Leadership

How to Listen to Global Leaders

By / Sep 23, 2013 (Fuse/Thinkstock)

What are your organization’s international challenges? To hear them, get all your leaders from around the world on the same page, as this association does.

Discussions about going global at associations tend to emphasize difference. Pricing is different. Staffing is different. Languages are different, so you’ll have to dedicate some energy (and expense) to translation. Issues like those can be daunting to organizations that already have an established international presence, let alone those that are just diving in.

ISACA (formerly the Information Systems Audit and Control Association) addresses the diversity of its international chapter leaders in a simple way: It makes a point to get all of them together to talk. And what tends to emerge from those discussions has more to do with similarities than differences.

” What’s most eye-opening and surprising is that the best idea they’ve heard all day came from someone from Sri Lanka.”

The association has 200 chapters across six continents—five regions under ISACA’s structure. Every year chapter leaders meet for a conference in their own regions, but every third year the organization has all chapter leaders convene together for one large conference in North America. According to Lynnea Brand, senior manager, chapter relations, the association has been doing it this way for 15 years “as an ongoing way to invest in our chapter structure and our chapter leadership.” Ten years ago ISACA’s board formally ratified the every-third-year format.

The meeting has the virtue of helping to build cohesion among the association’s far-flung leaders. ISACA’s board members, for instance, attend the conference and make themselves available to answer questions and discuss concerns. And in assembling the agenda, ISACA focuses on common topics have emerged around the world. “The chapter support staff looks at what typical questions or needs are, but also what the board of directors is looking at strategically—where we’re moving as an organization,” Brand says.

What’s most gratifying about the global meeting, Brand says, is how it surfaces not just common issues, but also solutions from leaders who might not otherwise interact. “Probably the most surprising thing for North American chapter leaders is that the problems and challenges that faraway place have are similar to their own,” she says. “How do you motivate volunteers who don’t have a vested interest in getting a job done? How do you take care of members at events that are in a far-flung part of your chapter territory? A lot of the topics we talk about—volunteer development, sustaining performance in an economic downturn, the topics tend not to be so different. What’s most eye-opening and surprising [for attendees] is that the best idea they’ve heard all day came from someone from Sri Lanka.”

A logistically complicated—not to mention expensive—meeting like this one has its challenges. Chief among them is that the conference’s lingua franca is English, so ISACA encourages its chapters to send attendees who can actively participate. “People who speak English as a second or third language may be the smartest person in the room, but might be less apt to speak up,” Brand says.

And always hosting the global conference in North America can’t help but raise questions about how truly global it is. Chapter leaders have asked that it move around ISACA’s regions, Brand says, but “when push comes to shove, the budget dictates thus far that it be held in north America, because half of our chapters are in North America, and it’s a big budget item.”

Big, yes, but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t scalable. The essence of ISACA’s chapter conference is reassurance of support: Chapter leaders know they’ll have a regular opportunity to interact with leadership and learn from global colleagues in the same position they are. An in-person meeting is optimal for that, but organizations with smaller budgets can accomplish some of the same things via conference calls or web chats. How you open a pipeline for chapter leaders to speak is up to you; what matters is opening the pipeline.

How do you create opportunities for your global volunteers and staffers to share their insights and challenges together? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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