From the Corner Office

From the Corner Office: Roundtable on the Future

By Association Adviser staff • October 7, 2013

Association luminaries share their take on leadership, innovation, data-driven decisions and embracing change.

  • Group-think doesn’t work, especially with volunteers and committees trying to come to consensus all the time.
  • Specific skill sets are not as important as overall leadership qualities, such as deep understanding of the industry and a bold vision for the organization.
  • Great leaders have the ability to balance intuition and hard data to make important decisions.
  • Great association leaders don’t necessarily have direct industry experience, but they tend to be great listeners and collaborators.

With the pace of change increasing at a seemingly exponential rate, how can associations keep pace with their members, for-profit competitors and the world at large?

Greg Melia, chief membership and volunteer relations officer, ASAE: “Understand your market and create a business model that works for you and works for them.”

Greg Balko CEO, Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineers (SAMPE): “Change is tough, but you can’t be afraid. If you hear of a trend that’s starting, you’ve got to go to meetings, talk to people and learn from other market segments. See if [that trend] fits with your organization and run it by your stakeholders. It takes a lot of work and you can lose your job over it, but as a leader, you’re obligated to lead with it at your organization.”

Russ Lemieux, group vice president, Kellen Company:“Organizations must stay relevant for members. That means staying on top of their environment, staying on top of changes in the industry you’re representing” and staying on top of changes in the profession. “[Member] needs are evolving. If [member/stakeholder] needs are changing, then the association needs to adapt. The strategic plan is the perfect tool for doing this.” It’s all about “getting together on a regular basis, scanning the environment and gut-checking your mission with your strategic objectives and purposes.”

Michael Hoehn, EVP, Consulting Management Innovators (CMI): “The average association leader has been around for a while. What they’re concerned about is radically different from someone who wants to get [the industry] for the first time. When we shared that information with one of our client boards, the president said, ‘We’re still worried about tweaking the fuel efficiency of the engine while the average member may be saying, how do I put the keys into the ignition?’ That’s why it’s so important to get data.’”

Erica O’Grady, vice president of operations, Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA): “The first thing we do if considering a change is to look if it fits with our strategic plan. The plan is developed by our committee, but also with feedback from our certificate holders (i.e. members). We do formal surveys, but also get a lot of anecdotal feedback from members via face-to-face meetings. I attend a lot of trade shows and conferences and speak directly with members. That’s where a lot of great ideas come from.”

Elizabeth Engel, CEO, Spark Consulting: Group think doesn’t work, especially with volunteers and committees trying to come to consensus all the time. The really innovative, slightly wild ideas just get chucked to the side because we feel we all have to agree. That limits innovation and also limits involvement.”

Everyone’s stressing the importance of using deep data and analytics to help associations make decisions. Are we going too far to the number crunching side?

Jim Thompson, executive director, Association Executives of North Carolina (AENC): “Data-driven organizations are much more successful than those run by gut instinct and intuition. For example, we’ve been doing a speaker showcase for 10 years at our annual conference. But member surveys showed it was one of our lowest valued products. We went back and asked members how upset they would be if we eliminated the [speaker showcase] and 65 percent said they would not be opposed.”

Melia: “Data, data, data is the clarion call, but if you ask for it all at once you’re not going to be successful. Look for innovative and creative ways that you can collect data along the way. For example, the net promoter question could be the one question you ask after your annual conference: ‘How likely are you to recommend this conference to a peer?’ But take it a step further. Ask what you could do to score one point higher [on your net promoter score]. That way, you’re letting members tell you [specific aspects] such as the food, the content, networking, etc. without having to ask them three different questions.”

So how do you balance data with your gut decisions?

Balko: “That’s a tough question, and you have to do a little bit of both. If an idea or concept intrigues you, that’s where the gut comes in. Then you try to find relevant data that will support it, or identify areas where you don’t have data. That’s when the balance between instinct and data comes into play. That’s what identifies a leader.

Engel: “We collect and collect and collect, but what do you do with it. That’s a problem. There are two types of data. The first is operational data, and associations are pretty good at this (trend data, historical data … here’s what our attendance was the last three years). Then there’s analytical data—the kind that helps you make decisions. That’s tougher for associations. For instance, is now the time to start offering virtual attendance at our conferences? If so, what type of sessions? Who do we market to and how much should we share?”

Balko said this scenario came into play when SAMPE was deciding how to rebrand its annual meeting after it learned a formidable European competitor was moving into its market. “Data is the key thing we use to make our decisions,” he said. “Some boards are very data driven, but ours is more accustomed to using their gut. This is new for them.”

“We pulled some numbers, looked at where our growth has been, where our weaknesses and opportunities have been,” Balko reiterated. “We analyzed [competitors’] shows, and looked at where their strengths and weaknesses had been and shared the data with the board. We asked if they thought it was a viable threat to get them to buy into the reason and need for the change. Surprisingly for engineers who love to pore over data in their day jobs, this [decision] was based more on what-if conversations.”

It seems like a very exciting, but challenging time to be an association leader. What skills or attributes do today’s association leaders tend to have?

Lemieux: “Specific skill sets are not as important as overall leadership qualities and having a full understanding of the industry and a vision for the organization and where it needs to go. Also, [it’s important to] be able to collaborate with the board and build consensus and a common vision. Leaders typically percolate to the top over time. Put them on a committee; give them a chair assignment and see how they do. Those with the real vision tend to become obvious. But sometimes it’s not so obvious.”

Brian Summers, vice president of content management and education, (CFMA):“I agree. We ask all of our employees if there is a skill set or interest that they have that we don’t know about. Is there a talent we’re not taking advantage of? We’ve gotten some people into important roles that we might not have otherwise [based on job description and resume].”

John Bell, CEO, Boxwood Technology: “While there’s no specific job description for an association innovator, you want to look for people who have embraced technology, who are willing to collaborate, think outside the box and are risk-takers. Those are key attributes for fostering innovation.”


It seems that continuous change is the one constant in today’s fast-changing association environment, and you need to adapt if you want to stay relevant. As SAMPE’s Greg Balko noted, “Associations are notoriously slow to make changes,” he said. “That’s fine if you don’t mind not having a job five to 10 years from now. The reason we’re going through all these changes is that we don’t want to be road kill. We want to be part of the mainstream—a viable source and resource for the community. If you don’t do that, then you lose your appeal as a resource.”