providers. Is it staff-driven? Is it member-driven? There are a lot of different questions that you need to learn the answers to, and you only get those answers through experience.”
That clarity is critical, because the first level of engagement with an association can be fragile. Though some volunteers are passionate about helping to lead an organization, an ask from staff or another volunteer is often a motivating factor. (See “What Attracts a Volunteer?” sidebar.) Just such a request prompted Todd Von Deak, CAE, founder and president of TVD Associates, to take part in leadership of the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives, where he’s now treasurer, in line to become president-elect.
It’s never too early, he says, to start thinking about the strategic-thinking skills that become more critical further along. “A little more [education] on the financials would have been great when I started,” Von Deak says. “To make that step to being a strategic partner and a collaborator in that board role, it would have been great to get some frame of reference before I started. I think I was probably a little too operational in my mindset six or seven years ago.”
Indeed, once Von Deak decided he wanted to be on track to lead the organization, he made a point to shore up both his operational and soft skills.
“I knew that it was very important to serve as treasurer for a year,” he says. “I knew that I have the financial skills to effectively run an association, but I wanted to experience the financials, from [the board] side of the table.” He also made a point of working on his connection to fellow board members. “I think that you spend a lot more time thinking about your relationships, because I think you have a better appreciation of the importance of the relationships to move things forward.”
That midpoint is also a good time to start thinking more about the broader organization, says Donna French Dunn, CAE, a senior consultant at Tecker International and former association executive. “Board leaders, not just the board chair, have a great sense of what’s also going on in the world around them,” she says. “Maybe not in every part of the environment in which we operate. But they know who has those resources and can get them easily.”
“Every leader has to envision what the challenges will be and their areas of weakness,” says Helen M. Chamberlin, a veteran of multiple cable-TV industry associations who last October became president of the National Woman’s Party and the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, an educational nonprofit focused on the history of women’s rights. “The biggest thing for me is going to be on the legislative front. I’m very interested in how we can use technology in terms of engaging but building our membership base too.”
If you’ve done it right, by the time you’ve risen to the president’s chair you’ve identified your leadership trouble spots. But the new position of authority means you have another key responsibility: challenging the next group of leaders to put their hats in the ring too.
That’s why Kujawa is focused on orientation. “Just being able to give them those core skill sets and say, ‘You have completed the program, and now you have what you need to chair at any of our councils or committees’—I think that would move it to a place that maybe gives them confidence,” she says. “So when we say, ‘Hey, is anybody interested in running for chair?’ a few people go, ‘Well, I’ve been through the training. It wasn’t that hard. I felt like I did a good job. I think I can do it.'”
Von Deak has already begun making the transition from “askee” to asker for new talent, honing his pitch to new volunteers.
“I tell them, one, I think it’s good for their professional development,” he says. “Second, I think it gives them a different perspective that allows them to do their jobs better. Third, I tell them that as we all get more experienced in this game, one of the best things we can do is take care of our community. It’s important to help make the community you work in a better place for everybody.”
The journey shouldn’t end once the president’s term is over. Dunn recommends that presidents serve on the board for one year after their term is over. That’s because they have a memory of “everything based on the strategic plan in terms of the work groups, or tasks forces with very specific charges and very specific timelines,” she says. “If we knew there was a past president with a particular area of expertise, we made sure we asked them.”
That support keeps longtime members engaged in the health of the organization, which may send a message that those starting out will be supported too. After all, the association’s next leader can come from anywhere.
“I treat every member as if they are going to be on the board of directors next week,” says Sepp.