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.

As Morgan learned from his members and these members’ members, the building blocks of a new positioning and value proposition for the clubs of the future became increasingly clear. Clubs should reorganize around needs that have acquired new significance in the post 9-1, post-recession and postindustrial age, specifically around needs for:

  • Safe, nurturing, welcoming environments for activities

  • Opportunities to escape frenzied schedules and hectic paces to come together with families and friends and experience “community.”   

  • Healthy physical activity for the entire family, given our sedentary lives, video games replacing outdoor play for children and the elimination of physical education in many schools.Instead of exclusive societies catering to the individual pursuit of an activity, clubs should be transformed into health and lifestyle partners; hubs for experiencing family and community; safe havens for activities and interactions.   

To survive, Morgan realized, clubs would have to be especially relevant to millennials. The association has hired a consumer research firm to better understand the behavior of millennials and assess what it would take for them to join clubs.

In short, Morgan has set forth a process of change that, through bold moves or small, nuanced shifts of emphasis, is challenging a number traditional association orthodoxies, for example: 

  • Focus and orientation: gradual shift from inside out to outside – from the association’s products, policies etc. to customers and their problems.

  • Measures of success: beginning to shift from product-based (numbers of products, initiatives, members, etc.) to customer-based criteria: outcomes as perceived and experienced by members 

  • Role in industry and profession: moved from the role of “lobbyist” for the profession to one of facilitator of change and constant realignment

  • Products and services: shifting from products to strategic solutions by: 

    • Building tools and resources that help members’ business succeed such as, “shareable, operational and strategic information on club operations, strategic management, oversight and governance”

    • Demonstrating its value to corporate partners by measuring outcomes rather than relying on rhetoric: “A recent membership survey confirmed that CAP partners have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.”

  • Top down, inside-out strategic planning: Instead of centering strategic planning on its own internal committees and assumptions, Morgan started by talking to members and identifying problems that preoccupied them. Strategic planning became a process of crafting solutions for these problems. 

     The Governance & Leadership Summit

A major problem that conversations with members uncovered was the difficulty club managers had in getting their boards to understand their markets’ behavior and see the need for dramatic transformation of their clubs. 

The design of the Governance & Leadership Summit was the first solution that was rolled out. It is a one-day workshop that brings together club managers with the respective chairs of their boards to look at their clubs from the perspective of the market and jointly re-think their models, governance and leadership roles.  Summits feature respected guest experts, provide immersion experiences in the dynamics of today’s markets and analyze successful cases to educate participants on what it takes to run clubs as businesses and make them competitive for today’s markets.

At their inaugural summit, board members met other board members for the first time, broadening their understanding of the club business and identifying shared challenges, market trends and options for model innovation they had never before conceived as possible.

 No one yet knows how Governance & Leadership Summits might evolve. They might spin off online communities of board members, spawn joint ventures or economic value networks among clubs, give rise to a CMAA consulting arm for helping clubs execute and develop the new model and infinite other possibilities. Morgan’s philosophy is not aimed at designing and launching finished products but at setting in motion dynamic processes of continuous learning by doing. This is how successful, entrepreneurial companies grow today.

Morgan’s transformative leadership does not depend on top-down decision-making or a role for himself as expert in all things. He leads by formulating a strategic vision and enabling and empowering others to contribute to it and move it forward.

One of his member club managers, a “visionary manager” as Jeff sees him, has already transitioned from the conventional club model of the past to distributed communities and value networks that are not dependent on one location or type of activity.  For example, there is an app through which members can access club resources anywhere, anytime. The club has created an Uber like model for limousine service; and extensions of the club experience on a beach location. It has turned unused land into farm plots on which members can grow their own vegetables.  This club manager is providing a living laboratory of experimentation and change and a window into what is possible. 

If it wasn’t for Morgan’s constant visits to members and endless questions these innovations might have never been known. And if Morgan had not established a framework of distributed leadership and processes of co-creation, this case would have been hidden or undervalued because all new ideas would have to come top down. As it was this manager was one of the “expert” presented at the Governance & leadership summit. Collaborative leadership, customer focus and entrepreneurial learning by doing (vs. formal planning) characterize the principles of management that give rise to today’s innovators and market leaders. MCAA and Jeff Morgan demonstrate how they can be applied to associations. 



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