For association CEOs looking to sharpen their leadership skills, Associations North’s CEOSync program is helping elite leaders invest in each other’s success. Part facilitated learning and part talk therapy, CEOSync is becoming a platform for focused, confidential conversations about leadership and innovation. The story of how it evolved out of COVID-propelled peer groups is a case study in itself.
Could peer groups help members perform better?
An Associations North task force floated the idea for the CEOSync program during a meeting in mid-2019. “The main question we were trying to answer was: How do we help association leaders tackle their biggest challenges while also providing a sustainable revenue model?” said Angela Kisskeys, Associations North co-director and vice president of operations & communications.
Associations North leadership explored how other industries were answering this question. They noticed that most of the highest performing organizations in those industries were a part of a peer group where they were sharing and collecting insights from others in the same profession.
They realized that while their members’ industries and the day-to-day issues they grapple with may be different, they all have similar challenges and opportunities. Associations North already offered listservs for posing questions and exchanging ideas. But a smaller, confidential peer group offering guided discussions over a longer period might be what members needed more.
COVID-19 accelerates the CEOSync Pilot
While the association’s leadership solidified the idea and details of a peer group, COVID-19 caught everyone by surprise. Associations North responded to the need for a semi-formal way to distribute rapidly changing information about the best ways to continue association operations remotely was by creating CEO Strategy Groups. First 20, then 80 CEOs joined weekly calls throughout the spring and summer of 2020. As the flurry of activity surrounding the pandemic settled down and organizations began to master remote operations, the calls became biweekly, and then every three weeks.
“We originally slated to pilot CEOSync in early 2020. But then COVID happened and it didn’t seem like the right time to roll out an exclusive program,” said Sarah Ruzek, co-director and vice president of finance and education. “However, COVID did afford us an opportunity to try a standing peer meeting that created connections and engagement. In retrospect, these CEO Strategy Groups became a long-running pilot for CEOSync. The way these groups helped us prepare for the rollout of CEOSync this year was the best thing that could have happened.”
Goals of the CEOSync program
CEOSync offers Associations North member CEOs a more structured environment in which to focus on topics that matter most. The goal of CEOSync is for association CEOs to help each other navigate the demands of a changing association landscape. No topic is off-limits, from operations and financials, to human resources and marketplace disruptions. Kisskeys expects that the individuals in CEOSync can serve as an informal sounding board, a group of mentors and a collection of resources for one another.Group size is limited to 20 participants for greatest engagement, confidentiality and unity. The 2021 CEOSync program is currently at full capacity in its inaugural year. Participants vary in their years of experience, organization size, association type and diversity of thought. They represent state, national and international associations.
“Having immediate access to a team of colleagues that can verify you’re headed in the right direction or, on the flip side, help you course-correct is so valuable,” said Cassie Larson, CAE, executive director of the Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association. “Also, the sharing of resources during the first weeks of this program has saved our own association both time and money ̶ what works for one typically works for others,” she continued.
Through the CEOSync environment, Associations North curates topics in conjunction with participants. They plan to dive into the challenges associations CEOs face and offer peer-sourced solutions participants can implement immediately. The program makes liberal use of breakout groups, resources, industry and content expert presenters, surveys and data, and innovative approaches like strategy seat exercises. Participants set goals and report back monthly on their progress toward achieving those goals.
“The benefit my organization gets from my participation is that I am learning and vetting my own thinking alongside trusted peers across all sorts of association models serving a variety of industries,” said Carrie Chang, CEO of Minneapolis Area REALTORS®. “We can share our opportunities and challenges of the day with the focus on how we can best serve our members as we lead our staff and volunteers.”
Incorporating frequent feedback for future CEOSync improvements
Since the 2021 cohort is a pilot, Associations North staff frequently solicits participant feedback to adapt and evolve the program. The CEOSync team surveyed participants at the start of the year to gather baseline information about cohorts’ top challenges – membership, events, personnel and finances. They translated these topics into a content structure for the first five meetings. Between gatherings, the program team asks participants about the state of membership at their specific organization as well as other challenges they’re facing to inform the next month’s agenda.
“With the current moment we are in, it’s important to remain fluid with participant needs and adapt the CEOSync program to provide resources for these top association leaders to work smarter, more profitably and more productively,” said Kisskeys.
Going forward, Associations North will continue to evaluate CEOSync for value, participant satisfaction and how it delivers on its promise of transforming leaders. They hope CEOSync can include many more associations CEOs. A broader reach will strengthen Associations North members, their organizations and the industries they serve.