To Stay on the Bull, Learn From Other Riders


Being a CEO today is a little like riding a bull. The experience is guaranteed to be bumpy.

But, if you have half an hour to listen to someone else’s story, you can learn a lot about how others manage the challenge. The leaders I interview for my Association 4.0 podcast encourage me to think in unexpected ways. Their insights offer multiple perspectives on our community. These unique viewpoints are especially valuable in a business and cultural environment where a rough ride is something every leader should take for granted.

Recently, I spoke with Sharon H. Kneebone, FASAE, CAE. Sharon is executive director of the National Society for Histotechnology. NSH is the professional organization for individuals actively engaged in the histology field. Since its founding over 40 years ago, NSH’s member community has grown to include over 3,000 histology professionals from around the world. The organization’s mission is to shape the future of Histotechnology through a global community of professionals committed to educating, advocating, and driving patient quality.

NSH is definitely an organization you should know. If you’ve ever had a biopsy, you’ve probably benefited from its members’ expertise. Histotechnologists are the professionals who prepare specimens so that a pathologist can make a diagnosis. They save lives one slide at a time.

This group does their most important work behind the scenes; but when it comes to foresight, they definitely lead the pack. “We anticipated some disruption,” Sharon advises. “We began our digital transformation in 2016. By 2017 we were a virtual workforce.

“Early in the pandemic I called a meeting to explore how my team was coping with the disruption. Everyone was experiencing a sense of cognitive dissonance,” Sharon recalls. “Our disconnect was that while most of the association community was slowing down, NSH was accelerating activity. Between November 2019 and October 2020, we implemented new AMS and learning management systems, refreshed our brand, and revised our membership model,” Sharon recalls. “As we were ramping up, we were also pivoting. We planned our annual meeting three times.”

To Care for the Group, Take Care of Yourself

When you are the CEO everyone feeds off your energy

Sharon shared one opinion that I’ve heard across the board over the last two years. “We’ve been sprinting a marathon, and we’re exhausted,” she explained. “We had some staff turnover. I worked for over two months without a day off. Our organization is part of the healthcare industry. And while the micro side of the lab was over-extended, the anatomic side shut down for a while because there were no elective surgeries.

“It’s been challenging keeping the group sustained. But when you’re the chief executive everyone feeds off your energy. You have to know how to take care of yourself because each time you think that you’ve reached the goalpost, it’s been moved a little farther forward.”

Sharon is not alone in this realization. The goal posts won’t stop moving. I was curious to learn how she thinks associations and their CEOs can best navigate a future that demands both extreme business acumen and emotional stamina.

“In my mind, there has to be less dogma,” Sharon responded. “The adage ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ is no longer acceptable. We have to be intentional. And at the same time, we must have three or four new ideas or irons in the fire.”

Maintain Cash Flow While Funding the Future

Sharon compared this approach to McKinsey’s Horizons for Growth, a strategy for sustaining current performance while expanding future opportunities. The first horizon is maintaining the core business that provides reliable cash flow. The second is becoming entrepreneurial enough to discover emerging opportunities that may become highly profitable with significant investment. The third horizon moves on to identify more speculative future revenue generators, such as research and pilot projects.

Leaders today must be transformational.

“Today, that timeline is accelerating. As the goal posts move farther away, the horizon grows closer,” Sharon observed. “There is a need for executives who are able to use change to meet their objectives. “Leaders who don’t want to rock the boat are actually doing a disservice to their association. The organization is going to be left behind. The future of the association industry must be transformational. We need leaders who can bridge vision and reality. They must move quickly and bring everybody along.”

What exactly does it mean to be a transformational leader? Although the style is well suited to the current marketplace, the concept isn’t a product of the digital era. It was coined back in 1970 by presidential biographer and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns. Another leadership guru, Kevin Ford, distinguishes among leadership styles like this:

  • Tactical leaders are operations experts who focus on problem-solving.
  • Strategic leaders look toward the future and forecast trends.
  • Transformational leaders are facilitators who can inspire the strong organizational collaboration that drives a vision toward reality.

Learn to Use Disruption

Of course, strong leaders need all three qualities and then some. But in the past the emphasis has been on the first two. Disruption sows opportunities. Transformational leaders understand how to use them to move forward. I asked Sharon where she thinks CEOs can find advantage.

“One of the biggest opportunities,” Sharon advised, “is a strong call to shed legacy programs and services that no longer fulfill their purpose. I’m a Navy brat, and every time we moved, my mother threw out more than the last time. She would say you have to be ruthless. You have to get rid of this excess baggage because you don’t want to ship it from duty station to duty station. To me that’s a really great analogy to what we need to do as organizations.

“In addition to stale programs, we must also abandon unproductive attitudes. We need to let go of the idea of returning to normal. We are living in an age of disruption that calls for flexibility, transformation, and a looser grip. You have limited control over the environment, but you can control how you respond to it.”

That looser grip is key. The digital marketplace won’t offer a smooth ride. But it can provide excitement, success, and satisfaction for leaders who face each challenge as an opportunity to learn and are always prepared to take a new approach.

To hear more advice from association executives who are riding the bull and staying on board, follow the Association 4.0 podcast.

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