If you’re a new Chamber CEO, President or Executive Director, your first few weeks are vital. You’re a high-achiever, so you’ll be eager to hit the ground running and make things happen! But … read on to see what things to NOT do.
Leading a chamber is different than operating a business. Business owners basically have one set of stakeholders who define whether they are succeeding or not: customers.
But as a chamber professional, yes, you directly report to your board, but they are only one of many stakeholders. There’s the board, members, future members, elected officials, candidates, and other members of the community who may all be invested in your new role … and who have ideas and expectations.
Don’t let that daunt you! You’ve got an additional group of “stakeholders” who are on your side: your peers. If you’re a new chamber CEO or completely new to the chamber world, you’ll find out quickly that it’s a very friendly industry.
Chamber pros are rarely in competition with one another. Your fellow CEOs will be a great source of information and advice for you. In fact, we used that advice to craft the following article about best practices on your first few days in the position so read on to get their friendly and experienced advice!
7 Things to Avoid as a New Chamber CEO
There’s a lot to be done as a new chamber president so choosing the right things to concentrate on is crucial to your success in the role. In this industry we “all get by with a little help from our friends.”
There’s also a lot to not do. Here’s what the experienced pros recommend.
Don’t Expect to Change Everything
Okay, while you probably wouldn’t do this anyway–there’s simply not enough time — you want to understand a few things before making big changes.
Start by examining what truly is working and what isn’t. You’ll want to learn the “sacred cows” (what things can’t be touched without the world melting down) of your community. Look at some data on members before deciding where you will be most successful when innovating. As Kate Jacobson Kobs said in the Chamber Pros Facebook Group, “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Someone has done it before, take their advice.”
Don’t Ignore Local Officials
Regardless of where you take the chamber, it’s always good to get to know local officials and candidates in your area. You’ll be working closely with them in many ways and your personal politics need to take a back seat. Invite them to meet with you and discuss their priorities.
Also, figure out the level of legislative advocacy and government interaction your predecessor had (or the chamber has traditionally undertaken). Some chambers are very involved in the legislative arena, while others stay away from it.
Advocacy can be very important to members so just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. But it’s always best to know where you came from before deciding where you’re going.
Don’t Take on Every Issue Yourself
As a new CEO of the chamber, disgruntled people who have had no success in with the chamber in getting their issues addressed will suddenly expect you personally to get involved. You will need to prioritize and clarify what is a problem that truly needs to be remedied and which are simply an old grudge or their personal bête noire.
If you do figure out it’s something that needs to be dealt with but it’s still going to be a “no” or at least not the answer they wanted to hear, you can follow Institute 101 advice. Chamber Pro Dan Schenkein reminds us, “Put a volunteer between you and a problem.” Many people will turn to you personally to solve their problems but that doesn’t mean that you are the best one to address it. You can (and should) delegate it to someone more appropriate in some cases.
Don’t Let the Board “Over” Lead While You Get Up to Speed
Your first few weeks on the job will set the tone for the rest of your tenure with the chamber. Some newbies allow the board to step in to areas that they shouldn’t. That’s probably because the board hires them so they assume a pyramid structure with the board on the top as the ultimate decision maker. Sometimes, if the CEO position has been vacant for a while, the board has been acting in that role. When you take over the position, you will need to clearly establish yourself in the position.
Some boards know what they should be involved with but others will need to be trained. They were recruited for their knowledge of strategy and high-level ideas — not day-to-day management — and that’s what they should be concerned with.
Danielle Brown, VP at Southwest Valley Chamber of Commerce reminds us, “Your Board sets policy. You run the operations. Do not let them overstep into operations!”
Alyssa Cook, CEO at Opportunity Strategies added, “Get your board trained. Soon and thoroughly. The sooner they know their lane and how to stay in it, the easier it will be for you to effectively run the operations.”
Don’t Be an Island
The key to success in a chamber position is building relationships in many directions.
You will have some obstacles to overcome because it’s likely the position (and the chamber) existed before you took over. That means people in the community may have biases (good and bad) that existed long before you even thought about interviewing for the position. You will need to overcome these. Often that means building your own relationship so you can be viewed on your merits.
April Rome Wehrs, President/CEO of Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce advised, “Visit with board members, elected leaders and high level investors individually. Ask them what they think is good and what can be better about the chamber. Be prepared to gently steer them to business issues if they derail. This way you know what they think – right or wrong – and (you) reveal opportunities and trouble to avoid.”
Don’t Take Anything Personally
It’s hard to be good at a job and not take it personally but that’s a fast train to burnoutville. As the head of the chamber, you will run into a lot of strong personalities who will make you the object of their frustration. Some days you’ll feel completely unappreciated. Other days, people make you feel like you’ve saved the world.
Shannon Walker, Executive Director at the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, suggested “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, you can’t please everyone, always keep the best interest of the community and businesses in the forefront.”
Don’t Become a Weathervane
When you take over as President/CEO there may be a lot of people who propose new ideas for groups and events within the chamber. Many of them will sound worthwhile. But you likely won’t be able to do them all.
So how do you choose?
David Reid, the Executive Director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce suggested, “Get a tight handle on your mission statement. There are thousands of really good things you can do for your community and the best way to choose which to tackle is a laser sharp mission.”
Want More Advice as a New Chamber President?
Again, your peers are an excellent source of information. Here are some additional words of wisdom:
- Don’t make any promises or join any other outside committees/boards for the first 6 months if you can help it. Focus on getting your legs under you first with your own priorities. Everyone will want your time. And it’s not a 24/7 job no matter what you hear. Set boundaries now! ~Anissa Starnes
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for help when needed! ~Cheryl Smith
- Stay aligned with your board. ~ Phil Suter
- Attend as many events as you can the first year so the business/local community gets to know you, trust no one, build a strong team, ask your members their needs/wants and have fun! ~Becky Nelson Patsais
- Your board should be in the thick of things with you. If they aren’t, find their strengths and interests, and match them up with programming they can help develop and lead. When everyone at the table takes ownership in the organization, great things can be accomplished! ~Vickie Phillipson
Finally, check out this article for additional advice for the new chamber CEO.