COVID-19 has many lessons to teach, and like the legendary nun brandishing a ruler, they are often harsh. The value of effective leadership, in times of crisis, is one truth we are witnessing on a daily basis.  In writing Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, Kevin Ordonez and I had the privilege to interview some of the most innovative executives in the association community. I am struck by how often their advice is pitch-perfect for managing the current disruption. The following are my top five nuggets, recommendations that I believe will help every leader to navigate today’s uncertainty and support the agile, entrepreneurial culture that is required for success in the future.

1. Prepare to Reinvent

Gary Shapiro

As CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, Gary Shapiro is accustomed to being in the eye of the storm. CTA’s members, organizations like Snapchat, Netflix, and Uber, are constantly reinventing themselves, and by extension, the rest of us. CTA has a history of rapid evolution designed to keep up with the break-neck pace of its constituents. Recently CTA changed its name from the Consumer Electronics Organization to the Consumer Technology Association. Since its beginning in 1924 as the Radio Manufacturers Association, this is the fourth time that CTA has rebranded to reflect an expanded mission.

Shapiro took the helm in 1991, and he has grown the organization from 200 member companies, primarily representing TV manufacturers, to 2,200 producers of today’s most cutting-edge technology.

An executive who is always several steps ahead of change, Shapiro formed the Disruptive Innovation Council to give his members an advantage in the face of future challenges. The group includes companies like Boingo, Expedia, and Google. Their goal is to educate lawmakers, regulators, and the public about the benefits that groundbreaking innovators bring to the marketplace. The council aims to ensure that the best technology and ideas will not be delayed or restricted by “incumbent businesses using government to stifle progress”.

Not every organization operates in such a rapidly changing environment. But great leaders constantly scan the horizon and are always prepared to adjust and adapt their business models advantageously. 

2. Structure for Action

Stephanie Mercardo

Like technology, health care is a sector where the landscape is constantly changing. When Stephanie Mercado joined the National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ) as Executive Director and CEO, she knew that increasing competition meant the organization needed to grow rapidly. One of her goals was to restructure governance so that initiatives that weren’t productive or had outlived their purpose could be easily shed.

“We now use a matrix governance model so that the goals, objectives, and strategies are aligned to NAHQ’s macro plans, and not individual committees. This way we don’t have committee structures with sub-specialty brutes and territorial issues that prevent the organization’s mission from moving forward,” Mercado says. Historically, NAHQ committee chairs served one-year terms and reported to the board. “Short terms and limited alignment at a level below the board caused NAHQ to lose traction frequently,” Mercado says.

“Now goals and objectives are not assigned to commissions—they are assigned to the organization. If you align goals vertically in a functional area, the opportunity for leverage will be lost,” Mercado notes. “We’re now doing a lot of cross-functional work. We’re assigning a staff project manager and, as appropriate, a volunteer, to stay on track. We’re focused on an outcome rather than a deliverable.”

The need for layers of approval is something that has held associations back since well before the pandemic. Slimming governance requires time and effort, but there is a huge payback in being free to seize opportunities.

3. Maximize Virtual Capacity

Stuart Meyer

Executives who are heading virtual teams should see this as an opportunity. It is a chance to think creatively, not just about logistics, but also about culture. Stuart Meyer, former CEO of the National Barbecue and Grilling Association (NBBQA), is one of several leaders we interviewed who manage a fully remote workforce. Meyer acknowledged that there can be challenges in communicating effectively and keeping employees motivated. But he emphasized the benefits such as flexible schedules, cost savings, and improved work/life balance. In Meyer’s view, success resides in having both a culture of trust and the right technology. He puts it like this:

“Sacred cows are the greatest threat to how we run associations. How we define our management and operations practice, and how we work as association executives must evolve rapidly if our organizations are going to continue to be relevant. We must stop the punch-clock mentality and the belief that if we let staff out of our sight, they’re going to be doing anything other than working.

“You have to have certain organizational processes, tools, and structures in place for a remote workforce to function effectively,” Meyer cautions. NBBQA’s success is largely attributable to clearly defined procedures, a full suite of technological tools for team collaboration, and a culture of transparency, open communication, and accountability.

“Our orientation has been more entrepreneurial with less hierarchical rigidity. There is no intimidation in approaching each other. We have an open dialogue about how we are all performing. The more institutional constraints and filters you remove, the better the work experience. . . As we move toward the future, I believe we’ll see a continued rise of independent ‘fractional’ freelance association professionals splitting their time across multiple organizations.”

Whether your team will be going back to the office eventually or not, evaluate your remote situation objectively. If you or your board struggle with trust, consider why. Do you have the right people on your team? Is the board too involved in operations? Don’t let traditional views about how an office should function prevent you from missing what is working well. Incorporate that success into ongoing operations. And, if you’ve discovered that your technology isn’t up to par, don’t defer an upgrade. Now is the time to prepare your organization to do business anywhere, at any time.

4. Integrate Strategy into Operations

Sharon Rice

Well before the pandemic, innovative associations were already rejecting the traditional strategic planning process as too narrow and rigid for the digital marketplace. The pandemic highlights the need for targeted decision-making tools as well as an integrated approach to long-term strategy that cuts across the entire organization and includes a technology assessment and financial requirement as a critical component.

.orgSource’s Managing Director of Business Strategy, Sharon Rice, offered this advice on planning: “During a crisis, focus needs to be on the short term. It is highly unlikely that even the most well-conceived strategic plan, crafted before the pandemic, is going to be useful to navigate 2020 and beyond. In addition, while we can project how COVID-19 is going to change our world, it will be a while before we are on firm enough ground to engage in anything resembling long-term planning.”

Gregory Fine

Gregory Fine, Executive Vice President and CEO, CCIM Institute, sees value in viewing the future through a short lens. The organization has a flexible orientation that prepares it to address even subtle changes in the business environment. Fine describes the approach like this:

 “We don’t focus on 10 years out. It’s impossible. We make sure that we are pivoting and adjusting every minute of every day.” CCIM’s strategic planning process reflects this agile and expansive attitude. “We have a standing planning committee. The group includes board members and other leaders. They meet each year to evaluate what to keep and what to change in the following year’s plan. The document circulates through the committees, and by the time it’s addressed at the board level, it represents what the CCIM community wants and needs. The system is designed so that no one individual can disrupt the organization’s strategic direction.”

5. Make Technology a Partner

Paul Markowski

This is my soapbox. The link between the effective use of technology and business success is something I can’t overstress. In the forward to our book, Paul Markowski, CEO of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, noted:

“Perhaps you and your board have been lucky. No crisis has rocked your industry or caused your members to question your mission. But if you imagine that clouds are not looming on the horizon, you simply have not looked far enough ahead. . . We are in the midst of a perfect technological storm. The same forces that are redesigning how business gets done are also reinventing customer expectations. Your members and constituents want you to deliver services and products better, faster, and more personally than ever before. If your association can’t meet those demands, trust me, someone else is waiting in the wings.”

Markowski cautions us to embrace technology to avoid being derailed by it. We have seen that there are other equally powerful agents of disruption and have witnessed his advice as practical wisdom. Technologically strong organizations are moving through the pandemic without missing a beat.

But as I have also said many times before, success doesn’t depend on the hardware and software, it depends on a leader’s attitude toward those tools. These five recommendations are interrelated. They require that you abandon tradition for its own sake and see your mission, vision, and values through fresh eyes every day. At this moment in time, technology is the vehicle that makes that introspection, and the ability to use it to serve your members, possible. 

Read more advice from Gary Shapiro, Stephanie Mercado, Stuart Meyer and Gregory Fine in Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption. Learn more about planning from Sharon Rice.