Replacing the Engine While Flying the Plane: The Association Executive’s Guide to 21st Century Change

association-executive-leading-change

Leading Your Association Over Uncharted Territory

Association executives and directors have been hearing for years now that change is coming. Membership apathy and decline. Decreasing revenues. Industry consolidation. Competition for education, other programs and services.  Governance paralysis.  All of these are symptoms of the much larger issue of relevance, value, and member service, that are pushing many associations closer to the brink. For a growing number, the time to change is now…or perhaps never.

One association executive we’ve spoken to described this process as “replacing the engine while flying the plane.”  Whether it is a new membership, governance, revenue or wholesale organizational model that is needed, the change at hand represents largely uncharted territory in the association space.

Research, Strategy, Engagement and Communication: 4 Pillars of Successful Association Change

During the CSAE Trillium Winter Summit a few weeks ago, TPG Partner Jack Shand acknowledged that while association leaders understand that change is needed, it can be very hard to know how to first identify what change is needed, and second, make the change a reality:

Keep One Eye on the Flight Instruments and the other on the Horizon  

As CSO, your role is to execute the strategic direction set by the board of directors and to manage the day-to-day operations of the association…but it is also to think strategically and be future-focused. Keep one eye on operations and one eye on the changes and trends that will be factors in your organization now – and in the future.

Explain Why You are Changing Course

I was on a plane once that had to turn back to the airport just as the flight attendants were about to come by with the snack cart. When the captain announced the reason – smoke coming out of one of the panels in the cockpit (!) - you’d better believe everyone was on board with the new plan. The case for change must be made. What is the sector, membership, or board most concerned about? People will ask – even if they do not say it out loud – ‘what’s in it for me?’ Make sure you have the answer(s) ready.

Use Evidence to Drive Decision-Making

Have you ever seen inside the cockpit of an Airbus A380? Countless pieces of data and information measuring altitude, speed, fuel levels, navigation equipment, as well as monitoring the various elements of the plane itself (cabin temperature and pressure, electrical system etc.).  Information and research must drive what you do. You need evidence, not assumptions. Research should be internal (consultation with members, staff, directors and other constituents) and external (sector better practices and research, case studies and literature). Use qualitative research to uncover issues and add context, and quantitative research to validate potential directions and options.

Understand and Assess Your Options

Avoid the temptation to rush a decision and apply a ‘quick fix.’ Develop and assess alternatives and options based on your research and end goals.  Particularly if your board of directors or other stakeholder body is involved, this approach allows constituents to make their mark in shaping change. Giving constituents some ownership makes it far more likely that the change will be implemented successfully than if it is seen to be thrust upon them from a small group of executive decision-makers.

Chart the Course

Like any other kind of planning, you need an actionable strategy to achieve success tied to your desired outcome(s) for change. Lay out what needs to change and how. Understand what are the critical success factors needed for the plan to be successful, such as informed and engaged members, the right data, and resources.  Be clear about who is accountable for different elements of the plan. Make it measurable by making your plan SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound).

Recruit Change Ambassadors

Grassroots stakeholders are much more likely to get on board with change if people at different levels of the organization have bought in and are visibly engaged - like this flight attendant, for example.  You can help draw attention to the need for change but it needs champions and leadership from the board and, if possible, other influential members. Mobilizing members as change champions and/or using a “train-the-trainer” approach to consistently facilitate and communicate change across the organization can be extremely effective at generating wide-spread support.

Be Open to Mid-Course Correction   

Once underway, people may tend to be excessively optimistic in self-assessing their own decisions, even when there are storm clouds on the horizon. Continually seeking feedback – and acting on it if necessary – is critical.   Make sure when asking for feedback that you are seen to be acting on it through frequent stakeholder communications that clearly make this link.  Implementing change gradually rather than trying to change everything at once is one way to reduce turbulence enroute, even if you need to change direction.

Keep People Informed

Keep members and stakeholders in the loop throughout the process with regular updates on progress toward stated goals and changes to your plan if it evolves. Be honest and transparent and continually tie what you are doing back to the value it is providing to your end-user. Importantly, don’t be afraid to toot your own horn when your change begins to take root and has positive results. It is important to celebrate success!

If you are interested in learning about and continuing the dialogue on association change, we hope you'll consider joining the TPG team at these upcoming events in Toronto and Vancouver!

  • Big Association Trends – From Identification to Innovation. A CSAE Trillium Chapter PDX Event. Wednesday, March 29, 2017 9:00 am – Noon in Toronto. REGISTER
  • Associations 2025: High Performing Associations of Tomorrow. A CSAE National Event. April 03, 2017. 8:30-4:30 at the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel. REGISTER
  • Associations Trend Talk. CSAEBC Lunch 'n Learn Session. May 4, 2017. Sheraton Wall Centre. REGISTER