Deploying a smart factory may not be in your future. But association CEOs who are looking for success must embrace attitudes that keep them in front of these, and other trends associated with Industry 4.0.

  • By 2021, one quarter of the top 100 consumer goods companies will be using 3D printing to create custom products on demand.
  • By 2025, 75 percent of the total workforce will be Millennials. Their resumes will list skills we barely register today.
  • By 2027, many employees will count robots among their co-workers.

Why should you care about this melding of the cyber and physical worlds? Because along with the IT miracles that characterize it, Industry 4.0 demands a new type of leader. Associations have yet to experience the impact of artificial intelligence, blockchain and IoT, but the industries they represent are already being reinvented by these technologies. CEOs who want to remain relevant and be influential in this volatile environment need to become Association 4.0  leaders.

In my consulting business, I meet CEOs of all stripes. But there are several personas that appear consistently. The operationalists strive for timely, predictable outcomes. These tacticians are happiest when every objective on a strategic plan is completed on time and in budget. Accountability is as, or more, valuable than impact. The politicians put the priority on relationship building and navigating the boardroom. They frequently are so involved at this level that significant administrative responsibilities are delegated to staff. Both these leadership styles are narrowly focused and inward facing.

Then there are the Association 4.0  leaders. They are executives who lean into change and reshape their organizations to match or exceed the speed of the marketplace. They view their role in the broadest perspective and acknowledge that their greatest responsibility is the duty to never stop learning. In writing our book, Association 4.0 –Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, my business partner, Kevin Ordonez and I interviewed 23 CEOs. Following are some of the qualities and behaviors that we believe define an Association 4.0 leader, or a CEO who welcomes change and uses it to grow.

Strategic Vision

Vision turns bosses into leaders and gives them the power to create change. According to a Duke University study, 45% of our behavior is automatic. Habits are the brain’s way of saving energy. Offering a meaningful and exciting future provides the motivation people need to extend themselves beyond what is comfortable and achieve challenging goals.

Strategy makes that vision authentic. Effective leaders never stop scanning the horizon for trends that will impact their objectives and plan their actions accordingly.

Vision is pointless without the courage of your convictions and the confidence to win support.

Courageous Attitude

Every board has doubters and naysayers. Often, they are the loudest voices. It’s not easy to tell the people who renew your contract that their pet project won’t fly or that the event that was their brainchild is a loser. But vision is pointless without the courage of your convictions and the confidence to win support. Association 4.0 leaders need the stomach to abandon initiatives that aren’t working and to take the calculated risks that come with new directions. 


Innovative Approach

Welcoming innovation to a risk adverse industry can seem like trying to live with a Great Dane in a studio apartment. The consequences of failure loom large. But Association 4.0 leaders find ways to foster creativity that downsize risk. Designated budget lines and organizational think tanks are among their strategies.

Getting staff and board members comfortable with the idea of experimentation is an ongoing activity. Associations typically want to send nothing less than fully realized products to market. The length of time involved in creating perfection can mean missed opportunity and negate changes based on market feedback. Leaders who understand the concept of the minimum viable product (MVP) or developing a prototype that can be upgraded based on consumer response, mitigate risk and introduce iteration to the implementation process.

Boundless Curiosity  

Association 4.0 CEOs share this common denominator. They are all curious people. Most of the leaders we interviewed were voracious readers and students of worlds far beyond their own. Curiosity feeds innovation and vice versa. It is that itch to understand more, to keep on learning and to uncover the truth that compels people to become greater than they imagined they ever could be and to bring others along with them on the journey.

Mental agility helps leaders support their teams through change.

Mental Agility

Last but not least, leaders need the mental muscle and agility to support their teams under stressful conditions. Cognitive readiness is a term that the military uses to describe a constellation of intellectual and emotional skills that enable people to perform successfully in unpredictable circumstances. These are some examples of qualities that help leaders navigate change.

  • Emotional intelligence—understanding your personal motivations, empathizing with others and communicating effectively. Reading people well enough to identify good cultural fit.
  • Big picture perspective—Exploring issues in relation to a broad context and connecting interrelated components
  • Intuition—Listening to your inner voice but remaining objective
  • Critical thinking—Analyzing complex problems and developing data-driven solutions
  • Adaptability—Switching positions before change is required

There is nothing easy about achieving success in a shifting and competitive environment. No one can demonstrate these qualities, along with the many other competencies required for Association 4.0  leadership, all the time. The most we can do is to keep the ideal in front of us understanding that leadership is a lot like the MVP. You give the best you’ve got in the moment, allow feedback to keep perfecting your approach and with each iteration bring your performance closer to your vision.