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When news hit earlier this year that The Association of Pool and Spa Professionals and the National Swimming Pool Foundation planned to merge, the questions immediately started. How would these two organizations come together? Which initiatives and programs would persist, and which would undergo strategic transformations? Plain and simple, what will the merged organization look like?
Some structural adjustments are already taking place, according to Chris Curcio, chairman of the organization’s board of directors. With an association and a foundation melding into each other, these initial steps largely involve looking at the traditional mandates of such entities.
“The education is going to move to the foundation side of the operation, and the government relations and advocacy is going to reside on the association side of the larger group,” explains Curcio. “Historically, that's generally how associations and foundations work together, whether they're unified legally, or they've got some sort of a contract to coexist.”
Members have been given reassurances that the most critical endeavors — training and certification programs, industry advocacy in shaping regulation — will continue without even the slightest hitch. Other aspects of the organization are still in flux, including exactly which individual will sit in the top leadership role, orchestrating and finessing the inevitable changes to come.
Although confidence abounds in the budding PHTA, there’s also a keen awareness of likely challenges ahead. Useful overlaps must be sorted from inefficient redundancies, and two akin but distinct missions need to be brought together into a single, shared vision for the future of the organization. To shepherd PHTA into this new era, astute leadership is needed. For that vital piece of the organization’s machinery, the search is on.
PHTA recently enlisted Diversified Search, an agency that specializes in orchestrating hiring processes for upper level executives, to assist in finding an individual to fill the president and CEO role. This person will be moving into the top job at an organization that has a significant amount of historical success, but they’ll also effectively be the first to hold the role for the freshly rechristened PHTA.
According to Andrew Wheeler, the managing director and practice leader for education and nonprofit practices at Diversified Search, the current scenario is exceedingly unique.
“I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've never had a search like this,” notes Wheeler. “To have two nonprofits with overlapping missions coming together to collapse into one while searching for a new leader — it’s incredibly exciting.”
Understandably, one of the attributes being prioritized by Diversified Search and PHTA is the ability to meet the distinct challenges that come with overseeing a merger.
“Each organization has its own personality, quirkiness and locale,” Wheeler says. “That's why you really need a bridge builder who can be an advocate for both the hardcore association-related functions and the base of great work that the foundation has done over the years.”
Curcio agrees with Wheeler’s assessment and is quick to stress that stepping into PHTA leadership role isn’t solely about keeping a single organization on track. The very nature of PHTA’s work means the entire pool and hot tub industry is looking to this position with a deeply vested interest in the success of whoever fills it.
“This is a large organization representing a significant diversity of people and professions,” says Curcio. “You've got retailers, builders, hot tub manufacturers, pool manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, distributors. A diverse group means a lot of different needs.”
There are several skills required to lead an organization providing support to the pool and spa industry. None of that knowledge is being discounted, but there are also some more broadly-based talents that those collaborating in the search are keeping in mind.
Wheeler calls upon alliteration in listing the three attributes that are highly desirable in a CEO: clarity, consistency and communication.
In a busy marketplace such as the pool and spa industry — which is susceptible to rapidly shifting trends and beholden to regulatory oversight that can vary widely from region to region — the CEO must be equipped to cut through the confusion to provide clear direction to staff members and clear communication to membership. That’s clarity.
Consistency, as defined by Wheeler, is characterized by an approach that might seem basic but is often hard to come by in a leader.
“Someone needs to have the temperament to show up every day and be pretty darn consistent with follow-through, communication and just being authentically herself or himself,” he says.
As much as collaboration is useful for any CEO, the particulars of bringing together two separate organizations into a cohesive whole will make it crucial for the PHTA leader.
“I think what's really important in this job is to spend concerted time with the board members who represent the association or represent the foundation because they've just started working together,” says Wheeler. “Developing rapport, goodwill and camaraderie among the board is very important. And they'll need to do the same with the teams which are in Washington D.C. and Colorado Springs.”
Curcio agrees that some basic business bona fides will be present in a strong PHTA CEO candidate. He’s forecasting that someone immersed in the culture of entrepreneurialism could be a strong match.
“We need someone who's going to be a solid leader and a good businessperson,” Curcio says. “I find that many of the aspects of a good entrepreneur would probably fit the bill. The new CEO has got to be a good communicator and should have the ability to wear many different hats.”
In tandem with the leadership background that could derive from a wide range of professional experiences, all involved with the CEO search are bearing in mind some of the distinct challenges being faced by PHTA. There’s a mindfulness about the various needs across the large organization, as well as all the people that count on its efforts.
The search firm and search committee are expecting many CEO candidates will come from some background in the pool and hot tub marketplace, but that specific history isn’t automatically a necessity.
“I think being knowledgeable and credible of the industry is something that can be taught, but we need someone who's going to be intellectually curious and agile,” says Wheeler. “The can be brought up to speed through meeting with board members and organizational members. They can find out about what makes the industry unique, its challenges and opportunities.”
One challenge everyone is quick to identify is staffing. Like many other industries that are based around tough, unglamorous work, the pool and hot tub business has been struggling to enlist new employees, especially first-time professionals. To help address the concern, PHTA is launching an internship program this summer, and the current hope is that the new CEO will have additional innovative ideas about workforce development.
“Right now, one of the things that's on everyone's mind is the labor shortage,” notes Curcio. “It’s gotten tougher as the economy has grown over the last couple of years and the willingness of the younger generation to get involved in trades or service has diminished.”
Another hope is that the PHTA CEO will strengthen the overall organization by bringing additional members into the fold. Both APSP and NSPF served broad constituencies, but there are people working within the pool and spa industry that remained entirely detached from both organizations. Now that the groups are together under the PHTA umbrella, there’s an eagerness to connect with everyone in the field.
Curcio believes membership growth is one of those areas that can be helped substantially by having a strong communicator in the main leadership role.
“I think there are many, many people creating a livelihood in the industry that benefit from PHTA work, but who are not members of the organization,” says Curcio. “I think it’s mostly because they're not aware of what the organization is constantly doing on their behalf.”
The search process for the new CEO is currently underway with a rough timetable calling for formal interviews to begin in July or August. Several candidates are already in consideration, but Wheeler stresses that they’ll continue exploring options for as long as is needed. In his experience, strong contenders can emerge all the way to the last minute.
The search committee handling the interviews is composed of individuals connected to all different corners of the aquatics industry. Bearing in mind that some potential candidates might be sensitive to lose talk about job hunts complicating their current business associations, PHTA has taken steps to preserve secrecy in the process.
“We want to assure people from the industry that each of the board members on the search committee has signed a confidentiality statement,” stresses Wheeler. “We will protect the confidentiality of any candidate that has an interest in the job.”
Daunting as the prospect might be to take the reins of PHTA at a time of significant transition, thus far enthusiasm has been high.
“I think people are really excited about this,” says Wheeler. “From our conversations with candidates, they see this as a unique opportunity.”
As APSP and NSPF formally evolve towards the combined entity PHTA, uncertainty is fading away. A unified sense of purpose is taking shape, and the pending arrival of a new CEO will only make the picture yet clearer. The merger was a long time coming, but early indicators are that it was worth the wait.
And the expectation is that things will only get better from here.
“This organization, now that it's combined, can work together for the benefit of all,” says Curcio. “People are going to see a lot of progress for the pool and hot tub industry over the next couple of years.”
The Pool & Hot Tub Alliance has named Sabeena Hickman as the organization's new president, chief executive officer and staff liaison to the board of directors. Hickman, who most recently served as the CEO of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, brings 20 years of association experience to her new role. She will start September 3. Lawrence Caniglia, current president and CEO, will continue in an advisory role to aid in the transition.
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