Get Leaders’ Wisdom Before Its Gone

Surveys will get you valuable data, but face-to-face meetings can tell you what the mood is in your industry. Here's what one association executive learned from conducting "wisdom interviews."

A few years back, Bill Shepherd, CAE, noticed a concerning trend in his association’s community. Shepherd is the executive director of the Ontario Real Estate Association’s Centre for Leadership Development, which supports about 40 real-estate boards in the province. Taking a look a the leaders of those organizations, he noticed that many of them were approaching retirement age.

Shepherd saw an opportunity to get some lessons from longtime leaders before they left, and hopefully some straight talk as well. “It prompted me to think, ‘My goodness, there were lots of people leaving with long-term experience,'” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to tap into that. Someone called them exit interviews, and I kind of shuddered at that terminology. I just termed it a wisdom interview.”

Shepherd has conducted five of these “wisdom interviews” this year, and has at least five more planned. Though he characterizes the conversations as casual, he does make sure to ask a particular group of questions. Some address the OREA Centre for Leadership Development’s own role, which is to provide resources for the real-estate boards’ strategic planning and orientation. Others are meant to gather their impressions of the industry in general.

My goodness, there were lots of people leaving with long-term experience.

“I have typical questions,” he says. “What can we do better?  What’s the best thing that we do? What’s the worst thing that we do? What’s your biggest challenge? How have we handled it? What advice would you give a new association exec coming into the business? Where do you think things are going? How do you see things changing?”

The responses haven’t yet coalesced into particular trends or themes, Shepherd says. But they do help him take the temperature of the association leaders, and underscore concerns that otherwise have only been hinted at. “They begin to declare things that you haven’t heard from them before, but that you’ve heard from others,” he says. “They confirm what you’ve sensed or what you’ve heard other people say.”

This isn’t a scientific approach—an anonymous survey of the 40-odd leaders would’ve have accomplished that—but it’s still a valuable one. What Shepherd is doing is effectively conducting a slow-motion focus group, getting in-person impressions from a group of people to learn not just what leaders main concerns are but how deep those concerns run. Shepherd is making these rounds because he wants to catch leaders before they leave their posts, but there’s no reason why any association executive can’t do the same thing with the the business owners or consumers in their industry. It’s a good way to get on-the-ground information—not to mention avoid the perception that you’re out of touch.

To that end, Shepherd’s organization is also doing more to diversify the pool of participants in its own strategic planning process. During its most recent strategic planning session, Shepherd invited participants from the provincial boards and the national association, as well as a real-estate agent who doesn’t serve on a board or task force.

Though Shepherd is conducting his “wisdom interviews” one by one, he says there’s some urgency behind it. The real-estate industry, like so many others, is being disrupted by technology, and one early lesson from the interviews is that the local associations need to collaborate more. “Organically everybody seems to get it all at once,” he says. “I think technology has accelerated so quickly, and our profession realizes that other sectors and the public are ahead of us.”

What do you do to make sure you’re hearing the top concerns of your industry’s leaders? Share your 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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