Association Management as a Tractor Pull

By: Jim Booth, CAE

Why one small-staff exec compares his job to a tractor pull.

In May 2004, I wrote a short article for Association Management magazine called "The Art of Juggling." It compared skills needed for successful association management to an adept juggler. Now that I have spent six more years in the trenches, I would like to offer a more apt metaphor. Over time, small-staff association management has become a tractor pull.

A tractor pull is a spectator sport comparing the performance of tractors by hitching them to a sled with wheels in the back. As the race progresses, a weight on the rear of the trailer shifts forward creating more and more friction with the ground. This is meant to simulate more and more weight being added to the sled. Some tractors finish the short run down the track, sometimes engines explode, and sometimes the tractor just pops up in the air.

I just attended a roundtable of CEOs discussing how to better communicate with boards. One of my peers mentioned that his board was very good at piling on work but bad at taking it away. Heads nodded. This is a common problem. We can address it or suffer the fate of the tractor: slog on somehow to the end of the track, self-destruct as we exceed tolerances, or grind to a halt in the middle of the track until somebody unhitches us. Given the grim nature of these scenarios, we need better options.

Lighten the Load

There are certain activities I may think are important to members, but do they really miss them if I don't do them for a while? I have pared back in a number of areas in order to spend time on higher-value projects. In only one area did I get pushback. There are lots of creative ways to check the value of something before dropping it. One of my members tells me he hides free gift offers in newsletter copy to see how carefully it is being read. I have pushed out noncritical work to committee or board members. I have asked our membership to prioritize or rank programs. I heard another association executive comment that the trick to getting volunteers to assume some of the work is to break projects into bite-sized pieces.

Build a Better Tractor

When I do the same things for a while, I have a tendency to develop ruts that eventually cause me to lose perspective. I seldom remind myself to check for ruts. More likely an event will occur that causes me to evaluate the systems I rely on. Have I made technology investments that are underutilized? Can some functions be automated, or could similar activities be combined to serve both purposes? Have I inherited dated methods of operation, clumsy or time-consuming policies, or an environment of micromanagement? Do I have the right staff in place?

Put Wheels on the Front of the Trailer

Organization is not my strong suit. If it were, I would produce a neatly organized list of all association activities, weighting them differently by member priority, board priority, and staff priority. Then I would carefully allocate budget and staff time to each one so that a perfect picture of association activity is formed. I would carry that list with me everywhere, and when the board suggested a new project, program, or activity, I would produce my list and ask them to insert it where it seemed to fit best with the understanding that anything at the bottom of the list would be deleted until a balance was achieved. I should add that project to my list of things to do. But wait—then what would I cut?

Economics declares there will always be more ways to use resources than resources available for use. In order to work in a sustainable way, I have to make good choices. Part of this is expanding my understanding of best working practices and methods, new ideas, and technology applications. I force myself to make time for conferences and peer events because this often teaches me how to be more effective. I heard a speaker explain it this way: "It is not enough to work hard; we must also work smart." In tractor-pull mode, those are words to live by.

Jim Booth, CAE, is executive director of PRISM International in Garner, North Carolina. Email: [email protected]

Small-Staff Stats

Name: PRISM International

Location: Garner, North Carolina, and Brussels

Staff Size: 5

Members: 630

Budget: $1.2 million