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Hybrid celebration honors winners of Association Leadership Awards

Praise from peers and a touch of humor highlighted events for Bass, Sarasin and Taylor 

ALA award winners, from left, Kristin Bass, Leslie Sarasin and Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Sept. 24, 2021
By William Ehart

The association community toasted its own with a serious but lighthearted hybrid event featuring timeless thoughts on leadership and timely humor: There were doggie slippers, and there was singing.

The 2021 CEO Update Association Leadership Awards unfolded Thursday with an early afternoon virtual celebration followed by an evening reception at the Longview Gallery near Washington, D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The honorees: 

Trade Association CEO of the Year: Leslie Sarasin, of FMI—The Food Industry Association;
Professional Society CEO of the Year: Johnny C. Taylor Jr., of the Society for Human Resource Management;
Lobbyist of the Year: Kristin Bass of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association.

CEOs from across the association sector participated in video segments for the virtual event, with several humorously getting ready for the awards with imagined watch parties at a movie theater and in the Leading Authorities lunchroom. Leading Authorities, publisher of CEO Update, produced the event.

American Apparel & Footwear Association CEO Stephen Lamar established the tone early in the opening video, rising from the desk in his home office, taking off his fuzzy slippers and choosing from a selection of dress shoes in marked boxes in order to attend the live event.

Both virtual and in-person attendees were entertained by the a cappella group Venus d Minor—of which Bass is a member. They sang a special number about “our favorite lobbyist,” to the tune of “My Funny Valentine.” Bass joined the group in the evening to sing more tunes, including “Last Train to Clarksville.”

All about leadership

But at its heart, ALA recognizes good leadership, effective advocacy and the values of the association community.

Last year’s lobbyist of the year, American Beverage EVP of Government and Public Affairs Kevin Keane, presented the award via video to Bass.

“Kristin excels in arguably one of the most essential fields in our country, health care, particularly prescription drugs, their costs and benefit plans,” Keane said. “Kristin navigates this field for her members with skill, innovation and integrity to deliver real results for members and those they serve.”

Accepting the award, Bass praised members of her profession for exercising their First Amendment rights with mutual respect.

“In an era where civil discourse seems harder and harder to achieve, I and my fellow lobbyists do just that,” she said in a video. “We present our cases on the merits, while our opponents politely disagree on the merits. It’s the civility and respect for a system of government whose importance I want to emphasize today. Given the storming of the Capitol in January, and the falls of governments elsewhere in the world this year, I am reminded increasingly how fragile democracy can be.”

Tireless efforts

New ASAE CEO Michelle Mason, the 2020 Professional Society CEO of the Year, presented the award to Taylor via video.

“I can’t imagine someone more fitting this year, during these unprecedented times, to receive this honor,” she said. “You have helped us understand the importance of developing strong, vibrant, thriving workplaces.

“Your tireless advocacy for the HR profession has guaranteed your members a seat at the table to impact policy, a seat at the table in creating equitable workplaces. You’ve tirelessly given your time in mentoring the talent pipeline for the future,” Mason said.

A major theme of the event was the importance of good communication for a leader—and that includes listening.

Taylor said there are many characteristics of being a good leader.

“The most important one, though, is empathy,” he said. “I’ve found that you can get a lot out of people, they will literally walk through walls, if they feel like you look at their lives through their lens.”

He also spoke about the importance of reaching out to peers.

“Part of the reason that you are in the corner office is because you’ve been successful,” he said. “And once you do that, some of us are less willing to think that other people have great ideas.

“What I have found is to constantly build relationships with other CEOs, to listen and learn. Because there are new ideas, things I hadn’t thought about. So it’s important to extend yourself out to other CEOs and have more conversations where you say, ‘How did you do this?’

“Oftentimes I’m asked what I want my legacy to be,” he said. “As a leader, as a CEO, I’d like people to say, he listened, he listened to understand, made decisions and led the charge.”

Making tough calls

In a video tribute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark praised Sarasin for transforming FMI.

“Leslie brought to FMI real 21st-century leadership, and Leslie’s ability to broaden FMI to represent the whole food-supply chain mattered,” Clark said in a video.

“And it mattered that she was able to modernize the organization and get it lean and mean and ready because of how important their work was in the pandemic,” Clark said.

National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay, presenting the award, said Sarasin has made some tough calls. Shay was the 2020 Trade Association CEO of the Year.

“Leslie has been such an inspiration to so many of us as we’ve watched her throughout her career and especially at FMI,” Shay said. “She has always had the ability to gain the trust and confidence of her members and volunteer leaders, to attract and inspire a loyal and committed team around her to bring to life the vision that the members have created for the organization and in a collaborative way make some really courageous decisions.”

Among those were Sarasin’s moves to end the long-running but declining FMI Connect show, and rebranding the organization, formerly known as the Food Marketing Institute, in early 2020.

Sarasin said she drew inspiration from sources as diverse as former President Harry Truman (citing his famous placard saying, “The buck stops here”) and country star Dolly Parton (“It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world”), a thought she expressed to extend credit to her staff.

“Certainly, during my 13 years at FMI, I’ve been faced with sometimes unpopular, but I thought necessary, decisions,” she said.

“We had to cut costs and develop new revenue streams in my early days to simply keep the organization going. (We had to acknowledge that) the glory days of the FMI show had long ended and the need to eliminate it from FMI’s portfolio of services to the industry after so many years of having that be a hallmark of our organization.

“(We had to recognize) that in today’s environment, the name Food Marketing Institute failed to communicate not only who our members are, but what we do for the industry and society, and then changed our name and broadened the organization’s purview,” Sarasin said.

She closed with a thought on leadership.

“For years, we’ve been told that leaders must be facile, adaptable and capable of discerning and articulating a direction over the anxious noise created by so many loud and dissonant voices,” Sarasin said. “Of course, the pandemic has proven that those leadership qualities of flexibility and understanding aren’t luxuries anymore. They’re requisite for these types of jobs.”

View the virtual program