With 25 years of experience in the association sector, Shawn Boynes, executive director of American Association for Anatomy (AAA), spent the greater part of his career passionately serving in the education and professional development space. In this time, he developed a true appreciation for learning and the value that associations bring to the world, which has undoubtedly shaped who he is today as a leader.
Focused on influencing positive change, he is also a co-host of the recently launched Texts to Table podcast, which focuses on conversations around race and leadership.
In this sixth episode in our series on the learning business in disruptive times, Celisa talks with Shawn about the challenges and opportunities related to leading through the coronavirus pandemic and the renewed spotlight on systemic racism. He also shares his perspective as a Black leader, how recent events led to the creation of his new podcast, and why now is the best time for organizations to take risks.
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[00:18] – Intro and background information about Shawn Boynes and his role as executive director at American Association for Anatomy (AAA).
Disruption at AAA
[02:48] – You and I are talking as part of a podcast series that we’re doing on the learning business in times of disruption. When you think about what we’re living through, what we’re working through, what comes to mind? What are the kinds of disruption that you’re experiencing?
Shawn acknowledges that some of this isn’t new because the whole virtual/online learning area is something they’ve been talking about for a long time.
From the nonprofit association space, some have made adequate investments to take content that would normally be presented face-to-face to the online environment.
But he’s not sure that the overall association community has really made big enough strides, now that they’re being forced to do so.
For AAA, Shawn says their members were in the same situation as many other educators—they had to quickly move from teaching large lecture halls of students to the online environment.
Also, a critical element of medical education and dental school education is around using cadavers as a way to teach students. So the challenge is figuring out how to do that in an online environment.
Even though there’s technology out there that aids in their ability to teach gross anatomy Shawn points out that there’s nothing like having a cadaver to work on.
And this was a very difficult thing for them to pivot to.
He adds that you’re also dealing with the mental health of students because it’s already stressful being in medical and dental school.
So they’ve had to think about how to keep them focused enough to continue their studies.
This was a lot, and for the members of the association, Shawn likens it to drinking from a fire hose nonstop.
[05:16] – Are there other types of disruption that you’re experiencing and dealing with personally, or as an organization at this moment in time?
As an organization, Shawn shares that the challenge is figuring out how to support members that are not focused on the association like they normally would be.
They have volunteers, which tend to be the engine that drives the work of many organizations.
But they are entrenched, just trying to teach. And then they also are trying to take care of their families.
So even though AAA is doing their best to try to support and be a resource for them, Shawn realizes they are not top of mind for them. They are competing with the reality that everyone is struggling within this pandemic.
Shawn says he tends to share lots of resources and curate content around leadership to draw attention to things that most leaders and execs should be doing, whether it’s trying to improve or tweak your leadership style.
He stresses that we have to continually learn and grow.
And just because you become the exec or CEO doesn’t mean that you’re done, that you’ve arrived.
That’s just one stop along the way, and Shawn says we should continue to want to grow and be better for ourselves and for the teams that we serve.
A Passion for Providing Education
[07:45] – Before you were an executive director, you came up through the learning ranks, is that correct? You were a director of professional development?
Shawn talks about how his entire 25-year career has been in the association community, with AAA being his sixth association.
Having worked with scientists, lawyers, and healthcare professionals has helped him really appreciate the value that associations bring to the world.
But his chosen “stove pipe” when he entered the association space was in the education professional development space.
Shawn says he didn’t aspire to be an executive director or CEO, he just wanted to continue providing education and resources to professionals of any discipline and help them be better at what they did.
So the education and professional development space is near and dear to his heart, something he thinks has served him well in becoming an executive director.
One of the things that he like to ask is, ‘What’s the stickiness factor for any organization? What keeps people?’
In many instances, he points out that when you look at membership surveys, needs assessments, etc., typically education/professional development content tends to be in the top three.
So it’s something Shawn says that organizations have to continue investing in and appreciate the value that that brings to the members they serve.
Potential Threats and Opportunities for Learning Businesses
[10:38] – What do you see as the threats of these current disruptive times? And I’m thinking in particular for organizations that are in the learning business. When you think about what you’re dealing with now, what worries you most?
Shawn discusses how organizations, particularly in the association space, tend to rely on meetings as what brings people together. And meetings tend to drive significant revenue for many organizations.
As far as AAA, he notes that fortunately, they don’t rely on meeting revenue to sustain the organization (they rely on revenue from journals).
But for those organizations that rely on meetings revenue, they are challenged with trying to figure out how to fill that gap and make that up.
The good part of that is it’s forcing organizations to take a step back and figure out their business models and what do they need to do differently in order to survive in uncertainty. Because we don’t know what the next few years are going to bring. And we don’t know if we’ll be able to convene face to face anytime soon.
So online is one element of that, but Shawn says that may also mean letting go of some things that the organization shouldn’t be doing anyway.
That’s always hard because people hold on to programs and services and get emotionally connected, but he says sometimes you just have to sunset things.
And these are the types of questions that organizations are grappling with because looking a year down the line, there’s just so much that’s unknown.
Unless organizations are willing to tackle those tough questions, Shawn doesn’t think that some will survive.
[12:57] – What going on today that’s exciting to you? Where are you finding hope or energy or enthusiasm despite the disruption?
Shawn talks about how people are really figuring out what’s important to them and trying to find a new routine.
The other part of that is the whole online piece, where now everyone—if they are fortunate—should have systems in place that allow staff to work from home.
He thinks the expectation going forward will be that staff have the flexibility to contribute to the organization in a remote environment.
And realizing that people don’t have to be in an office and have long commutes and how that impacts employee happiness and productivity.
Essentially, work has been turned upside down and that’s really exciting to Shawn.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[15:07] – What words of advice, of caution, of courage do you have for those in the learning business about how to do right and really thrive in this current moment?
Take the risk. Now’s the time to take risk and try something different because you don’t innovate in spaces of ‘It’s safe’ and ‘It is certain, and we know this is something that is going to work because we’ve done all of our research’…I think people are well positioned to try new and different things without the pushback that would normally happen. That’s how you discover something that you may have never thought of before. Instead of looking at it as, ‘What are we going to do?’ How about you lean in and kind of focus on ‘Why not give this a try?’ It may not work, but we don’t know unless we give it a try.
Shawn notes it’s also is forcing a lot of learning professionals to assess their skill sets because they tend to focus on what they know and what they’re good at.
But now it’s becoming more about whether you are a generalist in the space.
If you were the person who was responsible for live, face-to-face training or courses, that’s great. However, in this new environment and going forward, he thinks the expectation will be that people will have an opportunity to consume their education/learning online when they want it, how they want it.
And we have to be well positioned to seize that opportunity.
[16:49] – Are there risks that you find yourself taking as a leader? You suggested people should embrace this, lean into this, take the risks. Are there any examples that you care to share from about what you’re trying?
Shawn shares from his perspective as an executive director, he’s trying to make sure that the governing body/the board of directors stay focused and appreciate that they still have to govern the organization.
While most groups have face-to-face board meetings, several times a year, that’s out the window now.
And he hasn’t convened the board virtually because he recognizes that an eight-hour virtual meeting just isn’t ideal—people can’t focus that long.
However, you still have to conduct the business of the association.
So that’s been a challenge, but they are pushing through and doing the best they can to try to break down chunks of time where the board can convene to take action and embrace their fiduciary responsibility.
Text to Table Podcast
Shawn says that Text to Table has turned into a work of love for he and his cohosts, Donté Shannon, Michelle Mills Clement, and Irving Washington.
It was born out of what’s happening in the world right now, particularly around how the Black community is being impacted by racial tensions and the social justice movement.
They decided to pull the curtain back and let people into the conversations that Black people are having in this moment, so it’s primarily for White people.
Shawn shares that they wanted to make sure they were as transparent and honest as they possibly could be.
And they didn’t go into it with a plan, they just thought they’d see what happened.
But after the first episode, they realized there was an overwhelming, positive response so they decided to keep it going.
He thinks this speaks to a couple of things.
First, it speaks to the need. The timing is right.
Also there’s a gap because no one else was really talking about these things and they were happening in a vacuum.
Black people were talking about stuff and maybe White people were talking about stuff, but no one put it front and center.
So they took a risk and used an online platform to bring content to the masses.
They’re now building out a community of people that are interested in talking about race as it relates to leadership, and the tough things that they have to deal with.
And they are offering resources and giving people an opportunity to do the work themselves.
They aren’t trying to provide a roadmap or silver bullet solution for people to figure out how to be anti-racist. However, they are providing people with the resources so they can put together their own toolbox and hopefully be better advocates for Black people because Shawn says, we need that right now.
The Systemic Racism-Pandemic Overlap
[21:10] – We were talking earlier about disruption bringing the need to shift to online, which came out of the coronavirus pandemic. And then you also have this moment of disruption/renewed disruption around systemic racism. How do you see these different types of disruption—the systemic racism and the pandemic—how do you see them overlapping, if you do?
Shawn absolutely thinks there’s a convergence that’s happening.
And that we can’t ignore one over the other. We have to deal with them both.
With George Floyd, that seemed to be the flash point for all of these discussions but Shawn notes this isn’t new.
But because of the pandemic and the fact that people are at home, it was a little more top of mind for people and they had the time to pay closer attention to what was happening.
Also, the fact that it was recorded so people actually saw it and were forced to confront their role, whether they’ve experienced discrimination and racism personally as a person of color, or as White people who were silent and didn’t speak up before.
The other part of that is organizations were actually forced to address social justice issues that they probably wouldn’t have addressed previously.
And some organizations, the for-profit and the nonprofit communities, issued statements saying that they were against racism.
Shawn explains that those statements are fine, but they also put some in the hot seat.
The question then became, ‘These are words and it sounds great. But look at the internal makeup of the organization. Look at your senior team. Do you have any Black people in your senior team, or people of color for that matter? Are you committed to diversity beyond the words? Do you have any programs in place? Do you have a strategic plan that includes diversity, equity, and inclusion in it?’ And I think that’s where organizations are struggling still because most groups tend not to dip their toe in the social justice water…If it’s not mission-related or focused, why would they? But now they were being forced to deal with it.
He thinks employees and the workforce are demanding that these organizations speak up and support them in some capacity.
To learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, check out our interview with DEI strategist Shilpa Alimchandani.
Being a Black Leader in Current Times
[24:05] – What is it like to be a Black executive director at this moment in time?
Shawn admits that it’s hard. And not that it’s not hard any other time, but he reflects on having to discuss all of this with his team the weekend after the unrest around George Floyd’s murder.
He had to be vulnerable and let his team, as well as the board of directors know, that he wasn’t in a good place and was struggling.
At the same time, he recognized that he was hired to lead the organization. And while he needed to make sure that he took care of himself emotionally, mentally, and otherwise, he also knew he had a job to do. So it was hard to navigate.
This is where Shawn says his network came into play because he has a group of trusted colleagues that he relies on for support because they all experience similar things as Black executive directors and CEO’s of organizations. And the whole Text to Table idea was born out of that.
He talks about how it really forced him to be vulnerable in moments where he normally wouldn’t be. And how he was used to compartmentalizing aspects of his life since that’s how he’s had to navigate professionally. But in this instance, that wasn’t working.
I had to pull the curtain back on myself and reveal the fact that I was struggling, that I was hurting. And it was not easy for me. Now what I’ve focused on is how do I use my voice to amplify the challenges that Black people are facing in the workplace and speaking truth to all of the many different obstacles that I faced along my career. I’ve built my career and my reputation by being true to myself. However, I wanted to make sure that now I was using my megaphone moment to bring attention to the issues that other Black professionals are struggling with as well.
[26:14] – What do you wish for, or from other Black leaders at this moment, and what do you wish for, or from non-Black leaders?
For Black leaders, Shawn wants for them to step up and speak their truth.
As difficult as that may be, he stresses that we can’t move the needle at all if we’re not willing to stand in our truth.
And that’s not an easy thing, but we have to do it and recognize that the support is there, it’s just a matter of reaching out and asking for it.
For non-Black leaders, Shawn says it’s to do something. There has to be action.
He recommends you listen to your Black employees/colleagues and try to figure out what your role can or should be in addressing this massive issue that we have in this country related to race.
Shawn says that no one is calling anybody out or trying to put someone in the hot seat.
I think people need to be self-reflective and figure out where they could have done something, and they didn’t. And then be honest and learn from it. What are you committing to going forward? What are you willing to do to help address this issue? Because Black people can’t do it alone. We need our allies and we need those to stand front and center with us. And in some instances, shield us from the nonsense that continues to come from racists in this country. And that is not easy. I get it. However, we can’t get to a better place if it’s just one group leading over another. We’ve got to come together and make it happen.
[28:00] – Is there anything that you were hoping that we might get into that we didn’t get into? Anything else you’d like to add or say?
Shawn adds that many are looking forward to getting back to normal, but he doesn’t think that that’s what we’re going back to.
He says we’re going back to something that will be different, and you have to acknowledge that some of these changes were good changes.
For example, changing the culture of the organization to embrace the remote workforce and giving staff the opportunity to telework.
And then the other part of it is, like he mentioned before, is to continue to take risks.
Shawn reiterates that now’s the time to do it and figure out what that one thing is that may help reposition the organization to better serve. And know that it may be a different audience, not the same audience.
[29:36] – Wrap-Up
Shawn Boynes is the executive director of the American Association for Anatomy (AAA). Learn more about AAA at anatomy.org, where you’ll find information about who they are, what they do, who they serve, and the discipline of anatomy in general.
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[31:29] – Sign off