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Association CEOs share their greatest challenges, solutions

From finding good staff to proving value to members, the hurdles facing different groups reflect the complex realities they face

August 9, 2019
By Walt Williams

Hydroelectricity was once king among renewable energy sources but as more wind and solar power has come online, and the energy sector as a whole has evolved, the industry has struggled to find its place—and its trade association has struggled to help members adapt to new market realities.

“The largest challenge we face is the significant change or transition that’s occurring within our industry right now,” said Linda Church Ciocci, former CEO of the National Hydropower Association. “The electric industry as a whole has seen significant change and we are trying to promote hydropower as part of this.”

Church Ciocci was one of several CEOs recently contacted by CEO Update and asked a single question: What is the greatest challenge you face as an association leader in doing the best job possible for members, and how are you addressing it? (CEO Update spoke with Church Ciocci before she stepped down as CEO in July after leading NHA since 1991.)

Answers ranged depending on the association and the industry it represents. Some leaders saw the greatest challenge in finding the right staff. Others sought the best ways to prove value to members. Still, no single answer dominated in the replies from eight CEOs, reflecting the complex issues association leaders face in their day-to-day jobs.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Church Ciocci

Linda Church Ciocci, former CEO, National Hydropower Association

Because there is such an uncertain future, and because we have such incredible diversity among our membership, one of the things that’s been the greatest challenge for us is uniting the industry on policy that is not at the federal level anymore. We are certainly more impacted now by what’s happening in state legislatures and in regional (commissions) around the country that are regulating the industry and addressing some of the key clean air/clean energy issues.

As a national association with a staff of 10, trying to cover all that has been almost impossible. And getting any industry members to agree on what the solutions are, when there is such a diversity among them, takes a tremendous amount of work and effort and resources before you even try to influence lawmakers. …

We’ve reallocated our staff resources in a way that a staff person is now following what is going on in the various state legislatures. … And we’ve created an internal structure within the industry that brings our industry CEOs and members together to talk about developing these broader policies and principles to guide us as we go into these individual states and regions and try to influence their individual positions.


Bobby Franklin, CEO, National Venture Capital Association

The biggest challenge is putting an effective team in place to serve the industry. You can have the best ideas, strategies, talking points and resources, but to properly serve an industry it is imperative that you have a solid team that can execute. Hiring and retaining talent is the single biggest challenge an association leader must confront.

Since Washington is such a small town, your reputation will precede you in how you treat team members, as well as the cultures that you have helped create in your past.


Kwok-Sze Richard Wong, executive director, American School Counselor Association

One of the four pillars of associations is to create a knowledge base to support a cohesive identity for the profession we serve. One of my biggest challenges as an association leader is external threats from people and organizations outside the profession who seek to shape the profession to conform with their purposes, and internal threats from current and former board members and other prominent members who distort our knowledge base and are in constant conflict with staff and other leaders, yet have a strong following as leaders of the association themselves.

We address these challenges by providing the absolute best programs and services we can for our members and by not engaging directly with the internal and external threats. This seems to be working so far, but it’s tiring and I wonder if our strategy will continue to work if the threats are gathering for a storm we haven’t anticipated.


Jeff Morgan, CEO, Club Management Association of America

In an environment where there is so much changing for CMAA’s membership and so many new opportunities for CMAA to provide member value, the challenge is ensuring we are doing the most valuable things for members. We address this by asking members about their challenges and potential solutions continuously; having a nimble strategic plan and board with a passion for change; empowering staff to be entrepreneurial; viewing our association as one that is on a journey of continuous evolution; and also knowing that staff and volunteers are partners always striving for what is best for our membership.


Melissa Hockstad, CEO, American Cleaning Institute

Our team is working right now to ensure that our forthcoming strategic plan overhaul is meaningful and is laser-focused on staying true to ACI’s purpose and priorities. As the trade association for the cleaning product supply chain, we want our board and our membership to clearly see that the association will be able to address rapidly evolving challenges that can affect innovation and ‘speed-to-market.’ We need to be nimble enough to address regulatory or marketplace ‘curve balls’ while still maintaining the discipline to deliver on our year-to-year programmatic and issue priorities.


Alison Keane, CEO, Flexible Packaging Association

The biggest challenge is overcoming revenue shortfalls due to mergers and acquisitions (the industry had 33 in the past year alone). We are tackling it by raising dues levels; revamping our meeting sponsorship programs; and convening a board-level workgroup to develop a strategic plan for membership going forward.


Claude Aiken, CEO, WISPA

My biggest challenge is capturing passion. We represent entrepreneurial, bootstrapped ISPs who care deeply about serving their community and are very engaged in their businesses. Many have devoted a lot of time and effort to running the association. Now that the association has transitioned more from volunteer-driven to staff-driven, I understand the desire to re-focus on your core business. At the same time that passion and engagement was, and is, critical to the continued success of WISPA.


Susan Fox, executive director, Acoustical Society of America

The biggest and most important challenge I face as an association leader is understanding how best to develop leadership capacity among staff and volunteers. This, to me, is at the heart of associations and our role in contributing to professional development, industry growth and enriching the bonds of society-at-large. …

To effectively lead others, our first obligation is to lead ourselves. The more we stretch the better we lead. We become authentic, we connect, we enrich. When we lead with clarity we lead from a place of wholeheartedness, empowered centeredness. Embracing our humanity in all its messy, joyful, frustrating, enraging, uplifting glory gives us the means to realize some mighty powerful ends. Doing so honestly requires courage, the capacity to change internally while managing an often-confusing multitude of external changes.

No small task yet so necessary for our own well-being and for those with who surround us. To me, this is the challenge at the heart of all challenges