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Strong leaders build a strong team

CEOs say senior staffers must be selected carefully, given room to grow

Strong team

Sept. 8, 2017
By Lori Sharn

As CEO of the Transportation Intermediaries Association, Robert Voltmann spends most of his time on the road representing and promoting his industry. That doesn’t leave him much time to actually run the trade group for freight brokerage companies.

So it’s imperative that Voltmann has a strong team of senior executives in place at TIA headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

“You have to hire people you can trust to do what needs to be done to keep the ball moving forward,” Voltmann says. “And then get out of the way. If they’re good people, and the association has a plan, you have to let them execute it.”

The most effective CEOs know how to select, develop and inspire staffers who will perform at the highest levels. CEO Update talked with leaders and experts for insights on hiring the right people, getting the team to pull together, and giving these senior executives room to grow.

Start with hiring
TIA had a staff of five when Voltmann became chief executive in 1997. Today, the group has 19 full-time employees and six contractors.

Voltmann said most of his key hires are people he has known for years, so he already had a good handle on their abilities and background. He often looked to other associations for talent.

“I want staff who are independent, entrepreneurial, willing to take chances,” Voltmann said. “I look for staff that has experience but may not have fit where they were.”

Last year he hired former American Trucking Associations executive Jeff Mason to be his first chief of staff. For this critical position, Voltmann thought it was important to have some third-party input on whether this would be a good pairing. He turned to his longtime coach, Norris Beren, to do the interviews and make the decision. TIA’s four department heads now report to Mason.

Executive coach Tom Dolan said recruiting well is critical. Dolan, former CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives, said he always clearly explained the culture and the advantages and challenges of working at ACHE. Candidates were interviewed by multiple people, including potential supervisors, peers and subordinates. Job offers were contingent upon a positive referral from the candidate’s current employer.

Dolan said he is also a big believer in working with the team a CEO inherits upon joining the organization, and giving individuals a fair chance to prove themselves.

Christie Tarantino-Dean, CEO of the Institute of Food Technologists, said it is important not to start a job with preconceived notions about particular people, though she acknowledges a turnaround situation may be different. IFT was a very successful organization with a strong senior team when she joined in 2014, but she has made several key hires since then.

“You’re not going to be successful unless you bring the team along,” she said. “This is my third CEO role, and I’ve tried to be a little more patient than I would have been in the first one.”

Keep on onboarding
Dolan said he has found, in his coaching and consulting practice, that many of the challenges people face in their careers and their current positions could have been avoided if they had been onboarded well. New hires need to be thoroughly briefed on the culture of the organization and be connected with other key players. Set clear expectations from the very beginning for what is to be achieved in the short term and in longer time frames, he said.

But onboarding is really a continual process, Dolan said. He sent all his senior executives to a leadership development program.

“Senior executives are smart. You don’t get to that level if you’re not smart. What tends to trip people up at senior levels are interpersonal skills,” Dolan said.

Tarantino-Dean and her senior team at IFT go on a two-day retreat each September. They stay at a local hotel in Chicago—away from daily job demands—and think and plan together as a group, Tarantino-Dean said. Knowing what resources are going to be pushed and challenged in the next year gives each person an appreciation for what other people have on their plate, she said.

They have also had facilitated discussions to get to know each other better as a team and understand different personality types. “That has gone a long way to establish a culture of trust amongst the senior team, because that is critical,” she said.

There is also always a fun social activity. Last year the group gathered at a Ping-Pong venue, where an instructor showed people how to do tricks.

Promote learning, growth
Dolan strongly encouraged his senior executives to be active in both Association Forum and ASAE, and to become Certified Association Executives. Three of his former staffers are now CEOs, including current ACHE leader Deborah Bowen.

Nancy Fletcher, CEO of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, looks for ways to keep her team at the top of their game during tremendous change in the industry. Two of her six senior staff have been with OAAA more than 30 years, and two, for more than 15 years. Fletcher has been CEO for 26 years.

“One of the big ways to keep it going over the long term is to share the platform,” Fletcher said. Senior people at OAAA make speeches, write thought leadership articles and get a lot of face time with members.

Another key factor is bringing in third-party expertise to keep the staff and the association current and fresh, Fletcher said. Consultants have been hired to help with strategic planning, rebranding and what impact autonomous vehicles might have on the out-of-home advertising industry.

Honest communication is always important, as is having fun and enjoying each other, she said.
“Having fun socially, getting to know your co-employees, is important. It makes any rough spots easier,” she said.

Philadelphia-based executive coach Pat Mathews has worked with corporations and nonprofits that need help with their senior teams. Common issues with underperforming or dysfunctional teams include:

Confusing direction: The CEO is not clearly defining the common goal or establishing a vision that inspires people to work toward it, Mathews said.

Ignoring problems: The CEO doesn’t confront problematic behavior in an individual because of that person’s otherwise valuable attributes. An example might be a CFO who is a fantastic money person but miserable to work with.

“Everybody else on the team sees that … and generally resents it,” Mathews said.

A really high-functioning team is open and is composed of good listeners, she said. They also set norms for how the group should function—such as starting meetings on time—and then hold people to those norms.