Success as an association CEO takes strong association management acumen and a deep understanding of members. But most CEOs come with career experience in one or the other, as association professionals or industry practitioners. Two new executives share how they’ve adapted in their first year on the job. Though their backgrounds are widely different, their stories are much alike.
The typical association executive has one job but works in two fields: association management and the industry or community the association serves. One minute she’s tracking membership numbers, and the next she’s learning the latest in oncology, community banking, or nanotechnology (or whatever the case may be).
This presents a dilemma for association boards: When it’s time to find a new CEO, does the hiring committee look for a candidate with expertise in associations or in its members’ field? It is an age-old question for membership groups, and there may be no universal answer.
For a new CEO, however, the path is clear: Leverage the experience his or her career arc has provided and work to fill in the other side of the equation. Associations Now spoke with two association CEOs just more than a year into their tenures, one from associations and one from the field, to find out how they’re fitting in to their new roles.
Being a servant leader is really about—I’m thinking of an orchestra director. It’s about all the pieces coming together and facilitating the process so we achieve a great outcome.
The Association Expert
Wendy-Jo Toyama, MBA, CAE
Title: Executive Director, American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association
Started: September 2014
Previous experience: 10 years at the American Dental Association
Wendy-Jo Toyama, MBA, CAE, had risen through the ranks in about 10 years at the American Dental Association when a colleague at an association-industry symposium asked her if a CEO seat was in her plans. “I don’t know that I had consciously thought of it before then, but when somebody asked me, it got me thinking about what I wanted to do next,” she says.
Eventually she found a match in the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association, whose previous executive director had retired after 25 years. It was evident, Toyama says, that ACPA sought an association management skill set in its next leader, so she touted her time at ADA in interviews for the position. The division and programs she led at ADA made for a “microcosm of an association,” encompassing member operations, nondues revenue generation, and close interaction with the ADA board of trustees.
When she was hired as executive director in September 2014, that experience came in handy right from the start. ACPA had long been affiliated with the University of North Carolina, but it was time to become independent, which was job one for Toyama upon her arrival. In her first year she also tackled a stalled software implementation, a bylaws rewrite, a new strategic plan, and an analysis of ACPA’s committee structure.
“Having worked in different-sized organizations provided a sense of what kind of resources are required to support the number of committees and committee members that we currently have,” she says. “I also think that, as you’re looking at bringing your governing documents in line, just having had experience with 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(6)s, parliamentary procedure, and all those kinds of things made it easier than it would be if you didn’t have that background.”
The cleft-palate medical field, however, was new territory for Toyama. Not just the science but even the members’ work environment—most often at an institution, hospital, or university—is different. “It’s been very helpful to learn how that affects what they do and how they work and interact with our association differently than the dentists, who are entrepreneurs working in their own solo practice, largely,” she says.
Toyama devoted much of her time in her first year to knowledge gathering and relationship building. In addition to reading as much as she could about the cleft-palate field, she conducted about 40 “listening conversations” with board members and longtime ACPA members. She also traveled to related industry conferences (such as that of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons) with the ACPA employee team to meet members, walk the expo floor, and sit in on education sessions. And she visited a few cleft centers, as well, including the center at the University of Michigan, where her daughter is a graduate student.
“What I love to do is ask members to share the story about how they got into cleft palate work,” Toyama says. “That is an interesting question, and I learn a lot about our members, about the profession, about our patients, and why they do what they do. It has really been invaluable.”
Toyama says she has begun to feel more confident now that she’s into the second year of her CEO tenure. “It’s kind of like breaking in a pair of shoes,” she says. “I’m in the role now and it feels like a good fit, compared to one month in, when you’re still learning.”
By early 2016, ACPA was at a four-year membership high. Toyama credits the success to all of ACPA’s employees and volunteer leaders.
“Being a servant leader is really about—I’m thinking of an orchestra director,” she says. “It’s about all the pieces coming together and facilitating the process so we achieve a great outcome.”
Culture is important in any organization, but I think, particularly in an association, culture is critical.
The Industry Veteran
Thomas Connelly Jr., Ph.D.
Title: Executive Director and CEO, American Chemical Society
Started: February 2015
Previous experience: 36 years at DuPont
Thomas Connelly Jr., Ph.D., learned from an executive search firm that the American Chemical Society was looking for a new CEO in 2014. Connelly knew ACS well; in 30 years at DuPont, the last nine as executive vice president and chief innovation officer, he had been an ACS member and volunteer, and his professional connection with outgoing CEO Madeleine Jacobs went back a couple decades.
“Frankly, this looked like a very interesting opportunity,” he says. ACS is one of the largest scientific societies in the world, with 158,000 members and nearly 2,000 employees. Connelly’s experience in leading multibillion-dollar business ventures and overseeing divisions within DuPont—some larger than ACS itself—gave him strong selling points in interviews with ACS, which sought a leader from the chemistry field for its top job.
Part of that job is serving as a spokesperson for the industry. Just a month after beginning as executive director and CEO in February 2015, Connelly stepped into the spotlight at one of ACS’s two national conferences.
“I was on my feet in front of more than a dozen audiences, talking about everything from my vision for the organization to meeting new councilors [members of the ACS Council governing body] to dealing with the donors on the development side of things. So, it really was a total-immersion-type experience,” he says.
While ACS has a firmly established role in chemical science, Connelly is tasked with leading its continuing evolution. “The needs of our membership are changing. We need to continually reinvent ourselves to maintain our relevance and maintain the value that we bring to our membership,” he says. “So, that’s been an area of focus. And, again, that’s something in my industrial career that was part of what I did every day.”
Connelly got started on relationship building early, traveling to a few ACS events even before his official start date, and that continued in his first year, both within and beyond the association’s walls. He speaks with the chair of the ACS board weekly and with each board member at least once a quarter, and he has also met with executives at several other scientific societies, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “These are people that I’ve known and interacted with and they’ve become good thought partners and sponsors,” he says.
They’ve also been a resource for Connelly as he has learned the nuances of association management. “Having 15 bosses is different from having one, so getting used to reporting to a board—it’s been a new experience for me,” he says. And “working with a very, very large number of volunteers is something that you don’t come across [elsewhere].”
Connelly had previous experience serving on nonprofit boards and as a volunteer—“the world of the membership organization is certainly familiar to me,” he says—but he credits fellow staff at ACS for guidance on leading those groups from the executive side: “People have been incredibly friendly and welcoming and helpful.”
Connelly’s advice for other new association CEOs is to learn the culture. “Culture is important in any organization, but I think, particularly in an association, culture is critical.” Otherwise, the leap from the corporate world to an association hasn’t been too much of a shock. “Leading an organization is about leading people,” he says. “And people are people whether they’re in the association or another not-for-profit or in the for-profit industry. So, I’m really more struck by the similarities than I am by the differences.”