Nuggets from 8,500 Days in Chamber Biz

Diane Shwenke
Diane Shwenke

If anyone would have suggested that I was going to be at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce as president/CEO for close to 33 years after I accepted the position back in 1989, I would have said they were crazy. Yet, here I am.

I’ve watched over the years as some of my mentors and peers have taken the step to retire from the chamber industry and joked that I would die at my desk. But after 8,500 days on the job, I think retirement may be the best option…for me and for the Grand Junction Area Chamber.

So, as I prepare to ride off into the new adventures that retirement is sure to bring, I figured I would share some nuggets of advice from what close to 40 years in the business has taught me. You may find them nothing more than the musings of a “has been,” and that is fine, but maybe…just maybe…there is a nugget that will come in handy for those of you still in the “biz.”

• It is not YOUR Chamber! All of us are merely caretakers of an organization that has its roots in the Middle Ages. We have a duty to serve our business members that pay our salary but they are the true owners of any chamber. And, it is by LISTENING closely to what they have to say about their needs and barriers to growth and ACTING on them that a chamber can continue to be relevant. In other words, their agenda is the one that counts, not yours.

• Reinvent yourself every year! Each volunteer leader that steps into the chairman of the board role has their unique strengths and weaknesses. You need to adjust and match your strengths to their weaknesses and find ways to showcase their strengths. That way you will continue to draw strong leaders to your board and your key volunteer leadership position. You will also cultivate strong chamber champions that will continue to promote the organization long after they become past chairs.

• ’Tis better to be respected than liked! Early on, I heard that phrase and it kept me going during some pretty turbulent times that sometimes saw personal attacks on me and nasty things being said about the chamber. But if you are doing what is right for small businesses and helping shore up or build a better business climate, then let the naysayers whine away. At the end of the day, I guarantee you that the chamber will have a seat at the table when issues affecting business are discussed and that you will gain members because you have a reputation for being their voice and their advocate.

• Your team roster determines the outcome of your season! From who is on your board to who is on your staff, every member of the team makes a difference. Make sure they know their value to the organization! And if they are not bringing value, then trade them — FAST! You don’t get to the World Series or the Super Bowl with a mediocre team! It is easier to fire staff than board members, but you can limit board terms in your bylaws and make sure you are participating in the nominating committee process to build in some protections against a low performer in the board room.

• Keep learning! I always budgeted for travel and training for myself as well as my staff. Good training pays for itself and more. And outside of the classes there is the networking that inevitably leads to a chamber peer sharing an idea that you can “plagiarize and localize.”

If there is one major thing that I will miss in retirement it will be all of you still in the trenches, fighting the good fight for your members and your communities. Many of you have energized me and inspired me during this lifelong journey and for that I thank you. It is not goodbye (I hate goodbyes by the way). It is till our paths cross again. God Bless!

Diane Schwenke is retiring as president/CEO of the Grand Junction Area (CO) Chamber.