Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Listening Is Hard Work

Steven M. Worth

How many of us as children remember our parents pointing out that there was a reason we had two ears and only one mouth — could we please just listen? Apart from our parents wanting peace of mind, there is a lot of wisdom in this advice. But the temptation to follow one’s own ideas at the expense of what someone else may be trying to say does not stop in childhood. Many an association has followed strong leaders with more vision than wisdom down the wrong path, making mistakes that could have been avoided had more importance been placed on listening.

Do any of the following scenarios seem familiar?

  • Mindful that his term of office was coming to a close, the chairman of the board of a major professional society pushed for his fellow board members to ignore market research findings which pointed to the need for the association to form strategic alliances with other associations in the industry as they developed and introduced a new professional certification. Such an ally-building process would be too time-consuming and would necessarily compromise his vision of what should be done.
  • The board of directors of another association is persuaded that the time had come for the organization to merge with a much larger association. The association simply didn’t have the clout its members needed to have its voice heard in Washington. The association had no desire to survey its membership on this since the need seemed so obvious.
  • Concerned about the motives of some of the members of his board of directors, an executive director of a large foundation took great care to select a strategic planning facilitator whom he knew and had confidence in. He wanted to assure that no policy initiatives were going to come out of this strategic planning exercise that he did not want.
In each of these examples either the board of directors or the executive director made a decision to limit outside influence in a predetermined policy direction. This decisiveness guaranteed speedy action — but was it in the right direction?

The association community across the country has never known greater turmoil. The number of associations being formed, merged, or downsized is at record levels. In such a highly charged environment decisive leadership is welcome. But it is also true that what one does not know can often prove fatal.

The distinguished British statesman Benjamin Disraeli once noted, "As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information…." The same is true for associations. But is it possible for an association to act decisively while still allowing for a thorough gathering of information? Some associations do. They do so by:

  • Making time and resources available for thorough strategic planning on a regular basis. Market conditions are changing so rapidly that most associations now undertake strategic planning exercises once every two years.
  • Starting the process with factual research into your members’ market — chances are you are sitting on the answers to key problems or opportunities. You just need to find them. Such research also lessens the degree of subjectivity that inevitably creeps into policy discussions.
  • Limiting the instinct to "control." Use respected outside consultants who have a demonstrated understanding of your association to provide the objectivity that is needed — then let go. Know that you are only doing yourself and your association a disservice if you try to predetermine the results.
Of these three points, the last is without doubt the hardest. We all know associations are great lumbering things that require dynamic and focused individuals to get them to move in any direction. But sometimes these very leadership qualities interfere with the "listening" process that is needed if the right decisions are to be made.

The hardest part of association management is dealing with the many differing points of view, personalities, and interests that are involved in every association. This can be a frustrating experience for those coming from the military-like decision-making structures of most for-profit corporations. But there are two ways of viewing this flat decision-making environment: one is as an obstacle to overcome; the other is as an information-rich environment in which new opportunities and creative solutions to old problems are waiting to be discovered. The key is to foster a culture in which listening is valued.

It’s been said that President John F. Kennedy was such an avid and alert listener that it was exhausting to talk with him. Viewed in this light, listening is far from being a passive state. It is active, exhaustive, and methodical. And it might just be the key to your association’s future.

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