CEO Interviews

Arlene Pietranton, ASHA: Collaborative Leadership

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People first

At the helm of the 186,000-member American Speech and Language Association (ASHA) and 300-staff is CEO Arlene Pietranton, PhD, CAE, a woman widely respected for her leadership and accomplishments both in her organization and in the association sector.   

Unlike other leadership stories I have written about, Pietranton’s is not a story of dramatic turnaround from disaster to triumph. She readily admits that the organization she inherited in 2004 was functioning well. She is generous with her praise of her predecessor, Frederick T. Spahr, who grew ASHA’s range of programs, products, and services, and undertook a cultural make-over from hierarchy to member centricity.

 Yet Pietranton is far from a mere placeholder of a legacy.  She has succeeded in making this human focus operational by aligning all aspects of the organization with it, and moving ASHA forward to new levels of growth and innovation. 

 To link vision to business results, Pietranton needed a single, compelling focus around which people and actions could converge. With her instinctive understanding of human nature and professional expertise (PhD in psychology), she made people and relationships the focus of the organization. Service to members, staff empowerment, motivation and relationship-building became the hallmarks of her leadership.

 “It is very clear to all of us at ASHA,” Pietranton says, “that the reason we exist is to serve the best interests of our members and support them so they can best serve their patients and clients. Many organizations adopt a mission to be the best, largest or most prestigious among their peer organizations; ASHA’s mission is also to empower and support our members.”

 These are not mere words. The member-centric culture at ASHA emphasizes members’ success over the success of individual departments and political agendas. This necessitates ongoing collaboration across the organization and contributes to the demise of silos wherever and whenever possible. 


 Management and leadership


Pietranton’s signature strategy is one of continuous alignment and integration.  Her challenge was to link culture and vision to the business side of the organization–measures of success; incentives, rewards, practices; and ways of conducting business.

To this end, she introduced the Balanced Scorecard—a planning and management tool for aligning activities and operations with strategy and vision—helping to adapt it to better meet ASHA’s needs and it’s “Strategic Pathway to Excellence.”

 The Balanced Scorecard has helped to establish a shared framework and set of criteria; enable accountability; and catalyze collaboration and information-sharing. 

 A key achievement is increased alignment among and between staff and volunteers. Convergence on shared purpose and clarity of roles and responsibilities has resulted in agreement and smooth transitions on issues that at times can cause destructive conflicts in associations. 

 For example, during Pietranton’s tenure, alignment of vision among volunteer leaders enabled the Association to move from a bi-cameral (Executive Board and Legislative Council) governance model to a unicameral governance model (Board of Directors), which necessitated the Legislative Council voting to “sunset” itself. It also made for cooperative decision-making and efficient action with regard to the construction of, and move to, a new national office building in 2007 – that was completed on time and under budget.   

 Making empathetic connection with members a shared focus and purpose has helped foster a culture of collaboration and increased the organization’s flexibility and openness to risks.

A culture of collaboration, staff empowerment and innovation


While ASHA still maintains conventional units, it operates with teams and is committed to avoiding silos. “Few things happen around just one person’s desk” Pietranton notes.

 Moreover, staff across the board were given opportunities for leadership and responsibility for results: “Each strategic objective has a point person with expertise in that particular area,” Pietranton explains. And leadership roles do not necessarily coincide with formal leadership titles. 


Connecting and solving problems vs. selling

 Countless organizations from all sectors routinely confuse the concepts of connecting with and engaging members/customers with opportunities for pushing their products and making sales. This narrow view of customers as mere product users undermines customer relationships and long-term sustainability.

 Instead of focusing of short-term sales, ASHA strives to connect with members on an authentic, human level. It demonstrates its value by solving their problems, thus increasing member loyalty, commitment, level of spending, and long-term sustainability.

 For example, instead of using social media such as Twitter to promote the Association’s interests, ASHA helps members use it to achieve their own goals, including connecting with each other, building their own “personal learning networks;” and gaining access to expertise they could not access on their own. An example of the latter was ASHA’s

Twitter chat with two speech-language pathologists that allowed parents to participate and ask questions.

 Immersion in member communities and perspective, in turn, feeds into product and business development while commitment to providing members with constantly fresh solutions to their problems pushes the envelope of innovation.

 For example, ASHA is helping its audiology and speech-language pathology members demonstrate the value of their clinical services and to make informed decisions by transforming and expanding its outcomes measurement system (NOMS) for tracking their outcomes data. The innovation is in leveraging technology and the power of community to create a clinical data registry system.

Members can submit data before and after their services which, over time, will uncover patterns, elucidate results, create a basis for comparisons, and validate hypotheses. 

 In time, many of these solutions developed for and with members, and the lessons learned along the way, can be converted into new products and uncover new opportunities.

 This self-sustaining, value-generating loop is far more effective and conducive to innovation and growth than narrow product sales techniques. 

Pietranton has helped to foster and develop   a collaborative, open culture in which business strategy and actions are grounded in member experience and value.