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.

Morgan came to the $19 billion club industry after a long career in the financial sector.  His “outsider” status became an asset in his efforts to understand and build relationships with his members. “I knew nothing about running clubs,” Morgan says. “I could not claim expertise and had no preconception about how things were “supposed” to be done, so I asked many questions.”  His curiosity about his members and the thousands of miles he logged each month to visit them at their clubs and get to know them, changed the tone of the association’s conversation with its members far more effectively than formal announcements and lofty expressions of intent. They signaled a new focus on members and basis of relationship with them. Shortly after becoming CEO Morgan had, in essence, began to shift the association’s focus from products to people.

Morgan decided to move his career to the association sector because of its focus, at least theoretically, on helping people rather than simply making a profit. The potential he saw in associations was to go beyond commodity selling to actually improve lives and facilitate tangible solutions to problems that jeopardized members' success.  To walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk, Morgan translated this philosophy into practice and new measures of success.  Under his leadership, a number of associations built new capabilities and identified innovative solutions that made measurable differences to their members’ ability to compete in today's environment.   

Asked about how he measured his successes in in his previous position, as CEO of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI), Morgan does not enumerate new programs, members or membership tiers but describes, instead, the outcomes he helped members achieve. 

 In NIRI, a professional association that supports financial communicators of predominantly publicly traded companies, Morgan was inheriting a “sleepy association, experiencing serious financial hardship due to the Great Recession.”   Up to that point, Morgan explains, “our members were communicators telling the stories of companies to investors. By the time I left, they were financial experts who were engaged in storytelling.” This is because, NIRI helped members understand their market and industry and align their competencies with them. By developing financial expertise, they were assuming a new role in their industry—shifting from tellers of stories to contributors to, and interpreters of,  these stories. Similarly, when NIRI expanded its membership to developing economies like Brazil, it did much more than increase its product sales. It provided its new, international members with strategic guidance and capability development that allowed them to access capital markets.

For many associations, “advancing” the profession simply translates into serving as lobbyists or PR agents for the status quo, often raising entry requirements to preserve it by preventing new, nontraditional entrants. For Morgan, it meant ushering change rather than blocking it, in order to integrate it with the changing needs of capital markets.  It meant having a role in influencing the architecture of professions, and shaping value generating relationships and ecosystems within industries/sectors, rather than sitting back as a passive spectator.

In today’s fluid and unpredictable environments, professionals and organizations need to be able to constantly recalibrate their roles, competencies and value propositions to survive. They can no longer operate in isolated silos of narrow technical expertise or vertical markets. Instead they have to enter into multiple relationships across functions, professions or industries and assume more strategic roles. Morgan sees the value of associations in helping industries and professions achieve such strategic recalibrations and operate in a connected world.   

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