The Leap Leaders Have to Make

Last week I went through the entire list of trade associations on ASAE’s website and clicked on a number of their websites. That’s right! All 14,317 of them! Don’t ask me why.  I've known many of them for years-working, talking to or reading about many of them individually. When I conjure them up, however, it is in terms of specific people and projects. This is as it should be of course. Except that, especially for someone like me whose entire career was not in associations, it is easy to underestimate or forget about the cultural, historical and practice ties to the past that are often the backdrop for thinking and making decisions.  Maybe this is why that, for some reason, I felt compelled to get a sense of associations as dots in a larger industry map.

While the usual names associations adopt are no surprise to anyone, somehow looking at thousands of them at one fell swoop gave me a different feeling—one of formal representation rather than community. American Association of X, American Society of that…National associations; state associations; tools manufacturing and myriads of specialized associations; a few councils and federations;  energy or concrete or other materials institutes…well, you get the drift.   

Pages and pages of names that communicated institutional solemnity and representation rather than community!  No shared purpose, such as learning or innovating in the name; no common challenge to solve or clue about the nature of the relationship among members, like a partnership.  Sure there were a tiny handful of names that included terms such as consortium or network but there was nothing networked or collaborative about them in their menus of benefits and programs; nothing different from associations with more traditional names.  A few associations had beguiling titles, like associations for innovative learning, thinking, entrepreneurship, experimentation etc.  I looked at their websites excitedly expecting to see a completely different model of organizing and creating value only to realize that this was not the case.  They simply represented those who experimented, innovated or crossed boundaries rather than embody these practices themselves.

In perusing thousands of names, the roots of associations in medieval craft guilds and merchant trading groups and role in lobbying and advocating somehow jumped out at me. Sure, I am not discounting the possibility of brain freeze or hallucination after the first 5-10,000 of names. But the historical and cultural "baggage" in the sector as a whole was far more evident than in exciting discussions on projects in innovation or member centricity with smart association executives. This must be why the execution of change in such project is so difficult. I suddenly felt empathy for these leaders. What a leap they would have to make!

Over the years, associations have evolved into educational and service organizations competing in the same sphere as a veritable deluge of diverse providers —from tightly focused and efficient training outfits to more strategic services like leadership development and consulting. Yet most associations, to one degree or other, seem to be diving into a fast-paced and fluid environment, with porous and shifting boundaries, from an organizational platform initially set up to represent and advocate for well-defined industry and professional spaces. Their fixed packages of benefits and programs pre-suppose stability and limited customer choices in an environment of multiple choices in which businesses have to be on constant alert—adapting to changes and delivering continuously new solutions rather than defending territory.

 No wonder there is so much confusion in selecting priorities and determining how to get to results and visualize the future. In some ways associations have split personalities, with leaders trying to be all things to all people and adhering to two conflicting directions at once – flexibility, speed, entrepreneurship and customer centricity on the one hand, and rigid, slow bureaucratic systems with a focus on their own products and processes on the other hand.   Without clarity on a new role and vision and a firm, organization-wide orientation toward customers, there is no clear basis for decision-making.  Some of the recurrent questions I hear from executives reflect it:


  • Should we “blow up” our current practices? Should we create radically different membership and business models?

  • Should we go “global”?

  • Should we still have a print publication?

  • How can we increase attendance at our conference?

  • How can we increase engagement?


The way to gain clarity and break out of the quasi-governmental, bureaucratic models of the past is to clear the debris of association-centric assumptions and start with customers to reframe the questions.


Inside-In, Bureaucratic/Product-Centered

Outside-In, Customer-Centric

Instead of:

You might ask:

What should our next phase of growth or impact be?

What direction are our customers going in? What new challenges are emerging for them that they may not even be fully aware of? What other customer group may get value out of our resources, including access to our current members? What new options for value and innovation does technology offer?

How can we increase retention and attract the next generation of members?

What are the problems our members struggle with most and how relevant have we been to their solutions? What type of unique element can make our solutions worth choosing over those of our competitors?

Should we change our membership model?

What are the most effective tracks and modes of service delivery that suit the needs of various segments among our customers, whether or not they are membership-based?

Should we go global?

Where are our customers going and where will they be going in the future? What partnerships and activities will expand our own capabilities to provide value to members?

Should we still have a print publication?

How do our members want to access information to make the best use of it? Has technology opened new options for maximizing customer value?

How can we increase attendance at our conference?

Is our conference the most effective and convenient vehicle for bringing our members together around content? If not, what is?

How can we increase engagement?

How can we understand and connect to what matters the most to our members? How can we facilitate their relationships with their clients and help them identify solutions that will increase their success?

 The leaders needed today are those who can help associations shift from formal, rigid governance and product-centered models to intimate, flexible, people and relationship-centered organizations.




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