As a consultant, I’m in the business of giving advice. But I’ll tell you a secret, my best recommendations often come from the outstanding colleagues and leaders in my network.
“Pathways to Excellence: A Journey to Association 4.0,” is a paper that outlines our strategies for success in the digital marketplace. We identified eight traits that characterize the most effective leaders and organizations. The list was the result of surveys, think-tanks, and interviews we conducted for two books on the same topic.
I wanted to share those qualities with you along with samples of the wise words that influenced our thinking. When these core competencies are strong, organizations thrive, even in the midst of disruption.
1. Keep a Strategic Focus
ADVICE: “Generations of MBA students were taught that the only purpose of a corporation is to increase shareholder value. That’s a pretty empty proposition.” Amith Nagarajan’s world turns on the opposite physics.
As Chairman of the Board of Association Success Corporation, Nagarajan is a serial entrepreneur, whose family of companies is conceived around the idea that purpose should drive value. “Profit is important,” he notes, “but, 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.”
ACTION: Ask why your association exists. That is not a redundant question. Use data to discover what your members value today—not what you think they are looking for or what they needed five years ago. Evaluate how your organization is positively influencing the profession on the local, national, and international scale. Then, rigorously align your strategy with achieving your vision.
2. Be Adaptive, Flexible, and Nimble
ADVICE: “I always ask people, ‘How do you think the association would be run if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates was the CEO?’ It would be run very differently,” says Tom Morrison, CEO of the Metal Treating Institute. “We, as association executives, need to be business savvy. We need to predict the next major shift and anticipate changes.
“That’s what I’ve strived for, and that’s why I consistently push our board. We’ve constantly got to be thinking what it is that our members are going to need five years down the road so that we can be ready. Our board is not slow to move. They understand how fast the future is coming at them. We live in the future and act today.”
ACTION: Be ready to react, revise, and reinvent to meet changing market conditions. This can be challenging for associations that typically make decisions by consensus. Especially when volunteer leadership changes frequently and strategy is subject to a new board chair or president’s predilections. CEOs need to set an example and use their influence to create an environment that is prepared for and welcomes change.
3. Cultivate Innovation, Risk tolerance, and Experimentation
ADVICE: The issues that keep most association leaders up at night are the challenges that inspire Stephen Lieber to get up every morning. Lieber is the former president and CEO of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society and current Chief Analytics Officer at CHIME.
“I embrace change. It’s the word I’ve used most often since I first came to HIMSS 17 years ago.” Lieber worked with leaders and staff to make the organization change-oriented, risk-tolerant and entrepreneurial, as well as grounded in purpose. “on the first day of orientation, I tell new staff, don’t be surprised if things happen one way today and another way six months later.”
ACTION: Find the talent, time, and treasure you need to move beyond business as usual. If change management is the heart of resilience, innovation is its soul. Creative problem-solvers exist in every organization. Identify them and give them the space to experiment. Don’t be afraid to reinvent, take calculated risks, or abandon projects that aren’t working.
4. Create a Diverse Mix of Skills and Perspectives
ADVICE: From her position as the former CEO of the Human Resources Management Association of Chicago Bernadette Patton observed, “There’s a change going on in business. Organizations are realizing that people are the only asset that doesn’t depreciate. The differentiator now isn’t only the fastest piece of equipment or technology. It’s having the best talent. Contingent workforce is a huge trend, and technology is supporting this shift. People want flexibility and companies want experts. Companies are parceling projects, hiring specialists, and chaining the projects together. More work is being done remotely and people are enjoying that flexibility.” Patton is currently Interim CEO at the Institute of Real Estate Management.
ACTION: Workplace boundaries are disappearing. Geography is no longer an obstacle. Employers can cherry-pick talent from across the globe, on an as-needed basis. This ad hoc way of operating brings both efficiencies and challenges that have yet to be fully realized. But the availability of a broad base of expertise on demand is something that associations need to leverage.
Tap a variety of opinions and perspectives that reflect the needs of your constituents. Nurture that resource with a positive culture that encourages skill-building, creative thinking, and problem-solving. Welcome unique backgrounds and experiences and create an environment where they thrive.
5. Build for Action
ADVICE: Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, explained how that organization stays prepared to address change and act. “We don’t have a strategic plan. We have a one-page document of where we want to be in five years based on what members we want and where we want to grow. We examine it two or three times a year as a reminder and often tweak it.
We set one-year operating goals in December, review them in March and often change things because the world has changed, and these goals become stale, stagnant, and not valid anymore. We already tossed out two goals this year because they no longer make sense.”
ACTION: Design processes for efficient and timely decision-making. If your COVID-19 action plan got caught in layers of bureaucracy or derailed by a dissenting board member, begin untangling that decision-making process now.
6. Maintain Robust Business Intelligence Systems
ADVICE: A culture of data is central to effective risk management and planning. “Weave data into everything you do. It brings objectivity to the table,” says Sandy Marsico, Founder and CEO, Sandstorm Design. “The source can be primary, secondary, or quantitative. Data is behind all our decision-making at Sandstorm.
“When we expanded our office space, we researched what our employees needed. We found that they wanted to be able to make their own meals at work. So, we built a chef’s kitchen. Without the research, I would never have imagined that this was a priority. We also created an idea lab with plenty of dry erase boards and cork boards, and a library we fondly call Hogwarts, a soundproof, dark room with low lighting, comfortable seating, and a no-talking policy. I built what my employees told me they needed. It’s an example of using data—finding the gaps and filling them in.”
ACTION: Maintain data systems that support problem-solving, including environmental scanning and real-time feedback. I can’t emphasize this enough. Having the right technology is important. But the best digital tools don’t create resilience unless you use your data to make objective decisions, create customized education, products, and services, and learn from feedback.
7. Maximize Enabling Technologies
ADVICE: “Going 100 percent digital allowed us to get a 360-degree view of our constituents,” David Martin noted. Martin, who is CEO and Executive Vice President of the Society of Critical Care Medicine explained how a digital transformation improved member engagement. “SCCM can focus investment in its most important customers, see patterns in demographics and respond with changes in pricing or adjustments in strategies.
“The data results in business intelligence that better meets customer needs. The data we collect and analyze provides new ways of thinking about customers that drive revenue growth in the short term and create insight into future behaviors and new product development in the long term.”
ACTION: Take an organization-wide approach to digital strategy. Data shouldn’t be the IT department’s pot of gold. Distribute the wealth throughout the entire organization. Every employee should know how to use digital tools to find information and create exciting customer experiences.
8. Develop Financial Acumen
ADVICE: “Leaders need to recognize the importance of investing in the future.” Joey Knecht, CEO and Managing Director, Proteus.co advises, “CEOs should be putting capital into activities that will be relevant in the next 10 years. As an example of how rapidly technology changes business, we recently built an online management platform product for an association. Their board was convinced that everyone would not be buying online and that they would still need a 30-person call center. Last year, 99.5 percent of their business was online. The call center was reduced from 30 people to four employees. It’s a much more successful organization and the members are getting more value. Nonprofit or association doesn’t mean that it’s not a business, and you need to operate accordingly.”
ACTION: Build diversified revenue streams. Create access to capital. Shed what isn’t working and explore what may be relevant in the future. Not every group has the deep pockets to do this easily. But if you can accomplish the other recommendations on this list, this last one should be within reach. Many of the CEOs we interviewed for our books advocate allocating a portion of the annual budget for innovation and experimentation.
Learn From Others
My last piece of advice is perhaps the most important. Tap the expertise that surrounds you. Talk to your colleagues. Ask questions. Learn from their experiences. Start by meeting some of those experts at .orgCommunity’s Innovation Summit on June 9. We’ll be exploring the newest ideas and strategies to strengthen your core and develop the critical competencies leaders need to succeed in digital markets.
Read more advice from innovative leaders in this post in our books.