The Role of Association CEO

Whether your association budget is large with many staff or your budget is small with few or no full-time staff, the responsibilities of the CEO are common and many. The difference is the CEO of the small association is responsible beyond the level of leadership but also involved directly with implementation down to the administrative task. Consider these major responsibilities: Membership Development, Membership Benefits, Membership Administration, Governance, Volunteer Development, Meeting/Event Management, Government Affairs, Market Development, Education, Operations, Communications and Cheerleader.

Need C6 Support? Ask me for a quote on many projects like: Newsletter design, newsletter strategy, newsletter production, strategic planning, budgeting, evaluation of endorsed programs, governance structuring, bylaws, education programming, member database selection/conversion/optimization/training, discussion facilitation and more.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

A Career Developed, Not Planned

I have been very fortunate to enjoy a long, wonderful career in the motor vehicle-related industries. I hope my story can be an inspiration to others to enter at the grass roots and grow as I did through the many opportunities presented. Remarkable Results Radio captured my 54 year ride in this 50 minute podcast. Enjoy: AUDIO PODCAST - SKIP POTTER

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Maintain Motivation and Balance to Avoid Small-Staff Burnout

As written by me and published by the American Society of Association Executives, 1/24/2012

So much to do, so little motivation. That's burnout and it occurs in staff and in volunteers.
I was very excited to accept the job as executive director of the tiny, five-person, 2.1-full-time-employee-equivalent Chesapeake Automotive Business Association in September 2004. I was so motivated to do a good job for CABA that I was ready to work 24/7/365. Of course, I knew a schedule that intense was not sustainable over the long term, but I had done it before with previous jobs and was quite motivated again to give it my all.

I paced myself well, I think, and in 2011 when I left the job I had not burned out, learning to balance my work life with my personal life, down considerably from the 24/7/365 schedule of the early days, readjusting constantly around busy times and slow times as I traversed through those seven years.

But that was me. I was in control of my own schedule and could sense where my own motivation level was at any time. I could feel it when work crossed into my personal life.

When you are a CEO or a supervisor of any kind, however, the concern for burnout is often less about you and more about those who work for you, employees and volunteers.

"Burnout strikes when [people] have exhausted their physical and emotional strength," according to an article in Lab Manager magazine (see list of additional resources, below). Whether it occurs in the CEO, the staff, or among volunteers, burnout is a cancer that "can drain an organization's morale, as well as its wallet."

Motivation and Balance

A supervisor doing his or her job well will control the association work schedules for staff and volunteers, so if we fail to understand and respect the motivation level and balance point in the lives of those staff and volunteers, the organization is headed for "frustration, absenteeism, and turnover."

Good employees and good volunteers come in all combinations of motivation and balance; they are seldom at the same level. Some want a job, not a career. Some will give generously part time while others may only be willing to give sparingly to your full-time request. The most adept CEO or supervisor will learn to get the most from each type of employee and volunteer, and together they will excel as a team.

Almost all professors of burnout remedies warn against unreasonable expectations, certainly on the employees but also on the organization. As you add projects or cut staff, you must know where you stand against the motivation level and the balance line of each of the people asked to help make that project a success.

What is a Reasonable Expectation?

My employees and volunteers know that, when they come to me with their frustrations (too much to do in too little time, deadlines fast approaching, and more), my first response is: "We have 2,080 hours to work this year. Let's see where we are." The 2,080 hours is a loose measure of our 40-hour workweek and 52-week calendar, and I use it often if for no other reason than to make a point: I plan to execute our strategic plan in 2,080 hours this year. I intend to employ the right staff and recruit sufficient volunteers capable of attaining our goals without burnout. I planned for the year, not the day, the week, or the month. I didn't say we had 40 hours this week. I said we have 2,080 hours this year, structuring our payroll to encourage employees to step up when the need for extra effort arises. Employees can expect to get back on the 2,080 schedule with a little catch-up time after the crunch, thus avoiding burnout.

One method I employed to maintain control of the 2,080 hour plan was in my policy to award annual paid time off (PTO) in place of separate accounts for vacation, sick, and personal time. With PTO, I never heard the destructive complaint that one employee takes all of his or her sick leave and another takes only planned vacation time. Each employee knew what time commitment I wanted from them for each year. Without having to battle employees about their timesheet, I could stay focused on individual productivity. As the years wore on with my employees, I learned what motivated them and stoked their fire. I respected their work-life balance, and they knew I expected their contribution to my 2,080 hours in which I had to complete my job.
Well-meaning volunteers often suggest and even insist on adding new projects to an already crowded annual agenda. In fact, when I began with CABA, I had a tradeshow and two additional social events that I eventually convinced the board were not providing good returns on our time invested. These extra events were damaging the quality and effectiveness of our other higher-priority projects, I argued. We were spreading our sponsorship dollars, volunteer hours, and staff hours very thin across many projects rather than focusing on making a success of our most member-beneficial projects. The board may not have realized that I was also trying to manage burnout by prioritizing our project list.

In my seven years at CABA, I wish I could have done a better job developing my volunteers. It was one thing to digest the individual motivation levels and balance points of the employees I lived with each and every day; it was quite another to attempt that same understanding of my 20 or so volunteers who I saw in person only a few times a year. Unfortunately, the time to manage volunteers was often squeezed out by less important but operationally critical tasks like simple building maintenance. There were, after all, only 2,080 hours, and in a small-staff office, CEO or not, I was the one left to replace the light bulbs.

Skip Potter is an independent contractor in association management and is the former executive director of the Chesapeake Automotive Business Association in Pasadena, Maryland. Email:

Additional Resources

There is much written on the topic of burnout, so if you need to learn more about the signs and causes there are many credible sources, including:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Benefit of Networking

I met Tom Morrison, now CEO of the Metal Treating Institute ( many years ago when we both belonged to our industry association exec group, the Alliance of State Automotive Aftermarket Association Execs (ASAAA). For the very same reason I tell my association members and prospects that networking is one of the most valuable of our member benefits, I practice what I preach and join as many professional association management groups as I can handle. I join and participate so I, too, can network; not networking to get a job but networking to learn from others who do what I do.

Today, I followed up on my lunch appointment to meet Tom again for the first time in a decade. I remember thinking of him as one of the up-and-coming professional execs, very progressive in his thinking and a technology leader. That is what made today's private networking session with him so valuable for me. Since I last spoke with Tom he has earned the Presidency of the Florida Society of Association Executives and has introduced so many forward-thinking elements to his MTI that he has grown their member equity by over 500%.

My time with Tom today was a seminar. I learned so much from him in such a short period of time it makes me appreciate, again, the real benefit of networking. If I had not met him through ASAAA, I would not be any smarter tomorrow than I was yesterday. But because of my network, I am smarter.

Why am I writing about this today?

Next week I will be networking with three of my industry exec groups in three days, sharing experiences with 40 of my professional colleagues. I know that I will learn something which will benefit my association immediately. Even more valuable, however, I will continue meeting new experts and developing deeper professional relationships that will serve me for many years to come.

What disturbs me is there are many aftermarket association executives who will not be attending those meetings primarily because their Boards have not been convinced that networking for their exec is an investment just like the investment they are preaching to their own prospects. To those Boards and their execs, I implore you to put the TIAE, ASAAA and AASP meetings on your 2012 calendar. Networking is a benefit of membership for your association but when your executive director is networking, the association benefits.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Balancing the Board-CEO Relationship

I've heard many complaints from fellow association executives about their relationship with their Board. Of course, we all seek a harmonious, productive and balanced relationship where the winner is a fast-growing association with a happy exec, thrilled Board and appreciative membership. Thankfully, some have found that balance.

Frequently, however, there are associations at opposite ends of the balance scale: Some execs complain they can't get their volunteers out of day-to-day operations leaving them to do what they are best qualified to do; while others complain they can't get volunteers involved enough, even to update the strategic plan.

Like most problems in association management, the solution is a moving-target and has multiple elements to consider. Take, for instance, my own experience with my association. When I accepted the job in 2004, I expressly complimented the Board on their history of direct involvement and told them I would need their passionate efforts to grow the organization.

To my surprise, I lost one volunteer after another within my first year. They would each tell me what a great job I was doing, smile and leave me to do my work and the work I thought they should be doing too. Oh well, I reasoned, they are busy running their own company and I have a lot of association management experience so I should be able to fill in for them. Before long, I found myself managing a massively diverse company with a Board who hardly noticed they were needed. Graciously they (some) would attend our quarterly Board meetings but when we couldn't grow new members or education events missed attendance targets, I was left to blame myself.

In hindsight, I recognized my primary failure was to fulfill one of the most important roles of a professional association manager: volunteer development. I was losing the initial board members because they were burned out. They had given a huge chunk of their cash and emotion to our association already before I arrived so, sure, they were happy to have me. In my haste to put my mark on my new association, I tried to replace with hard work a member development strategy that would take a volunteer's passion. I tried to sell seminar seats with smart promotion when I needed volunteers to show their passion for the events they helped plan. I should have spent more attention to filling the vacant Board seats and delegating responsibilities they would likely have enjoyed.

Meanwhile, I see associations where volunteers are picking the napkin colors, designing sales flyers, writing their own press releases and recruiting their neighbors kid as the association's preferred web developer. This is where the professional in professional association management earns his keep. The best of us professionals will recognize how to harness the passion and expertise of a volunteer and balance it with the processes and practices taught by our own American Society of Association Executives to separate the Board's strategic role from the staff's tactical role along a very wide gray line between them.

In developing volunteers and balancing their direct involvement in association activities it is the professional executive director's responsibility to know each members relevant skill and interest, then to direct their effort towards a productive result. Each volunteer has their own skill, interest and level of effort. But most want the same thing from their volunteer experience: A feeling of accomplishment in growing their association.

The professional exec is their facilitator, not their grunt. But it is the Exec's job to make that so.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Event Planning Checklist

My volunteer leaders were struggling with the complexities of planning a small event for our trade association so I prepared this checklist to help guide them. I had found several extensive checklists in ASAE Resources but felt they may be too long and detailed for volunteers to consume. Please comment on my list if you can add to it.

Small Event Planning Checklist for a Volunteer-Run Organization
· Establish Objective (membership, fundraising, etc)
· Identify Primary Target Attendee (owners, employees, members, prospects)
· Funding source (equity, sponsors, registration)
· Describe the Specific, Compelling Value (that will create attendance)
· Mission Match (Is it who we are, quality, image, topic, etc?)
· Select Date (no significant cultural or industry conflicts)
· Design Program (Presenters, introducers, emcee)
·  Set Agenda (times and program flow)
·  Prepare budget, set attendance targets
·  Registration Source Responsibilities (direct mail, telemarketing, advertising, personal recruiting, etc)
·  Board Approval
·  Select Location/Sign Contract
· Location set-up requirements/contracts (room set, a/v needs, f-b)
·  Program Chair: Presenters, Special Guests, emcee, room set, a/v, etc.
· F-B Chair: f-b items, planning and on-site management
· Marketing Chair: promo scripts, registration flyer, promo schedule, sales responsibilities, registration handling.
· Sponsorship Chair (if applicable): sponsored items/prices, sponsor sales scripts, flyer, sales responsibilities, recognition, thank you notes
·  Event Chair: Coordinate other Chairs, manage location vendors, oversee on-site flow, timing, quality, bill-pay, photography, press release/newsletter notes, signage, handouts, chair and volunteer thank you notes/recognition
(Source: Skip Potter, c6support)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The First Milepost for the 3-Way Management Team

When I resigned as Executive Director/CEO of my tiny State trade association earlier this year I feared that the Board of Directors would see this as a chance to cut payroll and run the organization themselves, as volunteers; something not uncommon. That scared me, however, because I believe management of a small association is a specialty much the same as running an auto parts store verses running an automotive service center will require different insight, motivations and talents. This situation is much more critical for small associations than it is for large because, just like in any small business, the CEO must be skilled in so many more elements from marketing to finance and beyond. I could not be certain that the Board believed as I did. We had established our association as a respected voice for our members with momentum building for growth in education and collaboration. I did not want us to lose that opportunity to thrive. Had we been a larger association, the Board would likely have hired a new, experienced and expert CEO. But for us smaller associations, the money to do that is not usually there.
When I resigned I asked the Board to consider hiring me in a new role: Executive Advisor, where I would continue to provide them that unique insight, motivation and talent of an ASAE Certified Association Executive without having to pay full price for it. My proposal suggested we form a 3-person executive office of management where the volunteer President is the official CEO, an experienced association administrator is employed as the COO and I become a consultant-contractor-partner with the two of them as their Executive Advisor. Through email and phone calls, every action and decision would have the benefit of my opinion.
I wondered why they would want to do that. There were no existing models like that in the vast realm of automotive state aftermarket associations. I could not find in ASAE any examples of what I was proposing. Why do it?
While some of my closest Board Members and the staff COO-to-be were immediate supporters of the idea, I knew that others would struggle to accept it. Certainly, the Board was filled with very smart and experienced small business entrepreneurs and I knew that they knew how to run a company. The question for them then was: “So what is it – exactly - we volunteers must do to manage our association?” That was it. Bingo. When they had to ask that question to themselves, they knew that I knew they were not prepared to go it on their own.
So the CABA Board of Directors and I are now just one month into this new 3-way management team model and already it looks like a winner. The staff COO/Executive Manager is glad to have me as close as her phone or email to quickly assist with issues of member administration, the database, personnel management, meeting planning, financial statements, governance agendas, network security, and benefit questions like health insurance. The volunteer President/CEO is already glad to have me as a sounding board, critic, writer and advisor on questions like dues schedules, education programs, strategic focus, budgets, volunteer development and membership development.
One benefit of my Executive Advisor role may never be obvious to the Board, however: Representation. This role is what keeps our association fresh, vibrant and relevant. My active involvement with our industry’s national trade associations and my interaction and access to all the many other state association executives is not only a source of ideas but a source of resources that will leverage our organization into the future. As a “representative” for our association I am doing for them what we associations are always telling our constituents is the real value in becoming members:  It’s the network: We can learn from each other.
My role as Executive Advisor or a more limited role as contractor for a specific task can be shared among many associations. To discuss any opportunity you see within your association, contact me by phone at 301.502.4985 or by email to For more of my association management insights visit

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Can You Push a String Without Bending It?

Volunteer Development

Everyone in business – any business – knows that their number one asset is their people. And the best organizations have great leaders to manage those people into a well-oiled, productive team that executes the mission beyond expectations. But what happens when a GREAT leader of a successful company is asked to be the leader of a non-profit where most of your staff are volunteers?

As a CEO of a non-profit you can get by with whatever management style has made you successful on the corporate side in directing your paid staff on the non-profit side. But you can’t use that same management style to direct your volunteers. Remember? They are YOUR boss. The dilemma is that all those bosses are key volunteers in making your association (and you, the CEO) successful. It is up to you as the GREAT leader to find their passion and align it with the job you need accomplished for the association.

Joanne Fritz in categorizes volunteers into three types: Achievers, Affiliators and Influencers. You need all three types of volunteers but they are motivated quite differently. Read Ms. Fritz’s descriptions at

Tom McKee, an acknowledged management speaker for Volunteer Power, has several valuable suggestions on motivating volunteers, including feedback, recognition, rewards and training. Read about it at

Even GREAT leaders in the corporate world struggle to become GREAT leaders in the non-profit world, which is why the profession of association management is an acknowledged field unto itself.

In my experience managing volunteers it has always felt like I was pushing a string across the table while trying to keep it guided straight towards the goal. Frustrating and slow? Yes, of course. But, it-is-what-it-is and a GREAT non-profit CEO must know that it is their responsibility, regardless, to make it happen.