November 17, 2017
    2017 Association Executive of the Year - Dawn Sweeney, the interview

    Sweeney is CEO of the National Restaurant Association


    National Restaurant Association CEO Dawn Sweeney describes herself as dedicated to the Japanese spirit of Kaizen – the belief that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time.  Approaching each day as a chance to be better than she was yesterday has served her well and has gained her great success at four associations. And while she’s all business, especially when it comes to the restaurant industry, she believes that creating a fun environment and liking the people she works with have also been vital elements of her sustained success. 

    Which is why it was an easy decision to name Sweeney the Association TRENDS 2017 Association Executive of the Year. Sweeney will be honored at the TRENDS Salute to Association Excellence, Feb. 23 at the Capital Hilton in Washington. Joining her at THE event for association professionals will be the TRENDS Association Partner of the Year Loretta DeLuca, FASAE, the Leading Association Lobbyists, and the Young & Aspiring Association Professionals. Also to be honored will be the winners of the TRENDS All Media Contest. (Photo by Chuck Fazio)

    Sweeney is well-known in the association space. Currently she is on the boards of ASAE and the ASAE Foundation, the Bryce Harlow Foundation (dedicated to integrity of lobbying as a profession), and the global humanitarian organization Save the Children. Other groups she is affiliated with include the U.S. Chamber’s Association Committee of 100, the International Women’s Forum, and the Committee of 200 (an international network of female executives). She is also a charter member of Child Obesity 180, a public/private partnership leading a change in the trends in child obesity in the U.S.

    For the National Restaurant Association, she has more than doubled the organization's revenues (from $52M to over $110M during her tenure to date), by leading the association in a wide range of policy issues and offering services and products that promote the industry and increase members’ success. She realigned the association’s priorities and structure to strengthen its core operations, including consolidating its foundation around a mission to develop a strong workforce and build the next generation of industry leaders. She has led the association to several legislative victories, including achieving federal legislation on menu labeling, and launched a first-of-its-kind children’s menu initiative – Kids LiveWell. Under her leadership, the association’s annual tradeshow has seen growth both in revenue and impact.

    Earlier in her career, Sweeney was CEO of AARP Services, where she grew annual revenues from $175 million to $785 million over five years. She also held leadership positions at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the International Dairy Foods Association, where she played a role in the launch of the “milk moustache” advertising campaign. 

    Following is an interview, in which Sweeney discusses her work philosophy and her connection to the association community.

    What in your background has made you the executive you are today?

    I think a few aspects of my background have contributed to who I am as a leader today. For one, I have a really strong work ethic. I’ve always been one of those people who do what it takes to get the job done. Whatever level of commitment is required, I will do it. That’s in part because I was raised on a farm where we worked hard from a very young age. Second, I have always surrounded myself with people who are smarter than I am and equally intellectually curious.  I have done that, I think, since I was about 10 years old. As I have grown in my own career, I’ve found that having people around you who know more about what they do than you know about what they do is just enormously critical for sustained success over a long period of time. 

    What is your work philosophy, who helped you shape it, and what is your management approach toward staff?

    So many people have had a positive influence on my career. That starts from my earliest days in associations, working for Linwood Tipton at the International Dairy Foods Association, and continues to the present day. I would say my general philosophy of work is one of excellence and continuous improvement. I just seem to never be satisfied with where we are at any point in our journey. I’m always trying to get to the next a huge part of my DNA is innovation, continuous improvement and growth. 

    In terms of my management philosophy, I think one of the most important things for me is to be with people I really enjoy working with -- people from whom I feel I can learn, people who are devoted to excellence in the same way that I am, in terms of continued improvement and growth and success. As challenging and critical as our jobs are, we all want to have fun in what we do. That is a huge part of the calculus for me. 

    You’ve had successes from association to association. Was that hard, what were the common skills that made that transition easy?

    I have loved my career because I have worked in four very different industries, from the dairy food industry to electric cooperatives, to AARP and now the restaurant industry. Each time the learning curve was vertical for me. I love the idea of learning new things. In the early years in every case, it was just a heavy-duty study period to learn a whole new industry, a whole new environment. I love that. Having said that, after having done it four times, I feel I’ve found my home here in the restaurant industry, coming full circle back to the food industry where I started my career. The restaurant industry is everything that I find uplifting and inspiring and exciting. The skills? That kind of insatiable curiosity, willingness to listen, and entrepreneurial spirit.  I’ve used those skills, as so many of us do, at all points of my career. 

    What are the top issues facing your industry, and how is the National Restaurant Association tackling those issues? 

    One of the things that makes the restaurant industry so special is that so many people start their careers in our industry.  They may stay in our industry or go on to be a marine biologist or a medical doctor or to work in healthcare.  Irrespective, they learn so many of the essential skills in their first job. In the case of restaurant jobs, you learn how to work with people, how to deal with wonderful and difficult customers. You learn conflict resolution, and on-the-job adjustments to challenges and issues, and the importance of a smile and all the things that really matter in the workforce. I think in our industry, we truly do train America’s workforce.

    And we continue to grow as an industry, which is great. More and more people are eating out, which is wonderful. There are also challenges in terms of labor pressures and workforce-development issues, all of which we’re tackling directly through our advocacy and by sharpening the focus of our educational foundation to ensure that we are doing all we can to help society solve some of the issues in our country today. In many cases, America’s restaurateurs – as the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer -- are in a unique position to help address these issues. 

    When you first joined the National Restaurant Association, you worked in several positions in restaurants, to get to know your constituencies. What did you learn from that experience that helps you with every decision you make?

    I went out for the better part of the first year I was here, and I worked almost every frontline job that’s in this industry. In that time, I learned more than I ever could have learned reading books or talking to any number of people.

    I learned the work ethic in this industry. I learned the challenges that are faced by the college student or the recently assimilated immigrant or others who are coming into our industry with enormous gratitude to have a job but each facing their own unique challenges. I had experiences that helped me understand some of our policy challenges. Just as one example, I saw some of the challenges of the menu-labeling law that we were trying to get through at the time – how do you calculate the number of calories in a salad when the expediter who is finishing the salad adds a slightly different amount of cheese than another person would add - depending on something as simple as the size of their hand! It made it easier for me to figure out how to use that insight and input as we went through the regulatory process.

    Every single day, that experience helps me remember the caliber and the quality of the people for whom I work as the CEO of the National Restaurant Association. It really helps to remember how much they’re counting on us and how important a role we play in their success. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done to help me understand the role that people in this industry play in our society and our country. 

    How is your and the National Restaurant Association being active in the association community helping the restaurant industry?

    There is no way we can do what we do if we weren’t connected into the larger systems of associations. I personally have learned so much over the course of my career from colleagues and friends and other who are leading associations, large and small, who are dealing with many of the same challenges that we are. I cannot say enough about how valuable it is to be connected into the US Chamber of Commerce's Committee of 100, the ASAE community and the service sector community at large -- there is much to learn and there is much to contribute.  

    Of the goals you had when you first started at the National Restaurant Association, what do you believe you and the association accomplished? What still needs work?

    When I first came in, and when I saw the strength and the talent that we had across the nation in our state restaurant associations, one of my most important roles was building a stronger, more cohesive, collaborative, supportive relationship with the state associations. We have worked really hard at that for several years. We’re at a place now where I feel enormously grateful for the progress that we’ve made. The issues our industry faces have gotten more difficult, yet at the same time, our capacity to deal with these challenges in a more collaborative way has increased dramatically.

    You’ve taken on leadership positions in the association community, and have been honored by many organizations. Why is it important for you to be involved?

    I think we all have an obligation and responsibility to give back to an industry -- in this case, the association industry -- that has done so much for us. I feel that responsibility in part because I have spent so much of my time trying to engage people in the restaurant industry to volunteer for board membership in the National Restaurant Association. I realize we also we have the same responsibility in the association community.

    Being named Association Executive of the Year helps me remember how much it matters to be a part of an industry that recognizes achievement. We’ve done more of that recently in the restaurant industry, where we recognize the leaders who have helped our association and our industry get where we are. I feel I have received so much from my engagement with ASAE and the Bryce Harlow Foundation and the Committee of 100. All of these tremendous organizations are about making us all better.

    Who are the leaders you turn to when you are in need of good counsel?

    There are so many people that I rely on for advice and counsel. Certainly within our industry I look for the nuances of judgment that come from across the organization and across the restaurant industry: insights and counsel from board members (past and present), folks on my own team here, former chairs of the board who have been enormously supportive, colleagues at other associations, consulting groups, think tanks. But at the end of the day when I go home at night, it’s my husband (a trained clinical social worker and marriage counselor) who often helps me the most. And, I am sure that the wisest person I know is my 93-year-old father. Some of the best advice I have received in my life has come from the wisest person I know.

    Association TRENDS