Insights from the Secretariat - an interview with AmCham EU’s CEO – Susan Danger

Date

06 Nov 2018

Sections

Public Affairs
Susan Danger is CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU (AmCham EU), which speaks for American companies committed to Europe on trade, investment and competitiveness issues.  Susan has dedicated her entire career to advancing transatlantic cooperation. She joined AmCham EU in 1995 as Communications Manager, becoming Communications & Operations Manager in 2000. Since 2002 she has been leading the organisation as Managing Director and since 2016 as CEO. In 2016 Susan was named by POLITICO as one of the top 20 women influencers in Brussels. Here she discusses how to successfully lead a vital European association.
 
What are the most important issues currently facing European associations?
Today, one of the most significant issues for European organisations is related to the competition for the attention of policy-makers. The EU environment has become more crowded, with many associations formed in the last decade or so. At the same time, the political environment is becoming more polarised and associations need to be able to discuss broader issues such as Brexit or migration. There is constant change, which means that organisations should not underestimate the importance of recruiting staff able to rise to these challenges and who are capable of communicating and engaging well in such an environment.
Last but not least, showing the added value of an organisation to its members when budgets are under pressure is crucial.
 
What advice would you offer associations on how to overcome these issues?
The first step has to be enriching the messaging, for instance, by simplifying communications, while at the same time testing out innovative outreach techniques, such as infographics. This helps to bridge the gap between technical policy papers and the ability to catch attention. In our case, we are pushing forward with projects such as “Invested in Europe,” a storytelling web portal which showcases how American companies improve the lives of people living in the communities where they operate. It is also relevant that policymaking is increasingly conducted from Brussels so having a strong Member State outreach strategy is important. We have a plan of action, and collaborate very closely with our network of national chambers in Europe. We regularly share publications and EU policy information with them, with the aim of informing national stakeholders in their decisions on a local level. European organisations need to present a positive narrative about the EU and its benefits to citizens. We need to put more effort into innovative campaigns which reinforce that narrative (using a range of tools such as position papers, media outreach, tweets and infographics). Associations in general need to make their communications more digestible and consumer-friendly in order to adapt to the world of fast communications and the social media generation. Clear, rules-based governance and structure are also paramount to achieving success as an organisation. The ability to set quantifiable end goals to any strategy while keeping members involved will lead to better results in the long term.
 
How have you successfully maintained and grown your association’s membership?
Our association has grown constantly over the past 20 years. This is due to several factors, but I think the most important one is that we have been listening and adapting to our members’ expectations and that we follow clear objectives. Ensuring the member-engagement in the association’s work and decisions, together with conducting regular perception surveys has allowed us to better understand in what areas we can deliver the most added value, and how we can improve. It is also essential to be unique and not duplicate the work of other organisations. We provide new services regularly, adapted to the ever-changing political and business environment. We have been recognised by our members as an association able to anticipate trends and adapt accordingly, and this has helped increase our membership. The external environment has been impactful in ensuring AmCham EU’s relevance by allowing us to help member companies meet the new challenges set out by Brexit, EU-US relations and other evolving factors.
 
What do you feel makes a successful association leader?
I think a successful association leader is someone who can motivate and engage both staff and members; someone eager to learn and adapt. One needs to foster an atmosphere where everyone has a voice that can be heard, where the staff are not afraid to voice concerns or come up with new and disruptive ideas; where everyone is involved and their good work is acknowledged. A successful leader also builds bridges and relationships inside and outside the association, and this calls for a good deal of diplomacy and soft skills. It is essential to have an entrepreneurial mindset, as an association leader runs a business, from HR and budgeting to the intricacies of the policy positions we cover.
 
What are you most proud of having achieved at your association and why?
Transforming AmCham EU and leading its development from a committee of AmCham Belgium, into the organisation that you see today is something of which I am incredibly proud. This is also due to a team of enthusiastic and motivated staff. I am proud of the teams created through the years, which have successfully produced great results and a unique, positive work environment.
We have built numerous alliances over the years; we have created campaigns which have enriched our knowledge on a wealth of topics. Examples here are the campaigns we undertook on the Single Market or our annual Transatlantic Economy study. We believe that we are leading the way in creating publications and studies which are ahead of the curve and which are actively used by policy- makers and other associations. I am both proud and honoured to have been leading this organisation through all of this and moving forward I am certain we will continue to flourish.
 
As a judge for the 2019 European Association Awards, why do you feel awards schemes such as the awards are valuable for associations?
These awards are great in showcasing the value of an organisation to its potential and current members. It helps to remind them of the great work we do here. At the same time, they keep the staff motivated, as their hard work is also rewarded externally. What is additionally relevant is that the awards provide the opportunity to network and share ideas with other associations in various sectors. This allows us to share best practice and to discover new projects.