Monday, September 14, 2015

Is Your Association in a Class by Itself?

Is Your Association in a Class by Itself?

By Steven M. Worth

The American Society for Public Administration once conducted a survey to identify the common characteristics of managers in public office who had longevity in their positions. Among other findings, the study found that introverted personalities seem to be more successful in retaining their positions than their extroverted counterparts. It is curious in the first place that introverts should be attracted into a role that is associated normally with meeting and working with large numbers of people.

It also reveals a tendency, particularly in associations, to stay within comfort margins by working with smaller groups of people and staying with what is familiar rather than venturing into something new. But in the time associations are going out of business, merging, or otherwise undergoing fundamental restructuring challenges, could this tendency be leading to two different classes of associations?

One class might be defined by a club-like familiarity of association members and staff participating in programs of long standing. These associations are marked by the longevity of their executives and have learned to rely on cash cow programs that may not be growing, but are profitable and predictable.

The other class is defined by environments that are more entrepreneurial, growth oriented and marked by movement and change.

Now if the reader thinks that one class is more likely to realize success than the other, they would probably be wrong. The first class described above may sound boring, but boring can be good and profitable, not to mention less nerve racking! Entrepreneurial environments certainly are exciting, but more entrepreneurial start-ups fail than succeed and, as the ASPA survey found, chief staff executives who tend to run such associations tend not to last long in their jobs! On the other hand, virtually all the biggest success stories had entrepreneurial beginnings. In Darwinian terms, stressful and trying times create the ideal environment for evolution; however, ancient species like crocodiles and sharks have shown us by their survival from the dinosaur era that if you find your niche in the evolutionary mainstream, there is very little need to adapt to change.

But what happens if you suspect your organization might be in the current that is headed for the falls or for the morass of a stagnant backwater? Is it possible to change direction? The answer is “yes,” but not without a leadership change.

In his book Who says Elephants Can’t Dance? Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. describes how he wrestled IBM into undertaking the changes it needed to ensure its own survival. In this case, IBM’s long and distinguished history of success proved to be its own worst enemy. Gerstner’s fresh perspective and rigorous top to bottom strategic planning saved IBM from the fate of other once great companies like PanAm, Studebaker, and other names that have faded into history.

There are other successful change models for success, but whatever methodology used, common elements of successful organizational change are: 

1. board members and management recognize when change is needed; 
2. the board matches the organization’s needs to the personality and leadership characteristics of a new CEO; 
3. all stakeholders resist the temptation to establish “sacred cows”—programs and policies that are off-limits to change; and 
4. all stakeholders are willing to identify themselves as a team and to make the sacrifices needed to identify and to achieve essential goals.

For Norman Mailer in his classic career-launching book, The Naked and the Dead, the conflict in the Pacific during the Second World War stripped his soldier-characters of whatever social pretense or frivolity they may have had before the war. If the war did not kill them outright, it pared them down to their essential souls.

Many associations are undergoing trials not dissimilar to warfare. For some the future is to stay the course, and for others it is to embrace change. 

In which class is your association?

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