From the Corner Office

Corner Office: Reggie Henry, CIO, American Society of Association Executives

By Association Adviser staff • November 5, 2012

By Association Adviser staff

Fast-Moving Game-Changer Makes Sure No One’s Falling Off the Bus

Association Adviser: Reggie, you didn’t take the most predictable path to your role at ASAE. Can you tell us a little about your background?

Reggie Henry: I graduated from Georgetown University with degrees in economics and computer science, but was really hell-bent on becoming a lawyer. However, after graduation I landed a job in the consulting division of (accounting firm) Coopers & Lybrand and got to see firsthand the power of information. That experience led me to a position at a strategic planning firm before starting my own technology consulting firm with a partner (Henry, Kinnelly & Associates). It was there that we developed an association management software (AMS) product. From there, I held senior technology roles at several other associations, before becoming CIO as ASAE. I guess you could say I’ve been working with (or for) non-profit organizations since 1985.

  • Entrepreneurship has nothing to do with the type of organization you’re in or how deep or your pockets are. It’s about coming up with the next game changing thing and everyone should be able to contribute ideas.
  • Associations no longer have networking and information all to themselves. They have to evolve and show members they understand their problems and can solve them.
  • No one joins associations anymore because “it’s the right thing to do.” You have to keep demonstrating your value proposition and become increasingly niche focused.
  • All-size associations will need a dedicated “content curator” if they want to stay relevant with members.

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AA: Can you tell us more about what it means to be a CIO?

RH: I’m responsible for implementing exemplary systems at ASAE that can serve as a model to the rest of the association community. I’m also responsible for ratcheting-up the use and understanding of technology among ASAE/Center members.

AA: Sounds like a lot of process and systems for someone with your entrepreneurial background and mindset. Is that hard to balance at a large not-for-profit organization such as ASAE?

RH: Entrepreneurship. What does that really mean? It doesn’t matter what kind of organizational structure you’re in. It’s about really coming up with the next game changing thing. You don’t need deep pockets to do that. You just need passion for the idea and the drive to turn it into something real.

AA: So why can’t more associations and not-for-profit organizations show their entrepreneurial (or intra-preneurial) stripes?

RH: Associations really aren’t that different from other types of companies and organizations. There’s always going to be a pocket of people with the mindset of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Not everyone’s an entrepreneur by nature, but everyone can learn to behave more entrepreneurially.

AA: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing associations today?

RH: We’re information organizations at our core. The Internet has commoditized the two things that we used to have all to ourselves — professional networking and reliable industry information. We had those markets cornered for so long. Now we all have to evolve.

AA: So, where are the opportunities for associations?

RH: Let’s be clear. Information and networking ARE still valid paths for associations. We have a deeper relationship with our members than companies will ever have with their customers. The key is convincing your members that we understand your issues. We’re here to help you solve a problem you have and help you advance your career.

AA: How about staying relevant with younger members of one’s profession, i.e. the industry up-and-comers?

RH: We need a new strategy, because no one’s joining associations anymore because it’s the quote right thing to do. That’s especially true for younger people. Now everyone’s so bottom line oriented, so value oriented. They keep asking themselves, “Why should I join?” Associations have to drop the one-size-fits-all mentality and become more specialized to appeal to specific sub-groups of their member base. We started the Young Association Professionals Group and that’s getting great traction. Young people are acknowledging that they’re association professionals, not just younger members of a particular industry or profession. They’re very active. They have their own social functions at our meetings. They actively submit suggested topics for the program content. It’s pretty cool.

AA: How about appealing to younger people’s passion for technology?

RH: For starters, we have to start acknowledging the Mobile Member. Why are we always pushing our members to a website? They’re not always at their desks with a computer. They don’t always have a mobile device on them. We’ve got to get information to members wherever they are whenever they want it. For instance, we’ve also been using mobile apps to help our conference attendees navigate the show floor and creating apps that compile all the education sessions and integrating all the show-related blogs and Twitter feeds into one place.

AA: How about social media?

RH: Like many organizations, we need to look at where the most up-to-date, juicy and relevant content is bubbling up. Know where that is? It’s in discussion groups. How do we get that great discussion content out to members? How do we reward members for participating and sharing in those discussions? How do you get information out to members that will help them solve a problem? That’s what we’re all wrestling with and that’s part of why we started our Acronym blog.

AA: How closely should associations monitor and control the conversations others are having about them in open forums?

RH: At ASAE, we see ourselves as the conveners of the conversation, but we don’t try to own the conversation. That being said, if there’s mis-information being put out there about us, we need to step up and correct it ASAP.

AA: Who do you see handling that responsibility at a typical association?

RH: I’ve been involved in a taskforce at the Smithsonian here in Washington, D.C. Just as museums have curators, now associations of all sizes are going to need to have content curators. These are specialists who can bring to life all the best things that associations have to offer. It doesn’t matter where it’s created or how it’s being delivered. For example, the content curator could find five new technical resources to share with the group that they wouldn’t have found otherwise. They could share a great video about industry best practices that normally wouldn’t have come across the group’s radar. They would post up a discussion about membership models of the future and maybe a related book that someone else in the organization was reviewing.

AA: ASAE has a longstanding reputation for innovation and calculated risk-taking. Can you tell us a little bit about your culture of innovation?

RH: We actually have a full-time person dedicated to innovation and new product development (Jen Blenkle), whose goal is to help us balance risk and reward. She’s helping us organize and prioritize our various innovation processes and instincts. Change is hard for many people. Not everyone’s comfortable with exploration and ambiguity — the discipline of newness and getting rid of oldness. We’re big on failing fast and failing smart. A mistake is not a failure. A mistake is something to learn from. We’re lucky to have both our CEO and COO behind us to try new things. Their philosophy is to go for it — as long as it’s providing value to members. We have to keep evolving for our members.

AA: Sounds great in theory. How about in the real world?

RH: I’ll give you an example. Remember two winters ago the blizzard that shut down the East Coast? Well, that hit just before our annual technology conference in D.C. We had to cancel it (officially). But, several of the exhibitors got together with us and decided to have a gathering anyway. We tracked down speakers and as many of the listed attendees as we could. On two-days’ notice, we turned it into the “Un-Tech” virtual conference and did it all town-hall style. About 80 attendees still showed up in person and about 400 participated online.

AA: Can anyone at ASAE submit ideas?

RH: Yes. We encourage it and we use Idea Paint which turns any blank wall into a white board. It’s especially important for younger staff to understand our collaborative idea culture. They learn really quickly which senior staff can help them champion an idea. We like to think there’s no such thing as a final draft here anymore. We’re in a continuous state of beta test.

AA: So what’s keeping you up at night?

RH: I worry about maintaining our fast organizational pace. We’re up to 130 staff members. How do you stay nimble and keep the pace moving without people falling off the bus?

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