All Articles Leadership Management Spotlight on Association Leadership: American Beverage Association's CEO

Spotlight on Association Leadership: American Beverage Association’s CEO

4 min read


The American Beverage Association is facing a dual challenge this year, fighting activists who demonize members’ products and economic challenges that confront government at all levels, leading to possible taxes on beverages as a source of revenue. Steering the association through these times is President and CEO Susan Neely. I recently talked to Neely and picked her brain about leadership. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What is your leadership philosophy?

I’m a big believer in, “How do you make the team reach its full potential?” Everybody who has a stake in something, from the board of directors to your staff, you want the person to be deeply committed to the vision and strategy. Figure out how everyone can contribute. The challenge in associations is to come up with a result that isn’t the lowest common denominator, having everyone give input. The key is to create a team that is committed to excellence and appreciates what one another can offer.

When was the first time you were somebody’s boss?

Terry Branstad’s gubernatorial campaign in 1986. (Branstad, a Republican, is the governor of Iowa). I set up the campaign staff; there was a huge volunteer force. It was a good opportunity to learn management and how to do exactly what I said was my philosophy: having the vision, how to get there and implement the plan. The campaign moves rapidly, and you have to be agile.

How do you decide whether someone is right for your team?

I follow the Nordstrom philosophy: Hire aptitude, and teach people everything else they need to know. They will have professional skills, degrees — but beyond that, look for aptitude. I want someone who is entrepreneurial and gets the job done but who also has the ability to work with others. Sometimes you’re the leader, sometimes you’re the follower, but there is a deep commitment to getting the work done.

Outside Washington, D.C., whose work do you admire most?

I’m a fan of governors, on both side of aisle, who are doing a terrific job of proving that you can navigate and lead in hard times. Govs. Jack Markell, D-Del.; Susana Martinez, R-N.M.; Dannel Malloy, D-Conn.; and Rick Snyder, R-Mich.: They have really been leaders in this way that I admire. They listen to constituents, manage budgets and learn how to move states forward to have a path out of economic challenges, and it’s not easy. I’m keeping an eye on them as our future leaders.

If a recent college graduate came to you and said he or she wants your job one day, what advice would you give the person?

Go work in the 2012 presidential campaign. It doesn’t matter which party; pick a candidate you can believe in. This is a way for young people to get exposed to important work — how we go about electing the president — it’s so fast moving. If you have the aptitude for this kind of work, you are entrepreneurial and high energy, and you will come out knowing your strengths. It’s a time in our country that we need leaders, people of courage, people who are willing to dig deeper and think more creatively and how to do things differently.

Photo credit: American Beverage Association

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