The New Three Rs of Leadership: Resilience, Readiness, and Response

This summer, 15 CEOs attended a CEOnly Summit titled “Leading an Association in Our Uncertain Reality: Resilience, Readiness, and Response.”

By Teresa Brinati

Geof Brown speaks with a fellow attendee at the 2021 CEOnly Summit

Planning for success beyond the pandemic has been elusive given the surge of COVID-19 variants and US vaccination rates hovering around 53 percent (according to the Centers for Disease Control). Pressing workplace challenges such as reopening the office, DEI, and safety concerns are cause for insomnia for many association executives as they continue to chart a course in unknown waters. Seeking guidance and advice, 15 CEOs attended “Leading an Association in Our Uncertain Reality: Resilience, Readiness, and Response,” Association Forum’s CEOnly Summit—in-person for the first time in two years—at Smith and Wollensky on August 24, 2021. Even with a new mask mandate in force by Chicago, these leaders appreciated the opportunity to engage in a live event.

“This feels so 2019!” quipped Mary Lynn Fayoumi, president and CEO of HR Source, who along with Kelly Hayden, HR Source’s chief legal counsel, provided a dynamic keynote presentation on “Workplace Challenges and Considerations.” Later in the summit, they were joined by Paul Pomerantz and Geoff Brown, CEOs respectively of American Society of Anesthesiology and National Association of Personal Financial Planners, and engaged in an interactive discussion on “Workplace, Political Climate in Associations and Events in the Wake of New COVID Spikes.”

Communication and Documentation Is Key

Fayoumi and Hayden kicked off the event focusing on what execs can do now to ensure their business operates successfully and the legal ramifications of various decisions related to the pandemic, hiring, and working remotely. They stressed the importance of communication and documentation.

“Communication with employees and documenting it later on has never been more important than during the pandemic,” said Fayoumi,  a Crain’s Chicago Business Notable Leader in HR in 2020 and Association Forum’s 2021 Woman of Influence. “Keep the lines of communication open and document, document, document!”

In a remote or hybrid work environment, management via email is not effective. Instead, Fayoumi advised scheduling regular virtual meetings or phone calls with your employees. Take good, old-fashioned notes—bullet points of topics covered are fine—then share the notes with your employee. Doing so will lead to a more effective outcome. And do not record your calls; recorded calls do not end well from a legal perspective, added Hayden, a leading expert on employment law and human resources.. You can also request a face-to-face meeting, so long as safety protocols are being followed.

What are employees worried about when they say they don’t want to come back to the office? As with any meeting, listening is important. Initiate a longer conversation to understand what specifically concerns your employees right now. Are they natural worriers, immuno-compromised, and/or caring for toddlers, school-aged children, or elderly parents? These circumstances may contribute to their reluctance in returning to the office.

“COVID-19 is still part of the conversation for a variety of reasons,” noted Hayden. First, politicization of the pandemic and the vaccine has made dealing with issues in the workplace more challenging for CEOs. Second, information evolves and mandates change at warp speed. The city, county, state, and federal governments issue protocols at different paces—keeping track can be confusing and difficult. Third, events outside the workplace such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 federal election, and the January 6 insurrection are collectively affecting our consciousness. Those with school-aged children are also affected by the fears and concerns that affect their kids. The fourth has to do with safety. We want our employees to feel safe when returning to the office, traveling for work—whether for business or simply commuting on public transportation—and gathering in-person at events.

Employee Autonomy Tops Emerging Trends

Regina Ward looks at a tablet

Regina Ward, Senior Vice President – Institutional Market Not-For-Profit, BMO Harris Bank, enjoys refreshments and conversation with Gregory Heidrich, CEO, Society of Actuaries.

Whatever decision a CEO makes, someone is bound take exception to it. Fayoumi and Hayden suggested surveying your team about returning to the office to determine the specifics that underlie those exceptions as well as to query employees about what they find most valuable about coming into the office. Implementing “pulse-check” surveys on a periodic  basis are a means to glean information that can abet decision-making and also assist in distinguishing between safety issues and supervisory issues when it comes to employee productivity.

In a survey conducted by HR Source of major lessons learned by employers regarding alternative work arrangements, Hayden and Fayoumi shared the following emerging trends.

  1. Employee Autonomy. Employees prefer to have more control of their days; working outside the office has certainly contributed to that preference. Employees want freedom and flexibility. Although employees cite various risk factors for returning to the office, there is evidence that they’re willing to take social risks like personal travel.
  2. Equity. Conversely, don’t assume that all employees have conducive work environments at home. It could be a space issue (such as a studio apartment) or an emotional issue (e.g., living alone and feeling isolated). Home circumstances are not all equitable. In addition, not all positions are conducive to remote work, which is an internal equity issue.
  3. Hybrid Approach. CEOs are leaning toward a hybrid approach and having employees split time between the office and working remotely. Many organizations are planning to incorporate some form of remote work arrangements more permanently.
  4. Vaccinations. The needle is moving on requiring employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office. Approximately 40% of employers favor a mandate, while 50% are thinking about it. When mandating, allow ample time  for an employee to get the vaccine. You’ll need to include medical and religious exemptions in the mandate.
  5. Incentives. Some employers are offering monetary and time-off incentives to get vaccinated. Incentives are great, but only offer things you would actually do! Again, a conversation with employees may be more effective than an incentive.
  6. COVID Testing. If an employee refuses to be vaccinated, some employers are requiring regular COVID testing and masking up in the office.  Until official guidance is available, the general consensus is that the employee should pay if there is a vaccination mandate by the employer.
  7. Safety. The Delta variant is influencing when CEOs anticipate employees returning to the workplace. Employees may be vaccinated, but they can still bring the virus home to unvaccinated kids. Prior to the pandemic, the issue of public health/safety would’ve been rock-bottom for association concerns.
  8. Distributed Workforce. Because of then pandemic many associations now have a distributed workforce. If an employee has moved out of state, there are legal implications as employment laws differ from state to state. One alternative is to weigh the pros and cons of converting an out-of-state employee to an independent contractor. This is a different relationship than an employer/employee relationship.

Update Your Policy Handbook

For all of the above trends, the best way for employers to protect themselves legally is to update your employee handbook policies. Whether hybrid, remote, or a distributed workforce, these circumstances require policies. The handbook is one of the most important forms of documentation, accountability, and transparency. Beyond serving as a handy reference for staff and your HR team, the policies help shield your association from conflicts and potential litigation. Maintaining the handbook—especially at this time—is critical!

Tips for Addressing Staff Burnout and Membership Concerns

During the final portion of the summit, Pomerantz moderated a lively discussion among Fayoumi, Hayden, Brown, and CEO attendees on their workplace climate in the wake of new COVID spikes. There was unanimous agreement that the pandemic and working remotely have left employees feeling stressed and burned out. Associations are offering an assortment of stopgap measures to take the edge off. Here are some of their ideas:

  • Randomly pair employees for interaction. Donut is an app that helps connect teams serendipitously for water cooler chats, peer learning, DEI discussions, etc.
  • Provide different types of virtual social interactions across the week. For example, Monday morning coffee, Wednesday brown bag lunch, Thursday happy hour.
  • Treat your employees to a special delivery! Use services such as the Door Dash app to send lunch or Sugarwish, an online gifting website, to have a sweet or savory treat delivered to their door.
  • Expand a summer-hours program and extend it into the fall.
  • Create a team of coaches who are available to talk with employees and suss out issues.
  • Encourage self-care and staycations.
  • Be more accepting about spontaneous time off.
  • Allow staff to disconnect from email and other platforms when taking time off.
  • Have staff rotate leadership of the staff meeting. Add spice to meetings—for example, the previous week’s leader introduces the current week’s leader by sharing “two truths and a lie.”

In the process of tending to your staff, don’t forget about your members! Host “town halls” for listening to their concerns. Pay attention to CDC recommendations and do what’s best for all members during the pandemic. Pivot to provide products and services virtually: Many members would prefer training and continuing education to be in-person; accommodate when possible and set up safety guidelines for all in-person gatherings.

Finally, it’s absolutely essential to keep DEI and A (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) at the forefront. Your role as a CEO is to get leadership on board—provide them (and staff) with external diversity training. Book clubs can be a means of opening a dialog (suggested titles include So You Want to talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive by Jennifer Brown, and Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride). Participate with your team in a “Day of Understanding,” created by CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion to help address bias in the workplace and access a plethora of  interactive resources.

Our current reality may be uncertain, but when CEOs embrace the new three Rs—resilience, readiness, and response—they can lead their staff and members in navigating the workplace safely, effectively, and empathetically.

Looking for more CEOnly resources? Look no further (click here!).

About the Author

Teresa Brinati is the Director of Publishing for the Society of American Archivists and may be reached at

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