It Takes an Association Leader to Know How to Be an Association Leader

By Association Adviser staff • May 30, 2019

Tracy Folkes Hanson’s parents pressed the importance of giving back or paying it forward from an early age, so it’s not surprising that in addition to roles in the private sector and politics, she currently serves as the president and CEO of the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). Tracy brings this spirit of service to her role by talking with at least one CSAE member each day and by taking on projects that move CSAE forward as a progressive, member-driven organization. We spoke with her about what a “typical” day looks like, the advice she would give to someone working toward an executive director/president role, and her favorite part about working in associations.

Association Adviser: You have quite a range of professional experiences: marketing, local politics, member relations, and top leadership of corporations and nonprofits. What attracted you to work for the Canadian Society of Association Executives? 

CSAE LogoTracy Folkes Hanson: I’ve long been a fan of CSAE. CSAE is Canada’s only member-based, not-for-profit association committed to delivering the knowledge, resources and environment to advance association excellence. Leading the evolution to become a member-driven, collaborative, progressive organization was, and still is, very appealing. Since joining, we have developed a strategic plan that puts members first by focusing on engaging our member community; leading through learning and innovation; and increasing our brand and profile within and beyond the sector.  And, on top of all of that, I spend my days with the brightest and best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – that includes the employee team, volunteers, and of course, CSAE members across the country.

AA: You were elected North Ward Councillor for the Whitby (Ontario) town council in 2010 and served in that role for three years. How has your political experience informed your role as president and CEO of CSAE? 

TFH: Working in the private sector (early in my career) taught me business acumen and savvy; working in the not-for-profit sector gave me perspective and purpose; and getting involved in politics taught me diplomacy. The combination has served me well – allowing me to find a balanced approach to everything I do.

AA: In which area of the association experience does CSAE truly excel? In which area do you most want to see some improvement?

TFH: I admit to being a bit biased as I think CSAE does so many great things for and on behalf of our members. Everyone plays a role in member relations providing exceptional service and delivering high quality products and services. We have an incredibly talented team, with leadership and support from an equally strong board of directors. Our focus for the immediate future is determining and adopting the most effective practices and technologies to be efficient and effective. CSAE will continue to evolve using best practices; and if a best practice doesn’t exist, we’ll create one.

AA: What does a typical work day look like for you?   

TFH: Define “typical”? I spend as much time with my team as I do connecting with members from across the country. I can often be found attending a member event in one of our seven networks. We make outreach calls each week, and I try to allocate mine so I’m chatting with a member at least once a day; it keeps our mandate fresh and puts the mission front and centre. I walk each morning and try to have a good breakfast – the most important meal of the day according to my beloved grandma. And I call my kids – daily, if not more.

AA: What are your goals for yourself and for CSAE in the coming year? In the coming five years? 

TFH: CSAE is evolving into a strong united organization. It is my intent to lead the change and move CSAE forward as a progressive, member-driven organization; where members influence and drive the association agenda. We have adopted a new philosophy of collaboration and inclusion and are leading the way for our member associations.

AA: What advice would you give for a fellow association professional looking to become an executive director/president someday? 

TFH: Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow. Trust your instincts and intuition –  you’ll know when you are ready.  Coming into the president position at CSAE was exciting. I knew I could make a difference in an organization that I respected. Once you are in the position, keep learning and growing – the title doesn’t end with a full-stop; it’s another exciting beginning. Surround yourself by great people who achieve great things and are willing to take the ride along with you. Find joy in every single day – and enjoy the journey.

AA: Is it desirable or even necessary for association leaders to actively work with communities through formal roles, such as board member or regular volunteer, with community organizations?

TFH: Knowing and understanding the importance of giving back or paying it forward was given to me, at an early age, by my parents. I’ve long been a community leader and volunteer. It has offered great insight and learning which I apply in so many aspects of my role as president of CSAE. The association world benefits greatly from volunteers and people willing to give their time. To understand that, it’s important for leaders of any kind to give of themselves. I suppose the old adage “it takes one to know one” is more than applicable.

AA: What is your favourite part about working in the association community? 

TFH: The people. Elaboration not required.

AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night? 

TFH: Our recent member survey indicated that the impact of technology on the sector was of great concern to association leaders. I suppose I’m not immune to that.  We have recently undertaken the development of a tech map – not to invent new technology for associations, but to adopt the best tools to help us take a fresh and current look at how we do what we do with the ultimate goal of best supporting members. It is all about awareness and being able to leverage tools that allow us to be relevant, responsive and resilient—for our members.