Is Your Association at a Crossroads?

By Hank Berkowitz • September 16, 2013

Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Editor-in-Chief

What do Albert Einstein, Warren Buffet and J.K. Rowling have in common? Tremendous insight, vision and leadership capabilities despite being introverts, according to Susan Cain, best-selling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Cain, a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant who delivered the opening keynote presentation at the ASAE 2013 Annual Meeting & Expo in Atlanta, said that American business and American culture—even parents of young American children—tend to value extroverted personalities more than introverted personalities. She pointed out that many leaders—like half of the general population—are introverts. Careful not to be an extrovert-basher, Cain said we should learn to capitalize on the good qualities of both personality types and that will help us work, interact and conduct business more effectively. More on that in a minute.

  • IT should be part of your overall business strategy; it’s not just a department or cost center.
  • Thanks to mobile, members are dictating their experience with associations, not the other way around.
  • If you’re asking the right questions and acting on what members tell you, data-driven organizations will be more successful than those driven by instinct and intuition.

Jeff DeCagna, chief strategist of Principled Innovation, agreed you need to have a balance of both personality types on your staff and on your board. Introverts draw their energy from ideas and critical thinking. Extroverts generate their energy from people. The 21st century [association] leader will have a skill set that is based on collaboration, listening and nurturing, rather than command and control.

Debra McGuire, CEO of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, advised taking a cultural snapshot of your members, volunteer leadership, management and staff. Get a sense of “how open they are to change and innovation,” and work within those parameters.

When it comes to adapting to change, Cain said it’s important to understand that the introverts on your team aren’t “lesser contributors or less successful in social interaction.” Instead, they process knowledge and interact with their surroundings in a quieter way. “They tend to be passionate, but somewhat shy and value periods of solitude which allow them to be [optimally] creative,” she said.


Whether you’re an inward- or outward-facing leader, if you’re heading up IT, experts say you need to make sure you’re part of the organization’s business strategy, not just responsible for “the trains running on time.”

Reggie Henry, CIO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), said that when a tech initiative doesn’t work out, it more likely a business planning failure, not a technology failure. For example, he said mobile won’t get you more members per se, but a good product or service that’s delivered via mobile certainly could. Henry said he once quarreled with his CFO to get approval to upgrade the organization’s mobile devices and equipment every two years instead of every five years as the financial depreciation schedule called for. The legacy financial model wasn’t in alignment with the new pace of technology development and member/staff needs, he said.

ASAE president and CEO John Graham said technology is one of the most important investments you can make to remain relevant. “You don’t have to be on the bleeding edge, but you’re responsible for staying current.”

In terms of tech investments, Henry said he would never again buy a server that he had to administer himself. He would never again buy Microsoft Office. And he’d no longer keep critical data stored in-house. “You have to go with the cloud,” he said. The infrastructure and redundancies the cloud backup people have in multiple organizations—very few organizations have the resources to match that in-house.”

Renato Sogueco, CIO of the Society of American Florists (SAF), said association IT departments are gradually supporting the philosophy of allowing staff to add their preferred [mobile] devices (once thought to be toys) to the official company network. The tradeoff is that you have to buy your own device if you want it supported, he said.

Graham predicted that a typical association would invest primarily in data mining and responsive web design capabilities today if it suddenly found an extra $100,000 in the operating budget.

Sandra Girarde, executive director of the small but resourceful California Association for the Education of Young Children, may have summed it up best: “Whatever solution you choose, don’t take the cheap route. It will only come back to bite you in the long-run,” she said.


Cain, DeCagna and others lamented the disappointing state of brainstorming and ideation at the association level. It’s not a lack of ideas per se, it’s a lack of preparation for brainstorming meetings. You should come to brainstorming meetings prepared with potential ideas and opportunities in advance. Don’t wait for the meeting to start in hopes of getting your creative juices flowing.

Stephen Lieber, CEO of the Healthcare Information Management Association (HIMSS), said his organization uses three types of cycles for innovation and new product development:

1. Ongoing basis: Take calculated risks with small upfront costs, i.e. product extensions.

2. Every year or two: Make big bets that are vision-based, i.e. buy or build.

3. Every 5 to 7 years: Go in a new direction, i.e. vision expansion or redirection.

According to ASAE’s Henry, innovation can’t be incremental; it should be a much better way of doing something. It has to be something that helps you get to markets (and customers) you haven’t reached before. It can’t just be small steps. “Any significant change has to be born of members’ needs or staff needs,” he said.

For example, at the ASAE on-site bookstore, staff is using smartphones and e-commerce tools. “It’s providing better service for customers and better opportunities for ASAE to mine and understand what customers are seeking,” he added.

Author Cain observed that parents often worry that introverted children aren’t getting enough out of their early social and learning interactions. By the same token, the American workplace can “marginalize introverts in group meetings and open office settings because they’re not as vocal or openly persuasive.” Rather than feeling sorry for introverts, Cain said we should realize that ignoring introverts contributes to “group think” and often results in poor group decisions. Why? Because the group tends to act only on the opinions and ideas of those who speak up—not everyone who has carefully thought things through.

Connecting with the younger generation

When it comes to attracting younger members of the profession to your organization, DeCagna said the association “talent pipeline” has to change. Associations have to look beyond their industry or past volunteers. “If you really want to attract top talent, then you have to give them the opportunity to work with other highly talented people in a setting where they can utilize their talents.”

Graham observed that associations have always controlled the member experience, but with mobile and other tools, members are now dictating their experience with the association. That’s only going to become more pervasive, Graham said, as more young professionals enter the workforce.

DeCagna observed that 25- to 35-year-olds face a set of challenges (and opportunities) far different than previous generations faced. “They have far more access to information and networking at their fingertips,” he said. “They operate in a network of their own creation. They’re much more open than previous generations. It’s a shifting stakeholder dynamic.”

Henry worried about a whole new generation of young people entering the workforce that use email as its primary form of communication. “Think about that when you send out your next member communication or marketing message,” he said.

Research and data

Jim Thompson, executive director of the Association Executives of North Carolina (AENC), believes that data-driven organizations are “much more successful than those run by gut-instinct and intuition.” David Gammel, executive director of the Entomological Society of America, agreed that data helps you support your gut instincts. “Even if you don’t have a dedicated research person on-staff,” he said, “you can probably find someone who’s naturally inquisitive about numbers and patterns who can take on that role.”

Mark Engle, principal of the Association Management Center, said that by asking new questions of the data, his organization already had yielded big results on the membership growth front. “And you don’t need a lot of fancy tools to do this, by the way,” he added.

Hannes Combest, CEO of the National Auctioneers Association, recommended including four good questions into every dues renewal bill you send. It should be part of your ongoing research. Don’t just rely on a once or twice a year survey. Never waste a chance for member feedback she said. “Why” is the keyword you have to use. “Tell members why we need your birthdate; why we need your job title. It all goes back to what’s in it for them (WIFM). Tell members, ‘we need the information in order to serve you better,'” he said.

HIMSS’ Lieber said research can be also be a profit center, not just an initiative. “Your job is to be the expert on the industry/profession that you’re serving. Data is an asset you can leverage to build membership and also monetize by doing valuable industry surveys,” he said. A for-profit company can’t match the trust level that an association has with members and industry stakeholders, nor will it get the cooperation, response rates and depth of data you can collect, he added.

AENC’s Anderson said don’t forget to “walk the walk.” You have to act on the data, not just collect it. “Show members you an act on what they tell you, or else they won’t keep sharing with you,” he said.


As one expert after another told us this month, we’re in a new normal era and you better get out of your comfort zone. If you’re shy, learn to speak up at group meetings and go speak to members in person, not from the safety of your keyboard or smartphone. If you’re bold, learn to listen better, particularly to introverts. If you’re intimidated by numbers, learn to get comfortable with deep data and research. If you’re intimidated by technology, learn to get comfortable with mobile and responsive web design.

You don’t have to be an Einstein, Buffet or Rowling, but if you’re going to innovate, collaborate and survive in the new normal era, you better learn to adapt. Whether your style is brash and bold or quiet and self-reflective, it’s time to go big or go home. Your staff, members and board will be glad you did.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.