James Youngblood: ‘I Was an Unwitting CEO’

The meeting planner-turned-top-executive never aspired to be a CEO, but as he retires from the Heart Rhythm Society, it’s clear that his career leap was a happy accident.

Author: David McMillin       

“How to get a seat at the table” — it’s the subject of countless conversations in the meetings industry. As more event professionals look to move into executive roles within their organizations, there is a focus on articulating that the responsibilities of a job in the meetings industry are much bigger than “planning” something. If you press rewind on the story of James Youngblood’s career, though, you won’t find someone who was strategizing on how to get the corner office.

James Youngblood

James Youngblood

“I was an unwitting CEO,” Youngblood, who is officially stepping down from an 18-year run as the chief executive officer of the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS) in May, told Convene. “Many of the people who work for me now think about the pathway to becoming a CEO. The truth is that I never gave it much thought. It’s not something that I strived for throughout my career.

“I guess I had the leadership ability to do it, but I didn’t have the skill set,” he added. “Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I made it up. I was fearless about taking risks because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Youngblood’s humble acknowledgement of being unprepared comes with an asterisk: He had proven himself as a leader at the American Heart Association (AHA), where he had moved up the ladder at the organization before eventually serving as the executive vice president of science operations, overseeing journal publishing, educational offerings, and meetings and conventions.

While AHA was a household name in health care, Youngblood took on the challenge of moving to an association, he said, that “didn’t have much of an identity.” He was hired to “reinvent the organization and plan for a new future” for the North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology (NASPE).

While he had a sense of some of the fundamental issues that were holding the organization back when he accepted the role, he didn’t have a full grasp until he arrived for his first week at the organization’s headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, in March of 2001. “When you go through any search process, you only learn about 30 percent of the truth,” Youngblood said. “The problems were much greater than I had anticipated.”

Creating a New Culture

When Youngblood started at NASPE, the organization was in desperate need of a vision for the path forward, and he put his recent experience as chairman of the PCMA Board of Directors to good use. “I had just brought together 200 members to develop PCMA’s strategic plan,” Youngblood said. “We had used a process that aimed to implement big changes at a rapid pace.”

Six months after joining NASPE, he had compiled a vast amount of market research and organized a strategic planning summit. The plan included some radical changes, such as changing the governance structure: The organization’s board had 45 members, and all past presidents had a spot. The new structure shrunk the size to 18 members and removed nearly all the past presidents from the board — not an easy task when dealing with well-respected professionals in the field whose contributions he valued and whom wanted to keep engaged in the organization in other ways.

Over the next two years, he recognized that the organization needed a new place to call home — a city with a larger pool of trained nonprofit staff. While Youngblood appreciated the existing staff’s dedicated efforts, he knew that talent with a different set of skills was needed to turn the new strategic plan’s vision into reality. Out of 30 staff members, only three moved with him to Washington, D.C., where he tackled the final piece of the process: rebranding. “We waited until last to change the name because I knew it would be the hardest thing to do,” Youngblood said. “People loved the old name. There was a sense of tradition and loyalty attached to it.”

The person who loved that name most happened to be the individual who hired Youngblood. However, Youngblood brought in a branding expert to walk the organization’s leadership through the new possibilities they could embrace with a new name. The Heart Rhythm Society was born.

Unlocking an Inner Extrovert

Youngblood established a work culture that encouraged each member of his staff to take risks, and those risks have paid off. In the past 18 years, HRS has doubled its membership, meeting attendance numbers, and budget, not to mention its outsize influence on the field and the on the standard of patient care for heart-rhythm disorders worldwide. But Youngblood has changed, too, transforming from a behind-the-scenes leader to the face of an organization. The process, he admitted, was not easy.

“I had to learn to put my introverted personality to one side to discover the joy of working through others,” Youngblood wrote in a reflective piece published on the organization’s online Communities forum. “I had to find strengths I didn’t know I had in order to meet the challenges of the job. I had to continually develop new skills and become comfortable with the sometimes unsettling process of self-reflection and self-renewal. I had to learn to find personal fulfillment and acknowledgement from within, and to find satisfaction in recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of others.”

“When I first arrived, I was still a back-of-the-house guy,” Youngblood told Convene. “My most important role was to keep my head down and get the work done. But a CEO eventually becomes synonymous with the brand of the organization. I had to become more out-front and visible as HRS evolved to be the voice of the global heart-rhythm community that it is today.”

While Youngblood will no longer be the, well, heart of the HRS story, his philosophy will continue to pulse throughout the organization’s offices and at its membership gatherings. “When you build a culture of change, you can’t back down on that,” Youngblood said. “The expectation becomes that you will constantly reinvent yourself, and HRS will continue to do just that. Organizations are organic entities. If they don’t change, they die. I’m happy knowing that I’m handing over HRS to a team of people who believe passionately in the mission and who will create a bright future for the entire heart-rhythm community.”