The ideals of mutual support and collaboration run deep in association life. For the past three years, Angela Kisskeys and Sarah Ruzek have been exploring and pushing the boundaries of those ideas as co-directors of Associations North. Their story of developing a new leadership style is an intriguing lesson in innovation for all leaders.
In early 2017, the president of Associations North announced she would be retiring after 28 years at the helm. While the staff and board of directors began implementing the established succession plan and considering a replacement, Angela Kisskeys, director of marketing and communications, and Sarah Ruzek, director of education, both felt they were ready for more in their careers.
“Sarah and I had been in staff roles with Associations North for 10 years, so we had a natural synergy and strong working relationship with each other. We knew we could apply for the President position individually, but we discussed the ‘crazy’ idea of teaming up and putting together a different leadership style grounded in Associations North’s culture of collaboration,” Kisskeys said. “Our goals for the association were very much aligned, and together we thought we had the right mix of complementary strengths as well as a proven history to apply as co-directors.”
The Associations North board of directors were open to multiple leadership options, including a new solitary leader or contracting with an association management company, as well as Kisskeys and Ruzek’s co-leadership model.
To prepare for their interviews, Kisskeys and Ruzek conducted a lot of research about co-leadership. While they found plenty of documented case studies in the for-profit world, they found just a few cases of non-profit co-leadership. They reached out to those organizations with questions and soaked up as much of their experience as possible before putting together a 32-page co-leadership proposal for their board and the executive search firm assisting with the recruitment process.
“We thought through all possible daily and outlier scenarios that could crop up under our leadership, and came up with answers to the tough questions like, Who will make a decision? What if there is conflict?” said Ruzek. “We documented every concern and decision-making process we could think of to provide clarity about how this new leadership model would work. We also addressed our proposed compensation: it should be the same. This co-director relationship is built on an equal partnership. We wanted to reflect that in its entirety.”
The search firm guiding Associations North through the hiring process, along with the selection committee, were overwhelmed and impressed by the sheer thought that went into applying for the role. Ultimately, their shared vision was the right fit at the right time and Kisskeys and Ruzek were hired in April 2017. From there, the two women worked with the outgoing president to transfer responsibilities and introduce Kisskeys and Ruzek – and the idea of co-directorship – to members. They developed an FAQ page on the Associations North website, published introductory articles in association publications, and made their presence known at events.
Although Associations North members hadn’t known co-directors before, they were supportive. During their introductory period in spring 2017, Kisskeys and Ruzek made a concerted effort to visit and connect with member associations to introduce themselves and reiterate their commitment to advancing the association industry. Members told them that they were ready to see what new, innovative ideas the pair could bring to the association at a pivotal time in the organization. There were some skeptics – but after observing Kisskeys and Ruzek’s experience unfold over the past three years, those same members now joke that the two leaders work so well together they can complete each other’s sentences.
“As co-leaders, we embrace and honor the tradition and the history of associations, but we’re not afraid to take risks that redesign a future that is built around the changing needs of members,” Ruzek said. “We want to be there for our members when they need non-traditional solutions. This is one way they can learn from us.”
As the two women settled into their roles, they solidified their responsibilities or “lanes” based on their individual strengths and passions. They kept some of their departmental duties while adding executive responsibilities such as governance, operations, management, finances and strategy. Besides taking on human resources management and operations, Kisskeys retains her communications tasks while Ruzek continues to oversee the association’s education initiatives in addition to acquiring financial responsibilities.
They acknowledge that a shared leadership model isn’t for everyone. But at the core, what makes it work for them is trust, collaboration and aligned goals. Just like any other relationship, Kisskeys and Ruzek make time to plan how they will execute board-approved strategy, approach new projects, and manage busy times of the year. Respectful communication with each other is essential.
“We respect each other and remain open to communication,” Ruzek explained. “We’ve had some raw, difficult conversations where we’ve talked about our professional weaknesses. By putting everything on the table has allowed us to build trust and develop a more effective process for how we need to communicate with each other, especially during high pressure times throughout the year.
The co-leadership model provides a good work-life balance for Kisskeys and Ruzek, both of whom have young children and want to be there for their families as much as their members. Up until recently, they work one day each week from home, and divide meetings and events so they can represent the co-director role at association functions without sacrificing family events.
During the current situation with COVID-19, Kisskeys and Ruzek have found their co-leadership structure has been uniquely beneficial, as it allows them to collaborate on important issues. With COVID-19, they said there hasn’t been much time to plan, prepare or develop a strategy to combat these new challenges impacting members. Planning that used to take 90 days now has to be tackled in 90 minutes. However, in their co-director roles, they have been able to talk about immediate priorities and how Associations North can be a resource to its members and provide community. Then, they can divide, conquer and execute with their team in new ways to provide member value as quickly as possible.
“Our members are playing a vital role in helping their members fight on the front line of COVID-19 by supporting production of materials and essential goods, educating professionals on transitioning to remote environments, executing virtual conferences and advocating for critical funding,” Kisskeys and Ruzek recently wrote in an email to Association Adviser, when we checked in with them about how Associations North was handling the coronavirus crisis. “By increasing our member outreach to uncover immediate needs and resources, we created bi-weekly CEO web chats to help build community with key industry leaders, developed virtual web chats on timely topics to bring solutions to today’s issues, as well as prepare for tomorrow.”
Associations North also has an extensive COVID-19 resource webpage that is kept up to date with recorded educational sessions, advocacy efforts, industry impact surveys, resources for event and conference planning, working remote, mental health, insurance, legal and more. It’s a one-stop shop for our members COVID-19 needs.
Working as co-leaders has provided Kisskeys and Ruzek with diversity of thought and more bandwidth to better position Associations North during this time.
“The co-leader model provides the best support system you can ask for, especially during difficult times. With a built-in ‘person,’ it’s not just you and you are not alone. We can strategize on newly prioritized work needs, collaborate on opportunities to bring value to members, laugh together when times are tough and, most importantly, offer additional support and understanding while balancing e-learning for young children at home.”
Kisskeys and Ruzek agreed that mindset and embracing resiliency have helped them get through the last month as social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have affected how associations serve their members and gather to learn and grow.
“You have to shift from what normal used to be to how you can serve your members in this new today. What do members need right now to operate and be successful? What do members need tomorrow that will help them feel prepared for the next challenge? How can we, as their professional society, filter and find the most pertinent information to answer their most pressing questions? We know the current situation has impacted our members deeply, and we are committed to listening, supporting and providing resources to help members come out stronger.”
At this time, Associations North is focused on creating connections and community; often the best and most timely answers to difficult questions around the challenges faced today are from fellow peers and members.
“We are learning new ways to engage members, create community and provide immediate connections,” they wrote. “As leaders, there are a lot of unknowns, but the worst of times bring out the best in people – and we know the association community is full of the best.”
While Kisskeys and Ruzek spent the first couple of years in their position making internal changes and learning their complementary roles better, and today they are largely focused on the coronavirus crisis at hand, going forward they plan to aggressively implement Associations North’s strategic plan of updating its membership structure, re-imagining member education, and enhancing signature diversity and inclusion efforts. Both plan to continue educating themselves further about incorporating wellness measures into the co-director role. They agree that one of the most rewarding aspects of their shared role has been inspiring members and others outside of Associations North through an alternative leadership model.
“We love that we’re opening up new definitions of leadership, and what an effective leader looks like, in the minds of members,” Kisskeys said. “We commend the Associations North Board of Directors and members for charting new territory with us through this new model.”
Currently serving as Co-Director, VP of Operations & Communications at Associations North, Angela Kisskeys provides strategic leadership and executive management in the development of products and services to expand membership value for key stakeholders, members and most importantly members of the future. Angela is motivated and inspired by new ideas and future possibilities that drive organizational growth. As a strategic leader, Angela maximizes strong industry relationships, leverages technology and embraces innovation to advance the association industry.
Sarah Ruzek is an energetic and dynamic association leader with 15+ years’ experience building relationships, developing strategic partnerships, leading volunteers and strengthening nonprofit organizations. As Co-Director, VP of Finance & Education at Associations North, Sarah has a proven track record innovating meetings, creating experiences and advancing the association industry.