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Associations Now

3 Tips for Managing Organizational Change

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, May/June 2014 Leadership

By: Susan Avery, CAE

Summary: Associations can't stand still while the world changes around them. One association executive shares the three essential components to carrying out a major strategic change initiative.

Implementing a major strategic initiative, new vision, or any change that may disrupt an association's culture or direction is risky and challenging for even the most seasoned association executive—especially a change that has a high potential to divide members into supporters and opponents.

I have been part of successful and unsuccessful change initiatives. Applying lessons learned from a previous failure, my current association adopted an entirely new strategic direction that overcame issues that plagued the organization for years while taking advantage of growth opportunities. Almost nine years later, we are still rapidly growing and evolving.

Even the most unsuccessful change initiative I experienced produced a few major wins that formed a foundation for the association's future success. Why the failure? We had the right ideas, but it was the wrong time and we used a flawed process. But the things that didn't work helped form my current framework for launching any major strategic initiative. It has three essential components:

1. Transparency

Many associations wait until plans for a change are complete before announcing anything to the membership. However, your chances for member support are improved by conveying the questions the board is considering, explaining the reasons for the change and the anticipated outcomes, offering opportunities for members to provide input into the decision-making process, and communicating frequently with status updates.

2. Member Support

Nothing creates more resistance than a vision perceived as being staff-driven. It is not enough to have board approval—your volunteer leaders must publicly champion the initiative. It is vital that you involve those who may oppose the change into the process early on, as this lends more credibility to the ultimate recommendations and decisions. If you have the right people using the right process, the collective dialogue results in a better product and (bonus) a more successful adoption rate.

3. Communication

In implementing major change, there is no such thing as over-communicating. It's not about selling the change; it's about communicating the issues and questions the board is considering, engaging members in the process, and showing transparency.

Risk is an inherent part of change, but no association thrives without trying new things. Being a CEO requires leadership and taking risks. You can increase your chances for success with a solid process.

Susan E. Avery, CAE, is CEO of the International Association of Plastics Distribution. Through IAPD's for-profit subsidiary, she also is executive director of the Copper and Brass Servicenter Association and the European Plastics Distributors Association, as well as two charitable foundations. Email:

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Change Engine."]

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  Priscilla Rosenwald , July 15, 2014
Risk assessment and management is key to navigating change. In the association sector, there is considerable leadership transition among boards and executive directors, as boomers move on and the next generation comes into the lead. Organizations are often brought to crisis when a leader leaves; it doesn't have to be that way. In our book "When Leaders Leave" we discuss preparing for leadership change through a staff/board dialogue. check out:
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  Mike Wilson , June 03, 2014
This is a great piece Susan! I can't agree more that a proven change process needs to be followed to ensure success. Your method is great! My company VitalSmarts has a great process as well (it actually incorporates each of the areas that you describe here), based on over 20 years of research and named the change process of the year by MIT Sloan. Here is a link to the article "How to 10x Your Influence" published in MIT Sloan:

I would enjoy discussing further.

Best regards, Mike Wilson


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