Slay the Dragons Threatening Your Association’s Success

“Your financial metrics can be great, but if dragons are all over your organization, eventually the village will burn.” Jon Wolske, former Culture Evangelist at Zappos, Zappos Tours Lead, and international speaker

I think, talk, and write a lot about organizational transformation. But I’m not always sure that the people who need to hear my message recognize themselves. Without a crisis looming, change may not seem worth the investment of effort, expense, and political capital. Unfortunately, by the time you discover the dragons, the village may have already gone up in smoke.

So how do you know when to shift directions and which way to turn? The .orgSource white paper, Achieving Organizational Transformation: Pathways to Success, outlines the journey toward new, more productive ways of doing business. That adventure (and trust me, it is an adventure) begins with having a clear picture of your organization’s health.

Not long ago, metrics like revenue and membership growth might have been good indicators that the status quo was working. That narrow view won’t provide a reliable evaluation of your association’s ability to succeed in a highly competitive digital marketplace. .orgSource has developed a Transformation Readiness Survey that explores strengths across nine domains of activity. Of course, robust numbers are still critical. But those dragons sometimes take up residence where they are least expected. I’d like to highlight three challenges to critical areas that don’t always get the scrutiny they deserve.

Strategy That Needs a Jump

While strategy gets plenty of attention, the quality of the plan may not. Plans that include these pitfalls are unlikely to support real growth or advancement:

  • Substitutes activities for goals, and metrics for   tasks completed
  • Only sees the light of day at the board meeting
  • Never travels beyond the executive team
  • Doesn’t align with the budget
  • Doesn’t realistically reflect technology or staffing

Strategy missteps drain precious resources. To deliver value, and support members through disruption, plans must be more than words on paper. They should outline a vision that is lived daily and infuses the organization with passion and purpose. A planning process that returns on investment is:

  • Grounded in research
  • Focused on creating growth and success for the organization and its members
  • Informed by customer experience
  • Achievable because strategy comes before goals
  • Based on potential future scenarios and risk assessments
  • Change-oriented and designed to support flexible, innovative adaptations to uncertainty
  • Built to include the entire staff in the planning process
  • Cyclical, sustainable, and well-integrated into business operations

These qualities reflect an approach to planning that engages the entire organization and appropriately aligns responsibilities. “We’ve been trained to believe that strategy is the board’s domain, and that execution falls to the staff,” says Sharon Rice, .orgSource’s Managing Director of Business Strategy. “But even a committee of PhDs from Harvard Business School would be challenged to produce a workable plan in a two-day retreat.”

Integrated planning allows the board to do what they are best equipped for—setting the vision. “Garth Jordan, Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy at the Healthcare Financial Management Association, made a compelling comment. He noted that the board’s job is to be empathetic. They communicate the member perspective,” Rice advises. “Most groups excel in this role, and a skilled facilitator can keep the dialogue at the macro level.” Identifying business strategy falls to the executive leadership team. Then, directors and managers are responsible for operationalizing initiatives.

Culture Without Connection

Consider this:

  • Companies with strong cultures saw a 4x increase in revenue growth. (Forbes)
  • Being named a Best Place to Work is associated with a .75% stock jump. (Glassdoor)
  • 82% of respondents to this survey believe that culture is a potential competitive advantage. (Deloitte)

When people enjoy their work, respect their colleagues, and are comfortable in their environment, performance improves. You’d be hard-pressed to find a leader who doesn’t agree with this statement. Why is it then, that more organizations don’t make creating a positive culture a top priority?

My best guess is because culture is both hard and soft. It’s hard to measure, hard to change, and it is soft on the bottom line. Although culture may be a challenging issue to tackle, if you can tame this dragon you can harness its power to push the entire organization forward.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a positive culture can be reduced to donuts in the breakroom or an Amazon gift card. These perks are dessert, not the full meal. The leaders we interviewed for our book Positioning for Success: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation had many recommendations on culture. These comments from Charlie Judy, Chief Culture and People Officer (CHRO), Intelligent Medical Objects, highlight the fact that meaningful engagement is the foundation for a strong culture:

“I realized that I’ve been employed by many organizations lauded as ‘great places to work,’ but they weren’t always great for me. The salary, benefits, and perks, like free lunch or flextime, might be perfect for someone else. But if I was missing a set of behaviors that fuel my fire, I don’t care if the company has made every list of the best places to work in the world. It will not provide an environment in which I can be successful. Organizations need to achieve that level of clarity. You have to understand the characteristics of work in your culture. That specific information allows employers to hire people who are the right fit for their community.”

Delivering on engagement means that employees feel connected to the organization’s mission, vision, and values and that their stake in its success is more than lip service. A leader’s responsibility is to ensure that the team does their best work by providing clear expectations and giving them the tools and reinforcement they need to succeed. This article from Gallup explains the concept of engagement more fully.

Arrested Innovation

Why do I believe innovation is so important? In 1975, Gordon Moore correctly predicted that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years. Moore’s Rule underscores the current speed-of-light invention occurring in the digital marketplace. In this environment, a creative approach is not a luxury, it is essential. Complacency and inertia are dragons you can’t afford to ignore.

You don’t need to recruit the next Mark Cuban to the team, but you must create a path for ideas to flow through the organization. Identify the people in your group who are curious, embrace the unknown, and love following the bread crumbs to a solution. Then give them license to fly.

Innovation isn’t about creating a stream of new products or services. It’s an attitude that seeks opportunity and advantage through problem-solving. Rolling out a new educational podcast because that’s what is trending, is far from the point. But if the initiative answered a challenging question or delivered greater member value, and you used research, data testing, and iteration to guide the decision-making, that process puts you in the right zone. Promoting intellectual curiosity and giving creativity the encouragement and recognition to thrive are among the defining characteristics of an innovative organization.

Another contributor to our book, Ben Martin, Co-Founder, 100Reviews, had this advice:

“Associations can consider allocating a portion of their budgets, say one percent, to finding new ideas. Most associations have finite staff resources. You have to balance what you ask employees to do against their core responsibilities. You can allocate a percentage of entrepreneurial time to everyone’s job or hire a few people who are devoted to emerging initiatives. It’s important to recognize that being a risk-taker is not for everyone. The CEO doesn’t need to be an entrepreneur. But they must empower some people in the organization to do that work.”

If your association seeks to make improvements or is struggling to slay dragons, in one or more of these areas, it may be time to consider a more extensive evaluation of your operations and business plan. Don’t hesitate to call .orgSource. We are ready to help.

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