John Graham, the new chief executive officer of the American Society of Association Executives, Washington, D.C., knows something about creating an image. Some might say he's a visionary, but Graham has a simpler view.

“My role is to paint a picture that defines the organization,” Graham says. He envisions ASAE as the premier forum for associations and the meetings, travel, and hospitality industries to come together. He also sees ASAE as an organization that highlights the contributions of associations to both the public and policymakers. “The volunteer workers of so many organizations bring so much quality to our everyday lives that it often goes unrecognized or unappreciated,” he says.

These are just two brush strokes on Graham's canvas as he prepares to take over in August for Michael Olson, who leaves after five years as ASAE's CEO.

ADA Success

Graham, 53, joins ASAE from the American Diabetes Association, where he has worked for the last 23 years, including the last 13 as CEO. In his time as CEO, Graham transformed the ADA from a federated organization made up of separately run local affiliates to one international association based in Alexandria, Va.

“We became one organization and really began to accelerate our growth,” he says. The ADA saw revenues quadruple from $50 million to $200 million annually under Graham's watch. So why would he leave an organization where he spent almost half his life — a group he helped build into one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world?

“Part of leadership is knowing when to get in and when to get out. Organizations need fresh leadership,” he says. “I didn't want to be at the ADA five years from now and have people saying, when is this guy going to get out of here?”

Red Caveney, ASAE chairman and president of the American Petroleum Institute, says Graham perfectly fits the profile of what ASAE was looking for in a leader. “He raises compelling issues, he has the enthusiasm for the quest while recognizing that it is not going to be easy, and he has the passion.” He calls Graham a “visionary leader who is very customer-focused.” His best strength, Caveney believes, is his grasp of internal operations — in contrast to Olson, whose passion was external, according to Caveney.

Fixing Finances

ASAE has been hit by the economic downturn in recent years and has struggled to generate revenues and meet expenses. Graham's first order of business will be to look at expenditures and activities with a “fresh set of eyes” and prioritize them based on levels of impact. He says that it is premature to comment on whether there will be any cutbacks, but he suspects that in some areas, there will be changes. But don't expect him to take out the sledgehammer. “I'm not a person who just breaks something for the sake of breaking it.”

Graham says it's important to “break down silos” and achieve functional integration. It's also important for employees to know their role within the context of the larger organization and to understand how the various components support each other. “I'm very likely to reach down in the organization at any level and ask questions. I like the benefit of having everybody weigh in on issues. I don't want to surround myself with ‘yes’ people.”

While his initial focus will be on internal operations, Graham doesn't subscribe to the notion that a leader is either internal or external. “In this day and age, you need to be both. You can be varying degrees of internal and external, but for the first couple of years, I'm going to be aggressively in both camps.”

Bridge Builder

This is something he was able to achieve at ADA and that he'd like to bring to ASAE. “ADA is both a charitable/philanthropic organization as well as a professional society for health professionals,” Graham explains. The ADA has been able to marry the interests of health professionals — physicians, scientists, nurses, etc. — and pharmaceutical and device manufacturers in a way that doesn't tarnish ADA but creates a forum, he says.

Similarly, he'd like to to see ASAE become the premier forum for associations, CVBs, airlines, and the hospitality and travel industry to come together to deal with industry challenges.

Another objective is to assist in the development, growth, and training of association management professionals. He believes that associations managed by professionals are better run organizations. “I think ASAE can provide the framework to develop the profession of association management — but also can help individuals in tracking and laddering their careers.”

As for the future of association meetings, Graham doesn't see radical change. While technological advancements may help with training and other functions, the savvy association is going to need to provide meeting forums as well as technological advancements to handle training and education.

He does see that corporate travel levels may not return to those of the late 1990s. “The whole value proposition has changed, as organizations have adjusted to less business travel. …We have to provide that value proposition to make it worth while again to go to meetings.”

Graham, who spends his free time with family and at his summer home on the New Jersey shore, expects ASAE to be the capstone of his career.

Whether Graham can help take ASAE to the next level, only time will tell. “I think the legacy of any leader is not what you did while you were there,” he says, “but what happened to it after you left.”

David Kovaleski is a freelance writer and an editor with Crain's Business Publications in Boston, Mass.