Are You Out of Touch? No? Sure About That?

Not knowing your industry or members can make for an embarrassing moment. But knowing yourself is a crucial part of the solution.

Last week, executives at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association had a supermarket-scanner moment. That’s bad news, but a good lesson for any leader.

Let me explain.

As the NCTA held its annual meeting in Los Angeles late last month, executives from various cable companies took to the stage to discuss their frustration with a technology that’s getting disrupted by the online options and has a reputation for sloppy, snoozy customer service. (My boss wouldn’t appreciate me saying I plan to file this post somewhere between noon and 6 p.m., but that I may need to reschedule for next week.)

“I have three homes with three different cable providers, and I don’t know any of [my passwords],” said John Martin, chief executive of Turner Broadcasting.

Alas, the execs’ attempt at an I-feel-your-pain moment only underscored how out of touch they are with their customers. “I have three homes with three different cable providers, and I don’t know any of [my passwords],” said John Martin, chief executive of Turner Broadcasting, according to a New York Times report. Showtime executive Matthew C. Blank expressed exasperation at cable companies’ customer service—only to contrast it with how easy it is to deal with password changes when he calls his hedge fund.

That’s not the first time those in NCTA’s orbit have absorbed accusations of tone-deafness: As AssociationsNow.com’s Ernie Smith reported last December, an ad campaign from the association proved to be a quick turn-off. Those with longer memories may hear an echo of a moment during the 1992 presidential campaign when George H.W. Bush—at an association convention, as it happens—was reportedly gobstopped by supermarket checkout-scanner technology:

That moment alone didn’t sink Bush’s re-election bid. But the perception that you’re on top of things matters. So, are you?

Knowing When You’re the Problem

In their new book, Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter, leadership experts Henry Evans and Colm Foster discuss a half-dozen common leadership challenges. The one that resonated most strongly with me—and the most relevant when it comes to supermarket-scanner moments—is the case of what they call “learning disabled” organizations, successful businesses tend to drift by failing to notice and act on changes and trends. (It happens to the best of them: Tom Peters celebrated now-defunct companies like Wang, Digital, and Atari in his classic In Search of Excellence.) “Good managers naturally want to get out in front of and proactively manage the changes required by the developing ‘new normal,'” Evans and Foster write. “Unfortunately, many people view change as something that they do to others, failing to see their own necessary role in it…. Genuine transformation and the ability to continually learn and adapt only come when people open up to the possibility that they themselves will need to alter their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.”

In other words, this isn’t just a studying-up problem—it’s a self-awareness problem. Fixing that is easier said than done, of course. So how to do it?

Three Tips

Evans and Foster have a few suggestions:

  1. Know when you’re drifting. Successful organizations have good reason to celebrate their longevity, but there’s a fine line between honoring the past and resting on your laurels. The “trap of success,” as they put it, can blinker you to the trends that are profoundly affecting you unawares. “Organizations that must learn faster require people who learn faster,” they write.
  2. Recognize your mental models. Strategies that were effective in the past may not be valid now. “We opt for data that confirm our mental models, and we ignore or dismiss data that challenge them,” they write. Cultivating a sense of the way you frame problems and solutions can help you recognize your blind spots. (Associations Now took a close look at mental models in 2011.)
  3. Replace judgment with curiosity. This is Evans and Foster’s term, and I like it a lot—it gets at the idea that shifting the way you think is a function of asking good questions instead of leaning on your assumptions. “When you feel yourself shutting down to someone else, it’s a signal for you to say, ‘Tell me more about that. What do you mean by that? Where does that idea come from?'” Assuming stakeholders don’t have anything new or relevant to tell you is the path to arrogance, which leads to drift—and perhaps an embarrassing faux-pas or two.

By and large, the successful association executives I talk to are nosy people—nosy about others, and nosy about themselves. They spend a lot of time on the phone or on the road talking to members, but they also keep busy testing their assumptions about what’s worked in the past and thinking about whether they’re asking the right questions about what their organizations need. That’s time-consuming, but it beats being caught looking out of touch on a public stage.

What’s your process for keeping up with changes in your association’s industry, and shifting your mental models? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.


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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