THE BLOG
09/10/2014 08:47 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Ann M. Palmer, President and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation

Ann M. Palmer is president and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation, the largest national nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, control and cure of arthritis. The annual Healing Hands for Arthritis event takes place on September 17th. Palmer has held the position of CEO since September 2013.

A visionary leader with more than 30 years in non-profit management, Palmer is widely regarded for spearheading fundraising and volunteer development agendas in three of the nation's most prestigious volunteer-driven organizations-Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, American Diabetes Foundation and American Cancer Society.

Before assuming her current position, Palmer served as senior vice president of field management at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, leading volunteers and staff in 80 offices across the country and generating $120 million in net revenue. Previously, she served as regional executive vice president of the American Diabetes Association, and before that served in multiple leadership and fundraising roles for 18 years at the American Cancer Society.

Palmer earned a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Delaware, and has since developed and fostered a passion for working closely with volunteers. Palmer resides in Atlanta with her husband, Gary, and has three adult children.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
So many good things have helped form the leader that I am today.

I learned key leadership lessons early in my life. My grandmother graduated first in her college class in 1901, was a teacher and then tutored until she was 90 -- all while raising three children. My mom also was a schoolteacher. My grandmother and my mother each cared about their students and held themselves accountable for their students' achievements -- two great role models of successful working women.

My parents exposed us to a variety of beliefs, people and cultural events. Dinner served each night always included a rousing debate about current events and political views. My father, a journalist, was relentless and believed the first to lose their cool, lost the debate -- this "training" has served me well.

Motherhood, too, has taught me so much about being a manager. As a mother, more than anything, you want your children to succeed and be happy and feel good about themselves. You know they each have unique strengths and talents, and you know their weaknesses. You work to inspire the best in them, and you don't give up on them. Similarly, in my work, I want to inspire my team. I understand their strengths and strive to enable them to use their talents. I want each of them to do well and be successful.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at the Arthritis Foundation?
I had great sales training while working for New York Life. I learned basics like listening to your client, learning and understanding what it is they want to accomplish, and then showing them how your product helps them reach their goals. Listening to understand people's wants and desires and then aligning them with the organization's goals is key to my daily work at the Arthritis Foundation.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation taught me much; the organization is led by visionary leaders who are laser focused on the mission every day and with every decision they make. The organization is innovative and bold in their approach and this drives results. They were willing to take calculated risks to accomplish great things.

As the CEO at the Arthritis Foundation, I strive to create a results-driven culture that will allow us to accomplish great things for people with arthritis.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the Arthritis Foundation?
The number one challenge is ensuring that the Arthritis Foundation is relevant for the more than 50 million Americans and 300,000 children with arthritis. There are more than 100 types of arthritis affecting babies, kids, teens, young adults and older adults -- that's quite a continuum of need.

One of the ways that I am making sure we meet these needs is by focusing on the organization. We've taken a hard look at what we offer to people with arthritis, what we do well and even, or especially, those things that we don't do as well. The foundation is focused on advocating for access to healthcare and being there with help and support whenever and wherever people need it, as well as meeting the unique needs of children who suffer from arthritis. We will continue finding better treatments and, ultimately, a cure.

The highlight of my tenure has been traveling the country meeting and talking with people with arthritis and with our volunteers and staff to better understand what people with arthritis need to live better every day -- to have greater quality of life. I have met children whose childhood is marked by doctors' visits and infusions and pain. I have met people whose lifestyle and livelihood have been changed, and not for the better, by arthritis. I have met volunteers who are dedicated to helping the Arthritis Foundation meet its mission, and I have met dedicated partners -- companies such as Massage Envy Spa, which has raised millions of dollars through its Healing Hands for Arthritis day. The annual event will be held this year on Sept. 17 and $10 from each massage and facial performed will benefit the Arthritis Foundation. It's partners like these that that help us improve the lives of people with arthritis by raising much needed dollars that can go towards research to find a cure and support to live better lives today.

What attracted you to work for in the health/non-profit industry?
Beyond the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people and their families, I love working with volunteers. Their passion and commitment inspire me. These volunteers are inspired by the pain and limitations from their own battles with arthritis or by the battles that a loved one. It is impossible not to strive to do my best when I am surrounded by such commitment and dedication.

Working side-by-side people and corporations who give their time, talent and resources to support our work inspire me. I want to achieve a better today and tomorrow for those with arthritis, but I also want to thank our committed volunteers -- those who give so much to our cause, and rejoice in their efforts.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in the health/non-profit industry?
Keep the mission first in all decisions while recognizing that you are still "running a business." You must know what your goals are and how you are tracking success. It is not enough to want to do good things or to help people. The only way that you can do that is to run a sound business with concrete goals and objectives and track against them.

For those working in non-profit, you must embrace the volunteer-staff partnership! You have to believe in the power of the partnership and work every day to cultivate the relationship with your volunteers. This is what makes our work unique.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
You have to accept that you cannot be an "A" at all things all the time. There are so many important "jobs" -- mom, employee, daughter, sister, friend, etc. There will be times when focusing on your parents may be so critical that you need to be an "A" daughter, so, during that period of time, you may need to accept that you will earn less than an "A" for your other roles.
It is also important to take time to enjoy things and cherish moments, rather than just rushing to get them done. Make routine activities fun. Find beautiful Christmas cards and address them with fun pens; sip your morning coffee from a mug or cup that is special -- a family heirloom or a memento of a great trip. Add a cute note on a napkin while packing your child's lunch. Do anything that reminds you of the important things in your life.

The balance thing is tough. It is easy to think if I just work a little longer or stay up a little later, I can do it all, but I know myself well and know I am better at all things if I take care of myself. Massages help. A hot relaxing bath with a great scent goes a long way, too.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Many people -- bosses, employees and coworkers included -- still have issues with women who are strong. Several bosses have told me "you think more like a man" or "I think of you as one of the guys" and this was intended as a compliment.

I think many women still struggle with their responsibility of being a mom and still question if they can do both well. When it comes to parenting, don't let what other people think about you as a working mom shake your confidence. I also think that confidence in general is an issue for women. Believe in yourself and seek out those who support you.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have benefited from the perspective and guidance of some great mentors -- people who I have looked upon as partners or advisors. Their council is genuine. Mentors are people who believe in you. They know you, and they want you to succeed.

It is so important to realize you don't have to know everything. It is ok to ask for advice. It is a strength to know your blind spots or weak areas.

Asking for input or advice is a great way to either gain reinforcement for your own thinking or to gain a fresh, new perspective that you had not thought of.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Coco Channel and Margaret Thatcher. Coco had a vision beyond what was accepted for women of her time, designing and creating comfortable and fashionable clothing for women. She was entrepreneurial and, ultimately, a great businesswoman.

Margaret was a woman of very high standards who, despite a fair amount of resistance, was able to turn Britain into a more entrepreneurial, free-market economy.

These are two very bright, ambitious and entrepreneurial women who both were very classy with great fashion sense, too!

What do you want the Arthritis Foundation to accomplish in the next year?
Over the next year, I want people with arthritis to know unequivocally that the Arthritis Foundation is there for them, working with payers and providers to ensure that they have access to the appropriate treatments; that we are lobbying for them at the state and federal level; and that we are looking out for the special interests of 50 million Americans, 300,000 of which are children, who have arthritis. Most of all, I want them to know that we have embarked on a state-of-the-art approach to scientific discovery with the goal of finding better, more effective treatments and, ultimately, a cure.