From the Corner Office

From the Corner Office: Association Luminaries Discuss Culture of Innovation

By Association Adviser staff • November 5, 2012

By Association Adviser staff


Henry Chamberlain, President & COO of Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA)

Ken Ebeling, Senior VP of Membership, Direct Marketing Association (DMA)

Bernie Heinze, Executive Director, American Association of Managing General Agents (AAMGA)

Reggie Henry, CIO, American Society of Association Executives (ASAE)

Wendy Kavanagh, President, Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE)

Jeanne LaBella, VP for Publishing, American Public Power Association (APPA)

Chris Monek, Senior Executive Director, Business Development, Associated General Contractors (AGC)

Susan Neely, President & CEO, American Beverage Association (ABA)

Karen Renk, President, Incentive Marketing Association (IMA)

  • Innovation is most needed—and perhaps easiest to tap—when times are tough.
  • You have to keep innovating or you cease to be relevant.
  • Don’t be reckless, but you can’t wait for members to tell you what they want or force you into a decision.
  • Many staffers are not entrepreneurs, but everyone can learn to behave more entrepreneurially.

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ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Should everyone at your organization be encouraged to come up with ideas or is that a specialized skill set?

Reggie Henry/ASAE: 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 an idea and the drive to turn it into something real.

Chris Monek/AGC: While most associations have a few visionary people on staff, everyone on your team has to learn to become more entrepreneurial.

Ken Ebeling/DMA: It’s not just about great ideas and finding new streams of revenue; it’s about learning how to operate in a last-minute, just-in-time environment.

AA: Any suggestions for building a culture of innovation?

Wendy Kavanaugh/GSAE: Innovation is promoted by leveraging collective brain power, conversations, idea exchange and resources in an authentic, safe environment that promotes sharing. Key attributes include staying current through comprehensive professional development, supporting each other without competition and promoting self-satisfaction and pride.

Henry Chamberlain/BOMA: First, you have to get good people on board. They’re your advance scouts, always looking for good ideas. But you have to make sure everyone at your organization is empowered to suggest new ideas.

Reggie Henry: 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: In light of all the uncertainty associations face on the economic, political and technology fronts, is now really a smart time to be taking risks?

Jeanne Labella/APPA: Innovation is most needed—and perhaps easiest to tap—when economic times are tough. To wit: Our change from print to electronic with our weekly newsletter and the accompanying decisions to roll out our daily newsletter (previously restricted to subscribers who paid extra) as part of our basic membership service.

Susan Neely/ABA: You’ve got to keep on innovating or you cease to be relevant. I’m not saying you should be reckless, but you can’t wait for members to drag you into a decision. You can’t wait for your industry to tell you what they want. Part of being an effective leader is anticipating needs rather than reacting to them. You have to learn to see around the corners.

Bernie Heinze/AAMGA: Our parents always warned us to have something to fall back on in case our dreams didn’t come true. Now we’ve got to teach the younger folks how to fall forward, how take a chance. Like a lot of people in leadership positions, I’ve learned more from my failures than I have from my successes. Teaching our membersrisk-mitigation specialistshow to take calculated risks to build their businesses and professional credentials is no easy task in this tough economy.

Reggie Henry: 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.

AA: Panelists, can you share some real-world examples of calculated risk-taking?

Jeanne Labella: We launched our new media website in mid-January. By the first week of March, we were re-tooling it. I didn’t think we’d be changing things so soon. We want to do a better job of presenting our daily and weekly newsletters online. We want to get away from artificial publishing schedules and move to publishing stories in real-time. So, for example, if our editors attend a congressional hearing on a Tuesday morning and write a story about it Tuesday afternoon, we publish that story as soon as it has been written and edited. Why hold the news back until the next morning?

Susan Neely: When I first joined the organization, I had a pretty active role in taking back the management of our InterBev show from an outsource partner. We really ran with a theme along the lines of “It’s Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Over the past several years, we’ve not only reinvented our trade show and communications platform, but our policies and advocacy efforts as well.

Reggie Henry: 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: Do you have a formal process for coming up with new ideas?

Susan Neely: The executive committee and the board have been very involved, but so are all the departments and teams. Twice a year we have formal brainstorming meetings when all the teams get their people together.

But, any staffer can and should get their ideas recognized at any time. It’s more of an organic process. I often have 10 ideas floating in my head, but I’ll be the first to admit that only one or two ideas may be worth looking into. Fortunately, I have plenty of people around me who aren’t shy about telling me the other eight aren’t worth pursuing. That empowers everyone here to feel comfortable contributing.

Reggie Henry: Anyone at ASAE can submit ideas. 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.

Idea Paint is a collaboration tool used by ASAE

Henry Chamberlain: We’re very democratic when it comes to ideas. Lots of great ideas come through our local chapters, not just our national office. Sure, we do strategic planning sessions, but you’ve got to look at innovation in a variety of ways. We get inspiration from 7 Measures of Success, The World Café and Malcolm Gladwell.

We’re also big believers in Harvard’s Blue Ocean Strategy—what niche can we serve really well and keep all to ourselves? Contrast that to a red ocean—a mature market—in which our competitors are already swimming.

Bernie Heinze: The idea for [our new member magazine] WIN was born out of the consultative marketing meetings that AAMGA regularly has with its partners at Naylor. Unlike the member magazines published by most associations, WIN does not contain any information about the association itselfthat’s what the member newsletter is for. We feel very strongly that WIN should be a trusted portal of immediately usable information for the wholesale insurance industry.

AA: Change isn’t easy for many association staffers to accept. Any suggestions on how to make it easier?

Karen Renk: Having a clear sense of purpose, apart from a traditional mission or vision statement, can foster a collective culture of employee involvement at your organization. Purpose is the ultimate incentive because it gives people shared goals and ideals. It taps into the passion behind production and uncovers the reason organizations do what they do, and it causes employees to become emotionally invested in their jobs

Wendy Kavanaugh: Ask yourself every day if you’re having fun. We work so hard at our careers. If you’re not having fun, then it’s just not worth it.

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