Associations, like bureaucratic organizations in other sectors, are at a critical juncture. The market around them has changed much faster and far more drastically than they have. The fundamental challenge facing association leaders is the same facing the leaders of all types of organizations today: hierarchical, product-driven, and process-driven models dominate mature businesses in all sectors. Yet these models are increasingly at odds with the speed and fluidity of today’s markets that call for flexibility, customization, complete solutions, and continuous innovation.
Diagnosing and tackling this root problem is a priority for association leaders who want their organization to succeed. Nothing less than a transition from product-centered and process-driven bureaucracies to flexible, innovation-centered, and customer-driven knowledge services will give them a new basis for competing in the knowledge age.
This is not the kind of challenge that you solve by browsing through best practices on ASAE’s website. It is not the same as flexing your muscles to assert control, exercising wise stewardship of your endowment, or using clout and political skills to secure a major investment. It involves a much tougher and subtler task: getting the leaders, staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders of an organization to actually think and do things differently.
This is a shift that cannot be executed by great systems and methodologies. Instead it is highly dependent on a new type of leadership—not only of the CEO level but of stakeholders throughout the organization. All paths of action in this book converge on one focal point: the customer. All paths are enabled by people, catalyzed and guided by those in leadership positions. “In the age of knowledge work, leadership has become more essential as well as more complex than earlier times,” leadership expert Michael Maccobywrites in his book, The Leaders We Need and What Makes Us Follow (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).
What is the kind of leadership that associations need to resonate with their markets and customers today?
In his numerous books and articles over the years, Maccoby has demonstrated that different types of leadership flourish in different eras in response to their cultural contexts and modes of production. For example, when crafts represented the dominant modes of production, effective leaders were “master craftsmen with apprentices who wanted to be just like their masters.” In the Industrial era, effective leaders were “managers who designed roles and processes, set tasks, and evaluated performances.” Successful leaders in the knowledge age connect the dots among disparate pieces into a vision of the whole and bring individuals together as collaborative teams driven by common purpose. Instead of managing functions to increase productivity, they coach, motivate, develop, reconfigure, and transform to increase customer value and innovation.
In addition to dramatic changes in the modes of production, Maccoby also observes a change in what he calls social character—“a kind of macro personality, describing the emotional attitudes and values shaped by people whose personality has been formed in a particular culture or social class. It’s a concept that clarifies how cultures shape human nature.”
Maccoby found in his research over decades that the social character of knowledge workers has changed from a preponderance of bureaucratic, uncooperative personality types to those that are collaborative, prone to interaction, and unwilling to accept paternalistic control. The shift in social character he discusses applies to employees as well as customers, including association members.
“The interactive social character has been formed in a world in which we must adapt to social change, and we can’t count on stable institutions to take care of us,” he says. Unlike bureaucrats who sought autonomy within the company, interactive characters seek independence from the company by sharpening skills, fitting well into teams if treated as equals. Similarly, association members do not passively join out of loyalty to one central entity representing them in their profession or sector. They are active in creating the kind of value they need, plugged into multiple networks and platforms, and expecting interactive, collaborative relationships to stay engaged. To run along with rather than after these members, associations must be interactive, collaborative, and engaged themselves.
The Next Phase of Association Leadership
The new challenges for association leaders are to eliminate silos and transform bureaucracies in which individuals, according to Maccoby, “comfortably played autonomous roles into collaborative communities, developing capabilities for challenging assumptions, thinking beyond platitudes, and carving paths of action and innovation rather than following rules or force of habit.”
By following the journey from the inside out to the outside in mapped in my book, leaders have been asked to take a tough look at the “elephants in the room” that are holding them back: unexamined and self-defeating assumptions, adherence to ineffective practices and systems that are most often detriments to their ability to respond to their customers’ needs, and reluctance to tackle head-on any change to fundamental pieces of the association model that are hurdles to the ability to succeed today. Instead of anguishing over the right strategy or product mix, association leaders must pursue a course of systemic realignment by which they would be able to dramatically reorient the way their organization thinks, learns, perceives challenges, and identifies opportunities. In short, first get rid of the elephant before you get busy with interior design and remodeling projects.
All these new leadership priorities fly in the face of habits and practices of conventional, hierarchically organized, and product-driven associations and other organizations. Leaders have to overcome a number of unwritten assumptions and practices that evolved over time and lead in new arenas.
The course to the outside-in organization is one of much closer proximity to customers—thinking from their perspective, interacting and codeveloping with them rather than viewing them from a distance as an undifferentiated whole.
As a new, relationship-driven leader, instead of leading the annual cycle of functions—the annual conference, budget preparation, board meetings, new program launches, and appearances at key events—you will focus on understanding and achieving meaningful connection with customers. Personalized, collaborative, and strategic relationships with members are not part of most associations’ experience and frame of reference. To bridge the gap, you will have to build cultures and capabilities for fostering customer connections.