Are you an association professional with your eye on the corner office? If you also like roller coasters, bumper cars, and Whack-a-Mole, you have what it takes.

Being the CEO has never been easy. The job demands a strong stomach, a resilient attitude, and the ability to take risks as well as hard knocks.

That’s always been true. Now the bar is several notches higher. The skills required for navigating the digital marketplace don’t fit hand-in-glove with the traditional association business model. Being a digital leader is both uncomfortable and incompatible with working in a hierarchy.   

Even CEOs who are prepared to reshape operations from a digital perspective may need to retool an entrenched organizational structure before they begin.

This assignment requires new ways of viewing leadership. Not the least of which is letting go of the idea that you are the top of the pyramid and instead seeing yourself as the foundation. Associations don’t offer many blueprints for this type of governance. But there are attitudes and behaviors you can cultivate to move your organization through the uncertainty.

It’s not surprising that these characteristics are similar to the skills associated with executives at successful start-up companies. New businesses don’t have habits, they operate from scratch. That position of readiness—being prepared to move in a variety of directions, is highly compatible with the speed of technology.    

Steve Blank, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and author of The Lean Startup, offers this perspective on entrepreneurship: “In large companies, if you get it wrong, you might still keep your corner office and secure another project. In a startup, if you aren’t moving fast enough and finding product-market fit, you are out of business. And so that motivates rapid learning because it is literally a matter of corporate life or death. That impacts how you design your culture.”

If you imagine that associations are exempt from this type of pressure, consider how your members’ market position and your own competition have been changed by technology over the last two years. Digital evolution occurs exponentially.

According to Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, each new iteration of technology improves on the previous platforms, products, and services. Continuous advancement accelerates future progress so that better innovations roll out with increasing velocity.

Match the Speed of Change

Stability in shifting markets requires momentum.

Remaining stable in these shifting markets requires momentum. It’s like riding a bicycle.  You won’t stay upright if you’re standing still. Technology is not the energy that drives this growth. The ability to explore, innovate, and exploit opportunity is.

I write frequently about how organizations can incorporate those activities. I’ve described setting up think tanks and dedicating resources to experimentation. I’ve promoted the concept of the minimum viable product to prototype new ventures and encouraged leaders to identify the problem-solvers on their team and set them loose.

If the CEO isn’t a digital thinker, these strategies will be like wet wood. They’ll create smoke but nothing will catch fire. Digital CEOs don’t appoint people and sit on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. They understand that they are the change. The inspiration and motivation for growth come from the force of their vision.

Follow Your Purpose

Amith Nagarajan, Chair of Blue Cypress, exemplifies this idea. Amith was one of over twenty entrepreneurs we interviewed for our book, Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation. Amith is a serial entrepreneur, whose family of companies is conceived around the idea that purpose drives value.

 “Profit is important,” Amith notes, “purpose is deeper and more emotionally meaningful. Purpose-driven companies strive to solve problems that impact a broad swath of people, including groups who may be outside of the typical scope of their industries.”

“Finding where your value truly lies and taking that potential as far as it will go is a simple strategy for success. When you are truly driven by purpose, you align naturally with the growth mindset needed to keep pace with the future. Placing the highest value and priority on your purpose will never steer you in the wrong direction.”

At the core, digital leaders are problem-solvers like Amith. They constantly seek ways to improve experiences for their customers and technology is one tool. The other is people. One of the things that impressed me most about Amith’s leadership style is his conviction that success depends on building talent.

Develop People

When you put people first, they pay you back ten times the dividends.

Amith explains it like this: “When you put people first, they pay you 10 times the dividends you would have gotten if you were only thinking about the business. The goal is to grow the business as a by-product of growing our people, not the other way around.

“At Aptify (Amith founded this company.), we encouraged everyone to write a three-year vision for themselves – we called it a Personal Painted Picture. That exercise is foreign to most organizations. We motivated people to think outside their role, their department, and even outside Aptify.” 

Digital thinkers empower all their teams to excel. From the board to the most junior staff member, they provide consistent opportunities for learning and growth. That every employee is skilled at their job and trained to use the technology at hand is a given. But teams also benefit from experiences like these:

  • Presentations from other leaders with unique perspectives
  • Training in non-profit governance
  • Education on unfamiliar business practices
  • Workshops to stimulate innovation or creativity
  • Team-building training
  • Dialogue with leaders and staff from other associations
  • Encouragement to pursue outside hobbies and avocations—people with broad interests are typically more creative

In a digital culture, every person counts. No amount of training or mentoring can compensate for a hiring mistake or an unwise appointment to the board. I’ve seen CEOs rush to a decision simply to fill an open spot. Nothing could be more detrimental to your organization’s success.

Dan Stevens, President at AssociationTV, and another contributor to our book puts it like this: “The amount of time we spend together makes a shared vision and an effective hiring policy critical. If you let a “me” person into a “we” culture, you are asking for trouble. We do team interviews, and when we vote to bring on a new employee, every person has responsibility for the new hire’s success. It’s not easy getting a job here, but when someone joins the team, we don’t have to worry about culture and fit.”

Focus on We

Through their actions and vision, digital leaders create that “we” culture. Most of the entrepreneurs we interviewed acknowledged that a pyramid with the CEO alone at the top is not a structure that utilizes the power of the team to maintain momentum.

Charlie Judy, Chief People and Culture Officer at Intelligent Medical Objects, advises: “We are still rooted in the idea that people at the top make the decisions. But that’s not how the world works today. The command and control structure is ingrained in our DNA. It’s really the hardest thing for traditional organizations to break through.

“CEOs need to recognize that they are not necessarily there to run the company. Their job is to supply the vision and to pay attention in a more interactive and hands-on way to what their constituents are experiencing. We put too much pressure on CEOs to be everything to all people. The entire staff needs to own the culture,” says Judy. “CEOs should see themselves participating in that experience, not standing somewhere above it. They have data at their disposal to understand the gap between where the organization is and where it needs to be. The next step is using that information to deliberately shape the future.”

Tracy King, Chief Learning Strategist at InspirED, describes her responsibilities this way: “My role is not to micromanage. It’s up to me to open space for my team. I am the buffer and the problem solver. I protect them so that they can feel safe and motivated to bring their best work forward. Coaching is a big part of our culture. We are a learning organization. Every project is an opportunity to learn. I recruit people who complement my skills and have unique strengths. Together, we create impactful solutions.”

Change Perspective

Changing an association’s structure or business model can be slow going. You are not the only person in control. The board and other constituents may need to buy in. Becoming a digital leader is easier. You are the first person who needs to change. Instead of looking down, begin looking across and out. The roller-coaster, bumper cars, and Whack-a-Mole may still be around. But there will be more thrills than chills when you understand how to manage that adventure.