From the Corner Office

From The Corner Office: Stephanie Drake, AHA and ASHHRA

By Association Adviser staff • February 2, 2014

Stephanie Drake
Stephanie Drake, AHA

*Reader note: In late Feb. 2014, Stephanie Drake became the Chief Talent Officer at the American Osteopathic Institute. She was employed by AHA and ASHHRA at the time of this interview.

This month, the Corner Office spotlight shines on Stephanie Drake, senior executive director of the American Hospital Association (AHA). She’s also Executive Director of the 3,400 member American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration (ASHHRA), a personal membership group of the AHA.



  • There has been no voluntary turnover in the six-plus years I’ve been here.
  • Manage the talent you have, not the job descriptions.
  • You must ensure that each staff person knows their roles and responsibilities—and how they impact the organization directly.
  • We’ll try almost anything once if there’s a potential for ROI and member benefit.

Association Adviser: Stephanie, you’re at the helm of two organizations, not just one. How do you balance the two roles?

Stephanie Drake: We’re all doing more with less. A lot of organization and process goes into managing all the moving parts, and I have three experienced executive directors reporting to me (representing six societies). Sometimes the staff just sees me running by, but I’m really big on meeting face-to-face with people. That’s the best way to break down silos in the organization, which I’ll talk about in a minute. Also, we’re relying on innovation and metrics a lot more than when I got here more than six years ago.

AA: That said, it must be challenging to answer to two separate boards.

SD: Actually, it works pretty well. The boards are advisory in nature—they’re here to help and they don’t have financial responsibility.

AA: How would you describe your leadership style?

SD: I’m tenacious—always looking for new ideas and changing things up. How can we look at a challenge or opportunity differently? How do we change the conversation? Also, I manage talent, not the job description. There’s a big difference.

AA: Can you give an example of managing talent versus a job description?

SD: Sure. The person who manages our publications also handles all of our finances. That’s her unique skill set. I want people to do their best work and utilize as many of their talents or interests as they can. Suppose you’re a marketing person and you’re interested in conference planning even though you’ve never done it before. We’ll encourage you to shadow someone in our conference planning group and try it out and see if it’s a good fit for you. I’m proud to say we’ve had no voluntary turnover in the six-plus years I’ve been here.

AA: What else can you tell us about changing the culture in a long-standing organization?

SD: I’m a non-stop innovator and collaborator within a fairly conservative organization. There were lots of silos when I first got here—a very traditional organizational structure—and we had to break those silos down. Everyone supports collaboration now because they can see how it benefits them. When you start sharing your information and know-how with others [at the organization] you get so much back in return. It makes us all better. As I said earlier, I’m constantly meeting with people, and face-to-face interaction is the best way to break down barriers, even for the younger staffers.

AA: How so?

SD: At first, we really had to mentor the younger folks about the importance of picking up the phone and meeting with people in person. But, now they’re getting it and doing it well. I’m also a big advocate of “ownership grids,” which clearly outline each person’s responsibility.

AA: You’ve consistently grown membership since 2009. How did you accomplish that in light of the economic downturn and so many changes in the health care arena?

SD: It’s all about increasing member value—giving them more for the same money. When I first started here, we didn’t have a lot of health care-specific HR resources—we pulled a lot of general material from SHRM (the Society of Human Resource Management) and other sources. Now we have 34 tool kits specifically for HR professionals who work in health care. That’s part of their [standard] membership. We also created the ASHHRA HR Concierge in which we can do up to two hours of free research for a member to help them uncover hard-to-find information. For example, a member’s CEO might want to know what the organization chart looks like at a home health care organization. We can get that for them. Also, we’re now offering 36 webinars a year, up from six a few years ago. When I got here we only had one publication—HR Pulse. Now, thanks to our partnership with Naylor, we have eight member publications.

AA: HR is a tough job no matter what your industry. Are there any challenges that you’re helping health care HR professionals address?

SD: For one, they have to learn how to work with labor unions. Some union relationships are very good. Some are not so good, but unions are a fact of life for our members, and members have to know how to work with them. Also, there are a lot of nurse staffing issues. There are state and federal laws. There’s patient safety. Remember, our members are dealing with people’s lives—it’s not like working at a bank or making widgets.

AA: What is the best way for associations to keep their pulse on the wants and needs of their members?

SD: Member feedback is big for us. We do lots of very short surveys and one annual member feedback survey plus and a post-conference survey. We also do a lot of benchmarking. But, whenever you do surveys or ask members for data, you’ve got to do more than just collect the data. You’ve really got to read it, use it and show members that you’re acting on their feedback to make things better for them. A lot of associations tend to forget about that part. For example, it’s not enough to do a survey and find out that members would like to see more female speakers at your conferences. You have to show you can deliver on that request next year—even if female speakers are harder to find.

AA: Research and Big Data are Association Adviser’s themes this month. What can associations do to improve their research capabilities and outcomes?

SD: Association research efforts often fall short because their resources are limited and there’s a lack of ownership for all the tasks that need to be done. There’s a fine line between staff time and volunteer time. Staff can get overloaded quickly and things fall through the cracks because they run out of time or because they think someone else is handling a task. Also, you need to make sure there’s a charter and business plan around the research effort. Each person’s roles and responsibilities must be clear. Who’s doing what and by when? Also keep an eye on the ROI. If the research effort isn’t being funded, then you have to be realistic and scale it back.

AA: How can an association’s research bolster its brand and member retention?

SD: There’s no doubt that [branded] research really helps to get your name out there. For instance, I co-authored our Workforce Planning & Assessment Tool. It’s great when a CEO comes back from an executive MBA or AHA meeting and asks their HR people to look at the [research] we’ve done in an area they really care about.

AA: Speaking of research, Association Adviser is conducting its annual communication benchmarking study soon. Is there anything you’d like us to ask your peers?

SD: Sure. Do senior executives see the value of joining professional societies? Do you belong to one yourself? Even at the E.D. level, money can be the biggest obstacle to joining a professional society, even if we’re only talking $100.

AA: Both AHA and ASHHRA have robust portfolios of member communication vehicles. How do you keep all the content fresh and unique without being redundant?

SD: We have a single gatekeeper for the website who makes sure nothing we put out there is duplicative. It’s also key to have a clear owner for each communication channel we produce. As I said earlier, I’m big on ownership grids. These are charts that show each person the specific areas they own and how they directly affect membership and the association’s overall mission.

AA: Do you have programs or strategies for attracting and retaining younger members of your procession?

SD: Yes. Since our average member is 47 years old, we’re very concerned about the next generation. Younger professionals aren’t association joiners by nature. You have to educate them about what you do and why it’s important for their careers. We have a mentoring program that’s been very successful. Younger members get paired with a senior executive in health care. It’s not just occasional advice; it’s having regular monthly meetings with assignments and deliverables. We’re also a big presence on LinkedIn. We have more than 12,000 connections, and we do a lot of outreach to non-members through this channel. As I mentioned earlier, we’re offering six times as many webinars as we used to since younger members prefer online learning to face-to-face training. And we just launched CHHR, which gives young members a chance to show that they’re certified in health care-specific HR.

AA: Speaking of new products and services, what’s the best way to get good ideas developed and out into marketplace?

SD: We’re willing to try everything at least once and see what happens. If it serves a member need has the potential for positive ROI, then we’ll give it a try—for example, our new HR professional certification program. But with every new idea, we have to make sure it floats with our staff structure and finances.

AA: Overall things seem to be going pretty well. Is there anything keeping you up at night (work related)?

SD: Succession planning. Is social media going to take over the need for professional societies? How do we connect with younger professionals who are used to online learning, online networking and even learning via gaming?

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