I have been fortunate enough work for several great associations. I started out my association career at the Optical Society of America (OSA) and as most folks working in the association world, I wore ‘many hats’ while there and can attribute much of my success to what I learned during my seven years.
OSA is special.
For someone like me who was launching a career, it was the best possible start I could have had. Twenty years and five associations later, I can see how fortunate I really am to have been part of something so special.
What makes OSA really special is the culture of compassion combined with imagination and innovation. They are an organization of exceptionally smart people, who care about their field and everyone in it with an obsessive-like quality.
This is a testament to the leadership and vision of Jarus Quinn – who really set the tone and direction for OSA as executive director between 1969 and 1994. Under his leadership, OSA grew into a world-class organization with an excellent reputation for innovative programs, exceptional people, and laser-sharp vision.
I had the privilege to work under Jarus for several years. He was unique and by far the best leader, mentor, and chief inspiration officer I have come across. It is no wonder why OSA is what it is today. Sadly, Jarus suddenly passed away on August 11th of this year, leaving his family, friends, colleagues and an entire association community behind.
The problem with starting out my career in such a place is that it set the tone and expectation for what great leadership and organizations should look like. I have been wandering around ever since expecting a similar experience to what I had at OSA, and needless to say it resulted in a lot of frustration over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I have worked with some great associations that had great qualities, but without a ‘Jarus’ they just were not as special.
Both as a person and as a leader, Jarus did it right.
He was kind and compassionate. Jarus cared obsessively about every person at OSA. He made it his business to know who we were, and about our families, our careers, and sometimes even our struggles. Often he would offer some sort of assistance if need be. Regularly, he would visit staff in their cubicles and plop himself down in the chair and have a conversation about life or family – and he would remember every detail from the last visit.
He let us make mistakes. I made mistakes at OSA, including several big ones. I was never called to the principal’s office in a formal way. He would (either directly or through my supervisor) gently find out the details and use it as a learning opportunity so that we could get at the heart of what went wrong – and use that to inform process so that it wouldn’t happen again.
He let us take risks. I was lucky enough to work at OSA during a great time in the 90’s – just when we were coming into the digital age. Jarus knew this was important and consequently, he allowed us to forge a path with initiatives that had never been done before, ever. These initiatives included websites, online journals, an online knowledgebase and more. He believed in imagination and encouraged us to come up with a vision, a plan and to try things out in some very risky ways. Many of those initiatives are alive and thriving today, including the thriving Optics Infobase and OSA’s online journals.
He knew when to step in. During my time there, the organization was going through some growing pains with people, processes, efficiency and the constant push to innovate and bring value to the members. He invested a lot of time and resources in making sure we had the help and guidance we needed – whether it was calling in re-engineering professionals or getting us onsite training in facilitation, team and project management – Jarus never hesitated.
He invested in his staff. Jarus knew that his staff was OSA’s biggest asset. He never thought twice about investing in his staff with education, tools, or training. If you had an interest or a passion, he was very intent on helping you to nurture it – and if he could make the connection with that passion and a career at OSA, he would do it and set you on your path.
He valued everyone in the organization. Jarus recognized that the most innovative and creative ideas often come from unconventional places and people. To him, it didn’t matter if you were an entry-level staff member or a senior member of the team. Everyone was on equal ground, and everyone was encouraged to engage and participate in strategic conversations, planning, and initiatives. If we had a good idea, there was a pretty good chance we would end up implementing it. No one was made to feel less in value than someone else.
Last night, I gathered with a group of former OSA colleagues to celebrate Jarus’ life and legacy. It was an evening of many wonderful stories and kind words, and I was deeply moved by what this man meant to so many people. What really struck me was the energy I felt when I entered the building at 2010 Massachusetts Avenue. It has been over 15 years since I walked through those doors – and it felt like nothing had changed. I think it’s mostly that Jarus is still there, infusing his awesome spirit, sense of humor, and unwavering kindness into all of us.
As I move forward in my career and life journey – I can only hope to live up to a fraction of his qualities. He has set the bar for all of us, and he continues to inspire me be the best version of myself.
Thank you, Jarus.