Sustaining Association Success That Matters

By: Glenn H. Tecker

Successful associations need the deep roots of a collaborative leadership culture, the flexibility to reach toward new opportunities, and a coherent strategy to direct their efforts over time. Leadership and governance expert Glenn H. Tecker offers guidance to help you build a sustainable strategy in pursuit of what matters most to your association.

Every association on the planet was created for the same reason: A group of people discovered that there were some things of value and worth that they could do better together than alone.

Successful associations—those that consistently provide real value to their members over time—are guided by a culture of collective leadership that appreciates this distinguishing characteristic.

Such a culture is sustained by leaders who know that they are responsible for maintaining the organization's ability to deliver on the things that matter. These leaders hold themselves accountable for progress toward meaningful ends that cannot easily be accomplished during a single term of office. They understand the tools needed to implement coherent strategy over time, and they ensure that those tools are well used during their term and left in good working order for their successors.

In contrast, less successful associations tend to confuse fads with trends. They fail to distinguish what is temporary from what is lasting; they allow momentarily attractive activities to consume valuable resources without long-term purpose. They fall into the trap of adding things to the mix without abandoning ideas and programs that are becoming less valuable.

Such associations are constrained by a culture of individual leadership that treats leaders like celebrities rather than stewards. They squander resources on the "great ideas" of each temporary office holder and often maintain them well past their useful life. The cost of lost opportunity is considered less than the price of political appeasement. Position power trumps reasoned discussion.

Such a culture is usually enabled by leaders who think they are responsible for personally setting the organization's agenda, instead of seeing themselves as responsible for ensuring that the agenda is well set. These leaders commit to accomplishments that can be completed during their own terms of office with little informed consideration of their longer-term value to members or mission.

What makes the difference between these two types of associations and these two types of leaders? Is it top leaders' intellectual prowess or emotional maturity? Is it their previous leadership experience in other organizations? These and similar variables will certainly affect leaders' skill at guiding governance processes. But even intelligence, maturity, and strong past experience cannot overcome a governance process that does not provide the tools needed for intelligent leadership over time.

The Tools You Need

Successful associations are led by policy and strategy, not by the personality of the moment. They exhibit coherency in the pursuit of what really matters.

Coherency is not the same thing as rigidity; policy and strategy must always be kept in balance with nimbleness. Today's associations operate in an environment of explosive change, increasing competition, and higher expectations from more diverse constituencies. The interplay of these external forces has heightened the historic tension volunteer leaders must navigate between flexibility and coherency.

In such a competitive environment, effective organizations will take the fullest possible advantage of distinguishing attributes that are of particular value to those they serve. For associations, one of these distinguishing attributes is a special ability to pursue high-level, worthy outcomes that can only be accomplished through consistent and organized attention over time.

Success at effective associations is collectively defined. Their leaders work at maintaining clarity and consensus about what will constitute success—articulated in terms that describe the value or benefit that will accrue to mission, members, or both. Activity is guided by a well-conceived and continuously adjusted plan of action purposefully designed to transcend any one leader's term of office. It is energized by an envisioned future sufficiently compelling to earn the commitment of multiple generations of leaders.

Associations are especially well designed for a marathon in pursuit of mission. When a consistently successful association dashes to seize a momentary opportunity, it does so because that act is consistent with its purpose, values, and envisioned future. The paradox is that flexibility in an association can be achieved because enduring commitment to high-value, longer-term goals allows for more confident choices.

The Power of Planning

The primary source of coherency, innovation, and nimbleness in an association is its process for planning strategically.

Some plans that purport to be "strategic" are not. Plans that are job descriptions for the organization, to-do lists for functions or business lines, tactical action plans for programs, menus of interesting projects, or collections of unrelated good ideas are not strategy. Scenarios, work plans, dashboards, and scorecards can be useful tools if done right and used appropriately, but they are not strategy.

Using the word "strategic" in the title of a planning document does not make it strategic. It is a cultural commitment that takes place at all levels of the organization and provides a structured way for us to think about the future. It fuels innovation, enables transparency and accountability, and informs decisions about roles and responsibilities.

The discipline of strategy exhibits certain logic. Essential attributes of that logic include

  1. Consideration of current and future conditions relevant to the choices to be made;
  2. Assessment of the capacity and position of the organization;
  3. Clarity on the outcome desired and what will constitute success;
  4. Identification of alternative paths to reaching the desired outcome;
  5. Selection of those paths with the highest probability of success based on what we know about the environment and capabilities of the organization.

If planning ignores any one of those essentials, it is not "strategic" and will not fulfill its role as a source of flexible coherency over time.

Good strategic planning is a process, not just an event that produces a written product. This process of planning strategically also involves

  1. Determining metrics and measures that enable the organization to monitor progress in achieving desired outcomes;
  2. Linking work, resource allocation, and accountability to the outcomes desired;
  3. Installing methods for nimbly adjusting the strategy based on changes in the environment or experience in implementation.

When the process of planning is boring, it's usually because people are not talking about things that really matter. A conversation about things that don't really matter is not strategic.

In mission-driven organizations like associations, if a discussion's focus is on the organization rather than its mission, participants are most likely not thinking strategically. If the organization's measures of success are all outputs (how much and how many we do) rather than outcomes (value received), it's most likely not planning strategically. Without clarity and consensus on the outcomes to be achieved, it is not possible to rationally determine what work needs be done, who should be doing what, or whether what we are doing is working.

Passing the Torch and the Toolbox

The practices that lead to flexible coherency over time can and will be different in different associations. But those of us who have been there can share the methods we've seen to be effective. As the chairman of two nonprofit boards, I've found that the following actions are important in achieving coherent direction that transcends one or two officer terms:

  • Discuss the strategic plan in new board orientation. Better still, incoming and outgoing board members should work together on an annual review and update of the plan as part of the board orientation experience.
  • Link the leadership nominations process with the organization's direction as articulated in the strategic plan. Identify the experience and expertise that would benefit board conversation about plan implementation, accomplishment, and adjustments.
  • Conduct an environmental scan and review your assumptions about the future at least annually. Link the annual review and update of the strategy to the changes in the environment of the members and the organization.
  • Engage the full board in strategic planning. Don't put the board into a review and ratify mode on a plan submitted by a strategic planning committee, because they won't really understand or own it and then will be unlikely to use in ongoing decision making.
  • Enable the board and senior staff to refresh elements of the plan annually while not abandoning longer-term goals and objectives (assumptions, ideas for strategies, mega issues) unless dramatic change in the relevant environment demands it.
  • Use an outside facilitator to conduct the strategic planning session so that officers are viewed as equal participants and the precious time available is spent using information and ideas, not just collecting then.
  • Make sure the board takes a formal vote to approve the plan's goals and objectives.
  • Be purposeful in assigning responsibility for implementation. Assign accountability for strategies to those with the expertise and experience needed to ensure success.
  • Engage leaders at the committee or task force level to move the strategic plan forward. If logistics make it impossible for them to be involved in initial plan development or review, then implement a process by which each group reviews the plan and identifies what goals, objectives, and strategies it intends to contribute to or accept accountability.

Having "the will to govern well" means maintaining a process for planning strategically that is outcome oriented, participative, nimble, and continuous. That's what keeps vision alive and well in leadership's hands and in members' perceptions—a value proposition that translates into success over time on the big stuff that matters.

Glenn H. Tecker is chairman and co-CEO of Tecker Consultants LLC in Yardley, Pennsylvania. He is a recipient of ASAE's Academy of Leaders Award as well as co-author of The Will to Govern Well, now available in a revised and expanded second edition. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Connect and Communicate

Mark Anderson, CAE, executive director of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, an active volunteer in his own professional organizations and a Tecker Consultants senior consultant, shares ideas that have helped his association achieve coherent strategy over time:

Presidential retreat. Besides having a strategic plan that carries objectives across terms, we have a yearly retreat for the leaders in our presidential line of succession. Generally this meeting focuses on initiatives our board has agreed upon that will carry past the term of any one president. The retreat sets up agreement on vision and resources that will be necessary across terms, as well as priorities for these initiatives.

Annual member communication. It's important to reinforce the benefits obtained from executing the plan through ongoing communications of its successes with members and key stakeholders. Members want to know what have we done have done for them lately; we tell them and connect it to the plan. The plan has no credibility with anyone until it makes something positive happen.

Once a year, we send an email to all members and stakeholders directly from the board. The email is very short—one page in bullet points—and includes all that we accomplished this year with the plan as well as sub-bullets explaining how the completion of that particular strategy benefits members personally and professionally.

Leadership communications. Where the venue is appropriate, incoming chief elected officers should talk about the plan when giving speeches, as should board members and the chief staff officer.

Sidebar: 7 Tools to Try

Leigh Wintz, CAE, executive director of Soroptimist International of the Americas, former chair of the Professional Convention Management Association, and a Tecker Consultants principal partner, suggests the following actions to help chief elected and chief staff officers promote coherency in strategy, nimbleness, and shared understanding and commitment among member and staff leaders:

  1. Provide a quarterly progress report on the strategic plan, along with quarterly financial statements. This helps keep the focus on the plan instead of individual board members or the chair of the board.
  2. Ask your chief staff officer to provide updates to the board about successful strategies and what has been learned from unsuccessful ones—especially for boards that turn over frequently by design.
  3. Ensure that your chief staff officer or staff liaison keeps background papers that were developed to inform discussion of critical issues handy. They can be helpful for dealing with issues that seem to resurface every three to five years.
  4. Put an internal marketing spin on your strategic plan to make it simple for constituent units (chapters, regions, states, and so forth) to do their part. When constituent units adopt the same mission, vision, values, and goals as the parent association, it's much easier for them to focus their own plans on their objectives, strategies, and key measures.
  5. Cultivate a culture that expects that seeds planted in one person's term will likely not bear fruit until later. No individual themes, "president's projects," or single-person initiatives are allowed.
  6. Ask board member candidates how they see themselves furthering the strategic plan. For example, you could ask, "What is your vision to ensure that the organization's strategic goals are being met?"
  7. Refer to the strategic plan in both the board's job description and their code of conduct.