Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Shifts in an organization’s mission, strategy, and leadership can feel like an earthquake for staff, which makes focusing on organizational culture a critical element of change management. Seasoned leaders describe what it takes to navigate the cultural aspects of change well.
The Project Management Institute is changing. A new CEO came on board last spring, and last year PMI began retooling to become what it calls an “association of the future.” It’s established a new set of values statements, and consultants have arrived to perform talent assessments of staff. Lines of authority are being redrawn. Silos are getting busted.
For the staff, it can all be a little scary, says Kristin C. Hodgson, CAE, PMI’s manager, global chapter development, North America.
“We’re working on moving from a silo to a matrix organization, and that makes a lot of people very nervous,” she says. “For people who don’t like change, managing organizational culture is really a tough thing to take.”
Association leaders who’ve guided their staffs through change recognize that a strong organizational culture is critical—including at times when the CEO is the change. Transformation likely won’t be painless, but with a lot of communication and an emphasis on transparency, leaders can reduce the turbulence and help staff weather the storm.
Any substantive change at an association—a merger, new executive leadership, a retooled strategy or mission—is going to affect its culture. So, what exactly is an association’s culture?
“The most simple definition is ‘It’s the way things really work here,’” says Jim McNeil, executive vice president and chief executive of business and trade industry practice at SmithBucklin. “It’s easy to define a culture on paper or [write] a wonderful cultural statement, but it’s how things really work, and that’s what you need to figure out if you’re going to lead and change around that.”
At PMI, the need to develop that understanding led to the launch of a dedicated office focused on change management. A team, including Hodgson, was charged with helping to shepherd the staff through the reorganization and to better understand their concerns.
Transparency about the process, Hodgson says, made staffers more comfortable talking, but they had pointed questions: How much more will be asked of me? How “voluntary” are those voluntary roles on transformation projects?
“You really have to understand your staff and what is going to unsettle each of them,” she says. “And if they don’t bring it up to you, you have to be able to bring it up to them.”
Since 2015, the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists has been implementing a new strategic plan, restructuring its annual conference, and flattening its component structure. For Joy Davis, CAE, AAPS managing director, member products, those changes have required the association to connect with staff one-on-one and collectively. She talks with staff individually, because each needs their own kind of reassurances. “There are people lined up outside my office some mornings,” she says.
You really have to understand your staff and what is going to unsettle each of them.
—Kristin C. Hodgson, CAE, Project Management Institute
But, she says, staffers also want visible evidence that the changes are happening collectively, and that they matter. To that end, last year AAPS coated a wall in its office lobby with blackboard paint and invited staff to add successes, large or small, to the board as the year goes on.
“Some of it is relatively small that relates to a couple of teams, and other things are very, very important, that a board member would absolutely get,” she says. “But they’re writing up their successes for everyone to see, and that blackboard has a psychological impact on people.”
Such activities are manifestations of the critical need to engage with the staff’s concerns early on to better understand how things really work in the organization.
“A lot of change management is uncovering the stories people tell about the organization,” says Carol Hamilton, principal of Grace Social Sector Consulting. “You’re airing the assumptions people have about how they do their work to bring those to light. There are also microcultures within an organization, and people are likely to experience the culture differently depending on where they’re sitting.”
Association executives leading through change agree that it’s all but impossible to overcommunicate during the process. Rhea M. Steele, CAE, chief operating officer of DECA, which prepares emerging leaders for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality, and management, says that change processes often require new terminology for staff and volunteers, and leaders need to be attentive to how that new terminology is taken up—or isn’t.
“If I’m looking to get employees to shift from using the term ‘customer’ to the term ‘member,’ I want to be thinking about cues that’ll help me see it’s actually started to be embedded in the organization,” she says. When she sees the change taking hold, “I can reinforce that with them, saying, ‘Hey, thanks so much for using the new language we’ve been talking about.’”
Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of the National Business Officers Association, recently led his staff through a culture-change process as part of a retooling to move away from a dues-heavy financial structure. That process codified four main themes: respect, collaboration, trust, and accountability. Those words are familiar enough, but centering organizational conversations on them—and having a lot of those conversations—has been transformative, Shields says.
“It’s part of how we talk to people about joining our staff—it’s part of our interview and hiring process,” he says. It’s also surfaced candid conversations about how work is done at the office, which has led to a new, more open policy about telework.
“It may sound like a small incremental thing, but for us it was a big deal. I don’t think those issues would have come to the surface had we not explored our culture more fully,” Shields says.
AAPS’s Davis says she wishes her association’s change process had gone faster to better clarify the changes for staff and make their attendant frustrations as brief as possible.
I have coached out plenty of staff over the years whose what was fantastic, but whose how did not comport with the culture we were trying to build.
—Peter J. O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, ASIS International
“One of the problems we have with big change initiatives, especially in associations, is we want to slow down and get consensus and get everyone on board,” she says. “But in slowing down, the people who were leading the change start to cycle out. It becomes difficult to convert the people who are cycling in. You must worry less about consensus and more about ‘We need to get through this so that we’re through the painful part and we can get to the part where things are good faster.’”
When Peter J. O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, became CEO of ASIS International in 2016, he moved quickly to identify trouble spots among staff. Within his first month on the job, he began encouraging employees who had not been performing well or who seemed a poor fit for the organization to consider other options.
“What you do is very important to your success and to the success of the organization, but I also believe that how matters more in culture,” he says. “I have coached out plenty of staff over the years whose what was fantastic, but whose how did not comport with the culture we were trying to build.”
That kind of quick action can feel brusque, but it minimizes confusion about where an organization wants to go. During any major change initiative, leaders agree, staff are owed clarity about what the change will mean for them.
“You can’t just not talk about what’s going on,” DECA’s Steele says. “If you’re not communicating with staff, they’re going to make up their version of events.”