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LEADERS' INTERVIEWS-- Breaking with Orthodoxies: Jeff Morgan, Part II

See Part I

As CEO of CMAA (Club Managers Association of America), Jeff Morgan was inheriting another “sleepy” association out of sync with its markets. To identify the nature and extent of the problem, Morgan had to venture outside the conventional association framework of incremental improvements within the existing model, and refuse to tip-toe around the many “sacred cows.” 

He started by tackling the biggest “sacred cow” of all: the age old assumptions about the nature of the industry and its market value. Belonging to the traditional golf or yachting club used to confer the benefits of exclusivity and privilege. It often connoted private pursuits—the lone golfer or sailor against a backdrop of beautiful nature. Yet, younger generations, especially millennials, are motivated by shared purpose or targeted social interaction, rather than prestige. They value community, collaboration, inclusivity and opportunities to have an impact rather than status and solitary pursuits. It was clear to Morgan that the model for clubs had to be drastically reinvented and aligned with what mattered to today’s members.

Instead of aiming at increasing sales of his portfolio of products and programs, Morgan focused his efforts on nothing short of the transformation—not only of the association—but of the concept and model of clubs.

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Leaders’ Interviews: Breaking with Orthodoxies Jeff Morgan, Part I

"Advancing" Professions and Making a Difference

What would you do if you became CEO of an association whose industry or profession was changing so quickly that it might no longer resonate with the way consumers saw the world and conducted business? Some CEOs respond by redoubling marketing and business development efforts in order to  convince their market of their value. Others choose to increase the profession’s prestige by creating a PhD program and raising entry requirements.  Jeff Morgan, CEO of the 6,500-member Club Managers Association of America (CMAA), made a different choice: to transform and realign his industry with the market.

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Breaking Down Management Orthodoxies

Between the idea and the reality

Between the motion and  the act

Falls the Shadow

  (T.S Eliot, The Hollow Men)

Okay, this may describe many of us but, more to the point, it describes the state of many organizations (associations included), immobilized by outdated modes of thinking and stuck in the status quo. Moving from intent to execution and from promise to delivery is crossing the deepest chasm there is.  And rigid, hierarchical, organizations with set ways for doing things and looking at the world, make the divide almost impossible to bridge.  This is why, while most association leaders agree that dramatic change is needed and put qualities such as flexibility, “nimbleness” and member/customer centricity high on their list, they limit innovation to plans, products or isolated initiatives while the cumbersome, inflexible and slow bureaucratic models remain intact.

And this is my point: to truly innovate and lead an organization’s to a next phase we need leaders who can “unshackle” their organizations from the orthodoxies of the industrial, product-driven, hierarchical models of the past; leaders who are able to move from talking about change to doing things differently. This means willingness to begin challenging and replacing/reinventing the basic components of your core business– from governance, to inside-out product development, culture, roles and responsibilities; measures of success. Yet, I don’t hear such objectives as the centerpiece of leaders’ priorities.

Isn’t it time to move beyond theories and scenarios about the future of associations and figure out how to transition from talking the talk to walking the walk? 

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How to Completely Reinvent Benefits

A recent article by Ernie Smith in Association Now describes a rather unusual benefit that Florida Realtors®, the state’s  primary association for realtors, is providing for realtors: on-demand tech support for all their devices, created “by realtors for realtors” and designed to eliminate the technology problems that ultimately cut into the agents’ bottom line.

Somewhere along the line, Florida Realtors® must have decided to dig deeply into members’ real problems—not from the distance of second-hand information such as surveys and market analysis or through the skewed and generic answers to questionnaires or focus groups—but through direct observation and immersion in these members’ daily lives.  

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How to Create and Leverage Online Communities and Why

Worrying about the costs and technical requirements of an online community or about coming up with a perfect “social media strategy” are not great starting points. Let’s start with the why: why should you build communities at all? To what purpose? After all, there is little point in using social media without understanding and leveraging the unprecedented new capabilities they offer. An article in the Harvard Business Review points to four key capabilities that online communities afford you, namely to:

  • Promote deep relationships

  • Allow fast organization

  • Improve the creation and synthesis of knowledge, and

  • Permit better filtering of information 


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The Recession Ready Association

By Dan Varroney
President & CEO, Potomac Core

Reprinted with permission from

It’s been seven years since the end of the great recession and one economist thinks there is a 60% chance of a recession next year. As global uncertainty and slow U.S. economic growth dominate the landscape, CEO’s should assess whether or not they are leading a recession ready association. While the next recession may not be as severe as the last one, be rest assured that business leaders are continually increasing scrutiny over expenditures not related to corporate performance.

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What Blocks your Capacity to Innovate and What You Can do About it

Contact us about our new leadership learning community for developing innovative, outside-in, leadership capabilities 

I have spent, it seems, several lifetimes trying to help associations, universities and other knowledge services break out of the status quo and grow.  But growth today is based on an organization’s capacity for constant innovation. I often wonder if there has been any significant progress in the innovation capabilities of the kind of organizations I have worked with for over two decades now.

 In 2002 an HBR article asked this question: “How do you get your people to think creatively—to challenge the status quo—while still keeping your everyday operations running smoothly?” To answer it, the article identifies companies that have been able to “come up with great ideas over and over again” and interviews those who have been able to inspire innovation in them.

The answers of what worked point to the still lingering gaps in most associations 16 years later; gaps that keep them stuck in the status quo and unable to leap to a next level. These answers also add up to a playbook for a new type of leader, who is aimed at growth and is unafraid of leading disruption, where and when needed. 

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Are you Marching to your Board’s or your Customers’ Pace?

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.   

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How to Apply New Tools and Knowledge to Increase Engagement and Retention: Beyond Formulas and Magic Bullets

Why is it that all of us, in some way or other, get stuck looking at trees as individual entities, losing sight of the forest they are but pieces of? 

Take the genuine desire of associations (and other organizations) to remain relevant to their members/customers’ concerns and make a difference.  In the last few years these concerns have focused on engagement and generated a flurry of discussions, publications and methodologies.  So why isn’t there a proportionate rise in member satisfaction, retention and association growth as a result?

Perhaps this is because “engagement” is reduced to merely a tool for sales or “feel good” member experiences.  It has been equated with techniques, events, awards and strategies and boiled down to formulas, such as, interviewing 10 customers a month, visiting 3 members at their work place or inviting them to yours.

And here is the problem. Focusing on single lines of activity, such as sending birthday cards, visiting members’ workplace or spending a day in a workshop do not, in themselves, generate engagement. In fact they can obscure our view of the customer and dilute the goal of constantly figuring out how to deliver value that counts. 

It is true that for ideas to be implemented, they have to be translated into daily routines, specific practices and activities until they become second nature. And monthly interviews of a set amount of members per staff, observing members at their workplace or making a phone call rather than resort to generic e-mails are the right steps to execution and transformation. But they are not ends unto themselves.

Paradoxically, this type of “engagement” efforts, have reverted the focus back to the association:  its own plans and narrow, inside-out paths to what they consider “engagement. Yet what generates engagement is not the association compelling its members to see the value its staff and board have agreed on, but the members perceiving and experiencing value and choosing to engage with it.  So our job is not to come up with techniques for engaging but to understand what truly matters to, and engages members. But is even understanding enough?

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Empower Your Members to Become your Engagement Partners

Do you know what engages members or customers more than anything else? Other members or customers. Community managers and organizations run on a community-based model know this all too well. It is the community itself, rather than their products that have the highest member value and, hence, engage. 

“Engaging Members with Members” is the topic of this article from the Cooperative Grocer’s Network. We are not talking about the “member-get-a-member” campaigns here, where the goal is sales of commodity products and membership benefits.  The fact that I can get a free month at my gym if I recruit a new member gives me zero motivation to do so. (However, it won’t hurt if you happen to be looking for a gym in Old Town Alexandria and ask me about it).

What the article discusses is enlisting members as engagement partners by tapping their networks of relationships and skills in relationship-building. As Bonnie Hudspeth, former project manager of the Monadnock Food Co-op (Keene, N.H.), is quoted saying: 

 The idea is that an active member can reach out to their network—whether it’s a peer network, friendship network, or volunteer network in the community—and really engage them and invite them to be members. It’s really leveraging the relationships that members have already established.

A simple and effective mechanism for start-ups in that sector has been the humble potluck dinner, “inviting your member-owners to the table and empowering them to invite their networks to join.”

Okay so you have way too many members to ask some of them throw potluck dinners for others. That’s not the main point, however. Here some very cool principles in the food co-ops’ mode of engagement that can transfer or give you some food for thought. 

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New White Paper on Outside-In Engagement Engagement for Chapter Leaders Resources