Should you Hire Industry or Association Experts?

 A fellow panelist at a recent conference, a successful and highly innovative CEO, laid out his strategy for turning around his organization. This wasn’t a canned presentation. He thoughtfully reassessed the steps he took, shared the thinking that went into difficult decisions and allowed the audience glimpses into both success and failures. One of his decisions was not to hire “association professionals.” He determined that to re-invent his association and dramatically re-think the basis of its customer value and competitiveness, he needed people with experiences in a variety of sectors who could bring a fresh perspective -- one that was not influenced by deeply entrenched assumptions and habits with regard to how associations are supposed to organize and define their business. The point of the panel was not to get the audience to agree with this CEO's approach or any one option presented, but to expose and challenge assumptions that are so embedded that we take them for facts.

 Yet, judging from the evaluations, some association executives were shocked and offended by this CEO’s admission. What?  Hire outside association professionals? And tout it as a successful strategy at that?  This is a betrayal.  How can a highly respected CEO devalue a profession it is our duty to support? 

 Hmm! Is it our duty to support the current model of associations and association professionals or to contribute real value to our members’ success whatever it takes? And guess what! What it takes to deliver customer value today differs from what it took even a few years ago. The “right people” for the bureaucratic models of the past are not usually "right" for the reinvention, flexibility, customer centricity, customization and speed that are essential to competitiveness today.  How do we even know what is “right” for today’s new market and customer needs if our mindset is defensive rather than open and inquisitive?

Are associations an industry/sector or a profession? Andrea Pellegrino and I pondered over it during lunch at an outdoor restaurant in Old Town Alexandria—where of course the world’s greatest ideas usually emerge, right?  We concluded that the confusion between the two and the “professionalization” of association management was a problem for associations.

Okay, it is true that experience in a particular type of organization or industry is frequently an asset. It is also true that there are fields that involve specific technical mastery: museum collection management; computer programming; accounting, etc.  But these are functional and situational.  They are different from filtering every function or competency through the lens of one industry –e.g. association leadership vs. leadership --and developing a separate field of study and designations, such as CAE’s.  It is as if association management was driven by a different logic than their markets and customers.

“Why concern ourselves with patterns in consumer behavior or successful membership models across industries? We are talking about members and not about consumers and the association dues-based type of membership here--not any model.” 

According to this logic, I suppose, both association members and employees are different breeds of human beings with no parallel in other industries. This is probably why many association executives proudly consider themselves association professionals first and leaders in/representative of particular industries, secondly.  I don’t get it. Is our goal to maintain the established association model or to build organizations that are indispensable to what matters the most to members at any given time? Are we doing a disservice to association professionals by developing them into experts of the "association way"  of running a business rather than hone their understanding of customers, broaden their knowledge of markets and "best practices" beyond associations; enable them to innovate and make decisions outside narrow processes?  I mean what is the objective after all?  Is it to advocate for a profession or to hire and develop the right people, constantly challenging assumptions and avoiding stagnation?   Settling for the status quo, falling into habitual patterns of thinking has been the demise of many formerly great companies.

In my recently published book there is a reference to the book, Good to Great to Gone: The 60-Year Rise and Fall of Circuit City, by former CEO Alan Wurtzel. In it, Wurtzel

… asks how his former company went from hugely successful market leader and innovator to extinction in such a short time. The answer he finds has to do with “habits of mind,” his term for the underlying assumptions, values, and worldviews that are bedrock ways of thinking about one’s organization in relation to the world, that drive strategy and actions, and that ultimately lead an organization to either success or failure.

…This was because its new leadership came to believe that Circuit City’s position at the top was permanent and immutable and refocused efforts from the outside to the inside, from a culture of curiosity and learning to one of preservation of “business as usual” and avoidance of risk. Without challenging the habits of mind from the outside in, the leaders of Circuit City found themselves presiding over its demise.


Associations, like any organization across industries, are vulnerable to the fate of Circuit City.


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