Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dawn Sweeney: A Shot in the Arm for the NRA

Dawn Sweeney, the head of the National Restaurant Association is not a doctor. Nevertheless she has managed at least one miracle since taking the helm of the NRA in 2007, leading her sole patient, a large and unwieldy monolith, to accept a dose of reality: change or wither.

Sweeney is no newcomer to the Washington industry trade group milieu, having engineered an impressive expansion of membership and revenue at the American Association of Retired Persons. She knows that the way Washington works is that trade groups (including our NRA) dole out direct campaign contributions in the hyper-millions to those members of Congress willing to push a friendly piece of legislation on their patron’s behalf; it is largely due to their bottomless checkbooks that trade groups are able to provide momentum for much of what gets discussed on Capitol Hill and in statehouses as well. That said, it matters who is in charge -- in Congress as well as in the trade groups.

It was with a singular focus, to invoke a “change or wither” mentality on a reluctant audience, that Sweeney agreed to lead the NRA. If not exactly a rock star Ms. Sweeney has shown herself as the classic “change agent”, preferring engagement over inflexibility.

Within a short year of taking NRA’s reins Franchise Times was hailing Sweeney as the “Dawn of a New Era” and NRA board members as well as industry types weighed in on her side. More recently as the pace of political debate has quickened the industry’s political leaders, who take their cues from local membership, are noticing. Jot Condie, the well-connected and influential leader of the California Restaurant Association, has commented on Sweeney’s role in the national healthcare debate, telling Politico.com that if Sweeney hadn’t led the NRA into the debate the alternative would have meant having its “nose pressed against the glass while important discussions are going on in the room.” Earlier this week Patrick Conway who heads up the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association echoed Condie. “ In advocacy work, it can be easier to simply oppose legislation and go down swinging than to get out in front and play a key role in shaping public policy in a way that will actually benefit your members. By being at the table, Dawn Sweeney is able to articulate our industry’s concerns directly …”

How did the NRA Board get religion? To its credit the Board read the proverbial tea leaves during the 2006 midterm elections, when voter rejection of the Bush Administration sent a political tsunami crashing into Washington. Voters sent thirty Republican members of the House packing and ushered Democrats into six formerly Republican chairs in the Senate. The new Democratic majority, savoring its victory, took a huge and symbolic first step, electing Nancy Pelosi as the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Shortly thereafter the NRA began seeking new leadership.

Sweeney’s inclusive and collaborative style matches her politically smart tone; as she began her new job, she said that the NRA was going to be transformed, in the words of management guru Jim Collins, from “good to great.” Her insistence on a lean committee structure and her non-stop reaching out across party and philosophical lines are transformational behaviors. Nevertheless Sweeney knows why she’s employed. “The bottom line is, I’m working to protect and preserve this industry.”

It’s fair to say that this is just what Sweeney is doing . By being on the front line of debate – she is currently immersed in helping craft important, business-friendly amendments to the Senate’s healthcare bill -- Dawn Sweeney continues to turn heads in her direction. More importantly, and thanks to an NRA board unafraid of challenge, the restaurant industry under Sweeney’s leadership has become an important voice in our ongoing nationwide dialogue.

Far from withering the NRA is reinvigorated, its past an important but of necessity, less dominant part of its future. Where does the NRA membership stand on whether Sweeney will succeed in transforming the NRA into a powerful force for realistic legislative reform? If remaining a bit unsure about whether all this collaboration and engagement will lead them out of the darkness, members are at least listening, and like Sweeney, they are happy to be participants instead of spectators.

Be honest and be well.

© 2009 by Charles A. Conine and Hospitality HR Solutions, providing HR consulting and educational tools to the hospitality industry, Please send your comments to me here and visit us on the Web at www.hospitalityhrsolutions.com

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