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Chief executives recount their rookie mistakes, learning curve

Veteran leaders talk about times they tried to move too quickly or didn’t pay attention to culture while still new to the position

Smith, Goldren, CoppockFrom left, Smith, Golden and Coppock

Aug. 10, 2018
By Walt Williams

Everyone has a rookie season. Association CEOs are no exception, and with inexperience comes mistakes.

CEO Update recently asked six CEOs, each with several years of experience, to think back to their early days of association leadership and recall when they made a bad play or struck out altogether. The idea wasn’t to gather embarrassing stories but rather to seek input about what lessons they learned that could be helpful to others.

“Leadership is a never-ending cycle of life lessons and applied learning, and I often say if you’re not eating crow every day, you don’t have a well-balanced diet,” said Peggy Smith, CEO of Worldwide ERC, an association for the global workforce mobility industry. “I made mistakes early on, (but) I still make them, and I still learn from them.”

Often, the errors resulted from assumptions the rookie leaders had coming into the job. Smith thought she knew her new staffers well enough, and that they knew her. Mark Golden relied too much on what a search committee said the association wanted and underestimated the importance of culture. Geoffrey Brown didn’t realize he needed to be more proactive about the transition to his new role.

The following responses were submitted in writing and have been edited for length and clarity.

Peggy Smith, CEO, Worldwide ERC

When I transitioned from a for-profit company (and a member and officer position in my organization) to CEO in 2010, there were a few things in play in our association. … I immediately embarked on a listening tour with the membership and had a number of no-holds-barred conversations with the board to map out a plan based on current priorities and initiatives.

My listening-tour instincts were good, but I didn’t complete the circle. Because there was so much to be done quickly, because the staff seemed steady and poised to work with me (and I knew many of them from having been a member and served in the association’s leadership), I failed to do some of the most important work first.

I didn’t take the time to get to know them as the CEO, to find out who they were, what made them tick—to really learn about them as individuals. When I had to make some difficult staff decisions, I had not built the trust needed so that my team understood why these decisions were made. I didn’t take the time to properly educate them about the actions I was taking for the greater good of the organization. I paid a price for not hitting the pause button and being more present with them—and to let them know me as well.

It was hurtful to our relationship short-term, but even more, I’ve found that the effects of that misstep sometimes emerge here and there even today. I learned that culture is both a beauty and a beast—it holds us together in the best of times, but when not respected, it pulls us apart. If I had this to do over, I wouldn’t move any slower. That was a luxury I couldn’t afford! But I would shift the percentage of time I spent learning about the needs and wants of the staff, board and membership so that I gave a proper balance of attention to each area.

Mark Golden, CEO, National Society of Professional Engineers

The biggest rookie mistake I remember from one of my first CEO assignments was assuming that the kind of staff leadership the search committee had stressed they wanted was actually the kind of leader they were prepared to work with. Throughout the search and interview process they had stressed the need for a make-it-happen leader, who would hit the ground running and engage the board in active leadership, replacing the established board practice of multiple daylong meetings entirely consumed with oral reading of reports that had already been provided them in three thick binders ahead of time.

I took the tactics and techniques I had learned from experience worked well with my previous boards, worked hand-in-glove with the elected president, and designed our first board meeting of my tenure in ways that would use the board’s time wisely and provide an opportunity to engage in informed and strategic discussions. I thought things were going well until I noticed that during the lunch break the officers (most of whom had served on the search committee) huddled together to talk about what they were going to do about a brewing board revolt. (One board member had actually asked why I was talking; their CEO had never talked at board meetings before. They were used to the CEO being merely a traffic cop with the board agenda who kept any reservations about the direction they were going to himself.)

Moral of the story: Culture trumps everything. That isn’t an invitation to just accept and live with the prevailing governance culture, but ignore it at your risk! You need to go into it with eyes open and not underestimate what it takes to move culture.

Happy ending: Rookie mistakes can be overcome. Within a year, we had changed the board culture AND the board saw it universally as an improvement. I went on to a more than decade-long and very successful tenure with that group.

Daren Coppock, CEO, Agricultural Retailers Association

Anticipate questions from your board so you’ll be prepared to answer them.  This is particularly true regarding financial statements. If you have gone through the report ahead of time and can provide an explanation on the spot why a particular account is overbudget, you’ll earn the trust of your board. It’s not a great situation to have formula errors or, “Um, I hadn’t noticed that,” as your answer.

I presented a budget to my executive committee that had a formula error so the end total of expenses was inaccurate.  One of them caught it before it was presented to the full board for approval, but it was a little embarrassing to present an inaccurate budget.

Always follow the provisions of the bylaws to the letter.  Even if a set of unusual circumstances causes you to want to apply them differently in a particular case, the only authority and the only solid ground you have is the bylaws. Straying from their exact provisions won’t end well.

This actually occurred at a pool association where I was board president for a couple of years. The association’s bylaws lay out a very strict and detailed timeline for handling elections. I had noticed an error in a ballot we sent out for a board election—a simple omission—and attempted to correct it by sending out a corrected ballot. The bylaws make no provision for correcting ballots; the correct procedure was to cancel the election and start the process all over again with the correct information. That’s what we eventually did, but not before receiving criticism from association members for mishandling the procedure, and some even leveled (unfounded) accusations of attempting to rig the election.

Sloan, Brown, GallagherFrom left, Sloan, Brown and Gallagher

Larry Sloan, CEO, American Industrial Hygiene Association

The situation involved making a strategic decision without conferring with my board chair.

I was very intent on doing what I could to retain a rather large member. So I cut them a deal on their dues but did not discuss with my chair or anyone else on the executive committee (such as my treasurer). Word then got back to some folks on my board that a deal had been cut. Naturally at our next meeting I had some “’splainin” to do.

The lesson I learned early on is that it is always best to consult with your board chair before making any major decision that you would not want to have to explain “alone” at a board meeting. I tried to rationalize my error as one that was operational in nature. However cutting dues on a rather large prominent member crossed over into “strategic” territory that the chair should have been privy to.

And at the very least, having your chair as your advocate helps to CYA if there is a lot of static from the board. Which in this case there was. And I had no safety net in the room. I recall that the meeting had gone so well up to this point. And that after this all went down, I felt lousy for days thereafter.

Geoffrey Brown, CEO, National Association of Personal Financial Advisors

One of the key lessons I took away from that look back  was never assume that you’re going to be handed a nice tidy package to take over on day one and be very explicit with your volunteer contacts about the transition process. Before I started in my role I was really focused on transitioning out of my previous position and not about the role I was walking into. During the transition, I was casual in my interactions with volunteers and staff because I wanted to feel everyone out.

At the time, it made sense to take this approach. However, looking back, taking a more active approach could have headed off a number of issues that I had to deal with in what should have been my honeymoon phase.

Plan out your transition. Take the time to determine the best approach for winding down your current role and beginning your new one. I didn’t do that, which meant not having the think time to prepare for my new role.

Set expectations with your new organization. Ask the volunteers/staff to refrain from entering into any major contracts or new initiatives until the transition is complete and you’ve had time to dive into the process used to reach the decision.

Retaining key employees can make your life easier in the beginning. In my first few weeks, I had to replace two key resources, which took time and energy away from other areas of focus. Make sure that key staff members are locked down through an agreed-upon transition period.

Know the landscape. Understand what policy or organizational changes are slated for announcement in the first few months and the process undertaken to get there. If possible, put a freeze on any non-mission-critical changes until you’ve had time to get situated.

Mike Gallagher, CEO, Entertainment Software Association

As a new association head, I was new to the world of trade shows. The calendar had E3, ESA’s trade show, falling one month after I started. We made the decision for efficiency reasons to schedule meetings at the ESA office activation center. By overweighting efficiency, I missed the opportunity to experience the event through the lens of each member and see first-hand the diversity of experiences that each member created during the show.

That first E3 was the last time I did that. Every E3 is now a “road game” for me, and I make it a top priority and required practice to meet with industry leaders in their booths and in their suites. The magic comes from our members. Video games are fantastically engaging. That’s why we have over 2.6 billion gamers in the world. You only experience that truth by diving into the worlds that they create. That curiosity and excitement has defined my leadership approach for the past decade.