Insites from New CEOs

We asked three new association CEOs the following questions to learn about their career paths and insights on issues facing the industry. The three interviewed were Christina Lewellen, MBA, CAE (CL), Executive Director, Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools; Sarah Mattes Marshall, CAE (SM), Executive Director, VA College of Emergency Physicians; and Abby Tammen (AT), CEO, Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS.

How did you prepare for becoming a CEO?

CL: Having had leadership roles in communications, marketing, and membership, I earned an MBA to expand my business expertise and eventually earned the CAE credential as an association-specific complement to my MBA. I was an active observer of leaders of all stripes and learned a lot from CEOs both inside and outside the association space. I noted traits I wanted to emulate that lined up with my personal values as well as ways I would never behave when I made my way to executive leadership.

SM: When preparing to interview for the job, I did a ton of research on executive director interviews and onboarding and prepared six pages of notes and questions. It felt important to demonstrate that I had the right kind of ideas to help the organization move forward, so I prepared a few proposals I thought might benefit them. This led to being prepared on day one with a couple of wins I could implement quickly.

AT: I’ve been an association manager at various levels since graduate school and participated in Meeting Professionals International – Virginia Chapter and VSAE to become aware of current trends and build a network of peers. My best training for how to be a better association manager has come through my mistakes and the graciousness of supervisors who helped me get through the immediate situation and reflect on how to do things better once the dust settled.

Who was/were your mentor(s)?

CL:  Nicole Harris, the CEO of the National Glass Association, is a brilliant leader who taught me the best way to serve your members is to treat your association like a business so you can invest in programs that make a difference. I also had a fabulous accounting professor during my MBA program, Dan Tessoni, who taught us that businesses (and associations) don’t exist to give me a job or provide health insurance for my family. They exist to make money to reinvest in the industry. I’ve seen some association execs shy away from the truth that we must make money.

SM: The inimitable Bob Ramsey. Bob has done so much to help me find my feet in this role and it feels really good to have someone I can turn to when I have questions or ideas. 

AT: Dr. Bob Hassmiller and I worked together for a decade at National Association of College Auxiliary Services (NACAS). He grew to be a boss that was also a father figure, friend, confidant, and trusted advisor. It was his genuineness, generosity, self-deprecation, and unwavering support of his staff that made me want to emulate his leadership style.

What did you wish you knew before taking over as CEO?

CL: There’s no handbook on the right and wrong way to be a CEO. You have to trust your gut and rely on what you’ve learned along the way, holding firm to the belief that “you’ve got this” because every role comes with baggage. The shift to a new executive always has some reasons behind it that you need to learn and embrace as quickly as possible. It will help you navigate the social and political landscape in your early days. 

SM: Everything. Going through the CAE process, 1.5 years into this job, is really eye-opening about all the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. I joke that the reading is going so slowly because I keep getting ideas and have to stop and write them down. I also read The New CEO’s Guide by Beth Brooks, which I finished about a year into the job, and I wish I had read it immediately before starting. I think I would have been far more organized and realistic.

AT: How to delegate more.  

What was the biggest “ah-ha” moment for you as a new CEO?

CL: That I should get out of my team’s way and let them do what they’re great at. I inherited a small but mighty staff and they had been holding down the fort for many months before my arrival. My strategy was to jump in and help them, rather than march in with an agenda. It turned out to be a good approach given all that transpired in the last 18 months. 

SM: That sometimes I need to shut up! I am an incurable idea person and it’s taken a lot for me to learn how to lead without dominating a conversation (and I’m still working on it!). VSAE’s Association Leadership Virginia and education for the CAE have helped identify areas where I struggle and provided tools to improve myself.

AT: In previous positions as a senior staffer, I always had a supervisor who made the tough calls. As the CEO, the buck stops at my door and I call upon every ounce of calm and confidence I’ve built up over the years to answer the tough questions.  

What is the greatest challenge you faced in your first year?

CL: My first year started with a transition from an operational/founders’ board to a more strategic-focused governance structure and ended with a global pandemic. From June 2019 to June 2020, I held on for dear life and just hoped that hard work, grit, and my deep belief in the mission would get me through. Now I can see some of the seeds from my first year are sprouting, and I’m glad I stayed focused on what needed to be planted for future success, despite the challenges and distractions.

SM: I was still a very new executive director when we went into lockdown. I had a lot of fear (and still do) that I was not doing enough for the people that were risking their lives every day. Navigating a crisis like this was a big test, very stressful, but also an incredible learning experience. 

AT: Difficult contract negotiations with vendors, staff changes and terminations, and managing the shift in provision of services due to the pandemic.

What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring association/non-profit CEO?

CL:  You must build your personal council of advisors before you become a CEO because your board is not your therapist and your staff is not there to support you. You’ll need outside support for a safe space to talk things out and ground yourself with people who know you well. 

SM: Read up and ask for advice. I read the book How Remarkable Women Lead with great advice: “Think about where you’d like to go and meet with someone along that path.” VSAE has helped me expand my network for this purpose. Almost anyone will give you an hour of their time. Even if you don’t think you’re ready to make a move in the immediate future, it doesn’t hurt to spend time with someone with a different perspective and different accomplishments.

AT: Trust your instincts. Call upon your trusted resources who will listen and offer an outsider’s perspective on your situation. Breathe. Always allow 30 minutes before and after each appointment to better manage your daily activities.

If I was not an association/non-profit CEO, I would be...

CL: A lawyer, no doubt. I love logic and strategizing and I’m wired to fight for what’s fair. 

SM: Sad? I truly love this job and this industry so much and even though I took quite a winding path to get here, now I can’t really imagine doing anything else.

AT: Special events coordinator or Student Affairs/Auxiliary Services professional on a college campus.

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