Executive Spotlight: Don Gilpin
Edited by: Leah York, CAE, President of Talbott Talent; Erica Poff, MA, CAE, PMP, IOM, Vice President of Talbott Talent; and Heather Hunter, Marketing Intern
Our featured executive this month is Don Gilpin, President and COO at International Facility Management Association (IFMA). Gilpin started his work with IFMA as an interim COO before taking on the permanent role in 2019. Talbott Talent’s VP, Erica Poff, MA, CAE, PMP, IOM, talked with him about the nuances and benefits of interim leadership.
Erica Poff: Tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got into the world of nonprofit executive leadership.
Don Gilpin: Like most of us, I fell into it. I came from a corporate background. Out of college, I worked for a Fortune 500 company called Dayton-Hudson Corporation, which is now the Target corporation. I worked in the direct marketing arm for a number of years. When I moved to Indiana, I got the opportunity to work with my first 501(c)6, the National Precast Concrete Association, also in a marketing role. That was in 1992. From there, I landed at another organization called the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association [CEDIA], where I spent the majority of my career. I was with CEDIA for a little over 18 years, and when I left in 2016, I was the executive director and COO.
That led me to another opportunity with the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), which I was made aware of through Talbott Talent. I interviewed for the interim COO position and started working with that organization in February 2018.
As an interim, I was asked to come in to look at three areas of IFMA’s work: events, membership, and training and certification. Working in that short-term position, I gave the then-president my suggested changes for IFMA operations. This eventually led to a permanent role after the interim period, when IFMA asked me to become their President and COO in March 2019, and that’s where I am today.
EP: Had you served as an interim before?
DG: No, I hadn’t. It was interesting and extremely rewarding. Maybe it’s because I landed with a special team of special people. The team at IFMA really responded to my suggestions, and I felt as though I had their support with tough decisions. The results were dramatic – financial, sure, but more important to me was the attitude of the professional staff. The most rewarding thing is to see confidence coming back to a team with the knowledge that they were doing a good job and making a difference in members’ lives. The positivity just rushed back in. It was so fun to see these people start to celebrate [their work and each other].
EP: What initially attracted you to IFMA, and what were your expectations walking into the position?
DG: I liked that IFMA had an international presence. My time at CEDIA involved international members and activities, and I really enjoyed that aspect of association management. I got to meet people from all around the world, learn about new cultures and new ways of thinking, business-wise. I made some great professional friendships along the way. IFMA had that same international flavor, meaning I’d have the opportunity to work with professional staff and members from all over the world again.
But the idea of coming in as an interim COO was interesting to me because I knew upfront there were challenges within IFMA. I was made aware of that before I took on the position. It’s liberating to come in without any political baggage, and have the opportunity to observe people, places, processes, and financial outcomes. You help the group reset priorities without having the years of knowledge, or baggage, that sometimes come with this line of work. You can make some tough decisions and poignant suggestions without the burden of being too close to the subject matter. It’s easy to take your job personally, and get wrapped up in your staff, but as an interim you can do your job, provide suggestions, and move on.
EP: You’re vested in the sense that you’re going to do your job, and do it well, but you don’t have to take on that personal element.
DG: Yes, exactly. I walked into the interim role and told my team I was here to help them. I wasn’t there to be a ‘head count reducer’ or slash people's jobs. That’s always the big fear with an interim. Sometimes you do have to make the tough decisions about how to properly match skill sets to jobs, but I made it clear upfront that I was just there to observe, interview, assess and make suggestions. The group knew I was just there to do my job.
EP: You’ve been a nonprofit ED and CEO before. How is serving as an interim different than serving in a permanent role?
DG: There is that detached element we just mentioned, which is a pro and a con. As an interim, you need to be aware that there is a sunrise and a sunset to your project. You’re planning your next move, your next opportunity for a short-term project with an association that may need your skill set. So, while you’re dedicated to the project at hand, you're saying in the back of your mind, ‘what’s next?’ You need to keep yourself relevant, which means working with companies such as Talbott Talent to keep your name fresh in the industry.
EP: How does that mindset affect your approach as an interim?
DG: I didn’t approach the job any differently [than a permanent role]. I wanted to give them my best. I had a very clear set of parameters; I knew what was required of me, month by month, which was something I asked for upfront. I wanted to know how they were going to characterize success for this interim position, and I asked them to make it measurable.
I have a formula I’ve brought from my corporate days for developing goals: I will do X so that Y is accomplished by DATE. I asked the executive committee to use that formula to answer the question, “what do you want me to accomplish so the outcome is favorable by a specific date?” I think the executive committee appreciated the fact that we were walking into this [relationship] knowing what the short-term outcome would be. Having something trackable is so important. I couched my short-term interim opportunity by making sure I had those goals in front of me, and that I was working toward them.
EP: It seems like that set you up for a positive, trusting relationship with the Board. How did that translate when you became permanent?
DG: The first interim portion was basically a relationship between me and the executive committee. By coming on permanently, I got to spend more quality time with the staff, educating them on strategic planning and prioritization. It’s not just working on the short-term observations and recommendations anymore—it’s now an opportunity to start implementing change across the whole organization.
Another thing I introduced was something I learned years ago, at my very first trade association. We had an individual from the Ritz Carlton hotel chain provide a seminar on how Ritz Carlton handles customers. One of the mottos I interjected at IFMA is an old Ritz Carlton motto from that seminar: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” If we maintain this notion, it elevates the customer service of your professional staff. The members and volunteer leaders pick up on it immediately; they see a change in how you interact with them, a change in your voice, and a change in the importance you place on your memberships.
EP: When should a nonprofit organization consider bringing on an interim, and why?
DG: Getting the candidate right is so important. If that association has the luxury of time—12-16 months, sometimes longer—to go through that process, and there’s an in-depth referral process, and you’re getting honest feedback from people the candidate has interacted with, and if you’ve had the chance to see that individual in action, it may make sense to hire right off the bat.
But my situation is similar [to many] in that an association may not have the luxury of time, and the unspoken changes they’re planning need to happen quickly. Then you need to bring in someone to keep the ship afloat while the organization takes their time [with the search]. I wouldn’t lobby for one method or the other, but I’d lean toward the interim if that association doesn’t have the luxury of time to do a proper search for that position. Finding that culture fit, as well as the knowledge fit and the skill set, doesn’t happen very easily. It takes a lot of talking back and forth and a lot of observation. And the referral part is so important, so the organization can get feedback on the candidate.
EP: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
DG: I’ve liked association management so much [because] what other job lets you dabble in the wide array of running a business - marketing, business, finance, conferences and trade shows, international business development, industry standards, publications? It’s so fun to be involved in so many different aspects. You’re not coming in and doing the same thing every day. I don’t know of any other industry where you have that opportunity to spread your wings and be a great generalist. The reason for my success is that I can do a lot of things pretty well, but I’m not an expert in one thing. As a leader, you need to be flexible and knowledgeable and surround yourself with people smarter than you – then you’re golden.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.