The association industry has a reputation for clinging to traditions as stubbornly as Linus hugs his trademark blanket. As the home of organizations that draw on decades of history, it’s not surprising that we love the security of time-honored strategies.

But, our community doesn’t get the credit it deserves for invention. If you need proof that this profession boasts its share of innovators, read a few chapters of our Association 4.0 books.

During 2018 and 2019, my business partner, Kevin Ordonez and I, interviewed approximately 50 association executives. They are leaders who we identified as being consistently ahead of the future.

Our books “Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption” and “An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation,” summarize those conversations.

We began this project because, as early adopters of digital solutions, we could see that technology was creating waves and that a rogue tsunami was not out of the question. We thought we could help our colleagues prepare for that disruption by gathering advice from people who greet change as an unexpected advantage.

Both books were written before the pandemic’s curveball. But I am struck by how often our contributors’ insights are the recommendations we needed to survive that challenge. Their advice about strategy, leadership, and digital business is still ahead of its time.

Stop and take a breath, but don’t stand still.

As we move out of a moment when an about-face was a survival strategy and back to circumstances that seem less urgent, it’s important to realize that the status quo is not an option. Yes, stop and take a breath, but you must not stand still. Business is Darwinian. Success belongs to organizations that adapt to a shifting environment. A contemporary approach must incorporate continuous transformation.

If your leadership style could use fine-tuning to meet the moment, consider this sampler of advice from our contributors. The Critical Questions will prompt you to evaluate your organization’s current status. And, the Transformational Strategies offer guidance to create the change needed for growth.

Be the Disruption

Gary Shapiro, President and CEO, The Consumer Technology Association

Critical Questions

  • Is your association keeping pace with the industry it represents? Are you ahead of or behind the curve?
  • Is your relationship with the board effective? Are there conditions or issues that are impeding your ability to excel as a leader or to manage your staff?
  • Is your organization’s strategic plan serving its needs? Could your association benefit from replacing its strategic plan with some other type of planning process?

Transformative Strategies

  • Think like a start-up. Evolve as your industry changes. Better yet, set the example of being agile, innovative and forward-thinking—don’t wait to respond to change. Be the disruption.
  • CEOs: Run your board right. Set clear expectations and roles from the beginning. Establishing trust takes time but providing the right framework to lead staff and deliver on strategic objectives will ensure fruitful and positive volunteer/staff leadership relationships.
  • Boards: Empower your staff leaders. Enable your CEO to lead by allowing full power to make all operating decisions.

Prioritize Value

Stephanie Mercado, CAE, Executive Director, National Association for Healthcare Quality

Make value the priority.

Critical Questions

  • What is your association’s value proposition? Are you focusing sufficient attention on that area?
  • Does your governance structure help or hinder your progress towards goals?
  • What activities would make your association better prepared to respond to changes in your members’ needs and the business environment?
  • Are you creating the best possible experience for volunteers?
  • What could you do to enhance the volunteer experience?

Transformative Strategies

  • Make value proposition your number one priority. Most associations include good-fit members and bad-fit members. Figuring out the good fits is important because small- to mid-size associations can’t be all things to all people. Become more focused on what you do and who you do it for.
  • Resist the temptation to model the competition. It does the association a disservice. Be “you” and do that well and in a very disciplined way.
  • Prioritize two to three large goals and use everyone’s support in executing them. Don’t try to accomplish 50 different initiatives that can create a land grab for resources.
  • Provide “just-in-time” volunteering. Enable volunteers to collaborate and participate by doing what they do best and offering their perspective in specific ways.

Break It Down

Robert Voltmann, CEO, National Independent Automobile Dealers Association (former President and CEO, Transportation Intermediaries Association

Critical Questions

  • Could you break your association’s long-term vision down into short-term assignments? Would that be a beneficial approach for you? For your staff? For your members?
  • What challenges to your organization/members are not being addressed? Why are these issues being ignored? What could you do to put them on the agenda?
  • Do you and your senior staff interact regularly with members who are not in leadership positions? Can you accurately describe your membership demographics? Could you develop a profile of member wants/needs in each demographic group?
  • What personality traits do you look for when you hire staff?  Why are these qualities important to you? To the organization?

Transformational Strategies

  • Approach goals as a series of short-term assignments. This creates focus and helps leaders stay engaged with their work. It also makes it possible to be more fearless tackling tough problems. Finally, it allows for course correction if the path the organization is following isn’t productive.
  • Embrace a challenge. This attitude is vital to growth and keeps mature associations from stalling. Addressing challenges breathes new life into organizations, keeps them close to those they serve, and advances the mission. This proactive approach often involves taking calculated risks. Scenario planning, whether formal or informal, can help you to visualize the impact of various responses and support effective and informed new ventures.
  • Get out of the office…a lot. Isolation is a challenge for CEOs. Explore your industry. Meet frequently with members, prospects, partners, and potential collaborators.
  • Know your type. Understand the characteristics of colleagues with whom you can work effectively. Look for disruptors and innovators who may not fit into the traditional association environment. Be attuned to industry talent. Identify rising stars for hire when the opportunity arises.

This is a taste of how some of the most creative leaders in our industry approach problem-solving. Each CEO we interviewed had a unique perspective. But they share a common enthusiasm for bold ideas, new knowledge, and an adventurous approach to business. That entrepreneurial spirit is what keeps their advice current despite a marketplace that is constantly changing.

Discover more strategies for future success here.