Congratulations! You’ve landed a tremendous position as the new Chamber Executive Director or President/CEO. It’s a very exciting time but where do you start? How do you build the necessary support you need to be successful?
In this guide, we’ll walk you through your first 90 days as a chamber executive by sharing advice from people who have been there on what to do and the right kind of attitude to cultivate.
Are you ready? It’s time to get to work!
Chamber Executive Director Prep Work
Let’s begin at the time after you’ve received your offer and you’ve accepted it but before you take on the role. Any good leader–whether in the military, business, entertainment, or non-profits worlds–looks to understand the background of the organization they’re working with. If you didn’t do this as part of the interview process or if you weren’t working in some capacity for the chamber already (yes, volunteering counts), then you need to get your research hat on.
Research Your New Role in 3 Easy Steps
The point of this research is to uncover challenges, history, and vocal personalities in regards to the chamber. You’ll do this in three ways:
- Search on the social media channels of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You’re looking for mentions of the chamber here. If your chamber has a big event, search for mentions of that too. Read the comments from other people. Get a feel for the reputation of the chamber as well as the tasks and challenges that lie ahead.
- Read the chamber’s social feeds and blog posts, particularly the comments. Pay attention to who interacts with the chamber and in what capacity. Make note of those who are the most vocal and least happy.
- Apply to join the Chamber of Commerce Professionals page on Facebook. There’s a lot of good information there shared by peers and industry experts. You may even stumble across questions asked by the previous executive director that could give you insight into your members and the challenges the ED faced.
Chamber Industry Education Resources
The chamber industry is certainly a niche and advice given to business leaders does not address the special needs of this congenial industry. For one thing, it’s less competitive than a corporate environment. People working in this industry are not competing against each other so there’s a lot of help to be had from connecting with other chamber professionals. Here are a few places you can get chamber-focused advice:
- ACCE’s (the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives) website. They’ll give you a lot of good ideas and there are many strong resources there.
- Frankjkenny.com. We’re going to assume if you found this article, you’ve been on the site but it’s important to know there are over 1,500 articles here as well as chamber-specific training.
- Western Association of Chamber Executives (WACE) and WACE Academy.
- US Chamber of Commerce and your state chamber or state chamber execs association.
- US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Institute for Organization Management.
- From 6000+ chamber of commerce professionals in our Chamber of Commerce Professionals Facebook group.
Now, that you’ve done your research and found some good resources, get a good night’s sleep and then let’s get started with your first 90 days as the new chamber executive director.
Advice for a New Chamber Executive Director from Chamber Pros
A lot of your success in your new role as chamber executive director will depend on your attitude and emotional intelligence. Mental preparation is essential. Here’s some great advice from those who know best, the ones in the position now.
- Schedule time for yourself. ~Linda Christianson
- Don’t take anything personally. Everyone else knows a “better” way to do every aspect of your job and they will judge accordingly. Shower your volunteers with praise (maybe donuts too). Keep track of your milestones and accomplishments- the small and the large- and look at that list often. ~Karen Riley
- People all over the community look up to this organization and it is with great responsibility that you are in this position. With that being said have fun with it too. ~Douglas Wallace
- Be gracious, respectful, kind, compassionate … and empowered! ~Denise Ackley
- Rely on your peers for advice, commiseration, and the occasional stiff drink. ~Mary Ann Miller <There were several mentions of stiff drinks from a variety of chamber pros. Theme?>
- Absorb as much information for the first year before putting in your “two cents.” There can be so much back history that you won’t know until you hear ALL sides of everything. Be helpful, learn from others and make time for you and family. ~Yvette Keast
- The best thing you can do for your career, your chamber, and your community is to attend the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Institute for Organization Management! ~Blain Andera
- Always keep a board member between you and any challenging situation. ~Laurel Bumb
- Keep flexible, take deep breaths, treasure the moments that give you goosebumps, and when (not if) you hit bumps along the way, know they don’t last forever and things do get better. It is by no means an easy job, but it is very rewarding. ~Terri Leinan Hayes
- Be bold enough to give the credit to volunteers and take the blame yourself. ~David Bradley
- Focus on creating relationships with your members. Look at every single member and ask yourself “what can I do to help them?” If you do that, everything else falls in place. ~Denise Thomson
- Don’t take things personally. – Debra Youngberg
- Take one step at a time and smile through everything. – Alice Crabbe Perez
- Be patient. – Tamera Julian
- Always be true to what you stand for. – Shelby Lawley McNamara
- Accept help from your board and from your members when they offer because you can’t do it all. – Amanda Settle
- Pace yourself. – Leonardo McClarty
- Be creative and innovative and keep proposing new ideas on strengthening your local economy, legislative advocacy and promoting your community. – Bob Canter
- Use ideas that work for you — basically steal that great idea from another chamber — no one will be mad at you. – Karen Hutchinson-Talaski
A good attitude and mental preparation are excellent starts but where do you go from there? What about action steps should you take the first 90 days as the new executive director?
14 Actionable Steps to Take as a New Chamber Executive Director
You have 90 days (probably even less than that) to make a big impresssion. The work you do initially will color how people view you well into the future. Here are some things you need to get on your calendar in the next three months.
Yes, many of us hate meetings but getting together with the following groups is very important at the beginning (and throughout your career).
- Members. Have a face to face meeting with the top 100 members in the first 100 days. ~Laurette Leagon
- Board. Meet with board members individually. Talk about them. Understanding these people and their motivations is important to your success.
- Advisors. Assemble your “cabinet.” Author Beth Brooks suggests getting a group of coaches and professionals who are each skilled in particular areas. This is particularly important in areas where you feel like you might need additional help, perhaps technology, social media, PR, or economic development. Surrounding yourself with people who will challenge you and complement your skills is a worthwhile pursuit.
- Peers. Reach out to other directors in your area. Ask them for best practices and try not to be too overwhelmed. – Amy Stockdale
According to The New CEO’s Guide by Texas Society of Association Executives’ CEO Beth Brooks, ensuring your board understands the duties of board service and volunteer leadership falls on you as a new executive director. Don’t assume this has already been done or that just because your board members have been there a while that they fully know what is expected of them.
Take some time to review the by-laws and other issues of governance and then meet with your board to go over expectations. Ethics and non-compliance with expected duties should also be reviewed. If there’s something that’s not working with your chamber board of directors, this is a good time to look into it and consider changing it.
Connections and Communication
- Read. Know the executive director bibles well. These include your bylaws, employee manual, and programs. ~Susan Paradis
- Connect with Peers. Get to know others in the “biz” and use them as your own, personal R&D machine! Seriously, the Chamber industry people are the best and smartest people around, and they like to help! Most supportive bunch of people I’ve ever known! ~Renee Sinclair
- Communicate. Set up a communication plan for all areas: members, board members, staff, etc. Most frustrations occur because of a perceived lack of communication and expectations. Putting a communication plan in place will help you avoid those common snafus.
- Earn Trust. Put practices in place that will help you begin to earn the trust of members and the community. Gone are the days of someone trusting you implicitly because of your position. Just as you would with social media, getting people to know, like, and trust you is key to your success as a new chamber executive director.
- Withhold promises. Don’t make any promises in the first 60 days and visit as many members in the first 90 days as possible. Sign up for IOM or get it on the budget. – Anissa Freeman Starnes
- Be Available. Always return emails or phone calls within 24 hours. – Sarah Cressy
- Connect with Members. Seek out members you can connect with easily and LISTEN. – Teri Wilson Edwards
- Know the Pros and Cons. Find and talk with the biggest supporters of the chamber, and do the same for the biggest detractors. – Andrew Cripps
- Work social media. Leverage social media to help people get to know, like, and trust you.
Finally, take to heart the golden advice of the chamber industry from the late Edward Rodriquez, Executive Director of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, “Everything your chamber does should keep your organization ON MISSION.”
When you’re making decisions in those first 90 days (and well beyond), you can use this valuable advice to stay on track and enjoy the best chamber executive career possible.
Now that you’re prepared with great advice, you’ll need to take these 5 leaps of faith with your chamber: