Leading Learning founders Celisa Steele and Jeff Cobb had the opportunity recently to discuss current circumstances and the future of associations with a group of consulting colleagues. The following are insights culled from that conversation.
When a group of association consultants met via Zoom recently, they realized that what they are observing might be helpful to the association boards and staff charged with creating a way forward during an unexpected, turbulent time. Here’s their advice for 2021 and beyond.
What are you advising association professionals to be thinking about now that we know we’re in for an extended pandemic recovery?
Jeff Cobb, Advisor to Lifelong Learning Businesses: I think it is critical right now to be focused on our role in the social fabric. Associations are a major force for bringing people together, both literally and figuratively. It’s a good time to be thinking about how our activities–from educational programming to advocacy–can provide not only practical support, but also moral support and hope for a better future.
Mary Byers, CAE, Author and Retreat Facilitator: Rather than spending your energy trying to get “back to normal,” use it to help create your association’s “next normal.” The “new normal” is what happens to us; the “next normal” is what we create in response.
What questions should we be asking as a result of the pandemic that we might not have asked before?
Jeff Cobb: A key question is, “How much of our value are we placing on being a convener rather than a connector?” Associations have always relied heavily on bringing people together physically–and now digitally–but real connection is more about bringing people together emotionally. How can we better foster that capability given that physical meetings are off the table in most cases for a long time to come?
Celisa Steele, Podcaster & Writer Serving Learning Businesses: What are the types of disruption those you serve are experiencing now, and how can you help? To answer this question, don’t make assumptions. Do the work–have the conversations, collect and analyze data, find ways to observe those you serve–so you truly understand the types of disruption they’re experiencing. Then, with that knowledge and insight, you can craft ways to respond and support them.
Based on your expertise and the work you do with associations, where are there opportunities for associations to use the pandemic as a “tailwind” for needed change?
Bruce Rosenthal, Corporate Partnership & Sponsorship Consultant: The pandemic is an opportunity to reassess and look at new strategies. Many things are shifting and realigning: markets, information sources, alliances, etc. Now is the time to make bold decisions. Now is the time to be sure perfection isn’t the enemy of progress.
Lowell Aplebaum, Strategic Planning and Governance Consultant: There are many opportunities. Three rise to the top. 1) Governance: Do we have the leadership structure, culture, policies, and pipeline needed for tomorrow–not yesterday? 2) Value: Do we have a regular system of programmatic impact review that helps us create capacity for investing in innovation? 3) Communications: We are living in an ever-noisy world. How are we crafting unique messages of narrative and invitation that are focused on audiences of priority?
What clever or creative ideas have you seen from clients since we started the virtual journey in the spring of 2020?
Seth Kahan, Visionary Leadership Advisor: Digging into the practice of Strategic Foresight. Those leaders who are pulling away from the pack right now and taking the lead with their members are actively conducting scenario planning that not only mitigates risk but identifies the ways they can excel at growth using the unique pressures of our current environment.
Byers: This may not count as clever or creative but it’s practical: people are picking up the phone and taking advantage of the human connection that’s been lost due to advances in technology. I’m certainly not opposed to connecting digitally, but voice-to-voice communication has value (even if it’s only a voicemail.) Many of the CEOs I work with tell me they are communicating more often with their boards and due to Zoom fatigue, they are often doing it by phone so that they can move around while they talk.
How are you seeing clients embrace this time of “business as unusual” that we’re in?
Rosenthal: Savvy association executives realize this is a time for new models; new staff expertise; new types of information and marketing technology; new revenue sources; new partnerships, alliances, and collaborations; and new board roles to thrive and survive.
Kahan: My best clients are practicing proactive evolutionary leadership, forging more powerful relationships with their chairs and executive committees, tightening their communication on budget, operational impact, and month-to-month strategizing. This includes preparing for opportunities like mergers and acquisitions, and vanquishing longstanding challenges like a lack of diversity on the board, recruiting young leaders into decision-making roles, and overhauling their entire meeting/event constellation to leap into the 21st century.
What advice do you have for association professionals when it comes to remaining resilient?
Aplebaum: Resilience isn’t pretending everything is ok when it isn’t…. It means recognizing that “more” isn’t the answer. Instead, focus on those places that have the likelihood of the most important return. It means accepting the challenges of today but ultimately focusing on the promise of tomorrow. It means giving yourself and others space and grace to not be perfect in a time of challenge – to be forgiving while committed to quality, to mission, and to one another.
Steele: To borrow a line from Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Naïve Cynicism,” I’d advise us all to be “open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” Paying attention to what’s happening in the world now, resisting the urge to simplify and prematurely categorize experiences and events as good or bad (or other binaries), that is how we’ll not only survive these disruptive times but potentially come out stronger and wiser on the other side–as individuals, as organizations, as a society.
What’s your perspective on current circumstances and the future of associations? Please comment and share your perspectives and insights.