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A Changing of the Guard

Onsite associations are at a time of great transition and we all have roles to play in it.

A few weeks ago, when NACUFS executive director Joe Spina announced at the group's annual business meeting that he would be retiring next year, it gave immediate focus to most who are active in the college and university foodservice community. After all, he is only the group's second executive director (Clark DeHaven was the first) in NACUFS' 50+ years of existence. It underscored that a time of transition is here.

Only a few nights before, the School Nutrition Association had celebrated the retirement of Barbara Belmont, the executive director who has similarly served SNA since 1993, with a gala banquet event down in Nashville. Barbara announced her retirement a year ago; and while SNA is an older organization, her tenure again has been second only to that of the association's original director, Dr. John Perryman.

Two other major noncommercial organizations — the Association for Healthcare Foodservice and the Society for Foodservice Management — are also seeking or have just appointed new executive directors. There the situations are somewhat different, since both groups employ association management companies rather than their own internal staffs. In that context, such transitions tend to happen more often and are partly compensated for by the additional resources of the management company.

That does not make these transitions any less significant. AHF is a “young” organization, formed only two years ago from the merger of two much older legacy groups. It still faces integration issues and the need to build a unique cultural tradition for its and its members' future. SFM has had a series of executive directors over the last decade. There, more continuity would be a definite plus as it seeks to deal with its own governance and membership issues. Many other associations affiliated with our onsite segments face similar challenges.

Some years ago, when I was on a search committee to find the replacement for a long-serving e.d. of a group I belonged to, the retiring director offered some insight that has stuck with me.

“I've thought about my decision for a long time,” she said. “I felt the time to announce it was heavily dependent upon having the right board and others from the membership in a position to manage the transition. This year, I have a strong board, president and slate of incoming officers. The timing is right, and it is their job to make good choices for the future.”

Similar thinking must have been in the minds of Joe Spina and Barbara Belmont before they made their announcements. Both can look back on the very strong organizational development and growth they've achieved over the past two decades. The landscapes they leave are much different than those that met them. Both have ushered in eras of much greater professional association management, retaining and augmenting the volunteer leadership that dominated before their tenures.

Both have also excelled in terms of that essential skill of association managers: ensuring that the leadership face of the association remains that of members and elected presidents, and that the role of the executive director is behind the scenes, helping drive consensus, ensure financial stability and providing strategic counsel and continuity.

There's another factor at work here as well. That is the natural generational succession that occurs in both memberships and leaderships. Well-run associations are like well-run corporations or institutions. They seek incoming executives with the right mix of age and experience to lead not just the current, but also the future membership for a significant number of years.

The new generation of leaders who will come to lead these onsite associations in the next few years will be tasked with recruiting, representing and mentoring a new generation of operators who are also coming into their own. This is especially true as large cohorts of the existing memberships will be retiring in the next few years.

It is a challenge that should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is at the heart of ensuring the long term health and growth of these associations and the industry at large that they so importantly represent. A significant transition is underway and it is one all of us should give considerable thought to. We all have parts to play in it.

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