A few years ago, the day after facilitating a daylong nonprofit board-CEO retreat at the Wallace Center of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, I spent several hours strolling through the Museum. During my visit I listened to two FDR recordings that demonstrated a “Chief Energizer” second to none at work. One, FDR’s first inaugural address in March 1933, raised the spirits and restored a sense of hope among millions of Americans demoralized by the Great Depression. The other, FDR’s radio “fireside chat” on March 9, 1933, calmed peoples’ fears by explaining why it was necessary to close the nation’s banks from March 6 to 13 during the so-called “bank holiday” and assuring them that their deposits would be safe. When I got back to my office in Tampa Bay, I began to think seriously about the “chief energizer” role of all CEOs, not just our national chief executive, and about the wide range of situations calling for a Chief Energizer, not just a catastrophic event like the Great Depression. Since then, I’ve consciously been on the lookout for real-life examples of this role in action in nonprofit organizations of all shapes and sizes.
In that regard, I’m sure you’ll find this new podcast by Jeffrey Thomson, President and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants, really informative and thought-provoking. Jeff recounts how he – in league with several of his IMA Board members – donned the Chief Energizer hat back in 2011 in response to a serious – potentially existential – threat: a sister association’s launching a new certification directly competing with IMA’s CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certification. Describing how he played the Chief Energizer role in this instance, Jeff makes the point that his leadership style was a far cry from the so-called “Energizer Bunny,” frenetically hopping from one thing to another. Rather, after carefully assessing the competitive threat, Jeff and his IMA Board colleagues successfully pursued a three-pronged strategy that preserved and significantly expanded IMA’s market share after 2011: calming fear by putting the competitive threat in perspective; fostering a renewed commitment to continuously improving and methodically implementing IMA’s CMA certification strategy; and maintaining a sustained sense of urgency falling far short of panic. As Jeff explains, urgency doesn’t have to be frenetic, nor does calm have to turn into high-risk complacency and lethargy.
One of the most important lessons Jeff’s experience teaches is that there’s no one, all-purpose Chief Energizer role. Instead, particular variations of the role (for example, exhorting and rallying the troops or calming fears by explaining the nature of a threat and putting it in perspective) must be carefully matched with particular organizational circumstances and particular phases in the organizational life-cycle.