By David H. Kirkwood
Last year, following Brenda Battat’s announcement that she would be retiring in 2013 as executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), that organization sent out a press release about its search for her successor. It stated that applicants for the job should be “visionary, dynamic, diplomatic, highly competent, organized, warm, collaborative, and have excellent people skills.”
My first reaction was something like, “Get real!” But then it occurred to me that Brenda actually has all those qualities—and then some. No wonder she has done such a great job—both as director of HLAA and in her earlier roles with the organization going back to 1988 when she started as a volunteer with what was then called Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (SHHH).
In addition to all those fine traits listed above, Brenda brought a perfect blend of experience to the organization. For one thing, she has had a hearing loss from a young age, so she could fully identify with the members–and they with her. Secondly, she was a trained counselor and caregiver, who had practiced for 15 years as a physical therapist.
Shortly after Brenda joined the staff at SHHH, Rocky Stone, the charismatic founder of the organization, selected her as deputy executive director, a title she held for the next 18 years.
When I began writing about the hearing care field in 1990, I quickly discovered what a fine resource Brenda was. Whenever I called her for information about the organization or consumer issues, she returned my calls promptly and was unfailingly well-informed, helpful, and friendly. Meeting her at SHHH conventions and other meetings, I came to appreciate her warmth and her understated sense of humor.
I was especially struck by how she always put the mission of her organization and the interests of its members first. She never let ego, a desire to be given credit, or personal ambition get in the way. That may explain why on several occasions she passed up the opportunity to become executive director, waiting until 2008 to say yes when she felt the time was right to take on that challenge.
A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH
In preparing this appreciation of Brenda Battat and her achievements, I spoke with several people who have worked closely with her.
One was Barbara Kelley, who has been deputy executive director of HLAA under Brenda as well as editor-in-chief of HLAA’s membership journal, Hearing Loss Magazine, for the past 25 years. Barbara, one of the few HLAA employees who predates Brenda, noted that one of the keys to her success is her management style. “She doesn’t micro-manage. She takes a collaborative approach and trusts people to do their job.”
She also pointed to Brenda’s passion for public policy issues. In a variety of areas related to improving access for people with hearing loss, Brenda was a highly effective leader and advocate. Perhaps her signal achievement in that realm was the leading role she played in the remarkably successful campaign to ensure the availability of hearing aid-compatible wireless phones.
As president of the Hearing Industries Association (HIA), Carole Rogin worked alongside Brenda Battat on many hearing-related issues. She said that Brenda’s “tenacity,” combined with her mastery of Food and Drug Administration and Federal Communication Commission regulations, helped her turn HLAA into “a true advocacy organization.” In doing so, she said that Brenda has “empowered HLAA members” and “built a tremendous esprit de corps” in the organization.
ALLIANCE WITH AAA
HIA is one of many organizations to which Brenda reached out. Another is the American Academy of Audiology (AAA). As president of AAA in 2009-2010, Patricia Kricos, PhD, now professor emeritus at the University of Florida, said she was thrilled when Brenda proposed that the two organizations team up in “Let’s Get in the Hearing Loop.” This was a joint initiative to get the word out to audiologists and consumers about the benefits of hearing loops.
“It was a fantastic experience,” the AAA leader recalled. “Brenda is so innovative, so involved. And she has a wonderful staff that she is like a head coach to.”
The initiative did more than promote the use of hearing loops. It also brought AAA and HLAA closer together. Now, said Pat Kricos, “I love the camaraderie between the organizations.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Next week at the HLAA Convention in Portland, OR, members who attend will have a chance to say farewell to Brenda Battat and to welcome Anna Gilmore Hall, her carefully chosen successor, who brings her own fine qualities and experience to the position of executive director.
Conventional wisdom might have it that Brenda will be “a tough act to follow.” But, the truth is, it’s much tougher to take over an organization from someone who has damaged its credibility, demoralized its staff, or left it in financial trouble. The legacy that Brenda leaves of a stronger, fiscally healthier, and more respected organization than the one she inherited offers the promise of a bright future for HLAA. So, while the job facing Anna Gilmore Hall will certainly not be easy, she will benefit from having a great act to follow.