Why Great Staffs Are Essential to Great Associations

Business leader John Spence considers high-performing employees to be the lifeblood of an organization. So what to do about the low-performing ones?

Every association has dozens, even hundreds of touch points where they interact with members: meetings, phone calls, emails, even articles like this one. But what are your big-deal “moment of truth” touch points—the places where members don’t renew when you get it wrong?

All of you have moments of truth with your members. If you mess one of them up, you lose your members.

During his Monday morning Game Changer Session at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo, author and former executive John Spence encouraged attendees to gather the kind of deep knowledge of members that identifies those make-or-break moments. A restaurant, for instance, won’t necessarily lose business if the front-door signage is subpar, but it’s a certainty that customers won’t come back if service is poor. The same goes for associations. “All of you have moments of truth with your members,” he said. “If you mess one of them up, you lose your members.”

One key to flawless execution of those moments of truth is the culture of an organization’s staff, according to Spence. Among the barriers to successful culture are lack of clear communication of goals, a culture that allows for too much dysfunctional behavior, a lack of clear expectations of what great work looks like, a lack of accountability among management, and top performers who feel they’re treated no better than underperforming ones. (For more from Spence on culture, see “Why Strong Leaders Need Strong Cultures.”)

Throughout his talk, Spence delivered a firm message that those underperforming staffers should have short tenures at their organizations (or, as he joked, be “released to industry”). The stakes are too high for associations to behave otherwise. “The minute you start accepting mediocrity in your business, you become a magnet for mediocrity in your business,” he said.

So what do you do to help get an underperformer where he or she needs to be? Spence’s method involves four sheets of paper that the employee and supervisor each agree on:

  1. A list that details, as measurably as possible, the goals the employee intends to meet in the next 90 days.
  2. A list of everything the employee needs from the organization to meet those goals.
  3. A reasonable bonus or reward, should those goals be met.
  4. The employee’s statement of what the outcome should be if the goals aren’t met after receiving the resources on the second sheet.

That method, Spence said, has meant he’s rarely had to fire people; in cases where people don’t improve, they decide to move on. However, Spence stressed that organizations need to pay as much, if not more, attention to the high achievers. “We need to create a culture of catching people doing things right,” he said.

(photo by Jamey Guy)

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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