I come from a family of change agents. My parents choose professions that were expressions of their passions and their purpose. My mother was a nurse turned mental health professional and my father was a hospital administrator. They have experience working on both local and international levels, in the Peace Corps and in inner city hospitals, advocating for those who are in need. Work in my family is deeply meaningful and I, too have always identified with that.
It is therefore no surprise that I have a passion for being an advocate and using my work as an extension of my purpose. As an association executive, I passionately advocate for the balance of life safety and security in public buildings every day. This work has given me the opportunity to hone my leadership skills. Along the way I have acquired a new curiosity that I decided to learn more about; my curiosity for how to build effective strategic change.
As association executives, we are in a collective race towards relevance for our associations and our members. We are constantly growing our skills, resources and fortitude to create change more often and on a larger scale. It’s not just about which new benefit partner to add to your corporate membership offering but asking if your membership structure needs to be become more relevant. Or, do we need to launch new education? Should we build new certifications? How are our events strategies performing? We need to constantly revisit the big picture and be willing to consider the cost of not changing instead of living in the fear of change itself. Changes and cultural evolutions must create relevance; improving the condition of our members, their companies, and industries as a whole.
Making Change the Norm
Since my responsibilities include strategic and operational planning and our organization has successfully launched vast amounts of change over the last six years, this has ignited my curiosity about the process of change. In order to be successful in the long term, I’ve learned that we need a willingness and ability to change as a new norm. This new norm needs to be integrated into our organizational cultures. We must both mindfully lead it and skillfully manage it. I’ve learned that we must be willing to revisit any offering in order to be better for our members and that that negative feedback about our offerings are simply opportunities for growth. Thank goodness our members cared enough to complain! I’ve also learned the importance of bringing others along with you – staff, members and volunteers need to understand your Why, What and How early on. Communication is key. Ultimately, I’ve also learned how much leadership is a lifestyle and not only a professional role.
The process of change is often defined as change management or change leadership. So, what exactly is change management? Or change leadership? What have I been doing all of these years as a change agent?
In my quest to learn more, I completed a change leadership program at Georgetown University and my eyes were opened in a way that has been transformational. I learned a new way of showing up as a leader, how change leadership is also about your culture, not just your strategic plan, and I have a new lens for what collaborative cultures can look like.
Change theory is ever evolving when you Google it, much less when you begin to study it and synthesize it for yourself. There are real distinctions. Learning the fundamental differences have also helped me skillfully switch gears at any given moment in order to better serve my team, process or my organization.
- Change management is a process for implementing change directed from organizational leaders. While it can be implemented collaboratively, and it can be incredibly visible and impactful on organizations, there are limits on the authority and scope of change.
Change managers implement work that manifests something new for the organization. They are the doers and they manage others who are doers as well. Results and outcomes are usually King. Process is usually intended to be efficient and isn’t always given the room for wide amounts of collaboration. Their teams may not be able to influence the Why or the What. They might only be able to influence the How.
Change managers need leadership and CEOs are their change leaders. In associations, a CEO will receive Board direction about new outcomes/programs, when they need to be done, and what resources are generally available for getting there.
- Change leadership is a process that usually derives from the CEO, as it is the engine and vision of the entire organization. Their vision for change can be implemented through a collaborative process they lead. Implementation may also require engagement with volunteer leaders and stakeholders.
Change leadership facilitates organizations to effectively and successfully achieve strategic outcomes. Change leaders hold the vision and tell the story to staff and stakeholders, build trust about the direction of change, create urgency, provide effective resources and integrate change into the organization’s culture.
While change management and change leadership are very different, they are both process oriented and add value. Also, anyone implementing change management can switch into a leadership role in their process. I believe leadership can happen at any level so switching from a manager perspective to a leader perspective happens all the time. Yet, organization-wide change usually happens through the CEO, thus change leadership’s definition is about the scope of the CEO.
Clarity and Purpose
Now that I have a new perspective on how to support the process of change, I feel empowered. I feel clear. Asking myself certain questions helps me stay clear. Am I the implementer because others need a sense of direction for the work? Am I the leader because others need to hear more about our Why to feel engaged and empowered in the change? Am I sometimes doing a bit of both? Most of all, I know how to live in my curiosity and ground into my purpose as a change agent.
The path of an association executive will likely require you to be a change manager and maybe even a change leader at some point in your career. Like all of us, you may fail at times and succeed at others. But you will certainly grow, evolve and do better for the sake of your purpose, your association, members and their industries.