Susan Danger is CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU (AmCham EU), which speaks for American companies committed to Europe on trade, investment and competitiveness issues. She has full strategic and operational responsibility for the association and represents it externally. AmCham EU is a membership organization supporting over 150 US corporate companies, international business, and law and consultancy firms in the area of public affairs. Susan has dedicated her entire career to advancing transatlantic cooperation. She joined AmCham EU in 1995 as Communications Manager, becoming Communications & Operations Manager in 2000. Since 2002 she has been leading the organization as Managing Director and since 2016 as CEO. In 2003 she oversaw the re-branding of AmCham EU and its separation from AmCham Belgium. Susan was named by POLITICO as one of the top 20 women influencers in Brussels in 2016. Susan has also been elected as Chair of AmChams in Europe network for the period 2020-2022.
1. Why are you investing your time & expertise in (an) association(s) and its advancement?
I moved to Belgium and joined AmCham EU in 1995 to take up the position of Communications Manager. I took a perhaps unusual step at the time, of leaving behind an in-house corporate role in London to take on a new challenge in a trade association. Little did I know that 25 years later, I would still be here, having risen through the ranks to CEO of the organisation. I have followed this path because when joining, I was passionate about the cause of AmCham EU – which is to promote the prosperity, growth and collective wealth that an open, globalised, free-trading world brings. To this day my passion remains, and it burns stronger than ever, particularly in today’s challenging geopolitical context.
I have invested myself in the advancement of the association from the first moment I joined and took up a leadership role, and I hope our members would agree. I am extremely proud of the progress we have made, particularly in our communications outputs, an area which has always been my ‘home turf’ and my passion. When I joined, we were very much focused on producing technical policy papers, which was the foremost pillar of our advocacy model. We have since striven to equalise the importance we place on messaging and reaching a wider audience. Storytelling is the key for me – our principal aim is always to tell the story of our members and their contributions to strengthening the single market and deepening the transatlantic relationship. There is no substitute for effective and powerful communication.
On a personal level, I have also invested my time in an association that has allowed me a good work-life balance – a working environment where for many years I was able to climb the ranks while also nurturing a young and growing family of three children.
2. In your experience, what are the 3 success factors for advancing associations?
For an association like AmCham EU, the whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts. In order to achieve this, we must constantly have our listening mode attuned – both to the policy context, and to the needs of our members. Having the commitment and buy-in of the secretariat personnel is also a key piece of the puzzle that must not be forgotten.
At AmCham EU, we have worked tirelessly to garner the reputation of being a trusted policy partner for all institutional stakeholders. We emphasise integrity, trustworthiness, reliability and expertise in all of our advocacy outputs. At our annual Gala event in 2019, then President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was present to pick up our ‘Bridge-builder’ award, which speaks to the reputation that our association has earned in EU institutions.
The second element is member involvement. AmCham EU is member-led and member-driven, and we are constantly listening and in tune with what our members want us to achieve. I believe that the key to successful member relations and advancing a member association is continuous stock-taking; ensuring that we are updating our own priorities in order to provide real value to our members. For this, being flexible and agile are essential characteristics.
The third success factor is the staff. I believe in building and maintaining a dedicated and close-knit team at AmCham EU. This has been a constant feature over all the years I have been here. Everyone in the team has a strong sense of collegiality and purpose, and has really bought into our overarching mission, whether they are in the advocacy branch, in communications and outreach, or in the operations team.
3. Has the AM world changed when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
In the 25 years that I have been in the business, I have seen a palpable change on this front. Whereas the ‘old-school’ approach may have been a more linear hierarchy between Chair (more often than not ‘chairman’) and Secretary General, today the two roles are seen rather more on an equal footing. That is certainly the case of AmCham EU. Furthermore, what was perhaps a more male-dominated world has now opened up more and more to women – as this Interel/HQ campaign attests to. Of course, we are far from the perfect world of a 50/50 gender balance at every level yet, but we have started to make more tangible progress in the right direction over the last few years, and I am proud that our AmCham EU board has achieved a 50/50 gender balance.
On inclusion, I have observed that the hierarchy has been largely flattened in more recent years – both between members and the secretariat, and within the secretariat itself. For example, at AmCham EU, we have just overhauled our organigram in favour of a cross-functional model of working, where individuals are empowered to take ownership of projects regardless of their level of seniority. Inclusion means more than listening to individuals– it is about empowering them to implement the ideas borne out of their diverse perspectives.
4. What advice would you give the next generation of association leaders who want to make an impact?
The most important skills for association management are people skills. You must be able to engage your interlocutor, you must in turn listen to them and hear their perspective, and most importantly, you must be able to build their trust. The ability to balance multiple human relationships is absolutely essential to successful association management. Anyone with aspirations to be an association leader must be very personable and flexible, in order to adapt to the needs of their members. Of course, hard work goes without saying. Nothing in life comes for free – and any aspiring leaders must be ready to make sacrifices to achieve success. Finally, it is important to take risks and accept new ideas – be creative and innovative, and harness the fresh perspectives of younger generations!
From my own experience, alliance-building is a great string in the bow of an association leader. AmCham EU is part of a network of 45 AmChams in Europe. Over the past 17 years, I have also worked to build alliances within this network. Having served on the executive committee and then as the vice-chair of the committee for 10 years, I am humbled to have been voted Chair of the AmChams in Europe network for the 2020-2022 mandate. This is an exciting opportunity to further build the AmCham brand beyond the EU, and I look forward to working collaboratively with my colleagues in the other 44 member chambers in the coming 24 months, and to bringing my passion, energy and commitment to furthering the success of associations beyond Brussels.