Keys to Being a Better Leader

By Hank Berkowitz • August 24, 2015

Think small, take lots of breaks, practice judo flips and watch lots of MacGyver re-reruns

To paraphrase the great Albert Einstein, “You can’t solve new problems with the same thinking that created them.” But that can be tough at not-for-profit organizations in which collaboration, board approval and meritocracy tends to be valued over command-and-control management.

Whether you’re at the helm of a single staff organization or heading a department in a 500-person association, one thing’s for sure, we’re all trying to do more with less. Most would say the economy and job market have rebounded from the financial crisis of a half decade ago, but experts say association membership and revenue growth is growing in the low single digits and there’s more competition than ever for the attention of industry up-and-comers.



Ask yourself, “What do we do better than anyone else and who needs this the most?” RealLilTweetables

Members often have the best ideas. Don’t try to guess their needs. Go out and talk to them. RealLilTweetables

High-performing associations realize they’re in the “needs-filling” business. RealLilTweetables

Does your organization have a “Business Artist” or “Chief Disruptor” on staff? RealLilTweetables

Get new people into your organization as quickly as possible who think completely differently than you do. RealLilTweetables

As our annual association communication benchmarking study revealed, more than two in five association leaders (41.7 percent) feel their organizations are understaffed overall, and nearly 44 percent feel their publishing, content and social media teams are understaffed.

To what extent do you fell your organization is appropriately staffed?

Think small and scrappy

But, instead of crying the budget blues, experts say this could be a great opportunity to reinvent your organization, or at least dramatically re-think the way you’re doing business.

At last week’s well-attended ASAE annual conference in Detroit, opening keynote speaker Josh Linkner said there are advantages to thinking small and being scrappy. Great leaders and innovators like to “MacGyver” their problems, he said. They find unorthodox solutions to problems by using limited resources at hand, in reference to the popular 1980s TV detective who escaped one jam after another using nothing more than his trusted Swiss Army knife. Further, Linkner said regardless of your organization’s size, you should “envision” how a scrappy startup organization would solve a membership, advocacy or product/service challenge you’re having.

5 obsessions of great innovators and leaders

Linkner, a successful entrepreneur and lifelong Detroit native who founded four technology companies that sold for a combined $200 million, identified five obsessions of great innovators while researching his books and venture capital investments:

1. Scrappiness.

Louis C.K.
Comedian Louis C.K.

2. Insatiable curiosity. “The more obsessive you are, the more creative you become,” said Linkner, who recommends asking why — not once, but five consecutive times — when pondering a difficult problem. It’s a process that mimics the mind of a child, he said, but has been adopted by global leaders like Toyota.

3. Crave what’s next.
Even for associations and industries that are healthy and not facing disruption, Linkner said, “The best of the best are always focused on reinventing.” He pointed to legendary Duke University basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewki, whose players shout “next play” after every basket so they can “shed the past” and avoid complacency. He also pointed to what LinkedIn did the day after it became a public company. Management gave employees 8,000 black t-shirts that simply said, “Next Play!” Linkner also saluted irreverent comedian Louis CK who throws out all his material every year, no matter how funny, and starts fresh.

4. Defy tradition. For associations, Linkner said traditions can be a strong barrier to innovation, but not an insurmountable one. One way to break through is to do a “judo flip” by trying the opposite of tradition or experience would suggest. He pointed to the Uber ride hailing service, or the hilarious paint jobs that South Africa’s Kulula Airlines features on its planes.

Kulula Airlines Planes

5. Push the boundaries. True innovation and disruption requires more than just incremental change, said Linkner, it requires a 10-fold improvement in revenue, cost, efficiency or market size. Innovation is especially poignant for associations, said Linkner, since it helps them reinvigorate themselves and the industries they serve. That in turn can bring big dividends back to the association. 

Susan Neely, head of the American Beverage Association and outgoing chair of ASAE Foundation, said proudly,“We’re entering the golden age of associations, in terms of attracting, training and retaining the next generation of leaders.”

But, Linker cautioned, “No matter how good things are going, we can’t become intoxicated by our own success.” As proof, Linkner rattled off a series of once-proud brands that failed to adapt to changing times—Blockbuster Video, Palm, and Sears, among others.

Two key questions to ask

According to Beth Bush, marketing director for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Associations are atop the life cycle curve, and soon to be on the declining side unless major changes are made.” Annual growth is in the low single digits and ROI is decreasing, she added. Associations face competition from more associations than other, plus the Internet, social media and third party providers of professional development. “We need for our business model to change or we won’t be in business much longer,” Bush added.

One technique that Bush and her team uses before tackling a problem or introducing a new product or service is to ask two questions:

1. What do we do better than anyone else?
2. Who needs this the most?

In an exclusive interview with Association Adviser, Abe Eshkenazi, CEO of APICS, the premier professional association for supply chain and operations management, and incoming chair of the ASAE Foundation, said many associations are not afraid of innovating. Unfortunately, they think it’s a one-time process so they book an off-site retreat or squirrel themselves away in a conference room.

“A lot of people say ‘Let’s get a bunch of smart people in a room and start to innovate,’” shared Eshkenazi. “It doesn’t happen like that here. It’s more organic. We’re always looking for ways to engage with members. They often have the best ideas. We look to fill needs and the only way to do that is get out and talk to members. You rarely see us sitting in a room and asking, ‘What do members need?’ Go work with the members and find out what their work life is like and the pain points they’re feeling. Identify how you can be more responsive to their needs.”

“Ultimately we’re in the ’needs filling business,’” added Eshkenazi, “And we stay relevant when they see us as a career-long resource for them.”

Tim Mason, chief marketing officer for the IT security professionals association ISACA, said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Mason doesn’t think millennials and subsequent generations will put up with membership dues very long. But, they will join and promote your organization if it provides them with value and a unique experience that they can’t find elsewhere. One of the best ways to do that? “Get new people into your organization as quickly as possible who think completely differently than you do,” advised Mason.

2015 Key Award Winner, Paul Pomerantz, of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, said, “Our jobs are not to manage, but to create an environment where people can thrive and flourish. Our jobs are to create, manage and sustain change.”

Jeffrey Hurt, executive vice president of consulting firm Velvet Chainsaw, said you need to take frequent breaks from a problem if you’re really going to solve it. “Walk away every 40 minutes or so, the brain need time to process and re-set,” Hurt advised.


Even Google, one of the great disruptors of our time, reorganized and renamed itself this month seemingly at the height of its power. As late Motown-legend Michael Jackson famously sang, “It’s as easy as ABC.”

About The Author

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