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July 14, 2020

A New Era of Leadership: The Turnaround CEO

The “turnaround CEO” is known for bringing an organization back from the brink of failure. Through intensive financial scrutiny and smart decision-making, these leaders reinvent distressed businesses. What they accomplish is often unconventional and bold — terms not typically associated with nonprofit leadership.

Yet the events of this year have challenged all of us to redefine effective leadership. In the face of abrupt and steep revenue declines, massive disruptions to members and their industries, and physical distancing that compromises our ability to connect, a term has emerged that succinctly captures this evolved type of leadership: the new turnaround CEO.

Why is the turnaround mindset so critical for association leaders right now? Besides the obvious business imperative, associations – like all organizations – must manage and motivate people in a time of extreme uncertainty and distress. From staff to volunteer leaders to members, individuals are looking to the CEO to restore confidence and foster inspiration. It is this psychological shift that distinguishes exceptional leaders; it is how something is done as much as what is done.

“There’s a need for association management today like no other. This is the time for associations to step up.”

— Abe Eshkenazi

I recently sat down with three CEOs from our sector to understand what it means to lead during this new era:

  • Abe Eshkenazi, CEO of the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM)
  • Bob Chalker, CEO of NACE International
  • Jay Younger, president and CEO of McKinley Advisors

I asked them what it takes to “turn around” a mission-driven, membership-centric organization — particularly an organization that, just three months earlier, would have been described as thriving.

Characteristics of the New Turnaround CEO

What defines a turnaround CEO? The panelists shared a few core characteristics:

“Turnaround CEOs keep their footing no matter what’s thrown at them.”

— Bob Chalker

Prioritize people above all else.

For each panelist, people are fundamental to their leadership philosophies. There is an emotional toll of the conversations, decisions and work that needs to happen. Leaders must motivate staff while remaining highly attuned to the implications that a crisis has on an individual’s stamina and mentality. Jay asked, “How do we responsibly allow recovery to take place for our staff so they can reinvest for the next round?”

Reframe how the board functions.

For most associations, decisions are made through consensus building. During times of crisis, the opportunity and time frame to gather consensus is significantly diminished. This makes communication, information and dissemination essential. CEOs should give significant forethought to who to advise, where to get input and how to make decisions so that board members don’t feel disenfranchised when those decisions are made. Bob shared an example of how he worked with the board to confirm where he had authorization, such as spending down a portion of reserves, and where he needed to come back for approval.

Make rapid, strategic decisions.

In times of significant and rapid change, the typical timeline for decision making must be compressed. In other words, a turnaround CEO should think in months rather than years. You must quickly assess conditions, anticipate the impact of a decision, and focus on amplifying what’s working and be willing to cut back on what’s not. Abe compares this to preparing for and putting out a fire. Preventing a fire takes a lot of preparation and proactivity. But when you are actually fighting the fire, you must be directive. Immediate decisions must be made.  Make rapid, strategic decisions.

“We had a plan to move all of our education programs online or into a blended learning format. It probably would have rolled out over the next 18-24 months. We did it in 3 weeks.”

— Bob Chalker

Maintain transparency and consistency.

Communication is critical for the turnaround CEO. Bringing in the right individuals at the right time helps foster transparency and limit surprises. While messages should be adapted depending on the audience, you should maintain transparency and consistency within those conversations. Even more important, marry the talk with your actions and recognize that your audience, particularly volunteer leaders, are dealing with their own challenges. The magnitude of this crisis is bigger than anyone could have predicted. Having a very deliberate approach to your communications will foster trust and inspire others.

Prepare for the potential scenarios ahead.

What lies ahead and how should your association respond? By applying a consistent framework to your forecasting and planning, you will bring greater clarity to the short, medium and long term and empower action rather than speculation. This is not the time to preserve programs that have little impact or relevance. Double down on activities that create value and pull back on those that do not. Then look for chances to expand.

Don’t hesitate.

If you are reticent to take action, someone else in your market is not and will gain the advantage. Some associations will retreat due to fear of the risks and focus on preserving reserves over proactive investment. The new turnaround CEO will embrace risk and rapidly invest in their organization’s future.

Watch the full webinar for more insights on what it means to be a turnaround CEO.


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