Tina Leone | Crain's Washington D.C.

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Tina Leone


The Ballston Business Improvement District (BID) is a 25-block neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, that has become a technological leader in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area under the leadership of Tina Leone. Ballston is home to top universities, scientific research organizations, Fortune 500 companies, upscale hotels and restaurants, and the Washington Capitals practice arena. Tina previously served as the president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. She is also vice chair of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. 

The Mistake:

The mistake I made was not understanding the importance of making sure that everyone in our board of directors was aligned with the strategic goals of the organization.

As a young, inexperienced CEO, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I always thought the board members knew what they were doing, but I didn’t recognize that they each had a different motivation for being there. I was in the executive position for seven years, and we never made a strategic plan. We kind of knew what we were going to do and what we had to accomplish, but we didn’t have a detailed plan of how to get there, and that was a mistake.

People had different ideas for how to get things done, and that translates to how you use your organization’s budget. The board began voting to use our budget for things the staff didn’t understand because it didn’t benefit the core business we were working on. For me that was the flag that we’re getting way off track. People were on very different tracks; the staff members were doing one thing, but board members were out doing something else. It really was to the detriment of the organization. We were able to pull things together, but it wasn’t a comfortable situation.

After that position, when I was in my next CEO job, I absolutely intended to create a strategic plan and asked the board of directors on several occasions to do so, but they told me they didn’t want to do that. I didn’t stay very long in that position knowing that it wasn’t a sustainable arrangement for the organization.

You need to pay attention to your board of directors.

The Lesson:

The lesson is that you need to pay attention to your board of directors. You need to understand and check the motivations of each board member and have conversations about why they’re there. What is bringing them to table? What motivated them? Why do they want to serve with you on the board of your organization? People may have different reasons, but they all need to cooperate and collaborate under one plan and one set of standards. They need to understand that this is where we’re going.

As a CEO, your job is to fulfill the mission of the organization. If you and the board aren’t aligned, and the board is going in different directions, you may not be able to solve that problem, but ethically you have to try. If you’re not getting anywhere with your board members and you’ve tried multiple routes, that organization may have to hit bottom before somebody realizes it.

If you have the opportunity to hire new board members, think about what type of people would be the most outstanding for you. For me, it’s not about somebody doing what you want them to do. You need balance on the board, you need that person who’s nitpicking everything so you have checks and balances. I would be looking for somebody who’s collaborative and whose motivation is to assist you in meeting the goals you have for the organization.

I always thought that your boss or your board are going to recognize your hard work, but that’s not always true. Working hard doesn’t always mean you’re working for what they’re really looking for. It’s a lot more complicated than I ever imagined.

At any level of your career, you want to have a very clear direction about what the goals are. What are your boss’ goals? How do they define success for you? You need to clearly understand what success means to the leadership. Is your superior or boss looking for something more? What are their goals for their career? You may be doing a great job, but it might not be helping your superior achieve [his or her] goals.

The Ballston Business Improvement District (BID) is on Twitter: @BallstonBID.

Photo courtesy of Tina Leone