Profile: College homecoming -- Susan Allen Burton, President & CEO, ACHCA
Susan Allen Burton's professional life has taken many interesting and unexpected turns. Maybe that's why she wasn't entirely surprised to find herself back with the group she says she had grown to love — the American College of Health Care Administrators — 25 years after she played an active role in it. Well-versed in Asian culture and a devotee of belly dancing, she said the opportunity to lead the college was one she simply couldn't pass up. Burton served as ACHCA's director of membership, marketing and publications for seven years in the 1980s.
"I wasn't looking for a full-time position, but when they approached me, I felt it was something I needed to do," she said. For the past six years, she has been the president and CEO of the Burton Group, a Virginia-based management consultancy.
"I've always had a soft spot for ACHCA and its members," she said, recalling the outpouring of support and compassion she had received from members when her own ailing mother entered a nursing home.
"The kindness shown to me during that time deepened my understanding of what these professionals do every day," Burton says. "They have to run a business, but they don't forget the human side -- that the residents and their families come first. I credit the college for giving me that perspective and insight."
Aside from the sentimental link, Burton said she accepted the leadership role because she enjoys challenges. And since taking the reins July 19, she's been faced with plenty of them.
Not only has she had to deal with some "challenging internal restructuring," but she also is scrambling to find an alternate site for ACHCA's Spring 2006 Annual Conference, which had been set for New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area.
Fortunately, Burton knows how to manage difficult situations. An expert in professional and trade association management, she's performed interim CEO services for numerous associations, including the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology Inc. (APIC), the Association of State and Territorial Chronic Disease Program Directors, and the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association.
"Susan has an uncanny ability to put her finger on the pulse of an organization and identify its strengths and weaknesses in just a matter of days," says Jennifer Thomas, APIC's former director of government and public relations.
Burton's leadership experience began when she worked for various nonprofit organizations while earning degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her former husband, who worked in a leadership role for the National Center of Volunteerism, helped her realize that a career in association management was possible, she said.
Her "collaborative and cooperative" management style and philosophical approach to managing tough situations have worked in her favor, she believes.
She holds a degree in Chinese history, and says she applies the Confucian principle to her own leadership experiences: "I see Confucianism [which addresses the importance of balance and alignment] as a metaphor for leadership."
She wants to lead by expanding the membership and working to get younger administrators more involved at the chapter level. During her previous stint at ACHCA, the number of members rose 20%.
She's also committed to expanding ACHCA's educational offerings and using the new Web site self-assessment tool to develop additional courses, based upon confidential results on skill levels.
Revitalizing the certification program also ranks high on her list of priorities. She praised the original certification program, a two-day computer program that simulated the running of a nursing home over a two-year period, and said it would be modernized if a sponsor can be found to provide funding.
When she's not soliciting sponsors, traveling on behalf of the college or otherwise logging long hours at the office, Burton self-revitalizes with some rather unconventional hobbies.
A movie lover with a penchant for foreign films, she also has practiced belly dancing for 12 years. She even has participated in an auto-racing course, where she sped around the track in her souped-up Mazda Miata.
Growing up as a single child and now leading a fast-paced single-adult life has given her the freedom to pursue her own passions, she says.
Three years ago, for example, she traveled to Uganda to teach association management courses to various trade and professional groups, including coffee farmers, car dealers and women's export craft professionals. Despite being an Illinois native of Germ