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Success stories:

How Ann M. Palmer Led the Arthritis Foundation to Become the Champion of Yes

Arthritis Foundation President and CEO Ann Palmer speaking to an audience

To celebrate our firm’s 35-year history in executive search, The Alexander Group is reaching out to a several of the outstanding candidates we’ve placed to learn of their challenges, successes and leadership style, as well as the lessons they have learned and the legacies they will leave.

This month, we interviewed Ann M. Palmer, who joined The Arthritis Foundation as President and CEO in 2013. With more than 30 years of experience within the voluntary health space, Ann has revolutionized the Arthritis Foundation’s approach, structure and focus to impact the lives of those with arthritis. Prior to joining the Arthritis Foundation, Ann gained exceptional experience with American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

What were the challenges you faced when you first assumed the President and CEO role? Tell us about your onboarding experience.

The organization and the board were eager for change, so it was a great opportunity to come in and rally the organization around some common goals. I went through a very traditional onboarding process: I set 30-, 60-, and 90-day goals for myself. My 30-day goal was to simply listen; I interviewed key stakeholders, asked them about their background, what they thought was working and what was not working. It was a comprehensive process. At the time, we had 42 board members, 10 regions and an extensive regional organization with regional boards. I spoke to everyone I could.

The themes emerged quickly as far as what the issues were. My 60-day goal was to pull together recommendations to address those issues, and the 90-day plan was to share those recommendations.

How has the organization changed since you assumed role?

The biggest change is that we united (instead of functioning as separated regions) and organized our work into four strategic pillars: Scientific Discovery, Help & Support, Advocacy & Access, and Juvenile Arthritis. Becoming one entity—specifically a single 501(c)3—sent a powerful message to our constituents and staff and allowed us to focus our agenda and increase administrative efficiencies.

Overcoming “No” and saying “Yes” means different things to different people ... but everyone with arthritis fights these everyday battles related to pain and mobility.

We also established the Arthritis Foundation as the “Champion of Yes”—helping people overcome saying “No” to activities, hobbies and simple daily tasks because of their arthritis.

Overcoming “No” and saying “Yes” means different things to different people. It’s a big community—54-plus million Americans to be exact—with a lot of different diseases, but everyone with arthritis fights these everyday battles related to pain and mobility.

What is the legacy you want to leave behind at the Arthritis Foundation?

I’m most proud of our leadership in patient engagement. We’re a listening organization, but from the beginning of my tenure, we also began formalizing patient engagement—bringing in and enabling patients to speak to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), be a part of clinical trials guidelines creation, and share patient insights with clinicians and researchers.

She felt she was doing something to help not just her son, but all children with juvenile arthritis.

As an illustration, we have a mother in our network whose child is very sick with juvenile arthritis (JA). She’s been a volunteer for many, many years and has done great things for the organization. She recently had the opportunity to participate in a patient-focused drug development (PFDD) meeting with the FDA. She told me that—of all the things she had ever done—having a conversation with the FDA that day was the most meaningful. She felt she was doing something to help not just her son, but all children with JA.

Today, we have an extensive platform of listening to our constituents. We conduct formal listening sessions all over the country. We have a patient leadership council that’s representative of different disease types and different ages. This network of patients and caregivers helps us understand the needs of our community and ensures that the patient voice is infused in everything we do. It empowers volunteers to respond to local and national issues and use their voices to make an even greater difference for others in the community.

What advice do you give to up-and-coming executives?

It’s the same advice I give to my own children: First and foremost, be authentic. Be yourself, be genuine. But also know your strengths and weaknesses. Always be open to learning new things and learning from other people.

Name one pivotal moment in your career—a lesson, a decision or even a failure—that altered your trajectory or inspired you to make a change.

I was highly influenced and motivated by my time at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and particularly by the leadership of then-CEO Robert Beall. He got up every day and, despite the obstacles, took on the big challenges.

Robert taught me to take on the big things, the important things, and find a way to be successful.

Coming into this position at the Arthritis Foundation, it would have been easy to say, ‘let’s do the things we’re sure we can do successfully.’ But Robert taught me to take on the big things, the important things, and find a way to be successful. That was an important learning for me as I came into this role.

What traits do you look for in a new employee?

I look for a leader who has fire in the belly and has an excellent track record. The person must be eager and see the position as a challenge and growth opportunity. Last but not least, the candidate must be confident, comfortable in his or her own skin, and not scared to ask questions – a person fueled to learn.

Do you have a go-to interview question?

If somebody is making a choice to come and work with us, I want to know why. What do they think would be different coming to work with us? What challenges are they excited about? What are they curious about? I’m not looking to validate their resume; I want to have a genuine conversation.

How do you recharge? What do you do to relax?

I have a wonderful husband and four children—I enjoy catching up and spending time with them. I'm also an avid entertainer. I love to have people over and cook for them. And while it’s not always possible, my favorite way to recharge is to visit the beach, swim in the ocean, collect a few shells. I grew up near the beach so it’s in my system.

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