What’s Really Standing Between Associations and Their Future

April 11, 2014 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

by Stuart Meyer

As an association blogger, I prefer to wait for those times when I really have something to say rather than constantly feed the information abyss with posts simply for the sake of generating posts.  I guess it doesn’t make me much of a self-promoter but that’s okay with me.

I’ve worked as an association executive on the organization side for eight years, as a volunteer leader/writer/presenter/research participant within our industry and as an industry partner from the “evil dark side” for the past five.  During this time, I’ve also had the privilege of working closely with a number of high profile successful entrepreneurs and business owners who have been responsible for building successful multimillion dollar companies from the ground up.

I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at our industry and organization from the “inside/out” and “outside/in”.  I’ve closely observed the perceptions that associations have of the outside world beyond the walls of the association matched by the perceptions of those residing outside those walls have pertaining to associations.

The conclusion… I believe the biggest issue standing between associations and their futures just might be associations themselves.  I guess that might have gotten your attention.

Now, it is not my belief that executives and volunteer leaders are purposefully seeking to stand in the way of progress nor am I questioning the surplus of good intentions which exist within every headquarter, email, conference call, hotel meeting room, cocktail reception and convention center across the country and around the world.  I love the association world and share the same commonly held belief that our world is made a better place each and every day because of the work we do.  However, as with any relationship in life, love is not always enough and perhaps its time for our industry to seek a little bit of counseling.

Below are my thoughts on the many ways associations are standing in the way of their futures.  You’ll begin to notice the interrelation between all of this issues as they often have a cascading effect.  Perhaps you’ll recognize one or two.

Fear:  In my days on the association-side, I was constantly amazed by the amount of fear which exists within such well-meaning organizations.  Fear of top leaders, getting “sideways” with the Board and the drive to cover one’s backside.  Fear destroys creativity, collaboration, innovation, productivity, relationships and good decision-making.

Ego:  We’re all guilty of keeping our ego in check from time-to-time.  Let’s face it, our ego is rooted in our self-esteem and as humans we’re bound to have bad days and experiences which either consciously or subconsciously propels our ego ahead of our judgment either in the moment or somewhere down the road.  I’ve seen energetic hard-working young executives AND volunteer leaders move up to become ego-driven top-level executives and leaders, often forgetting where they once stood.  All those visionary ideas and inspiration replaced with endless banter about airline lounges, entitlement and the questionable necessity of endless miles of travel.

In a former life, I served as a political campaign strategist working with a number of first-time challengers for the state legislature.  When I would consult with them, I’d often emphasize that when they won office they should keep two pictures next to their phone.  First, a photo of their constituents so they would never forget why they’re sitting there and second, a photo of their family so they always remember what is most important in life.

Business-as-Usual:  We over-emphasize our obsession with the status quo and ways we’ve always done things within our associations.  Every year, as association executives we go through 360 and performance review processes to ensure we’re either “meeting or exceeding” expectations, playing well with others and living up to our full productivity potential.  Yet, how often do we review activities, programs, resources, benefits, procedures, publications, committees, sub-committees, working groups and task forces to assess whether we should continue or discontinue.  Most likely, your association has a well-documented strategic planning process, but how many have a process designed to determine all things we should have stopped doing yesterday?

It’s amazing how much “volunteer” activities can cost in terms of dollars and resources.

The Marginalizing Role of “Chief Executive Servant”:  My hope is this point has already received a spirited “Amen” from those working as top-level chief executives within associations.  In the for-profit world, the role of CEO is geared providing the leadership, vision and strategy which will propel and grow the organization.  Largely, these unique talents are not only valued and utilized, but used as performance and compensation measures.  However, in associations, being a top-level chief executive is often diminished to agenda-creator, note-taker, reservation-maker, bill-payer, tight-rope walker and executioner.

With the vast amount of experience, talent and intelligence within our deep “pool” of association executive talent out there, it’s a colossal missed opportunity and misuse of dollars and resources when associations reduce the role of their top executive talent to a relationship of master and servant.  

Self-Preservation:  When we attempt to function at a high level in an environment of fear and servitude, as differentiated from the more positive attribute of serving others through our talents, our motivation can quickly shift from an open place of freedom and creativity to a small box of self-preservation.  As professionals, we want to go out and do great things and often assume we’ll earn the freedom to do so.  At the same time, especially as we grow older, our survival instinct and risk-tolerance is never far from our thoughts in our daily decisions and actions.

Association leaders need to embrace a model of stronger partnership with staff and staff needs to avoid working from a place of self-preservation.  Retirement shouldn’t begin until after you retire.

Courage:  Building upon the previous point, let’s not diminish the simple fact that as association professionals it’s also our responsibility  to stand up and be courageous when the situation and circumstances arise.  There’s a vast difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable and we must be develop both our mental AND emotional intelligence in asserting our leadership.    

Self-importance:  As association professionals, we must never lose site that no matter how prominent or visible the role or compensation level, our job is to serve the substantive mission and goals of our organizations.  We are all merely a singular part of the multiplicity required to be successful and the legacy which has brought us to this present day.  While some might view themselves as “landlords”, the simple fact is we are mere “tenants” passing through help to propel the organization forward until the day comes that we pass the torch to the next generation.

As for associations and association leaders, they must never forget the same.  Ultimately, the mission of associations and role of volunteer leadership has always been about what we can “deposit” and leave behind rather than what we can take from the organization.  Entitlement and ego-driven expectations only drains resources and detracts from the impact of our associations.

Club Mentality:   We live in a world of introverts and extroverts and as has recently been illustrated through the work of authors, like Susan Cain, there is a gold mine of untapped potential out there when it comes to introversion.  Yet extroverts often rule the day in terms of association leadership.  It’s tough to “break in”, to knock on the door, to join the circle, to gain acceptance or to go out of your way to mentor newcomers.  When someone musters the courage to walk into the room, send that email, make that phone call or step forward in an unfamiliar environment where everyone appears to have been best friends since birth, often times they end up walking out of that room after having stood awkwardly alone for too long, never to return.  Just think, the future of your association may have just walked out of the door.

We must leave the security of our own comfort zones to encourage and inspire the next generation.  Even more, we must carefully avoid erecting the walls which often result from insular associations which recycle their leadership year-after-year.

Embracing the importance of “partner” and purging the mentality of “vendor”:  Though I was an association executive for eight years, I’ve been an industry partner for the past five years.  I became an industry partner because I knew there was more I could do to help advance the future of associations.  Prior to leaving the association side, I was doing so much volunteer work within the industry that I thought I could do so much more serving multiple associations as opposed to only one.  In doing so, I’ve embraced more stress, more uncertainty, endless hours of uncompensated work, rejection, discourtesy, unpredictable income, overhead, expenses and mind-boggling tax requirements simply to have the opportunity to be in a better position to help shape the future of our industry.

We must stop treating industry partners like second-class citizens with a level of disrespect and discourtesy that would be grounds for termination if you treated a co-worker the same.  It’s time we break down the wall between association executives and industry partners to embrace the reality we are in this “ship” together for exactly the same reasons.   

Resistance to Change:  While change in our society continues to accelerate in reshaping our business and behavioral landscape, we cannot afford to lag behind in embracing, experimenting, testing and adopting change within our associations.  We need to continually ask ourselves the questions, “What do we need to START doing” and “What do we need to STOP doing”… yesterday.

From my vantage point, the rise and increasing role of digital media orbiting our daily lives and subsequent behavioral and attitudinal changes is the most significant trend to face associations since the dawn of associations.  Yet as streaming digital media continues its inevitable march toward overtaking traditional broadcast media, I see so many associations falling behind in fully leveraging and integrating the role and opportunity of digital media within their organizations at a time when they continue to spend hundreds of thousand dollars a year on glossy print publications.  Video has been dominating the epicenter of the for-profit, marketing, brand, broadcasting and advertising world for a number of years now.  However, pick up a program schedule for the next major association industry conference and see how many programs you find focusing on digital video, broadcast and streaming strategy/practice.

Chasing the Past into the Innovation Abyss:  Associations must shift their often disproportionate focus on preserving their past to truly building their future.  Our trajectories cannot be based on “the way we’ve always done things” or what other associations are doing, but rather on the direction the rest of the world has already been heading for the past couple of years.

Research data and benchmarking is merely a snapshot in time.  By the time it becomes actionable it’s already outdated.  Evidence is certainly important, but we must not be afraid to also incorporate instinct and experimentation into our road map.  Further, we must be willing to embrace failure as merely a course correction toward success.  Think about it, every technological innovation we utilized within our daily lives was a result of someone who was willing to experiment.

Overemphasis of Member-Centric Mentality:  Membership is indeed essential from both a revenue and substantive standpoint.  But too often we spend the majority of dollars and resources focusing on the narrower audience of members compared to the much larger universe of prospective “customers” out there.  We must broaden our view of who our associations are actually serving in practice as compared to our principles.

“Fish in the Barrel” Syndrome:  In my experience, membership development has often been a process dominated by “fishing in the barrel” of the associations.  More often than not, we are not doing enough to get outside the “walls” of our association.  Even more, it’s not enough to simply travel beyond the walls, we must set up permanent “outposts” beyond those walls to maintain an open channel of engagement with our non-members/customers.

… are the thoughts flowing yet?

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