Editorís Note: On Dec. 15, 2011 Chip Cherry became president and CEO of the Huntsville/ Madison County Chamber of Commerce in Huntsville, Ala., after 10 years in the same position at the Macon, Ga., chamber 260 miles to the southeast. The Huntsville metro area population of 418,000 is 75 percent larger than Maconís. Cherryís staff of 27 in Huntsville is nearly twice the size of the Macon staff. The chamber budget in Huntsville is $3.5 million, more than twice the size of Maconís. In this article, Cherry shares his thoughts on making the transition.
Itís October and Iím one of two final candidates for the CEO job in Huntsville. Iíve been recruited for several CEO jobs in recent years and the process has been similar each time, but this is a first: Today the chamber staff is going to interview me.
Actually itís two interviews, one by the management team and one by the general staff. They can ask anything. Itís just me and them. No board or CEO selection committee members, no executive recruiter. Iím impressed that the selection committee wants them involved and values their input.
The questions from the general staff tend to be more personal, aimed at finding out what kind of person I am. The managers are interested in my work style, workplace attitudes and my philosophy about chambers and the work they do. One manager asks how I feel about humor in the workplace. ďI think itís great, if itís funny,Ē is my reply.
The toughest question comes from the general staff: ďAre you going to keep everybody?Ē I tell them I donít know, that itís too early to know and that bringing on a new CEO isnít really about them or me; itís about providing the best service to the members. I also say itís important to me that people make their best effort, and that I will do my best to protect the job of anyone who does that.
Iíve been recruited for several opportunities in the last few years and none felt as right as this one. Here, the attitude of the selection committee is ďour job is to make Chip successful.Ē Itís very important when youíre looking at opportunities that you have the right chemistry between you and your volunteers. I had my first CEO job at the age of 26 and I didnít know any betteróI thought I just had to change and adapt each year to new volunteer leaders. Iíve learned how critical it is to get the right chemistry with your leadership. I once backed out of an opportunity when I was one of the top two choices. My wife and I had spent a day or two in the new community and we were on a chartered plane with some of the volunteer leaders. On that plane ride I realized the chemistry just wasnít right with one of the leaders. There are two kinds of people who seek these volunteer roles: those who really want to give back to the community, enhance it and move it forward, and those who are mainly seeking to raise their social status or power level. Itís critical to surround yourself with those who want to move the community forward, which is what I had in Macon and what I have here in Huntsville.
Preparing for the Nov. 9 public announcement of my hiring, I call the board chairman and ask if thereís a key individual I should meet while Iím in town. He recommends that we spend some time with the person who was most connected with the BRAC (Base Closure and Realignment) efforts in the community. The meeting is informative for me but more importantly it shows our respect for this individual. We started the morning with a chamber staff meeting where he introduced me as the new exec. Chamber staff members were among the first to know, which validated their importance. Iíve gotten the impression from the board that they value a high level of interaction with all the staff.
Iím asked to attend the boardís executive committee meeting and a reception for major investors on Nov. 17, so I make the most of the trip by coming down on the 16th and spending an extra half day in the office.
During my visit I met with two more key influencers, and got to know my administrative assistant better. I also dived into the financials and found a few issues Iíd like to address, such as standardizing the treatment of overtime among all departments, revamping policies governing travel and entertainment, and our handling of credit for trades. Iím conservative about finances and I tend to be very formal about tracking, measuring and documenting the flow of money. In general, I tend to focus on measures and benchmarks.
I had dinner with four of my direct reports so we could get to know each other better. They knew about me and wanted to know more. For me it was an opportunity to learn more about them and their families, and dig deeper into their thoughts about the chamber. The dinner was an excellent opportunity to begin the process of forming our new team.
Weíve scheduled a full day with the mayor of Huntsville and key city staff, plus a meeting with the chair of the County Commission of Madison. Weíll do the same with the city of Madison, the airport, Huntsville utilities and the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), which is the electricity provider for the region and a partner in economic development. Also in the works is an in-depth tour/briefing on Redstone Army Arsenal, where there are over 60 different activities of various federal government entities. Itís the largest employer in the region: 90,000 jobs and $10 billion in revenue when you count all connected businesses. Redstone accounts for nearly six percent of Alabamaís GDP.
To help get to know my co-workers better, Iíve asked each of them to write a short biography. I didnít provide much in the way of guidelines. I wanted to allow for creativity. What a wonderful experience! I now have a much better appreciation for them as people with a life outside the office.
Most provided a brief work history, personal interests, spouseís occupation, and the activities of kids and grandkids. But each biography was a unique self-portrait. One man wrote four lines about family and 14 lines about church activities.
A woman wrote: ďI also love to cook, read, work out, knit and watch football. Iím happiest when the leaves have turned colors and football is on. Amen.Ē
A long-time staffer wrote two paragraphs covering her chamber work and responsibilities, her college education, hobbies and her husbandís occupation, plus one paragraph about the chamberís ďtwo feral parking lot catsĒ that sheís taken care of the last seven years, including trapping them, having them neutered and then releasing them back into their ďterritory.Ē
I also wrote a short biography and shared it with staff so they could know me better. The thing about me I thought I should stress to them was that I have a tendency to be a little too direct at times. I have to work hard not to be blunt or too much to the point. In fact my chairman shared with me that I should ease them into my style of doing things because it was much different from my predecessor. I took his remarks to heart and softened my approach, which to give him due credit was the correct approach.
I also asked each of my direct reports to complete a self-assessment. [See sidebar p. 12.] The goal of this is to have them take a hard look at themselves and provide a performance baseline as we go forward.
I had individual meetings with all staff in the first month following my start date. These meetings were important because they afforded the opportunity to ask questions and share concernsóin many cases questions and concerns that staff would not have shared in a group meeting.
I had to be very transparent to allay fears staff may have about job losses. Iím not a benevolent dictator; I want everyone involved. Part of the challenge is that staff has to help create a plan, benchmarks and measures, and then own them after theyíve been part of the plan development. Everyoneís got to know how theyíll be evaluated. My style and approach might be new or a little different, but I canít lose sight of the fact that this staff is very well respected and they do a great job in many areas.
Weíre going to do Myers-Briggs profiles of the staff. This will provide insight on how each member of the team performs in normal circumstances and under pressure; it will help determine if we have the right people on the right teams.
Iíve hired someone to facilitate two off-site sessions, one for direct reports and the other for non-direct reports, to help us establish expectations and to shorten the ďgetting to know youĒ curve. I decided on an outsider because at this point staff trusts and relies on each other and we need to become a team. The facilitator will be a neutral party and help with the trust-building process.
After the off-site meetings one of the non-direct report employees came to me and said, ďNow that weíve done this, what are you going do with it? How will you keep lines of communication open?Ē I now hold monthly meetings with the non-direct report staff without their managers. They have a lot of information that cuts across all departments and they touch a lot of customers, so I need their feedbackóand its feedback they may not give to their supervisors.
Iíve ordered copies of Who Moved My Cheese for all the staff. I will work through a discussion with them using the book as the framework for flushing out issues and opportunities. Iíve also ordered a DVD copy of ďThe Man Who Planted Trees,Ē a powerful story which I first saw while participating in the Leadership Development Program at the Center for Creative Leadership. I will use this as a foundation for a discussion on vision.
Meetings are scheduled with all executive committee and board members, major investors, elected officials and key influencers. I asked staff to identify others I should meet with who would help me understand the community better. Also on the calendar are meetings of the two city councils and the county commission.
Part of the challenge in any new situation like this is the established culture and its rhythm. With a new CEO, everyone knows there will be some changes. Some people like change; some people run to it but some run away from it.
Weíre reshaping the membership department, hiring two commissioned sales reps and revising some responsibilities. Currently, the total resource campaign and all events reside in the membership department. Itís hard to hold folks accountable when they are pulled in so many directions at different times of the year depending on what the primary mission may be at that time. Itís a matter of creating separate project areas and more accountability in each area.
Weíve got to be careful about diversifying. We need to build more engagement on the small business side and at the same time we canít lose focus on our economic development work, a core strength of the organization. We want to avoid mission creep. I donít want us to be activity-driven and lose sight of what members want and the expectations of our partners. We canít cannibalize what we have in the name of new initiatives.
The learning curve has been a challenge. In my old job I might get a call from someone like the Rotary Club asking me to give a speech in half an hour. All I needed was a five minute conversation about what they wanted me to cover. Iíd know exactly what to say. In a new job, thereís so much you have to learn, remember and think about before you speak publically. All that learning is really stimulating.
Well, I did my first Rotary speech last week. Of course, you canít tell them ďhereís what we have to doÖĒ as if you had all the answers. Because you donít have the answers, you should be in data collection mode. But you can tell them your perception of the region from the perspective of a newcomer and those areas where you see opportunities and those where you see threats. Iím excited to be here and am looking forward to becoming a part of the community, to be a part of moving it forward.
Werner von Braun and his team came here in 1950 and this was his home for 20 years. He helped develop the rocket technology that got us to the moon. In the 1940s there were only 12,000 people here; now there are more than 400,000. The modem was invented here. So was geo-mapping. We have the highest number of PhDs per capita in the nation, so youíve got to watch it when you say something like ďwell, itís not rocket scienceĒ because there are so many rocket scientists and engineers around here that thereís probably one within earshot.
My challenge in taking this new role was that I had to forge new relationships with my volunteer leadership, my coworkers, local elected officials, major investors, economic development partners, and members, while reconfiguring the organization to more effectively meet member expectations. Iím proud of the way our staff has engaged in the process of making our organization more effective. Theyíre doing an excellent job. Iím also grateful for the active role my volunteer leadership has taken in helping me have a successful ramp-up. And, I would be remiss if I did not recognize my wife for the role she is playing and has played in making my transition(s) a success. Thank you, Betty! I will close by thanking all those who have mentored me over the years. I have received much wise council from many great chamber executives.
We work with the most dedicated people and in many cases the brightest people in the community who have decided that the chamber is the vehicle through which they will channel their resources to make the community a more vibrant place to live and conduct commerce. As CEOs we have a responsibility to our members, leadership, partners, and staff to make sure that we are being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us and to meet and exceed their expectations. Itís an honor to do what we do.
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