Meet The 2019 Honors Award Recipients

FORUM sat down with this year’s recipients for an in-depth Q&A about their paths to success and their hope for the future of the association industry.

By The FORUM Magazine Editors

Association Forum Honors Gala 2019
Association Forum Honors Gala 2019

Each year, Association Forum’s Honors Awards are bestowed upon the best and brightest among association executives, supplier partners and organizations in the Chicagoland association industry. FORUM sat down with this year’s recipients for an in-depth Q&A about their paths to success and their hope for the future of the association industry.

Samuel B. Shapiro Award for Chief Staff Executive Achievement

The highest honor the Association Forum bestows on an association professional, the Samuel B. Shapiro Award for Chief Staff Executive Achievement, is presented to the chief staff executive (e.g. CEO, executive director, or equivalent level) for outstanding service and accomplishments in association/nonprofit management.

Gary LaBranche, FASAE, CAE
President & CEO
National Investor Relations Institute


As the former CEO of Association Forum, what does it mean for you to be honored by the organization you once served?
Receiving the Samuel B. Shapiro award (or “the Sammy,” as it has been called), means a great deal to me because I knew and was inspired by Sam. I have known many past recipients, and being included among their numbers is very humbling, as they have been role models and legends. And being honored by Association Forum is very cool. It is rare for a former CEO to be recognized like this, and it is a thrill to join past Association Forum CEO Chris Mahaffey, FASAE, CAE in this award. As the organization’s CEO I had the privilege to help present the award and am very honored to now be on the receiving end!

What is your hope for the evolution and progression of the association industry over the next 5-10 years?
When I worked at the US Chamber of Commerce, I discovered a white paper that summarized the forecasts of a group of association CEOs 30 years before. I was staff executive to the Chamber’s Association Committee of 100 (C100), and so we replicated that effort in 1994. Later, as a member of the C100 in 2014, I facilitated another round of forecasting by the group. These efforts allowed us to analyze 50 years of association trend forecasts. We learned that some predictions were right on the money, like globalization (1994). Some were wildly wrong, like government take-over of certification (1964). But there were notable misses, like the failure to mention the potential impact of the internet in 1994. The lesson is that while forecasting trends is a useful and important exercise, what matters most is the openness to discover potential changes, and the willingness to adapt accordingly. My hope is that my colleagues will always have the intellectual curiosity to search for and consider potential impacts from a wide variety of sources, and then have the courage to help lead the changes and innovation required to thrive in the future.

What is your advice to young association professionals who hope to follow your path to the C-Suite?
The imperative to “Know Thyself” is as true today as it was when it emerged in the 4th century BC. Aspiring CEOs must examine and fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses, their desires and motivations. Being a CEO isn’t for everyone. I first became a CEO at 27, and it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I thought it would be. And I wasn’t as prepared or as mature as I needed to be. Self-awareness is crucial to success in the C-suite. To find your path to the C-suite, you must first find yourself. My advice is simple: show up and say “yes.” Take on the tasks that others avoid. Volunteer, and learn what makes volunteers tick. Get out of your comfort zone and take on new challenges. Get uncomfortable and figure out why you feel that way. Become an expert in you.

Over the course of your career, what moments or accomplishments bring you the most pride?
My association career has provided me with the privilege of doing so many interesting, challenging, fulfilling and fun things. But if I had to mention one, it would be the satisfaction from the role that I played in modernizing the Certified Association Executive (CAE) program. I joined ASAE as vice president, professional development in 1995, and the CAE program was among my responsibilities. I arrived just before the first “Job Task Analysis” was completed, a critical step in developing the new CAE exam blueprint. We then began developing the “item bank” (questions) for the new exam form. This was a huge challenge, as the Item Writing Committee and my staff team had to learn the difficult process of crafting valid questions. My biggest task was getting buy-in from various stakeholders, including some who were not pleased that the CAE program was changing. But the old exam, which had not changed much in 25 years, included a great deal of subjectivity. Answers to exam questions, which included essays, were scored differently by different judges, resulting in a high degree of variability. The resulting CAE exam is based on quantitative research about the profession and is psychometrically valid, reliable and legally defensible. It is also updated on a regular basis and strives to meet certification standards. I am very proud that the work that I and others did to modernize the CAE program continues to impact the profession that I love.

When and how did you know that associations would be your lifelong career and passion?
I decided to become an association professional when I was attending The Ohio State University. I was very involved in politics and had been a paid full-time coordinator for the re-election of a US Congressman and served on the staff of the Ohio State Senate. Those roles gave me the chance to meet many association executives, and I was very intrigued by what they did. I was attracted to the intellectual diversity of the job and the variety of activities: budgets, advocacy, education, committee and board work. I also noticed that people who were not much older than me held important positions in state and local associations, including as CEOs. I eventually became an intern at the headquarters of my college fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon, where I worked for its CEO, T.J. Schmitz, CAE. He was on the ASAE Board, and later received the ASAE Key Award. He encouraged my interest in association management and hired me after I graduated. Now, 38 years later, I can say that choosing association management was the right choice for me.

Samuel B. Shapiro Award partner:

John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award

The John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award is presented for outstanding service to the Association Forum by an individual association or supplier partner member. This award has been presented for exceptional, long-term, volunteer service to the Association Forum, primarily through committee service or similar contributions.

Burt BlanchardBurt Blanchard, FASAE, CAE
Association Professional


What does it mean for you to be awarded this honor by your peers and by Association Forum?
When I started in associations, I didn’t know it’d bring the breadth/depth of experiences I’ve had. When Michelle Mason called to tell me that the board approved me as recipient of the John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award, I was speechless (which is hard for me to be, most occasions). This question was with me the rest of that day—and even now—what does this really mean? It means so much to be recognized for something I’m so passionate about. It’s nothing short of awesome! What receiving this prestigious award says to me is I’ve made the right career choice, and I’ve had an impact. It means that where I stand now is only possible because of those who came before me. I stand on the shoulders of peers and colleagues from whom I’ve gleaned best practices and better ways to do what we do collectively. It means that whatever I do, I do it with a spirit of excellence, and strive to leave things better than it was before being engaged in it. I’m humbled and grateful to my family, the Association Forum staff, the board of directors, the Awards committee, colleagues and acquaintances for this service recognition.

What is your advice to young association professionals who hope to follow your path in this industry?
Don’t be afraid to get involved. Look for the opportunities to serve the association world and do it! Start local in your backyard. For Chicagoland, that’s through the Association Forum. They provide so much by way of developing the whole association person. I’d further tell a young association professional that if you start now, you’ll be amazed years from now at what level of service you will have given, and its impact. From small helps to large projects, every minute spent volunteering and engaging has an impact. The first step is just entering associations is to take Association 101 for a sound foundation. Next, find your community through Association Forum’s Shared Interest Groups (SIGs), and get involved. Lastly, further your engagement through Forum Forward or Holiday Showcase, and don’t miss Forum After Dark. There are so many opportunities to engage—avail yourself by jumping in. It’s all rewarding!

Over the course of your career, what moments or accomplishments bring you the most pride?
There are many, and in each, it’s been the opportunity to serve—to give back and make things better than they were. After making the decision to work as an association professional, my next important accomplishment was pushing myself to get active with Association Forum. There’s a saying not to forsake small (humble) beginnings. Being able to serve on Association Forum committees was paramount to my engagement/serving goals. These three accomplishments stand out: First, when I served on the last Diversity Committee, then chaired the newly created Diversity + Inclusion Committee (which was the precursor to today’s Welcoming Environment). Second, being asked to serve as an Association 101 facilitator. It’s an honor to give back through delivering the content and imparting personal association experiences. My third, and biggest, moment is having an impact on an organization by creating and implementing a new membership/department/revenue stream never realized in the organization’s history. It afforded me the opportunity to be an ‘intrapreneur,’ created jobs, and hired/trained/developed great people that are now making their own impact in associations. It’s all been my honor to serve and make the difference.

When and how did you know that associations would be your lifelong career and passion?
My path, like many others, was that I fell into the association world. Before associations, I worked for a hotel, and an association kept utilizing it for many events. I saw the staff having fun, the revenue the association was generating, and it piqued my interest. So much so that I began my quest to move from corporate to association. And through a quick network, a friend introduced me to their good friend who had an opening at the American Bar Association’s Meetings and Travel Department. Two years in and getting an understanding of associations, I knew—I knew associations were a place where you could be creative, do projects that have heart/impact, where you can live vicariously through the members’ work and that you too create impact! I was absolutely hooked. I’ve lived through meeting planner roles, coordinator, assistant manager, business development, director and more. After years of enjoying this work, it still excites me to this day to be in this incredible industry.

Those who know me best know I love what I call “…now, that’s a t-shirt motto…” They’re simple ideas that make great t-shirts. I put these thoughts on whiteboards to remind me how blessed I am to be part of this incredible industry. Summing up my passion is this t-shirt motto, which I say all the time: “Let’s do what we do and do that well!” Stay passionate. Stay hungry. Stay a humble servant to members and peers alike; for then your path forward will ALWAYS be clear!

John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award

James D. Gibson, PMP, PHR
Strategic Consultant, Technology Management
DelCor Technology Solutions


What does it mean for you to be awarded this honor by your peers and by Association Forum?
I am deeply honored to be one of the John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award recipients for 2019. I have thoroughly enjoyed working in the association community over the last 15 years and I am extremely grateful to receive this recognition. I value my relationships with the excellent staff at Association Forum as well as my association colleagues. I have made lifelong friends and have learned so much along the way that has helped my career. Being recognized motivates me to remain on my volunteer path and continue to share and learn alongside my friends and peers.

What is your hope for the evolution and progression of the association industry over the next 5-10 years?
The biggest opportunity associations have over the next 5-10 years is to continually challenge their own status quo. Asking questions and disrupting how things have always been done is perhaps daunting but can also lead to rich rewards. Recently I have seen many associations investing in their technology as an enabler to their business goals. I would like to see that continue and have their technology leaders become influencers and trusted advisors within their organizations. Another challenge to the status quo is to view data as a strategic asset. Many organizations are on the journey of good data governance and many more should be considering it. Good practices around data quality, data policies, metrics, analyzing trends, and technology that enables you to use data as a corporate asset is a valuable investment for associations.

What is your advice to young association professionals who hope to follow your path in your industry?
I think it is so important to support the association community by volunteering. Giving each other the benefit of our individual knowledge and experiences helps associations get answers to common questions more quickly whether you are using the online forums or going to an education session or a SIG event. I would encourage young association professionals to get out from behind desks and devices and attend an event or contribute content or answer a question from their peers. It is such a great way to network and meet others with both shared and diverse interests. Also keep adding to your personal stories and your professional journeys. You may be surprised at the paths that you find, so always keep an open mind and do not limit yourself.

John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award partner:

Association Professional Achievement Award

The Association Professional Achievement Award is presented to an association professional member for exemplary service and outstanding accomplishments in association management. This award reflects a high level of commitment to professional growth and personal pride in the association management industry.

Laura G. Davis, CAE
Senior Director of Membership, Marketing & Communications
Association Management Center


What does it mean for you to be awarded this honor by your peers and by Association Forum?
I am grateful and extremely humbled to receive the Association Professional Achievement Award from Association Forum. I’ve worked in this field for most of my professional career and it’s inspiring to be honored by my association colleagues whom I greatly admire and respect.

What is your hope for the evolution and progression of the association industry over the next 5-10 years?
My hope for our industry is that we can effectively adapt as our members’ industries and the world around us continue to change. I think associations often get mired in process and can sometimes miss opportunities that are right in front of them. Let’s not let other organizations or entities seize these opportunities from us.

What is your advice to young association professionals who hope to follow your path in this industry?
My advice to young professionals is to find a job and make a living doing what you enjoy; volunteer for something you’re passionate about; and never stop learning.

Over the course of your career, what moments or accomplishments bring you the most pride?
From an association perspective, I am most proud when the hard work our staff puts into a program results in positive feedback from members. Most recently, I think of the annual meeting of my client, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and the number of attendees who commented on Twitter about their experience. “Home from #hpm19 and more inspired than ever! Reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, strengthening our community, and sharing insights and experience makes this conference great. Words to describe my first @AAHPM Assembly: caring, outpatient, advocacy, home-based, team-based, passionate, loving, driven, insightful, furious, gritty, and motivated. Best conference ever. My cup has been refilled.” These comments, coupled with the many, many smiling faces of attendees inspire me in my work and make me proud to work for our association.

When and how did you know that associations would be your lifelong career and passion?
I started out working for state government. Frustrated with how slow things moved and the multitude of projects that got derailed because of bureaucracy and politics, I took a job with a regional business organization and have never looked back. It’s been rewarding to see how associations and their committed members have advanced our society. The work we do impacts policy, educates the public, and truly makes a difference in people’s lives.

Association Professional Achievement Award partner:

The Inspiring Leader Award

The Inspiring Leader Award is presented to an individual who has established a culture leading to employee satisfaction, motivation, engagement and achievement.

Karen Horting, CAE
Executive Director and CEO
Society of Women Engineers


What does it mean to you to receive this award?
I am so honored to receive this award. I think that I have the best team in the world. To be nominated by them is really humbling. In association management, we practice servant leadership. We make sure that our members and volunteer leaders are front and center in terms of the organization and its accomplishments. At my annual conference and other major events, I’m rarely on the stage. I make sure my volunteer leaders get those opportunities. I encourage them to take the credit for all the progress we’re making as an organization. As a board member or committee chair or section leader, we want them to feel they are making a contribution to the success of the organization.

That means that as the staff, we’re in the background toiling away to make sure things happen—that the programs and services meet the members’ needs and are well executed, that we’re scanning the environment to look externally for trends, opportunities or threats, and that we’re executing on the strategic plan…all the things that make for a thriving organization.

As a CEO, you tend to hear the constructive feedback and not a lot of compliments—lots of armchair quarterbacks. Therefore, as a leader, you have to absorb that for your staff and instead help them focus on the accomplishments and celebrate the successes while learning from things that don’t go as planned. Some days it’s easier than others. But I really believe successful leaders are able to filter out the noise for their teams and create a vision that helps each team member see how their role is advancing the mission.

So, I guess that’s a long way of saying that it’s extremely gratifying to receive this recognition for creating a positive organizational culture through my leadership.

What is your personal approach to leadership and how do you bring that to life at your organization?
There’s a great John C. Maxwell quote: “If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.” And I think that is so true! My approach to leadership is to be as authentic and transparent as possible. If you aren’t authentic, your team will see right through you. In my first six months in the CEO role, I tried to emulate my predecessor, but her style and my style were completely different. I wasn’t comfortable, and neither was my team. So, I called a peer who had been in a similar situation a few years earlier and he told me how he had done the same thing but then realized that the board had promoted him based on his skills and qualifications. He said, “They hired you for you, not to be exactly like Betty.” And he was right! I’ve tried to follow that advice as I lead my team. Great leaders recognize they don’t have all the ideas. You need to create a culture where everyone can be heard and contribute. I think an inspiring leader is able to elicit the best from every member of their team.

What is your advice to young professionals who hope to be leaders in the association industry?
My number one piece of advice is to find an organization with a mission that you are passionate about. That will make the work so much more gratifying. The days can be long and the work can be challenging. But when you have that passion and you see the mission in action, there is no greater feeling. Increasing shareholder return can’t even compare!

Inspiring Leader Award partner:

The Welcoming Environment Organizational Award

The Welcoming Environment Organizational Award is awarded to an association that has demonstrated exemplary outcomes in providing an inclusive and welcoming environment and culture.

American College of Healthcare Executives
Responding to the Q&A on behalf of ACHE:
Cie Armstead, DBA
Director, Diversity and Inclusion

What does a Welcoming Environment mean to you?
A Welcoming Environment means that an organization or group takes intentional steps to consistently provide a culture that helps everyone feel that they belong. Each person is received and respected as an individual. Each person is encouraged and empowered to bring his or her whole self to the organization. As a result, the individual and the organization gain the benefits of a richly diverse, inclusive environment.

How do you ensure that diverse voices are heard and respected at ACHE and why is that important to the organization?
Diversity and Inclusion is one of ACHE’s four core values. We incorporate this core value throughout the organization to cultivate an environment that hears and respects diverse voices and viewpoints from our members and staff. For example, each year we conduct an employee opinion survey (EOS) that provides a safe, anonymous way for all staff to give candid feedback on a wide range of topics. Most importantly, senior management then uses the results of the EOS to make ongoing improvements. Other examples stem from our adherence to the rigorous Baldrige Framework for Performance Excellence, which focuses on best practices in leadership, customers, and workforce. As one example related to Baldrige, ACHE uses various mechanisms to capture the Voice of the Customer—specific, intentional steps we take to solicit and respond to all segments of our customer community.

What are the most important steps other organizations can take to create a Welcoming Environment?
The important steps an organization can take to create and cultivate a Welcoming Environment depends on where that organization is on its own diversity and inclusion journey. For organizations who are early in the process, an important initial step is to take an honest assessment of the organization’s readiness for change. This includes assessing the readiness of senior management, middle management, frontline staff, and volunteer leaders to make real changes that may infringe upon longstanding “sacred ground.” Even well-intentioned organizational leaders may not realize how influential parts of the organization may express their willingness to change but exhibit contrary behavior when the change crosses over into their territory.

For organizations who have been on their D&I journey for a while, an important next step may involve assessing the effectiveness of their existing initiatives and strategies related to diversity, inclusion and equity. This may require evaluating how well the D&I initiative or strategy aligns with broader organizational objectives and the relevant impact of those initiatives and strategies.

An overarching step that is essential to sustaining a Welcoming Environment is to have staff dedicated to managing this work. Everyone in an organization plays a part in cultivating a Welcoming Environment. However, having someone who has ultimate responsibility—and authority or access to authority—will ensure the sustained intentionality that’s necessary for long-term success.

Welcoming Environment Organizational Award partner:

About the Author

Written by the FORUM Magazine Editors.

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