When Needing Help Is an Asset

Too often, our image of a strong leader is somebody who flies solo. As one association CEO learned, even strong leaders need help sometimes. When they get it and share it with others, the entire organization benefits.

Randy Moore, CEO of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, understands both sides of the old “industry versus association experience” debate. Moore was a nurse anesthetist before taking on leadership roles in the association world, and that background knowledge served him well when he took the reins of AANA in 2017.

“Leadership is leadership regardless of where you’re at,” he says.

In addition, he recognized that “there’s also subject-matter expertise that you have to develop around leading a large nonprofit association.” But Moore exemplifies the idea that perhaps we put a little too much stock in that discussion of industry vs. association experience. For Moore, the critical questions are: Do you have the internal capacity to handle what leadership demands, and are you willing to coach others through their own leadership challenges?

Any good leader takes calculated risks, and if you feel you can’t do that, the organization suffers.

Moore wrote candidly about his own struggle on this front in a recent article for Association Ventures Playbook, describing an “existential crisis” he experienced in his second year in the CEO chair. Metrics and KPIs are meaningful for an association, but Moore discovered that those kinds of external validators weren’t making him any more comfortable in his position. Successes were causes to celebrate, but setbacks were especially hard.

“When you’re chasing rainbows and that high of accomplishment, when you get hit with adversity, regardless of whether it’s fair or unfair, you don’t have a high degree of resilience,” he says.

A big part of the solution, for Moore, was simple: He owned up to the struggle and found people to help him through it. An executive coach helped him imagine a definition of satisfaction beyond the last quarter’s membership figures. But going through a coaching process helped him become a better, more decisive leader as well.

“When you become more comfortable with making decisions—and you’re simply more comfortable in your own skin—you feel more comfortable taking risks,” he says. “Any good leader takes calculated risks, and if you’re feeling as though you can’t do that, then the organization suffers.”

Since then, Moore has been motivated to coach AANA staffers as well. His approach doesn’t focus on hitting target numbers. Instead, he values growth: As he writes in his Association Ventures Playbook piece, “building a culture focused on performance may not be the best, healthiest, or most sustainable way to fuel results.”

Moore’s intentional approach to growth coaching focuses on quarterly conversations with senior staff that are related to the goals of the organization, but not strictly connected to them. There are plenty of opportunities to talk about keeping the trains running on time and planning for professional development; coaching talks aren’t that.

“I strongly recommend carving out and protecting deep conversations with your staff that don’t have a transactional structure,” he says. “You want to know how they’re doing, what they’re struggling with, and how you can help. A lot of people think coaching is telling people what to do, but when you’re coaching for growth, you’re asking questions from a purely curious perspective, not intended outcomes.”

To that end, Moore tries to stifle what he calls the “advice monster”—the urge to tell direct reports what they ought to do. Better, he says, to have a conversation where they can settle on a direction on their own. And lest this seem a little paternalistic, Moore says that these coaching sessions work both ways: They’re opportunities for staffers to brings questions to Moore about his own leadership approach.

“I’m showing up vulnerable too,” he says. “I know they’re going to ask me questions. And one of the questions I ask is, ‘If you’re my coach, what would you tell me I need to be working on?’”

Organizations stigmatize failures too often, Moore says. Open discussion about where they’re struggling keep organizations from creating false images of success and allow them to imagine different approaches.

“We’re always so focused on trying to be perceived a certain way, but we need to be able to say, ‘I screwed that up, that was a bad decision, and this is what I learned from it, and I’m going to own that,’” he says. “I think leaders need to do that more frequently, because it’s powerful when it’s done consistently.”

(3D_generator/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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