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November 01, 2022 Vol. 48, No. 1

‘The dream job I never knew I wanted’: A Q&A with John Williams and Susan McCourt Baltz

By Marilyn Cavicchia
John Williams and Susan McCourt Baltz

John Williams and Susan McCourt Baltz

“I haven’t lost that ‘new job feeling.’ I still feel lucky every day that I was chosen to be the executive director of this organization.”—Susan McCourt Baltz, executive director of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis since January 2021

“The majority of people you're gonna have in your leadership are incredibly wonderful, great, talented people who make it all worthwhile to get up and do it every day.” —John Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Bar Association since May 2003

A voluntary metro bar and a mandatory state bar. A relatively new executive director and a long-timer who expects to retire soon. At first, it might seem as if Susan McCourt Baltz of BAMSL and John Williams of the OBA have little in common. But some things about the job of chief executive are universal, or nearly so.

Bar Leader recently spoke with Baltz and Williams about their experiences and any advice they have for others. Here’s some of what they had to say.

Bar Leader: What first drew you to your current job as executive director?

Williams:  I was pretty active in the young lawyers division [including serving as board member and chair] When I left private practice, I went to work for the Oklahoma Education Association, and then I was the first statewide director for legal aid for the state. So, I think work as a volunteer plus the other association activities that I did certainly molded me to do this kind of work.

Baltz: I started my career in legal marketing, at law firms, at a legal services company and in consulting from a business development and PR standpoint. I'd been affiliated with the bar since 1998 [via CLE, business partnership and events]. My predecessor [Zoe Linza] was my friend. So, when I heard that she was retiring, I thought, “You know, that stinks. I'm gonna have to make friends with somebody new.” But I was encouraged by three separate people to apply for her position.

Bar Leader: What is something that would make you happy if you heard someone say it about your bar?

Baltz: It does make me happy when I hear in the community that we're doing more and we're making an impact and we're trying new things. Change is hard. I kind of benefited from COVID because I came into a time where people expected change because everything was different. So, if I hear that we've tried new things and that we’re a premier bar, that makes me happy.

Williams: We give great customer service and exceptional value to our members. Our recent membership survey said that our highest ratings were in the areas of customer service to our members. We kept high levels of customer service during COVID, regardless of the circumstances, because that's our DNA. I'm really proud of the staff and how on a moment’s notice, we made that shift. And here we are two years later, after the whole world's turned over, and we're still surveying high in those areas.

Bar Leader: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the profession and in your bar since you’ve been there?

Baltz: That's easy: COVID and making the decision to come back. 2021 was touch and go with our events, and then we got to our bench and bar conference, which is our largest conference. We'd moved that back already, and it had been canceled the year before. The hotel wanted to make good on the contract, and they were suffering. So, we made the decision to do August—and then there was a COVID spike, and everything was shutting back down. But we had to move forward. We didn't have a choice. We had the whole resort booked,  and it was going to be shut down for us in a week. We only had a handful of cancellations, and they attended virtually. We had to be flexible. We had to be able to turn on a dime.

We're in downtown St. Louis, and a lot of our firms are in St. Louis County—so, that and the trend toward remote work have affected us. But we keep going, we keep offering events, we keep the doors open.  Some of the firms here have started to get people to come back into the office. [The bar will move in 2023, but just down the street.] As the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, I think there's a strong feeling that we stay in the downtown region and support downtown businesses.

Williams: We had a program a couple of weeks ago that used to be the biggest program that we could put on here in the building. We'd have record attendance: about 240, classroom style, in one of our big conference rooms, and then we would actually do some overflow stuff. And this year, I think I had 26 people who came in person here to the building. The attendance numbers were about the same, but the rest of them were all online. And I even had Arbuckle fried pies! Usually, if you feed them, they will come. Of course, in being a statewide organization, it can be a six hours-plus drive for some people to come here.

In the last couple of years, we have experienced membership growth [because of the uniform bar examination]. That's a big change: lawyers holding licenses and practicing in number of different jurisdictions, more so than any time I've ever known. Twenty-five percent of our members live out of state—more members than in Tulsa County, which is the second biggest county in the state. You have to provide services and value to those members, and in different ways than for people who are across town and can drive over to the building and pick up something or attend a meeting. Another big change is in how we communicate: We launched a new digital publication during COVID, which is our most popular publication right now.

Bar Leader: How would you describe your leadership or management style in a nutshell?

Baltz: I would say I hire good people, and I let them do their jobs.

Williams: Do good business. No matter what kind of business you’re in, if you're treating your customers right, if you're making the right decisions to meet the goals of what you're there for, if you're doing good business, all of those side issues out there actually will find pretty quick answers.

Bar Leader: What are some of your proudest accomplishments during your time as executive director?

Baltz: I've put a lot of time and effort into our sustaining partner program. I also put into place a critical incident response team to address any challenges that may affect the bar association or our members. We've got 6,400 to 6,700 members at any given time, and they all have different opinions on everything. How do you have a voice from the organization that holds true with our mission and our values and the evolving profession and evolving world? It was one of the things that kept me up as a new executive director coming out of COVID. We also had some high-profile hate-related issues going on in our country. The last thing I want to do is put my bar association in a negative light. So, I felt like I needed a team of people to help me guide us through some of those issues—a diverse group of people with diverse opinions, coming together for the good of the organization and the good of the membership.

Williams: I half-jokingly say when I came here, the place was broke, dirty and smelled bad. As I came in, the first thing we did was stabilize the finances. We got a dues increase in 2005, and we haven't had a dues increase since then. Our reserves are good enough that we gave away over a million dollars’ worth of CLE during the first year of COVID. I'm pretty proud of the fact that we've positioned ourselves to take care of our members.

Another thing is, when I came here, we were experiencing a suicide a month, and this was back when our membership was about 3,000 to 5,000 less than it is now. I would get those phone calls, and [having been a practicing attorney] sometimes there were people I'd had cases with or gone to law school with—I mean, these were not strangers. At some point, I knew we had to do something different. We changed to a contract model, with a 24/7/365 hotline and six free hours of mental health counseling for all of our members, at a very good price point. We haven't solved all of those problems, but we're better. We actually won an award from the Mental Health Association in Central Oklahoma the year we put that in place, and I know other bar associations have followed our example or our method of providing those services.

Bar Leader:  Is there anything you learned the hard way and that you could share with a new ED or CEO?

Baltz: I feel like I learned everything the hard way. A blessing and a curse in my life is that I just don't learn from other people's experiences. It's just who I am. It's embedded in my being. So, one of the challenges for me as a new executive director coming in is the dance between listening to the wisdom in the room and coming in and shaking things up—which I was told to do. Things were already shook up: Zoe was here for 13 years, and she retired and then COVID happened. The world changed overnight.

I think there are times when you should just go try something new and take the risk. I've made some mistakes, and I expect I'll continue to make mistakes. But I tell my staff all the time, if you learn from it and you can do better, then it's not a mistake. Again, something I wrestle with every day is how much to listen and how much to just do my own thing. There are so many resources out there from people who have gone through it and done it, and I have a healthy respect for them. I want to make sure I'm listening in the right way.

Williams: I had the experience of this being my third association or organization to work for plus having been a volunteer. So, I had observed a lot of folks and had the rare opportunity to learn from other people's mistakes and to try not to repeat them. One thing I would say to a brand-new executive director is, never hire to fill a position. Hire smart, capable, adaptive, creative people. There's a good chance that whatever that position is, five years from now, it’s gonna undergo significant change.

Sometimes, when a big change happens, there’s the person who won't get on board but who won't leave—and if they stay long enough, they will make both themselves and your organization sick. You may even actually be saving somebody's life to get them to move out of that situation, where they have such a huge amount of stress and unhappiness. Personnel decisions are often the toughest part of this job, but sometimes a tough personnel decision is actually a kind thing to do for everybody.

The other thing that I would say to a new executive director is that saying thank you costs you nothing—and taking people for granted will cost you everything. Tell people thank you—and mean it.

Bar Leader: Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between the president and the chief executive?

Baltz: Every member who walks through my door is a volunteer. They're volunteering to be a member; they're volunteering their time. And the president's job is a lot of time that's volunteered. Our current president has three kids and a busy trial practice. So, I see it as my job to make her job as president as easy and the least time consuming that it can be. It's my job to put the president in the spotlight and to make sure that they look good in that spotlight.

When it comes to the idea of a president stepping into my lane, I've not felt that yet—but also, I don't stay in my lane and drive in a straight line. So, I like people who kind of create curves.

One thing I've been really impressed with is the respect and the ability to come together. We've had some controversial meeting and some topics that come up that we don't all agree upon, but in not one meeting in the almost two years I've been here has anybody been condescending or rude. It's been respectful, intelligent conversation to come to the best solution for the organization—and that has been really rewarding.

Williams: As lawyers, what our members sell is time—so, when they volunteer, they are giving you product off the shelf. Think about it: What an incredible thing you have here, with bar presidents and board members and leaders who are giving a lot of time—you're actually having people who have paid you money to be a member and then are spending money out of their pocket to come and help you.

The number of distractions that are in people's lives in the last 20 years has increased. I have younger friends with three children in three different after-school events, all going on at the same time. The world is busy. So, I believe in trying to help the president to streamline and to help these people who sell time for a living to save some time.

I've created a thing called the president's notebook. It gives me a very easy opportunity to sit down with the president-elect and go over their year: Here are your tasks, here are your governance decisions to make, here are the things that you will need to get accomplished during the year. I think the presidents-elect are very happy to get their calendar made out for a year, day by day, week by week, month by month At any point, the bar president can turn to their book and know where they're supposed to be and what's supposed to be happening.

It also gives a good opportunity to talk about my role as the executive director and what the expectations are. It’s not a tense conversation. The difficulty comes when you are three or five months out, and you're finding each other in each other's lane because you hadn't had that conversation.

Having good policies and bylaws in place and written down is helpful, too, so that if somebody's out of their lane, you just have to point out the policy, so it’s not you saying it personally. And sometimes we need to check and make sure that we're not the source of being outside the lane.

The majority of people you're gonna have in your leadership are incredibly wonderful, great, talented people who make it all worthwhile to get up and do it every day. The bottom line is, some presidents are more difficult, some are absolutely gonna turn out to be your best friend in life—but whatever it is, that lasts for exactly 12 months. That's a double-edged sword, for sure. I've had bar presidents who I had dealings with almost every day; I know what's going on with their family, with their kids and with their practice—the stuff that really close friends know—and then January 1 hits and I've gotta move on [to support the new president]. For me, that's one of the hardest parts of the job.

Bar Leader: Do you have a favorite moment from your time as executive director?

Williams: Oh, gosh, I have hundreds of those memories. I bake, and I've had a back surgery and have some permanent disability as a result of that. One of my bar presidents decided that I needed to bake a cake, and she was gonna come over and get my big KitchenAid mixer out of the cabinet for me. So, we were making the world's best chocolate cake, and it came to the point when I was gonna make the icing. For some reason, rather than “low,” I hit “high”—and I covered us both in powdered sugar. So, the bar president, covered in powdered sugar, looks at me, and she goes, “I am so glad that you're the one that did that, and not me.”

Baltz: You know, no little girl grows up thinking she wants to be executive director of a bar. I didn't know what that was, but I fell into working in the legal industry and it's been a very rewarding career for me. I haven’t lost that ‘new job feeling.’ I still feel lucky every day that I was chosen to be the executive director of this organization. I work with smart, intelligent, driven, interesting people who want to make the world a better place. There's no other job I could do that would top that. I can't even pick one moment because I would be doing another moment a disservice. It's the dream job that I never knew I wanted, and I feel honored to be here.

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