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Leaders: Five Ways To Step It Up in 2015

Leaders: Five Ways To Step It Up in 2015The economic reality of 2014 was far better than many expected.  Unemployment fell to its lowest level in six years, the stock market climbed to historic highs, gasoline prices fell and commercial interest rates remained steady and low. The continued gridlock in Congress and the coming shift in majority control fuels some uncertainty and likely gives even the most optimistic leader among us pause. Normally, with the turn of the New Year just a month away, taking stock and setting a course for 2015 would already be overdue, but in today’s world, savvy leaders know there’s always time for fine-tuning. Here are five ways to step it up in 2015 to navigate the coming trends and challenges in the New Year:

Readiness, Resiliency and Re-adjustment Will Be Your Mantra.
For too many years, leaders acted as though the coming year was simply an incremental adaptation of the prior year. Don’t even think about it.  The nature of leadership today demands that we identify and prepare short, mid and long-term strategies for all of our key activities. In meetings with CEO’s, business owners and senior executives, I increasingly hear about their six-month sales strategy, the twelve-month strategic plan, or the three-month capital equipment budget.  Much of the foundational business planning familiar to many of us is giving way to a near-term focus with a healthy dose of long-range re-adjustment strategy in the wings.

Think Deeply About Your Members.  What business are they in and what’s happening to their employees and customers?  What problems are your customer’s customers facing? Chances are if your members or their suppliers are involved in transportation, graphic communications, logistics, financial services, home building, auto manufacturing and the associated supply pipelines, 2015 will be difficult.  Scott Stratten, in his book, Unmarketing talks about the importance of remarrying your current customers. Your members have high expectations and the current trend line in customer experience is heading in the wrong direction. Does your organization have a member assistance plan in place?  Stepping up the focus on your career center programs, offering free or low cost business counseling, focused research or resume banks will continue to serve a vital purpose.  If your membership is company-based finding new ways of reaching out to the various internal departments (HR, supply logistics, finance) with ideas, tools and resources will be essential to success in 2015.

Step Up Your Personal Member Communications.  When former United States Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson headed up Goldman Sachs, he made 50-60 phone calls just after New Year’s Day to simply say hello and share goodwill for the coming year with the firm’s top clients.  Association leaders should do the same.   While there’s a better than even chance you’ll get an earful about the political gridlock, and uncertain times, there’s an equal chance you’ll strengthen the connection between members and your association.  No doubt some of you reading this will say, “but we’ve got 10,000 members, we can’t call them all.” Well you can call some of them. I called three hundred members and prospects in the space of a month. You can pick thirty members randomly from across the country. Call them. Now.

Prudence, Pragmatism and Frugality Rule.  Being productive, efficient and wise with resources never goes out of style. Uncertainty provides an ideal opportunity to engage your team in finding ways to keep a lid on expenses or exploring new ways of doing day-to-day things more efficiently. To be clear, few of our associations can shrink their way to success. We are already doing far more, with far less than we are used to doing. As a leader however, you can use the moment to inculcate staffers of the importance saving money, seeking new efficiencies and considering new means to productivity are more than leadership clichés.

Master Your Own Voice and Share Your Great Story. It’s a given, nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. And this great story isn’t about you. Don’t let that stop you from developing a vision for where your association is heading in 2015, how you’ll get there, and why everyone around you—staff, membership, Board members, stakeholders and customers—will feel stronger, be better looking, and succeed beyond their wildest dreams, when you do. As humans, we are social beings and connecting through stories is what we do. Leaders understand great stories stir emotion, are memorable, authentic, and conclude with a powerful call to action.  That’s hard to get from reading the Association’s latest strategic plan or its financial statement.  Just like the increasingly popular “dashboard” tools, stories illuminate the unity behind our purpose and mission.

You’re it. Vous êtes le chef.
What’s your story going to be in 2015?

Laggards, Leaders & Associations

In a crazy economy. crazy measures on recovery come to the fore it seems.  underwearNew York Times writer Jack Healy wrote a terrific piece Men’s Underwear as an Economic Indicator in which he explores the range of ersatz economic indicators we use to assess the status of the American economy.  Healy recalls that “in the 1970s, when Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve was still running his own economic consulting firm, he said that he looked at sales of men’s underwear as an economic indicator. Sales rose steadily in normal times, the theory went, but tended to dip when men had less money, or were trying to cut back on their spending.  Nowadays its everything from uncut grass to mosquito populations that inform the notion of economic recovery.

So where do Associations stand amidst the myriad economic indicators?  Are our traditional indicators still a valid measure of where we stand and what’s to come?  For trade associations whose dues structure are based on the revenues of their member firms a rude awakening likely awaits as the sales declines of 2009 come home to roost in the dues assessments of 2010.  Likewise participation levels in conference programs, events and seminars which have slowed for many membership groups may not be a reliable indicator as new forms of program participation—think webinars, audio conferences and distance learning tools—take hold.  Even the veritable National PTA is fending off membership defections as parents view social media as the better way to organize and inform parent decisions.

Gazing into the future in today’s environment is daunting at best but Associations looking for leading indicators will find them in membership satisfaction, membership conversion–that is how many prospects buy your value proposition–and join, the association’s rate of innovation, diversity, and measures of ethical behavior by members all stand as strong indicators in today’s environment of future sustainability.  Our more traditional tools of member retention, financial statements and event evaluations each a lagging indicator do little to help us anticipate the future.

So what are your measures?  What are the new metrics essential to measuring your succeed?  How will we know when the economy is in an upturn for your profession or industry?  Finding new meterics is an exercise in both innovation and creativity with a significant pay-off for your Association.  Don’t take the process lightly, but if you haven’t already begun to look now might be the right time.  Sure it’s hard to know what works, but just in case you’re wondering,  underwear sales will fall 2.3% this year.  Where are your sales headed?

An Exit Strategy at the Start?

leadership_exitIn a recent presentation I created a bit of a stir by suggesting the best time for an association CEO to craft an exit strategy was at the moment they accepted the position.  Some in the audience thought that planning an exit strategy at the outset, meant you were entering into the new responsibility hokey-pokey style—one foot in, one foot-out.  Sort of like planning for a divorce on your wedding day or starting a new dating relationship with a scheduled break-up planned in advance.  The analogies miss the point.  Prenuptial agreements aside for the moment, employment contracts and economic reality all suggest something different is afoot and exit strategies are a vital part of beginning anew.  The absence of employer-employee loyalty, once endemic to corporate America has become a veritable pandemic and the non-profit world is not immune.  Companies laid-off over 832,000 employees in the first quarter of 2009 alone.  And turnover at the C-level is a growing trend in both the for- and non-profit sectors.  According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas which tracks public and private company CEO departures there were 1,484 chief executives who went to the door in 2008. 

My point is that in accepting a new position it is important you have a vivid concept of what the goals and expectations for your leadership tenure will be.  Said differently, why are you taking the position in the first place?  Have you established a set of personal milestones to assess your progress and satisfaction with the work?  Does the work and your results align with your strengths, self-image and the expectations?  And perhaps more importantly what will you do if it doesn’t?  While most of us would agree leaving a post is the choice of last resort, knowing you have a plan, including the resources and support to do so, seems prudent rather than predictive.

Which left me wondering how often CEO’s and other leaders assess their own successes, goal achievements and personal satisfaction in their current positions.  Do you have personal milestones in your current or new position or is it simply all about putting the work first and worrying about yourself later?  How do you measure and manage the melange of goals—yours, theirs and the collective “ours”?   Do you have an exit strategy?  More importantly, should you?