How to Help Advocacy Resonate With Leaders

The National Association of Manufacturers has launched program that educates its top members on government relations. It’s an idea that even associations that don’t lobby can learn from.

It’s not always easy to sell a CEO on the importance of advocacy. Success can be time-consuming, and it’s rarely guaranteed. Public policy also often demands an understanding of national, state, and municipal politics—and aren’t the internal politics at the office headache-inducing enough?

The National Association of Manufacturers has recently been trying to help some of the top execs in its membership clear those mental hurdles. Last year it launched its first Manufacturing Executive Leadership Program, a series of webinars, in-person classes, and Capitol Hill trips designed to give participants a full education on the importance of advocacy in general, and how NAM in particular does it.

Fully understanding all that goes into Washington is pretty amazing to people who do not do it every day.

“Most of our participants had not seen a member of Congress before in an individual meeting or even in a small group meeting,” says Tiffany N. Adams, vice president, public affairs at NAM, who coordinates the program. “Fully understanding all that goes into Washington is pretty amazing to people who do not do it every day.”

In-person meetings and deep dives into policy issues were a big part of the program, but part of its appeal, Adams says, is that it blended leadership training alongside the advocacy discussions; NAM partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership to handle the broader education about leadership issues. So the program was framed as a win-win for the participants and the association. Leaders caught up on trends in leadership and got an inside view into how the association works with legislators. And from the association side, Adams says, “it was, quite frankly, an opportunity for NAM to gain disciples.”

But a funny thing happened during the course of the program, Adams says: Participants who came in skeptical about the advocacy portion grew more excited about it. “We were trying not to shove [public policy] down their throats, but they were saying, ‘You didn’t give us enough. We want more.’”

Even if your association doesn’t (or can’t) lobby, the structure of the program is worth taking a look at. It’s likely that leadership education has some value, regardless of your association’s industry. Blending that training with education on an issue that’s critical to the organization but has relatively low engagement (safety, globalization, governance, you name it) may be a way to bring those people into the fold.

Amy Showalter, founder and principal of the Showalter Group, a government-relations consulting firm that has worked with associations, has seen more programs similar to NAM’s in recent years, particularly at medical societies. “I believe [the reason for that growth] is the realization, despite the fascination with remote influence tools, that persuasive, confident, face-to-face communicators are the platinum standard of legislative influence.”

That said, success isn’t simply a matter of steering top members away from hashtag advocacy and planting them in front of legislators. Showalter suggests a few points to consider before launching a similar program:

  • Give it exclusivity. “The program should be a privilege to participate in, and screening of trainees is essential,” she says. According to Adams, the program is limited to 30 participants.
  • Emphasize changed behavior. “They should provoke and challenge the participants, rather than focusing on entertainment and airbrushed Civics 101 content.” Adams notes that before launching the program, NAM had numerous internal discussions of what departments would be participating—and what benefits would redound to the organization. ““Before we decided to move forward with this, we did a lot of focus groups with our members,” she says. “We really made sure that not only our C-suite executives but our Washington representatives our government relations people understood why we were doing this. And we sought their advice and we sought their buy-in. For those who were skeptics, we explained how this could ultimately be helpful for them as well.”
  • Keep the connections going after the program has ended. “How will they lead when their own lawmakers are disparaging their company, industry, or profession?” Showalter says. “These classes should equip and empower them to take the arrows in the back. They can do that with a community of support from fellow trainees. We need to create community from these programs.”

Lastly, Showalter notes that any participant in such a program should come away knowing his or her place in the public policy hierarchy. She stresses the importance of training on what she calls “ethical upward persuasion skills. Advocacy leadership is all about influencing up—the legislator holds the cards, so association members are always the underdogs when interacting with lawmakers, no matter their title or how many letters appear after their name.”

Do you have an advocacy training program, or blend leadership training with another topic critical to your association? If so, what works? 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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