The Hematologist

July-August 2019, Volume 16, Issue 4

Strength in Numbers: How ASH Plans for the Future

Roy L. Silverstein, MD 2019 President, American Society of Hematology; Chair and Linda and John Mellowes Professor of Medicine
Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI

Published on: June 25, 2019

The mission of ASH is broad: furthering the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of blood-related disorders. Its membership is diverse: more than 17,000 hematologists from nearly 100 countries, all with heterogeneous professional needs. So how does ASH think and act creatively to keep moving forward? How do we prepare for the future while effectively managing a complex portfolio of publications, meetings, educational and training activities, advocacy efforts, and global outreach?

There is no right answer to this, and professional societies differ in their approaches. ASH relies on a large and diverse group of volunteers who represent the numerous clinical and research disciplines that touch our field. They serve on ASH committees, editorial boards, taskforces, and working groups, and provide their unique perspectives in a team-based approach to address specific aspects of our mission.

Helping to organize and harness the know-how and talents of our volunteers is the ASH staff. Ably led by our long-time executive director Martha Liggett and deputy executive director Matthew Gertzog, ASH staff members specialize in the wide variety of skills needed to keep an organization of this size moving forward, including fundraising, meeting planning, project management, accounting, and strategic development. Over the past two and a half years as an ASH officer, I have attended numerous committee meetings and workshops and can bear witness to the deep and diverse talent pool serving ASH. The combination of dedicated volunteers, a robust committee structure, and a highly skilled staff is the “special sauce” that keeps ASH moving forward. Providing oversight is the ASH executive committee — five officers and eight councilors elected by membership, from membership, who serve as a volunteer board of trustees for the organization.

As 2019 president, I am asked to oversee the board’s meetings and shepherd the Society as we make decisions that affect our financial outlays, our membership, and our patients. My experience has been that board members share common values and a commitment to the ASH mission. When we meet, we “put on our ASH hats” and place the best interests of the Society above self-interests or the interests of our home institutions.

Through strategic thinking, our board can rise above routine responsibilities and get to the meat of our work. We define strategic priorities, ensure that we maximize our efforts to be successful in these priorities, minimize or eliminate efforts in activities that are not strategic priorities, and identify new opportunities that align well with our mission. We listened to the voices of our members and their representatives on the board that focused the Society’s efforts on our multipronged sickle cell disease and precision medicine initiatives, the creation of Blood Advances, development of evidence-based ASH clinical practice guidelines, the ASH Foundation, and the ASH Research Collaborative. These programs are in various stages of development, from fledgling to adolescence, and are positioning our Society for long-term success as the leading professional organization for hematologists.

I learned recently that an activity that distinguishes boards that are truly exceptional is the willingness and ability to spend precious board time in “generative” discussions, designed to generate questions rather than deliver answers, and thus to identify problems before they become obvious and define future areas for strategic planning. At our annual retreat, board members, editors, standing committee chairs, and staff leaders devoted time for such discussion apart from our usual agenda, thus committing to be exceptional in our approach. Using the format of a forensic debate we discussed existential threats and opportunities that may lie ahead and how we might be better prepared to address them. We focused specifically on workforce development, asking whether hematology can continue to thrive as a “stand-alone” discipline recognized as a key specialty that brings value to clinical and research teams. We also discussed whether our strategy of positioning ASH as an umbrella society that broadly covers all areas of the discipline will remain attractive to members, as more narrowly focused societies emerge and grow. The discussion was spirited and productive and will undoubtedly lead to new ideas to test and implement.

I hope that this column serves as a reminder to the entire membership that the Society is always seeking out “new blood,” and nominations for leadership and committee positions are strongly encouraged. I hope that it also illuminates the everyday hard work that transforms the needs of members into actionable policies and programs. My experiences so far as ASH President make me confident that our Society is in good hands. We are inclusive, mission-focused, strategic, and forward thinking in our approach to governance.

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