Why New Leaders Need a Playbook for Members

Association execs start out with plenty of guidance on finances, staff, and the board. But what about the members?

Baseball season started yesterday, which means fans like me will spend the summer debating countless leadership decisions large and small. (The skipper put who in middle relief? The GM traded our best prospects for those creaky vets?) There’ll also be countless opportunities to find lessons for association leaders in the game, but I’ll try to restrain myself to one this season. I’m going with Lee Elia.

How well informed were you about the community you serve when you first came on the job?

Elia was the manager of the Chicago Cubs during the 1983 season, and he’s best known for his antics on April 29 of that year, when he delivered a rant for the ages after a tough loss at Wrigley Field. His Tarantino-esque torrent of profanity can’t be reproduced here, though you can read or listen to it if you like. If you’d rather not experience a foul-mouthed tirade in any form, suffice it to say Elia felt Cubs fans were acting disrespectfully toward the team. While 85 percent of Chicago’s population was gainfully employed, he argued, the remaining 15 percent attended games at Wrigley.

This assertion was not supported by Bureau of Labor Statistics data. A recording leaked. Fans turned on Elia. The team foundered. He was gone by August.

OK, so the guy in charge 30 years ago blew his stack. What’s the lesson here?

What’s striking to me about Elia’s ill-fated tenure is that he seemed to have much of the kind of support an inexperienced leader like him needed. He was in only his second year of his first managerial gig, but he was familiar with the workplace culture he was entering: He was hired by Dallas Green, a former colleague from the Philadelphia Phillies. He had a three-year contract, a signal that he wasn’t expected to perform miracles with a team that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) won a World Series since 1908. And he had a solid talent base that included a pair of future Hall of Famers.

But solid leadership isn’t just about knowing your staff and having a sense of job security. It’s also about having an understanding of the culture of the people you’re serving. For Elia, that meant the fans. For you, it means members—and, perhaps as important, your members’ customers. How well informed were you about the community you serve when you first came on the job?

The evidence suggests that most executives aren’t very informed at all. As Jackie Eder-Van Hook wrote in Associations Now in 2011, “After investing considerable time and money recruiting the ‘right’ candidate, boards seem to wipe their hands and walk away like a dealer at a blackjack table once the [CEO] search is completed.” The National Council of Nonprofits maintains an excellent page of resources on managing executive transitions, but the listed articles offer surprisingly little guidance for the executive on relationship-building beyond the board and staff. For instance, this list of essential documents for new execs is a good one, but it lacks anything related to information on members. When the new CEO comes in, perhaps he or she needs another folder that includes:

  • Attendee evaluation reports from your most recent major meetings.
  • Letters from members explaining why they’ve decided not to renew their membership or attend the last major event.
  • Recent examples of member-contributed content in your communications channels.
  • Recommendations of prominent member blogs, Twitter feeds, and other relevant social media outlets to follow.

None of which is a substitute for hitting the road and knowing your members personally. Eder-Van Hook wrote about how the onboarding plan for the CEO of the American Geophysical Union included trips to meet member scientists at their labs and field sites. Lawrence D. Sloan, CAE, president and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, says one of the keys to his success is the 20 to 30 member visits he does each year.

The Cubs wouldn’t necessarily have become a better team if Lee Elia had better understood the Cubs’ idiosyncratic fan culture. But he could only have become a better coach. If nothing else, he might have avoided the blowup that lasted only a minute or two but did permanent harm to his standing as a leader.

How did your transition go? Did you feel like you were well educated about your members, or did you have to pick it up over time?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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