Why Association Leaders Need a Vision

By Mark Athitakis • May 17, 2023

Republished from Associations Now

Associations face an increasingly competitive market for members, attendees, and education. Experts recommend finding a “superpower”—and building a culture that supports it.

Time was, the association value proposition was pretty simple: “We’re the only ones who care about you.” If you were a member of a profession, the association serving it was often the sole option when it came to training you, credentialing you, connecting you with your peers, and advocating on your behalf when legislation could affect your work.

Now, of course, it’s not that simple. The internet can provide community and education, and a broader array of associations means professionals can pick and choose which group best serves their interests. And as more professionals change jobs and careers more often, even the so-called “golden handcuffs” of credentialing aren’t a guarantee that people will stick around.

The value proposition now is more like: “We provide X like nobody else can.” What’s X? That’s up to you, of course, but it’s a tricky business. A recent McKinsey & Company article stresses the importance of finding an answer. Five experts from the consulting firm argue that every organization requires a “superpower.” Or rather, you need an “institutional capability,” something you do “consistently … better than competitors,” the article stated. “It must involve work that is integral to the company and the industry; it can’t be a gimmick.”

The most ambitious and successful CEOs outline a vision of what they want to be known for.

These capabilities can be functional—one particular thing that you’re known for doing well. Or they can be enterprise-wide—cultural elements like innovation and decision-making that help the entire organization thrive. Regardless, success demands identifying, supporting, and perhaps expanding those capabilities. To do that, the authors propose a process it summarizes as VECTOR—that is, vision, employees, culture, technology, organization, and routines.

I’m as skeptical of forced acronyms as I am of comic-book metaphors. But there are two points within the concept that make good sense. First, is the importance of starting with a vision. An organization’s targets have to involve more than just finances, the authors explain. “The most ambitious and successful CEOs go further and outline a vision of what they want to be known for,” they wrote. The first job is identifying that vision, getting people behind it, and staying flexible while they pursue it.

“Adaptation never ends,” they wrote. “The capability needs to continue to evolve and grow.”

The second point involves culture. Because a new vision and shiny new mission statement aren’t enough; a commitment to change requires creating an environment where new ideas are welcomed and the tools of the change are welcomed. Leaders will need employees, members, and volunteers to support the effort. “When building or enhancing a capability, a mindset shift is required,” they wrote. “What is often missing, however, is the stamina and consistency to make the change stick.”

The association world offers plenty of examples of rising to the moment. Because they’ve recognized that membership and engagement isn’t a given since the pandemic, they’ve changed their meetings, created new education modalities, introduced new products and services, and otherwise refused to stand pat. Sometimes that shift was a function of the urgency of the moment: The mission became not so much, “We provide X like nobody else can” as “We’re keeping the doors open.” But the experience has taught a lot of associations about what works, what members truly need, and how best to provide it.

Connect that to a meaningful vision, and you have a value proposition that can last well beyond a crisis.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.