This guest blog post by Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, originally ran Dec. 22 on Associations Now. Athitakis has written on nonprofits, the arts and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkANMag.
So, what did we learn in 2014?
Part of me wants to say: Not as much as one would hope. Boards remain dysfunctional. Associations often are still slow-moving ships, particularly when it comes to globalization. Diversity remains a challenge. However, I don’t want to close out 2014 with a resounding “Bah! Humbug!”
Throughout the year I’ve spoken with plenty of association leaders, staffers and experts who are doing meaningful and path breaking work; look throughout AssociationsNow.com and you’ll see my colleagues have done the same.
So take the five lessons-learned below not as a lecture about how leaders have fallen short, but as reminders that there’s always work to be done; this list only reflects where I figure that work is most needed.
It’s never difficult to find a CEO who will bemoan his or her board in private, or do it under cover of an anonymous survey.
Globalization is less of a might-do and more of a must-do. In 2014 the ASAE Foundation released research revealing that many U.S.-based associations are still struggling to expand their reach overseas. (More research is to come in 2015.) As sticky wickets go at associations, this is one of the stickiest, but it’s also among the most promising in terms of financial growth — and, even if you’d prefer to focus on mission more than money, it’s where the future members and users of your services are, particularly in the Middle East. This needn’t be an overwhelming task — even focusing on a couple of products can move the needle.
Disengaged boards are a killer. Boards are too nice to the CEO. They’re neglectful. They don’t do enough to help a new CEO settle into the gig. It’s never difficult to find a CEO who will bemoan his or her board in private, or do it under cover of an anonymous survey. And I do worry, as I wrote back in May, that social-media herd mentality might trickle down into leadership, leading to groupthink. But for the moment, I’m looking at the bright side: There are plenty of associations doing smart work assembling and educating their boards to do meaningful strategic work in the midst of these challenges.
Listening is an underrated leadership skill. I tend to gravitate to this particular leadership theme without explicitly trying to; it just seems that so many shortcomings with CEOs boil down to errors of miscommunication and failures to listen. If an exec isn’t listening to what his or her staffers are saying, he won’t have a sense of what their ambitions are, won’t be able to capably review their progress and will struggle to keep them on board when challenges arrive. Listening is the easiest skill to pay lip service to, and perhaps the most difficult to master.
Diversity starts with you. Without question, associations have made great progress in recent years in making their staffs and boards more diverse. But the seemingly popular instinct at addressing the issue — to create a task force or diversity committee — can risk echoing the marginalization it was meant to eradicate. Executives need to own diversity as a core competency as much as membership and revenue — all the Lean In circles in the world won’t mean much if the guys at the top aren’t getting the message and boards won’t evolve unless they’re mindful of where they’re underrepresented.
The big organizations don’t have this figured out any better than anybody else. Corporate America is often carted out as a better model for associations, particularly when it comes to generating revenue — it’s the tacit message delivered whenever somebody says, “Our association needs to run more like a business.” True enough, corporate execs get all the attention from magazine covers (well, almost all). But you didn’t have to try hard to find executives in the corporate world struggle to stay on point as much as anybody else. I gingerly suggested in March that perhaps GM was on the right path in responding to its cars’ ignition-switch problems; the months that followed have only made a fool of me. Apple’s board structure was much celebrated, but I think there are more interesting governance questions than board size. And even large nonprofits can have a leadership crisis when the executive steps into contentious territory. Case studies from the big guns can have some meaningful lessons to deliver, but ultimately the approach that works is going to be the product of what you’ve learned from what you’ve observed in your own organization.