Feel Like a Firefighter at Work?

Associations Now April/May 2012 Issue By: Aaron D. Wolowiec, CAE

It's time to let a few of those fires burn out on their own and carve out some time in your work life for reflection and big-picture thinking.

For nearly nine years, I had the pleasure of working for a Michigan healthcare association, most recently serving as director of education. Each year I tackled the design, marketing, and delivery of more than 45 programs, including a 12-month, blended-learning series, five annual conferences, two annual expos, multiple one- and two-day programs, and numerous special events. Resources, of course, were limited, and the bottom line was always top of mind for me, our leadership team, and our board of directors.

But, as any busy association professional knows, the devil is in the details. From hotel contracts and banquet event orders to speaker agreements, audiovisual requirements, and overnight accommodations, something always required my time and attention. Add to all that producing and distributing marketing materials, procuring sponsorships, coaching content leaders, developing learner objectives and curricula, and tending to last-minute member requests, and it's enough to make your head spin.

Whether you work in professional development or any other functional area within your association, I know one thing for certain: Putting out fires often seems like priority one. Ultimately, this experience affects the way we approach our work. Once one problem or concern has been resolved, another inevitably flares up. This cycle often leaves us feeling helpless, out of control, and unproductive, and it significantly impedes our ability to think strategically, creatively, and collaboratively.

Last year, I started my own professional-development consulting firm, and I find that I have become a more thoughtful and innovative professional, mainly because the way I approach my work has changed from putting out fires day in and day out to greeting each new client with an open mind. Intentionally prioritizing my work and refusing to fuel the fires has allowed me the opportunity to create unique, results-oriented solutions that demonstrate and build upon industry best practices.

This new mindset causes me to reflect on my tenure as an association professional and wish I had taken more breaks from the firefighting. I realize now that I should have made more time for reflection, strategy, and collaboration. In this case, a bit of big-picture thinking goes a long way, probably enough to uncover and address the root causes of those daily fires.

You don't have to quit your job and become a consultant to make this change. In fact, the following five lessons that have proven pivotal to my transformation could just as easily be adopted in any association management position:

  1. Put into perspective the meetings, conference calls, and other commitments that make up your day. Do not allow your schedule to dictate your capacity to get things done.
  2. Carve out time each week (as little as one hour) to think or write about issues that are important to you. Blog, keep a journal, or meet regularly over lunch with a colleague. This practice will help you think more critically about your work.
  3. Spend considerably more time discussing ideas and weighing options collaboratively with others to develop the best possible outcomes.
  4. Regularly seek out opportunities to present on topics that pique your interest—even if you're not a content expert—to further develop your skills and expertise.
  5. Spend much less time putting out fires and much more time empowering others to act.

Thankfully, transforming the way you approach your work doesn't require a job search or even a promotion. It does, however, require a certain amount of discipline, commitment, innovation, and creativity.

Although we all lead busy lives, and our focus is often split among various priorities, clarity is easier to achieve than you might imagine. Simply put down the hose and let a few of those fires burn themselves out. You'd be surprised how your worldview changes.

Aaron D. Wolowiec, MSA, CMP, CTA, CAE, is founder and president of Event Garde LLC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Email: [email protected]

Aaron D. Wolowiec, CAE

Aaron Wolowiec, MSA, CMP, CTA, CTF/AT, CAE, is the founder of Event Garde, a professional development consultancy in Kalamazoo, Michigan.