A decade ago I was brought on as an Executive Director for an organization that had never before had an Executive Director. Instead, this organization had operated for nearly 25 years by volunteers only, and I came in as the first ever “out-of-industry full-time hire.” Those first few years with the organization I spent a lot of time speaking with members one-on-one. My goal was to personally meet one third of the membership each year, either in a small group setting, or face-to-face at their businesses. Whenever it was able, I would invite members who had lapsed in the previous five years, as well as any prospective members to meet with me. After two-years I had a strong grasp of the common need of the current members, which just so happened to be what the lapsed members had wanted but didn’t receive, and also what the prospective members were looking for; they wanted fair regulation and assistance getting customers into their businesses. Thanks to this insight the Board and I developed a strategy that really focused on those two things alone and when it was time to implement it, we hit the ground running.
In order to ensure we were providing our members with what they needed, we partnered with another organization in our state to lobby for fair regulation of businesses that were going unregulated; the industry was small-lodging, and AirBnB/VRBO had just started to hit the market. I personally knew very little about regulatory issues, but I had some volunteers who gladly led the effort and when I was needed to speak about the grassroot experience of our members, my great storytelling ability came into play, and I was able to speak successfully on our members’ experiences.
While the regulatory issues might have been a bit outside of my wheelhouse, developing a marketing strategy that supported 140+ businesses across the entire state was not. We rebranded the organization to attract our member’s customers by focusing on telling our members stories and emphasizing what made them a better guest experience while working with our members to better leverage their efforts along with the organization’s (aka, repurposing and reusing content.) It was a true community of collaboration.
Once we had the rebrand launched, the new website live, and had just hosted the largest conference the organization had ever had, in attendance, revenue, and sessions…it was time for me to depart the organization and it was time for me to tackle my next challenge.
At the time, I was sure that I, as the first ever Executive Director, had built something that could easily be handed over to another leader who would continue the growth and momentum that I had established during my tenure. Our revenue was up, membership was up (and streamlined to a tiered structure), and we had completed the lobbying efforts for the regulatory issue. We had even ensured that we had technology to better serve our members, and the marketing efforts we had established were leading customers to our members’ businesses.
Here is where the story becomes hard to tell. Prior to turning in my notice, I had already informed the Board to ensure they had enough time to really think about it and begin succession planning. We probably had close to 90 days to prepare. I prepared all the items that needed to be done in extreme detail so they could start thinking about my replacement with the hopes they would search for an individual who could see the opportunities to market and lead, making it a top priority while also being willing to learn all of the things an Executive Director would need to know. The Board had other ideas though and opted for a different secession plan; hiring an Admin who had owned a small business while doing the organizations accounting on the side, but mostly planning to switch back to being primarily volunteer run. From their perspective all of the “heavy lifting” had been handled with the rebrand, new website, and strategy. They wanted to pad the savings account since we tapped into the funds to build a website and rebrand. I felt so hopeless and crushed at that moment knowing there was work that needed to be done to continue the momentum.
I was well aware that a person working as a general admin would not understand the level of difficulty and detail that was needed to continue to expand the reach, build the community, and execute the marketing efforts that we had spent the previous three years creating. There was no way they could go back to being all volunteer run, and sustain the commitment made to their members in the new dues structure. Sadly, after my departure, without anyone to execute the member benefit activities, or to continue to build community and collaboration, the organization lost most of its membership.
I found myself questioning whether I had just built the organization around my skills, therefore preventing someone else from taking it over. I wondered if I could have persuaded the Board to go down a different path by hiring a marketing professional. I even wondered if I should have just followed the general path of an organization and not niched the focus as an organization so narrowly. Had I done these things, would the organization still be around?
In the years since leaving this organization I have come to realize that I have other skill sets that weren’t apparent to me at the time, those are my ability to build community, and to get by-in momentum in a movement. I honestly feel that sometimes as CEOs or Executive Directors this is a top skill set that has been overlooked until more recently – building that connection with the community and collaborating to come up with a solution to get members behind it.
I share this story because I think it’s important as Executive Directors and CEOs to continuously think about succession planning, and what is sustainable after we leave. In the Chamber/association/non-profit world we as individuals tend to pour our hearts into the organizations and members that we serve. It’s hard not to take things personally, yet we must remind ourselves that we can’t bear that burden.