5 Lessons From My Most Difficult Year in Associations

By: Betsy Boyd-Flynn, CAE

Tough times come with tough lessons. One association professional shares some hard truths she's learned during a period of tight budgets and high staff turnover.

Lately, I have been learning just how challenging it can be to build a team and transform a culture. Many times, I've wished for a wise mentor-slash-fairy-godmother to swoop in after a tussle, help me brush myself off, and say "Well, what have we learned?"

Our staff of more than 20 has been in a multiyear transition process. After decades of near total stability, we've turned over all but three key staff positions in the past five years, including mine. This has been coupled with significant strategic and operational changes. Out of that work, a few tough lessons are emerging for me:

Change agents aren't always young. The "upstart" volunteer leader of one of our member segments, which we supported through a horrific year, is well north of 60 years old. She took the lessons from other volunteer experiences to push her section into the 21st century in a (possibly doomed) effort to revitalize it and engage with a wider and younger audience. The resistance she met from the few remaining engaged members was shocking, though in the end the outcome will be positive. This challenged my tendency to dismiss those with long experience as unable to engage meaningfully in transformation.

Transparency about decisions isn't always possible. Change can be uniquely hard in associations when you have to sever a decades-long relationship between staff and members. Laws governing human-resources confidentiality and good sense mean sometimes you can't explain yourself. As professionals, we understand that an abrupt staff departure means that, whatever happened, it wasn't good. Ultimately, though, we understand that it's just business, but our volunteers often don't. The unsettling trauma they experience in the loss of a trusted staffer must be respected and managed.

Shifts in culture can take ages, but they quicken when a catalyst appears. I hired someone recently to whom I am assigning projects I hope he'll push across the finish line. Some of them began more than five years ago and have stalled out. Though the projects will have to change dramatically to keep current with technology and our changing needs, we're getting there. His fresh eyes may help us finally break the barriers into pieces.

Management problems will consume as much time as you give them. Our team tried for a year to nurture a young employee who was promoted and immediately began to flounder. I'm sure the cost of the time we devoted to that single issue would be staggering if we calculated it. In the end, unacceptable mistakes were repeated, and she had to be let go. We could have gotten to the same place, faster, if we'd created a timeline with consequences sooner. It might have felt cold, but I believe we all would have gotten the rest of our jobs done better in the meantime.

Work-life balance has more than one dimension. In my mind, one dimension of work-life balance is what it means day to day: Bustling out the door by 5 p.m. to catch the sunset in the backyard, knitting and thinking after the kids are in bed, smartphone nearby but muted. But there's also the long-term dimension, what it means over my professional lifespan. There will be a day when I can devote lots of energy and time to conference presentations and bigger strategic and philosophical projects. Now is not that time; now I must focus on the tasks and challenges in front of me.

These are lessons I needed to learn, though in other times they might have been less nerve racking. The decision to terminate someone is easier when unemployment is closer to four percent than the 10 percent it's been hovering around in Oregon. Shaking up the membership structure is less daunting when you aren't facing your first significant membership drop in organization history. Uncertainty aside, I believe that going through this year has strengthened our team, helped define our new culture, and better prepared us to deal with whatever the next challenge will be.

Betsy Boyd-Flynn, MA, CAE, is deputy executive director of the Oregon Medical Association in Portland, Oregon. Email: [email protected]

Betsy Boyd-Flynn, CAE