Listening to Association Leaders: Success Characteristics in Turnaround Leadership

Blog_9.pngBy Anna Caraveli

What kind of leadership does it take to turn an organization around from decline to market leadership and from obscurity to relevance? We asked ourselves this question in the cases of association CEOs who stood out from the larger pool we interviewed. These were the leaders who had actually succeeded in moving their associations well beyond cosmetic changes or incremental improvements. They did not rest with merely stopping the bleeding. They built entirely new bases for competitive advantage, value proposition and market positioning.   And as different as their associations, industries and personal approaches were, we started discerning shared patterns and characteristics. Here are five that struck us as especially significant these past 4 weeks.

  1.  They perceive challenges broadly and from the outside in:  They diagnose problems and build a new architecture starting with the member and market rather than the association.  They eschew inward gazing processes — e.g. committee retreats; competency analyses or asset inventories– and, instead, engage directly with members and other stakeholders. They like to go to the roots of problems rather than obsess with fixing symptoms for the short-term. They are able to link their specific challenges to the larger dynamics of their economic and social environments.  They are likely to see their problems as endemic to their existing models, systems and ways of thinking and hence to seek transformative solutions.   One trade association CEO, for example, determined that their current association model and range of assumptions on which they based decisions, was no longer in sync with the industry’s pace, priorities, needs and ways of doing business. In response to his industry’s shrinking basis and increase in mergers and acquisitions,  it was determined that the association should target the entire value chain rather one segment in it. They expanded their capacity and market share through mergers and acquisitions and broadened the categories of whom they served and how.  The association’s value proposition was now based on facilitating access to, collaboration and business transaction among various components of the value chain: employers and employees; companies, suppliers and customers etc.  Membership and due structures changed dramatically to reflect different value propositions.  How a leader perceives and frames problems determines the types solutions sought and found.
  2.  They are open: They inculcate a culture that is open, entrepreneurial, curious and non-defensive.  In the face of criticism or disagreement, their instinctive reaction is not to “save face” or refute negative comments but to learn, often actively seeking out critical perspectives and pushing deeper to better understand how they might improve, rather than change the subject.   They are stimulated and energized by being challenged to re-think basic assumptions and come up with new solutions. 
  3. To affect organizational turnarounds or dramatic improvements they see everything as negotiable and do not acknowledge any “sacred cows.”  It is member and market needs that drive the structure, culture and business of the association rather than tradition.  Often they are impatient with restrictive processes and procedures and have a sense of irreverence for derived wisdom and established categories.  Most however are not abrasive or polarizing forces, and have found creative ways to get buy in and overcome hurdles.  
  4.  Most are fascinated by themselves and the analysis of their own actions and philosophies.  They welcome opportunities for “telling their story,” and weave eloquent and compelling narratives around their achievements. They are insightful about their process of change,  and the factors and motivations that led to important decisions.  

 They are big thinkers but what drives them is the challenge of translating ideas into execution.  They have an abiding sense of urgency that they imbue their association with. The perception of this urgency is a defining difference between successful and unsuccessful big thinkers.  Without that urgency, I have seen associations mired in endless planning, speculating and report writing that can at times become ends in themselves and distance them from action.    

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