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Mason advises association leaders to try new things that might or might not work

Mason takes on risks and embraces the unknown as CEO of Association Forum


Aug. 28, 2020

CEO Update: How are you meeting the challenges of a pandemic and economic crisis?

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Michelle Mason: We have three pandemics simultaneously: social, health and economic. And so the way we are addressing the pandemics is providing our members with the most current and up-to-date resources to help them make business decisions and help them navigate this challenging period of time. We convene conversation circles on a monthly basis. I have a podcast series where I invite content contributors or thought leaders in to provide a perspective on the current pandemics.

I don’t think there’s just one right answer. I think we are trying a variety of approaches. And (it’s about) being resilient and agile and  flexible. We have to try these new things, and if they’re not working, we need to be intuitive. … We have to pivot, and we have to look for new solutions and be open to that change. I’m giving (my staff) the opportunity to take risks.

CU: What lessons have you learned about leading virtually?

MM: The first priority for me was to make sure my team was okay and had the resources … that they needed to be successful in this virtual environment.

Ongoing, consistent communication with your team and stakeholders is critical during this time. We have individual one-on-one meetings; we have weekly meetings. In addition to that, we have Monday Happy Hour. … We come together as a team at four o’clock on Mondays to just not talk about work, but just get to know each other. And that really has evolved into learning more about the personal lives of our team members. ... I would initially plan the activities, but now the team’s taking responsibility to plan the activities.

On a monthly basis, we have town hall meetings, and that’s when I provide the team (with) information on where we are today as a business. That could be: What is our time schedule for reopening? It could be the updating of our HR policies. It could be a financial review of where we are to date.

CU: How has the crisis changed your vision for the future of Association Forum?

MM: (We are taking) a hard look at our business model, so as we look at 2021, we’ll be well positioned to offer new products and services to members that will help them navigate the new reality.

Associations are businesses. We need to be more entrepreneurial and that will emerge as new opportunities for us. We will need to partner and leverage resources. (We’ll need) to think more about … hiring for digital and mobile skills. But in addition to that, hire for entrepreneurial thinking, hire for curiosity, hire for taking risk. … You can teach the basics of association management.

We will not have a choice but to take more calculated risk in doing things in a very different way. Everything that I’ve worked on, everything that I’ve done to this point is preparing me for that unknown. And I look forward to it. I embrace it.

CU: What advice or lessons would you pass along to a new CEO?

MM: Surround yourself (with) good people. When I think about a “Welcoming Environment,” I’m thinking about not only those that think like you, but those that do not think like you, too. We’re in very different times.

Be open to saying you don’t know. You don’t have to have all the answers, and that’s why you hire good people who could help you find the answers. I have learned and grown to appreciate the importance of the team. I’ve learned that you’re only as good as your team, and they’re your greatest asset. … That’s proven true now during this pandemic.

Just as our organizations are evolving, we are evolving as well. I tell my team all the time … ‘We are writing a new playbook while we’re playing the game.’

CU: You have a BA, MS and MBA. How do you go about learning as CEO?

MM: During this pandemic, I’m starting to want to appreciate the more creative side of learning because (as CEO) you’re confronted with so many challenges every day. And so I just had to stop one moment and say, ‘Look, I need to learn something new that’s totally outside this field.’ So I started taking guitar lessons online. … It’s causing me to really focus on something new and creative and artistic. (I’m) exercising the other side of my brain.


Leads “association of associations” in Chicago: Before joining Association Forum as CEO in 2014, Mason was managing director, strategy and innovation, at Milwaukee-based American Society for Quality. Previously, she was vice president for strategic and future-focused research at ASAE.

Proudest accomplishment: Leading the Forum’s Welcoming Environment initiative. “I’ve always been passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion. It gives me great purpose in life. … And for me ... to have a platform to introduce this to the association community—and look back and bring others forward—is the greatest gift.”

Love of teaching: Mason has been an adjunct professor at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee and Strayer University in Washington, D.C. “I was an adult learner, and I worked and I went to school full time to do undergraduate and graduate school. So it’s a way of … helping others to understand that you, too, can achieve your goals.”