Leadership Lessons From the Meetings Department

A good association meeting isn't just a fun and educational experience. It's the product of smart strategies that leaders can apply throughout an organization.

Like everybody who begins working at an association, I quickly learned that meetings are an essential part of what an association does. The balance sheet for many associations typically goes from red to black during their annual meeting, and member education is key to the day-to-day operations—indeed, it a large part of the justification for an association’s nonprofit status. (And after all, Associations Now‘s website dedicates a whole section to the topic.)

It’s a value, so why not be systematic about it?

Even so, it took me while to truly understand that not only do meetings play an important role in an association’s finances and mission, but that they have a wider, and increasingly crucial strategic role as well. That’s something that became clear to me while working on the cover story for the latest Associations Now, which looked at meetings execs as linchpins in an association’s strategy. While it may not be the CEO’s role to get deep in the weeds of meeting logistics, there are a few lessons that a leader can derive from what’s happening in the meetings department, and that apply to the CEO’s work as well.

As an association leader you’re a professional convener. Meetings are just one part of that. Marie Hunter, senior director of global meetings, conferences, and events for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is responsible for approximately 1,500 meetings a year. During her tenure, she’s broadened the kinds of meetings IEEE hosts—some are based on partnerships with other organizations, and some are more public- than member-facing, such as freely accessible Google Hangouts. They’re not necessarily moneymakers in themselves. But they help establish IEEE as an organization that routinely connects with the brightest minds in the industry. “It’s a way to position ourselves as thought leaders,” Hunter told me. “It has a very high return on investment because we are a convener of these great minds, and that’s great brand positioning.”

Everything you do has a value attached to it. It’s your job to figure out what that value is. As manager of strategic sales initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores, Donovan Woods has helped NACS experiment with different meetings formats and tools. A meetings mobile app, for instance, became less appealing to attendees the more ads were served by it, and NACS scaled back to keep users from feeling “overwhelmed.” A less is-more approach helped Woods define the worth of the app: “There has to be content that’s good to put there,” he says. Similarly, IEEE has been more rigorous about taking the papers and presentations that scientists present at their conferences—including multimedia content—and determining what’s available on their website, and what to charge for it. “It’s a value, so why not be systematic about it?” Hunter says.

Members are investors—understand what’s going to inspire them to buy in. Every association leader understands the value of shoe leather—the best CEOs routinely hit the road and work the room to learn what members are concerned about. But I’ve never heard anybody preach that gospel as fervently as John J. Toner V, vice president for convention and industry relations at the United Fresh Produce Association. United Fresh weathered the recession by doubling down on meetings, creating more opportunities for members around the world to meet in an increasingly crowded marketplace. All that travel helped educate the association about member needs, Toner says. But it also reset the association’s mentality about what meetings mean for the organization. “You really have to change your frame of mind when you approach [members] now, that you’re really talking about the future of their company and how participating in the annual tradeshow will change the course of their future. And making sure that they’re investing to change the course of their future.” That’s true not just of meetings but of everything you ask members to give their time and money toward.

How have you reconsidered the role of meetings as fulfilling the strategic goals of your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

The National Association of Convenience Stores' Donovan Woods has helped lead the association's meetings experiments. (photo by Jonathan Timmes)

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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