Why CSMLS’s CEO Christine Nielsen says the Symposium for Chief Staff & Chief Elected Officers is a must-attend — every year

An association’s CEO and its elected board chair must work together to maximize success. That fact is irrefutable, but the path toward mutual support and understanding is often less clear.

CSAE is here to help, with its much-anticipated 2021 Symposium for Chief Staff and Chief Elected Officers, held virtually February 22 to February 23, 2021. Registration is open here.

Facilitated by Glenn Tecker and Donna Dunn, CAE, the Symposium brings together chief executives and their board chairs to collaboratively establish the key components of successful governance, strategy and organization. Over two days, they’ll roll up their sleeves to lay out a practical foundation of shared purpose for their respective organization, which in turn will foster good governance, strong working relationships and successful strategy implementation.

Unsure about taking part? Take a look at our interview with Christine Nielsen, the CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS), who has attended this event with her board chairs more than 10 times.

View the video below, or read on for the Q&A.

Q: You have attended the CEO Symposium every year, for many years now. Thinking back to the first time you attended, what was the most surprising thing you learned?

A: The first CEO Symposium I attended was during my first year as a CEO. I had been working in the association world for probably seven years. What became clear to me during that first symposium was the intricate nature of the relationship between the board president and myself, the executive director of the organization. My president only serves for one year, and they are crucial to the success of the organization, so it’s imperative to build trust.

Q: From a high level, how did the program impact how you approached working with your board chair?

A: One of the best things we identified during the CEO Symposium were the strong personality traits of both the president and myself, and where we might have pinch points. For us, we learned about the pinch points in our relationship, but also the areas where we might face challenges as a team over the next year.

Q: From your perspective and experience, what are the three most important elements of this program?

A: The most important elements of the program are the ability to build and sustain trust with each other, the importance of good communication and, really, the importance of no surprises on either end. So, if there are some challenges in the organization, you must be transparent. We have separate roles, but linked responsibilities. And our relationship is ongoing, so there’s a need for trust and great communication to help alleviate surprises.

Q: What does the Symposium provide that no other learning opportunity delivers?

A: The best part about the CEO Symposium is that it’s dedicated one-on-one time with both of the organization’s chief officers — the volunteer and the staff person. It’s our time to think about good governance, but also our own governance challenges and how we can best work together. Without the structure of the CEO Symposium, it’s easy to let those things fall by the wayside. I think it’s really important that the organization and the chief volunteer commit to this time spent together. It helps to set the tone and to clarify the expectations for the year to come.

Q: How practical is the program? Are there immediate outcomes or benefits?

A: The most immediate benefit is getting to know my new president — spending some time and understanding their core values. There are questions about why people are involved in their organizations, and what’s important to them about belonging to or volunteering for the association. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the individual I’m going to work closely with over the next year. It’s delivered in a non-confrontational manner, so you can identify what might be an issue, long before it becomes an issue. Then you can better understand how to mitigate it.

Q: What are you hoping you and your board chair will gain from the upcoming CEO Symposium?

A: At the next CEO Symposium, one of the key things we will examine together is how to prepare our organization for the second wave of the pandemic. What will this mean when we have to work remotely and can’t deliver member services in the normal way? Really, it will set the tone for us to lead the organization together during a very difficult time.

Q: Why do you recommend this program to other association leaders?

I love this program because it’s dedicated one-on-one time that the board chair and I spend together. We really get to know each other well. It helps us to uncover some of the challenges that might lie ahead. Where might we have some trouble? It may be in timelines for communication, it may be in how we’re going to navigate the preparation of board agendas. It really gives us the opportunity to understand each other. In my case, my board chair is remote and from across Canada. Board meetings are the only time we see each other face-to-face, and currently, with the pandemic, it’s all virtual.

Q: How effective are Glenn Tecker and Donna Dunn in facilitating the session?

A: The facilitators are great. They have a wealth of experience. I would say that one of the things I really appreciate is the no-nonsense manner. I also like that they take questions throughout the entire session, so you can ask about something really specific to your organization. This is helpful if you get some learning material that doesn’t make sense, or conflicts with something you heard or practiced in the past.

Position your association for a successful year ahead with CSAE’s 2021 Symposium for Chief Staff and Chief Elected Officers. This event has a capacity limit, so reserve your place today. See you on February 22!

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