A longtime CEO of a trade association, a witty and charming gentleman, approached me at a recent retreat to comment on what he thought was ignorance on my part. This is because, he concluded, I was talking about radical rather than incremental change. Which must only be due to the fact that while I had worked with and done research on associations for years, I had not actually worked in an association. What did I know? How could I possibly understand how carefully change had to be weighed in the association culture? You had an established tradition that must be respected, he continued. You had people like board members or staff who had devoted years nurturing and bringing to fruition a program, policy or initiative. To them it was their “baby.” You can’t expect them to suddenly drop it on someone’s whim and ideas about change. You had to be careful and realistic.
Throughout this two-day meeting, intelligent and strategic-minded executives talked about the wisdom of incremental change. They discussed and analyzed the intricacies of board politics and association culture. Some lamented the enormous gaps between the slow, deliberate and methodic pace of associations’ governance and the fast pace of the markets. What’s to be done?
We heard a great deal about dysfunctional boards and the years it took to just convince board members to make tiny concessions. It had been two years since a new executive director was appointed, for example, and the board has still to realize that staff does not report to them and that their role is not to manage daily operations. To the director’s surprise there was actually a clause in the bylaws that maintained this position. It was there decades ago, when the association was new and had no professional staff. No one knew how long it would take to correct this anachronism, let alone develop the board’s understanding of a different leadership model.
In another case, during a board meeting, a senior board member defended the current governance model and culture when a consultant suggested changes to attract and accommodate a new generation of young leaders. The senior board member spoke for most of the board members when he strenuously objected. It had taken him and his peers 25 years of paying their dues and playing by the rules in an intricate culture of politics and patronage in order to ascend to their current positions of authority within the board, he maintained. If the young volunteers had what it took to be leaders, they should follow the same path to climb up the ladder.
To make her point, the consultant asked those 40 and under who were present in the audience to stand up. How many of them, she wanted to know, were willing to take 25 years of following the same prescribed path to occupy positions of leadership. None of them was and the group simply walked out. This wasn’t enough of a proof to this board member. Instead of becoming convinced that the governance model was outdated and had to adapt to the times, he saw the young volunteers’ reaction as a validation of his views. He turned to his colleagues triumphantly, and exclaimed: “Ah hah! I told you. This just proves my point of how selfish and impatient the younger generation is. Clearly not who we want on our board.” So the present and the future should adapt to the past and not the other way around, right?
The next day I met my affable critic at a different session. It came out in the discussion that new open source modes of scientific publishing were emerging in the market. His association, like other science associations, would no longer have the advantage of controlling access to their content and, thus, would lose its primary competitive advantage. If the movement grew, which the group was sure was just a matter of time, he would simply be out of business. This was irrefutable.
And yet, while the market is transforming all around us even as we speak or sleep, no one at the retreat talked about it except in generalities. Even the most “radical” among us, had spent the better part of two days sharing horror stories and concocting tactics for moving the board’s “needle” by an infinitesimal point on the scale of change-- getting them to consent to a small change in a process or policy, figuring out how to best introduce a topic or waiting for unpleasant board members to retire. I also recalled my critic’s advice on the individual interests, sacred cows, traditions, fears of change, ensconced cultures and beliefs that had to be considered in planning a new direction. This is how he justified his need for advice from only those who had spent decades in the same position as he. Hey, they have to know the rules because changing them, or looking to other industries for successful model innovation, would be such a radical move for a CEO that he/she would not deserve to be "association professionals."
How much effort is really spent daily in coddling, accommodating and fearing, I wonder. And I pictured navigating through all these deliberations and concessions to the association culture and traditions while at the same time, say, the publishing industry and technology are nndaily fast-tracking revolutionary changes that are transforming industries and putting us out of business.
What drives what here? Should an association’s operations, plans and responses to their customers follow the board’s pace and traditions or those of the market place? Meanwhile, for-profit providers that are attuned to the market’s pace are daily taking over the business of credentialing, certifying, lobbying, informing and educating that were the bread and butter of the associations.
I don’t have answers. I just wonder where our mental focus should be to get to answers. “Culture” is at the heart of my academic specialization, practice and research. I get it that it takes time and effort to change it. Yet accommodating outmoded practices and behaviors and embracing them as the true identity of an organization (as in: “well, what can you do? Associations are resistant to change;” or “we are slow. We are not for-profits, after all” or “as an association you have to have this form of governance”) -- is different. Not challenging the status quo is enabling it to continue. Should we be shaking in our boots and expending energy on how to accommodate the association’s pace and comfort level or should we be expecting the association to adapt its comfort level, form of governance and ways of doing business to the market?