SmithBucklin Chief Operating Officer Julie Silverstein recently became the first woman president in the company's 57-year history. An employee for nearly 20 years, she has been instrumental in helping the company to become the country's largest association management company. Silverstein talks about past obstacles, current initiatives, and future goals and challenges as she helps lead SmithBucklin under Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Henry S. Givray.
Q: Do you bring a different perspective than a male would to your job?
A: I strongly believe that every individual brings a different perspective to the leadership table. Do I believe that gender can affect leadership style? Absolutely. I also believe that diversity does not stop there. Beyond just gender, diversity in the boardroom and on a leadership team is really important because of the different perspectives it provides. I think the most effective leaders do a great job of bringing those perspectives together.
Q: What are the differences in gender leadership styles?
A: Libraries have been written about these differences. I am certainly not an expert, but I think that any woman executive would tell you that she has been subject to stereotyping at some point over the years. That said, it is important from a personal standpoint to avoid falling into gender stereotyping, since I really believe that leadership has nothing to do with gender. In fact, I do not see a whole lot of difference in the association industry between male and female executive leadership styles because successful leadership — in our industry — is all about service. The best leaders in our industry are those who embrace a true service culture.
Q: What has been your toughest career challenge so far?
A: I've had a great career path at SmithBucklin, and, looking back, I probably would not change anything. However, some years ago, prior to Henry [Givray]'s return to the company, there was a time when I felt I did not receive total encouragement from the leadership of the company. I believe some of this was related to trying to break into a leadership team that, at the time, was comprised of gentlemen who had been with the company for many years. I think I challenged the status quo to some extent, and also I did not really understand the best way to achieve my leadership potential in that environment. It was difficult being patient during this time because I felt like a round peg in a square hole. Certainly, I could have said, “I am not going to do this anymore.” But instead, I took a look at myself, sort of readjusted my time frame, tried to understand what my bosses were looking for, and used it as a learning opportunity.
It was during this time that I also realized how critical it is to work for someone you can relate to, who really knows you and who can be your mentor. I am incredibly fortunate to have had that early in my career at SmithBucklin, and again now, with Henry.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: My style is very collaborative — both by nature and as a result of working so long in an environment where the only way — and I mean the only way — to be successful is to work as a team. I grew up playing team sports and I am very social, so my natural mode is to work with others to put the right team members together for specific projects or clients. I also lead by example. I am proud I grew up in the business and have credibility as a practitioner. I am still very engaged with our clients, and I think it sets a great example of client stewardship for our associates when they see me in the trenches with them.
I also have a few key principles that I follow. The first is impartiality. That is, listening to all sides of a situation prior to deciding how to give input. I often say that the truth is always in the middle and I try to teach that. The second is to be very direct and to address issues as they occur, as opposed to letting things fester. The third is to be available. As leaders, 70 percent of our job is to spend the time with the people we manage, helping to coach and mentor and guide along the way. The sign of a great leader is a great team. Ultimately, I will judge my success as a leader on the progress of my team.
Q: What are SmithBucklin's near-term plans?
A: Well, we have some pretty exciting initiatives planned this year, but our overriding focus is on our current client organizations as well as on successfully integrating the 10 full-service associations we welcomed to SmithBucklin's family of clients last year. We are also continually working to develop state-of-the-art, value-added services and programs for our client organizations. I am especially excited about the creation of a new innovation center, which will enable us to guide our clients through the development of new products and services in unique and exciting ways.
Q: What goals to you have for SmithBucklin in the next five years?
A: When people think about association management companies, and especially about accessing leading practices, we want them to think of SmithBucklin. When association professionals think about career opportunities, we want them to think of SmithBucklin, too. We want to build a company that continues to attract leading organizations and top-performing executives.
We can continue to grow at our current pace by keeping ourselves focused on delivering superior service and support to our client organizations. But our No. 1 objective every year is 100 percent client retention.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing associations?
A: Associations have to first understand how to engage new and different generations of potential customers with innovative programs and services. To do this, association leaders have to get outside of the mind-set that growth can only come from membership and/or conference attendance. These new customers may not be a member or a conference attendee, and they may want to engage in entirely new ways. The trick will be matching their needs with programs that create revenue in nontraditional ways.
Engaging different generations and different audiences within each generation is a huge challenge for today's associations and one that most are not addressing effectively. That is why we funded the first research conducted by the William E. Smith Institute. We have had such positive feedback from that report because it is a topic that every association leader is struggling with right now, and we were thrilled to be able to dispel widely believed association-participation myths.
The second challenge I see is that of leadership, which is why we continue to invest in the series of educational leadership programs offered to SmithBucklin client organizations. The purpose of our programs is to help improve the governance of our associations by offering thought-provoking, interactive sessions that address topics such as how to build great governance teams, how a chief elected officer can be an effective partner with [his or her] chief staff officer, and how to create a simple strategic plan that can drive focused decisions.
If an association is well run operationally and its staff is strong, it gives the leadership the ability to focus on the vision of the future and better governance practices.
Q: How do you feel about being the company's first woman president?
A: It's a very proud moment in my career. I think it is important in any business or industry to have strong women who are recognized as leaders. When I started here as an association coordinator 19 years ago, who knew that I would love the business this much or get this far? Did I think I would someday be the president? No way!