Keys to Surviving 45 Years in Chamber Business

Dave Kilby

By the time you read this, assuming I’m still employed and am alive and kickin’, I will have survived 45 years in the chamber business. My actual “anniversary” date is July 5.

Nobody does anything for 45 years without many lessons learned, fun times, failures, frustrations, and, fortunately, some successes.

Stepping back and thinking about how I made it to where I am today, many things come to mind, but I’d like to share three things that were keys to my survival:

• Surrounding yourself with good people.

• Embracing change and trying new things.

• Being able to speak up.

The Team

Success in chamber work is all about teamwork. I have been so lucky to have been able to surround myself with terrific team members including: (to name just a few) Larry Duquette and Susan Stafford from my Modesto Chamber days to Steve Snyder, Marlene Carney, Russell Lahodny and Jennifer Johnson here at CalChamber.

In addition to co-workers, my definition of team also includes the many volunteer leaders that I’ve worked with. Many of the business leaders that I’ve served with are private sector legends and the leaders of W.A.C.E. have been the absolute best in the business.

Without a great team of co-workers and volunteers — and, most importantly, the support of my wife Kim — I couldn’t have continued.

Embracing Change

Looking back, it was fun to be an early adapter and take on new things like being one of the first chambers in California to form a Political Action Committee (PAC) and start a community leadership program.

The same is true with this association. The first huge game changer was the decision to no longer just be a California Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and expand our scope to be a boundaryless association, W.A.C.E. We basically said, “If you like what we do, it doesn’t matter where you’re located. You are welcome to be a member.”

But our game changer moments didn’t stop there. We founded Academy in 2003 in response to the U.S. Chamber closing Western Institute in San Diego.

We followed that up by focusing on opinion research about chambers and what expectations business leaders had for chambers. This led us to initially hire Charlton Research, which identified the chamber core competencies, which eventually led to our brand research with BrandBirth, the 3Cs and “The Chamber Is” campaign.

Having a Voice

A constant during my entire career has been that I’ve always been able to speak my mind. I’ve been able to pretty much say anything without retribution. I’ve been called the conscience of Main Street here in Sacramento and in W.A.C.E. a dependable truth teller.

Let’s be clear: people didn’t always want to hear what I said and things didn’t always go my way, but at least I was able to speak my peace and feel OK with myself and not have regrets when I looked in the mirror.

If you want to be everybody’s friend, this business probably isn’t for you.

I learned a long time ago, if you are truly doing your job, somebody’s probably going to be upset or maybe even mad at you and/or your chamber. Unlike many in our business, I’m OK with that. Doing what needs to be done, being a problem solver and being a leader can be very lonely and may often not match up with being liked.

When all is said and done, hopefully, we can make a difference and help our businesses succeed and our communities thrive.

Dave Kilby is president and CEO of W.A.C.E. and executive vice president of corporate affairs at the California Chamber.