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April 17, 2020

Leading Through Change: Navigating Today’s Association Challenges

When I recently sat down with our principal David Gammel to discuss some of the pressing questions facing our community, I felt inspired by our late friend, John Graham. During his tenure as CEO of ASAE, John liked to quote management guru Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

These words ring truer than ever today. But as our sector responds to unprecedented change, we must learn to lead through change effectively without a playbook or a roadmap. In other words, we must know how to prioritize.

The Future of Association Leadership

What lies ahead for association leaders as we continue the important work to be done in protecting and advancing society? Our research and observations suggest that associations that come out stronger in the aftermath of crisis focus on a few key areas:

  • Rigorous financial analysis and scenario planning. Your board wants to know that you’ve thought through the full range of scenarios — including the worst case — and are prepared to act as conditions unfold.
  • Challenging assumptions about effective governance. It is essential to build a governance model that leverages core competencies and foster a board culture that reinforces candor, trust and respect. This should include a series of conversations when conditions stabilize evaluating where the board and CEO performed well and where they could have done better.
  • Preserving the core. Associations that continue to invest in their missions and their members earn trust and respect at a pivotal moment. Associations with strong balance sheets should be putting their human and financial capital to work to develop new resources that support members in times of an economic downturn. Identify where to provide timely, relevant value and prioritize those opportunities while suspending work on less mission-critical areas.
  • Reimagining what is possible. What do association events look like in the future? How can technology facilitate stronger connection? Market-leading associations should think about how to grow market share, brand and value as our new normal starts to come into focus in the months ahead.

While the light at the end of the tunnel is still somewhat distant, the principles that will carry us through are the same we’ve always held: A commitment to living our values, the spirit of collaboration within our sector, and our dedication to serving the needs of our members and missions.

Authenticity, Honesty and Transparency

As leaders, we show up as our best selves when we can be authentic in the moment. In general, and especially during uncertain times, our teams look to us for humanity and honesty. We must strike a balance between the care we have for our people and the candor that our current situation demands.

While transparency builds trust, diving too deep on details can stoke unnecessary anxiety. As CEOs, we have access to more information and an increased depth of understanding than many of our staff. In honoring our role as chief communicators, we must craft highly focused messages and convey our confidence in the holistic plans we have developed that will determine how we respond.

Adapting to the Era of Acceleration and Disruption

Rapid change creates learning opportunities. In times like these, leadership means adapting our approach and evaluating it on a daily basis while continuing to let our overarching values guide us. If we’re losing connection with our teams or our members, we need to look for different approaches. In other words, we should be open to learning about ourselves as leaders and suspending the fear of failure.

As CEOs, we’re advised to think strategically, nesting our consideration for three to five years down the road. However, the current moment mandates that we narrow our lenses to identify key outputs: What we can do today? This week? This month?

In the book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” Thomas L. Friedman compares this feeling to losing control of your raft in a fast current. When you are disoriented by acceleration, and the pace starts to overtake you, you can’t just paddle faster. You have to ask, “How do we approach this differently?”

This moment is a real call to service for leaders across all industries. When we collectively look back on this experience, I think the enduring lessons of this time — including what we have learned about leadership and how our sector has come together in new and creative ways — will be clear.

Watch the full Q&A interview with Jay Younger and David Gammel for more insights on leading through change.


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