ACA CEO Shawn E. Boynes

The American Counseling Association welcomed Shawn E. Boynes as the new chief executive officer on July 20. Boynes comes to ACA with more than 25 years of experience as an association executive. He spoke with Counseling Today and shared his leadership style, his vision for ACA and his excitement about the future of the counseling profession. 


What do you want ACA members to know about you?

I’m openly gay, approachable, easy going, authentic, transparent and a great listener who is solutions oriented. I also appreciate feedback because many years ago, I learned from a former manager that feedback is a gift. I’m open to it and I welcome it. We are embarking on creating the next life cycle for ACA, and in order to do that, I want members to fully engage in charting the course. This is your organization; I, along with staff, am a steward of it. 

What is your leadership style?

My leadership style and philosophy are best summarized as embracing innovation, creating positive change, being open to calculated risks, inspiring others to achieve the best outcomes and being transparent — all while exuding humility, sincerity and authenticity.

What skills do you bring to the CEO role?

I’ve spent over 25 years in the association management profession working for a broad variety of mission-driven organizations. Given my rich and diverse leadership experience, I’ve honed skills to identify opportunities for maximum impact. In my CEO role, that translates to listening more and using data to make informed decisions. Associations collect so much data from members, but unfortunately, they don’t often do a good job of applying that data across the organization, from the volunteer leadership to the staff levels, to help advance their goals. 

Another area I’m passionate about is amplifying the voice and great work of people who represent an industry or profession. It’s important to be bolder, louder and unrelenting in this current turbulent environment filled with noise and disruption. Why should anyone care about the work of an association and the members who belong to it if they don’t fully understand the impact both have on society. 

But the most important skill that I will bring to this role is support for the people who do the work on behalf of the members. I know how to create a collaborative environment and build teams that thrive. 

What will your first six months at ACA look like?

I plan to acknowledge the past, celebrate the present and prepare for the future. Specifically, my first six months at ACA will focus on immersion and discovery. I have already started my meet-and-greet “listening tour” to learn as much as I possibly can about ACA from Governing Council leaders, staff, stakeholders and other key partners. This also includes an organizational assessment to get up to speed on operations, financials, contracts, governance, and the overall portfolio of program and service offerings. 

What do you think is important in a successful organization?

Without question, transparency! People belong to associations because of shared interests and a strong belief in the mission. Meeting the myriad needs of people who choose to belong can be daunting but listening to and keeping your finger on the pulse of what those needs are will help the organization maintain a strong value proposition. Likewise, successful organizations must unequivocally embrace change. We all navigate change in different ways, but to remain relevant, you can’t keep doing the same things expecting different results, especially now. 

What does work-life balance look like for you?

This has taken me a really long time to figure out and I’m still a work in progress, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is to set and maintain boundaries. I work hard and give 100% because I enjoy what I do; however, I know there’s a point of diminishing returns. Working more doesn’t necessarily give you greater output. 

People are always shocked when I tell them that I’m an introvert because I project something different professionally. I am more talkative and outgoing at work. It’s a learned behavior that I leverage for career success and maximum effectiveness as a leader. But because it isn’t my natural disposition, I retreat at the end of too much social interaction.

I’m still learning how to adequately rest. In our “hustle” culture here in the United States, I don’t think we embrace rest enough. Being busy or always on the go has become normalized. It seems odd to say but I still struggle with moments when I don’t have obligations or anything to do. But if I’m not my best, recharged self, then I can’t give my best to my work and to those I support and serve. 

Exercise and travel are two ways that I maintain a work-life balance. Physical fitness is important because it helps relieve stress and keeps me healthy. Plus, I enjoy it. I’m also intentional about taking vacation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I would always take two weeks off during summers and travel internationally to a different country with friends. Quality time and shared experiences are unmatched when you’re with people you enjoy being around. 

What is something you learned on the job that you will take with you in this new role? 

Professional patience and empathy are both critical leadership skills that can’t be undervalued. Good leadership is knowing how to influence decisions and actions but that means meeting people where they are and sometimes it takes a while to move the needle and see progress. I’ve worked on significant projects that took years to come to fruition. The impact was still powerful; it just took longer than I wanted it to. But if I had not been patient, many of those projects would have stalled to the detriment of the organization and those who engage with it. 

Empathy became a necessary power skill for all leaders in 2020 when George Floyd was murdered and many of us were still struggling with the pandemic’s disruption to everyday life. Leaders also needed to be more vulnerable and many struggled to do so. But those who took the extra step to connect with their colleagues on a basic human level are better for it. As leaders, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and leading with more emotion than what we’re used to. 

What are you most excited and nervous about in this new role? 

I’m most excited about leading a mental health organization in this moment when the world desperately needs the expertise of licensed professional counselors. Unlike any other time in modern history, mental health is at the forefront of overall human wellness. That’s a powerful statement but I know that ACA is primed to rise to this monumental challenge. To do so, we must create strategies, build capacity and foster collaborative relationships with the other mental health organizations in the community. 

I’m not really nervous about anything because I firmly believe that I’m the right leader for ACA at the right time. However, I know that following a long-tenured CEO is a tall order, but I’m ready!