The Personality-in-Chief: The Case for CEO Authenticity

As the face of an organization, how a CEO presents to members, staff, and the public matters. Many association chief staff executives say they are most effective when they bring their full selves to the role, using open communication and connections to establish personal, authentic, and transparent relationships with the people they serve.

When Irving Washington, FASAE, CAE, became a first-time association chief staff executive four years ago, he had a lurking suspicion that followed him through his first year as executive director at the Online News Association (ONA): Maybe he wasn’t cut out for the job.

Although other CEOs and advisors assured him that “imposter syndrome” is common among new leaders, it took Washington some time to realize that his uneasiness stemmed from something that was missing from the job—himself.

“At first, I wasn’t sleeping well, even though all of the results [and] boxes were being checked off,” he says. “Really it wasn’t until I started bringing my most comfortable self to work that things changed.”

Washington gradually relaxed and let his personality come out. He started to speak openly about his identity as an African-American CEO, regularly commenting on diversity and inclusion issues. He began sharing his personal interests, which include travel, distance running, and a “quirkier habit,” the obsessive study of research on happiness.

All of this, he says, made him more confident, comfortable, and happy as a leader. He embraced the connection between his professional and personal life and gained an appreciation of the importance of taking care of himself.

“When I started opening up with other CEOs, I was dumbfounded by the fact that people weren’t talking about self-care at all, or [about] you as a person in this role,” he says. “That’s when it really clicked for me that I had to make it a priority to act in a more open, transparent, and authentic way if I was going to succeed in this role.”

That realization helped Washington connect more deeply with his staff, and last year, the momentum carried forward into the creation of a strategic document that for the first time defines ONA’s staff values. The list includes self-care, diversity, inclusion, and respect, among other things.

“We did this exercise as a team, and now everyone knows, as we onboard and hire, what our staff values are because they’re in writing,” he says. “I consider it one of my top priorities to model these values as best as possible, and if I’m not [doing that], to acknowledge it.”

Stay Social

Washington also lets his personality emerge in public-facing interactions with ONA members and the broader journalism community.

He injects humor and fun into his social media accounts, maintaining an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. He routinely blends posts about his personal and professional life, and he uses the platforms to advocate for the journalism profession. (See “Influencers-in-Chief” above.)

“I look at my social media as an extension of who I am,” Washington says. “I’m connected to nearly all of our board members, most of my staff, and thousands of community members. I look at it in the same way I do establishing an in-person interaction.”

Susan Avery, CAE, CEO of the International Association of Plastics Distribution, views her LinkedIn presence in a similar light. She has almost 18,000 followers on the platform, with whom she regularly shares news and information related to IAPD and the plastics industry.

To make LinkedIn part of her weekly routine, Avery sits down for about an hour on “social media Sundays,” posting articles and links to inspire, educate, and inform her followers.

“For our industry, LinkedIn is extremely important in establishing that connection first,” she says. “I’ve found that by the time I introduce myself to someone, they already know something about me” from what she shares on social media.

Avery also engages directly with members on Twitter, retweeting members’ posts, liking or sharing comments, and posting information that promotes IAPD events, including annual meetings and legislative fly-ins. And while she tweets from her personal account, she credits IAPD’s social media, marketing, and communications team for creating what feels like personal and direct engagement with members from the organization’s accounts.

“We’re pretty out there and progressive with our social media use,” Avery says.

But even CEOs who feel comfortable speaking and sharing openly on social media or in other public forums need to continuously calibrate that activity. At IAPD, the president and vice president are elected by members to serve one-year terms, which means Avery frequently adjusts her leadership style.

“I can scale up or scale back depending on those around me,” she says. “So, maybe one year I need to be the more vocal, active leader, but next year it’s about working from behind to build consensus and create grassroots buy-in.”

Creative Outlet

While maintaining a social presence comes naturally to some, National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) CEO Eric Lanke, CAE, a self-described introvert, has worked hard to develop that skill.

“In a way, being an introvert is a kind of strength,” he says. “I can view social interactions that I need to engage in as tasks that I should perform well. Then, after I’m on for most of the day, whether it’s interacting with the board or members, I can give myself some downtime to recharge the batteries.”

He found a creative outlet that’s not typically part of an association CEO’s day-to-day job but helped him become more self-aware. “I was not an association professional by training. I was an English major,” he says. “My love of writing and my blog is that outlet that’s all about me.”

Lanke has been blogging for more than a decade, and he often shares leadership or life lessons in his posts. He reviews books he’s recently read and self-publishes short stories and other fiction, including chapters from his novels (his eighth, Dragons, is forthcoming).

“I’ve certainly met people that I would not have otherwise [met] as a result of putting this information out there in the world,” he says. “The blog has also established business and personal relationships, and it’s been a very exciting and intriguing experience that I won’t stop any time soon.”

In a post last year, having logged 12 years at NFPA, Lanke shared insights he says are helping him reassess his leadership role as a long-tenured CEO. “As the president/CEO, I am not just the institutional knowledge of the association. I, in fact, am the association, in a way that no single other person can be,” he wrote. “Not only do I know where we’ve been, I also know where we’re going and am actively working with [the] board and other staff members to make that happen.”

While that may sound like a bold assertion, Lanke says that knowing himself and how others are likely to see him ensures that he leads with authenticity.

“If you’re not who you say you are, or you’re hiding things, you won’t get far,” he says. “There’s a real need for me to be myself in all aspects of my life if I’m going to interact and engage with people who trust me enough to lead them through the next challenge.”

(Leonard Mc Lane/Getty Images)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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