This month’s Corner Office profile shines on Pamela Hemann, FASAE, CAE, president of Association Management Services, Inc. and executive director of Leadership California, a professional network dedicated to advancing the leadership role of women. Hemann was also the ASAE’s 2014 Key Award recipient, the Society’s highest honor presented to association chief staff executives.
Association Adviser: Pam tell us a little about the culture of the organizations you lead.
Pamela Hemann: We’re about service and connecting people. A phone call is NOT an interruption. It’s part of what we do, responding to member questions and connecting people.
AA: Many association leaders are telling us they’ve never seen more competition for members. What’s your take?
PH: There’s always competition in this space. The difficult thing now is to stay focused on our mission, our purpose and the wealth of knowledge across the membership. How do you engage all of the people who have [valuable] knowledge to contribute to your organization? A lot of members are out there, and they just need to be asked. Sometimes we forget to ask. There’s always something new and different. Our strength is all about the membership and knowledge that they bring to the organization. That’s what helps us keep up in this “New Normal” era of rapid technological and demographic change.
AA: Let’s talk more about the “New Normal.”
PH: It seems like the pace of change is incredibly fast. We have five generations represented in the workforce and an incredibly diverse population here in California. How does the value of your message reach such a broad audience? That’s a big challenge.
Furthermore, it’s not just a melting pot, it’s a cauldron. There’s so much going on up and down this state. If you’re doing business here in California, you have to stay on top of its complexity and diversity. You have to be change-ready all the time.
AA: How are you addressing it?
PH: That’s part of the reason for making our educational trips around the state. In the case of Leadership California, we realized around 2006-2007 that we needed a very aggressive set of policies and strategies around diversity and inclusion. We brought in a diversity expert to help us see our unknown biases. What audiences are we not reaching? What do we have to do individually and as an organization to be more representative of California? It was a sometimes painful process of discovery, and we asked ourselves how we could be so clueless. But we learned. Now it’s second nature. Good leaders aren’t afraid to ask for help and they know how and where to get it.
AA: Tell us more about being change ready.
PH: You have to pick and choose what you do best. What model works best with your members? You have to work on it and refine it. But, you still have to have the flexibility to try new things. But it’s not realistic to respond to every change request every week. For instance, everyone’s talking about the importance of tweeting at their live events. But we have a client (representing top level corporate communications officers) that forbids tweeting at their meetings. They attract very high level speakers, such as former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Those speakers depend on having a safe place to speak candidly and off the record.
AA: How would you describe your leadership style?
PH: You need to be a really good listener and aggregator of what you hear. It’s the ability to take all those opinions—the variety of things you see happening in the environment—and pull them together in some meaningful pattern or trend. Then you have to bring recommendations and give options without being too closely tied [personally] to any one of them.
AA: How about getting new ideas from concept to reality?
PH: There’s no lack of ideas at most associations. What they need is someone who can say how they’re going to execute those ideas. It’s great to start something, but keeping it going and devoting the right resources to it is the real challenge. I seem to have a knack for connect the dots and connecting people even if those people are from different backgrounds and different industries. I research. I read a lot. I try to pull it all together to make it into something cohesive.
AA: What can you tell us about working with volunteers and getting the most out of their knowledge and experience?
PH: It’s not just getting members to volunteer. It’s about knowing your people. It’s about chemistry and putting the right people together who can work well with each other. Also, we try not to overwhelm volunteers, especially the new ones. We have them try one or two small things first; then see how it plays out. If you’re not careful, your staff team and committees can get pretty demoralized.
One of our clients works in governance. They did a very smart thing—they put together a list of 20 volunteer opportunities including the time commitment expectations around each one of [those opportunities]. The commitment ranged from a few hours to three years of their time. And it made a big difference. They had no idea how many people wanted to be part of the organization.
AA: Talk about the future and engaging younger members of profession?
PH: Make sure you’re connecting them with someone they know. For example, we have more than 1,000 prospective members we’re trying to reach. You can send email, postal mail and invite them to meetings. But the best thing is to enlist current members to recruit them. At Leadership California, we hold recruitment reception events to help build a good prospect list.
AA: You’re known as a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusion. Can you speak to that?
PH: You have to make a place for people. They have to see a place for themselves in your organization. Ask yourself, “Who are we not including?” Look to see if NextGen, women and people of color are well represented at your organization. What don’t we know about them? What do we need to understand about them? Just inviting them to meetings, or having a young professionals day, is not enough. It’s very complex, and it takes a long-term commitment with a clear plan. And you must involve those under-represented cohorts [NextGen, women and people of color] in setting the plan. What’s practical? What’s reasonable? There’s a lot of “personal ask” involved. You need to use your members to get members.
AA: Anything else about cutting through the clutter and engaging members?
PH: Postcards. People get so much electronic mail and text messaging, but they don’t get a lot of paper mail—maybe one-eighth of what they get is paper. We’re finding a nice hard copy postcard to be very effective at getting our message through.
AA: So how do you help your clients stand out in a crowded marketplace?
PH: As I said earlier, we’re highly aware of how competitive our marketplace is. Members can find the resources they need in so many other places. People are so well connected now. You really have to pay attention to what your marketplace is. What’s the competition? It’s like Southwest Airlines. Love them or hate them, they really know what they’re all about and what customers expect of the Southwest experience. In the NFP world, it’s very similar. To be successful you need to deliver a good compelling message and stick with it. Our job is to participate in the process of discovery and planning. You have to be really clear about where you are in the marketplace. You need the discipline to commit 100 percent to your mission. You can be distracted just because someone else [in your space] is doing something new.
AA: Any tips for refining one’s message to members?
PH: We’re working on a public relations plan right now for one of our clients. It’s a tough exercise. We all think we know what we’re all about and where we stand, but when you go out and try to develop key messages about your organization—that’s a different type of discipline. We went out to a large group of members and asked them who they believed the organization’s audience is. And there were about 23 different answers. We really had to bring that down to 5. It’s been very challenging.
AA: What else can you tell us about leadership and career success?
PH: In addition to being a good listener, you need flexibility, empathy and, most of all, you need to love your work. You have an affinity with the businesses you’re representing. You’re spending an awful lot of time around those industries. It’s hard to fake your way through [the day] if you’re not passionate about it. For instance, we have a client in higher education. That’s something I really care about—colleges, universities and what they do. I think that comes out in our work for them. It has to be authentic work if you’re going to help organizations move things forward.
How is your association helping members be change ready? Let us know in the comments below.