Five Tips for Leading Through Change

Associations may need to make big shifts to strategy and culture. One association expert shares her advice for helping staff make the transition.

Struggling organizations often say that what they need is a turnaround artist. But the real trick is getting everybody to turn in the same direction.

In her new book, The Demand Perspective: Leading From the Outside In, Anna Caraveli argues that associations too rarely break free from their familiar silos of membership, products, and meetings to listen to what actual and potential customers actually want out of your organization. Hidebound associations, she writes, “come to view their own products and policies as their raison d’etre rather than as vehicles for delivering customer value, and they are prone to defend them in the face of criticism.” (Disclosures: The book is published by ASAE Association Management Press, and I offered some editorial advice in its early phases.)

This is a valid point—if an association finds itself in an economic hole, it’s a bad idea to keep digging with the same suite of “member engagement opportunities.” But what Caraveli proposes are often broad cultural shifts, and those don’t tend to go down easy with staffers. Consider the online retailer Zappos, whose recent moved to a self-management structure prompted many of its employees to abandon ship.

This is not the kind of change that has to be implemented from the top down.

Caraveli is mindful of this problem: In the book’s final chapter, she discusses leaders’ need to shift their mindset alongside the association’s strategic changes. As an example, she cites one association that restructured its benefits and services to be more customer-centric—or at least said it would do that restructuring, which involved new goals, new teams and new work patterns among staff. When budget time rolled around, though, plans collapsed. “The cross-functional team morphed into autonomous individuals absorbed in their respective departments’ budget priorities,” she writes. “No one had any time to reflect and reconfigure to accommodate the new strategy.”

So how do you keep a simultaneous strategic and cultural change working? And what is the CEO’s role in managing through this change?

In a nutshell, Caraveli advises leaders to reshape their organizations to be as collaborative and unbureaucratic as possible. “This is not the kind of change that has to be implemented from the top down,” she says. “This is a change in culture and relationships that is heavily dependent on effective leadership.” To that end, she offers five tips for the CEO leading the change:

  1. Make old routines reflect the new culture. “The CEO sets the focus and criteria and begins by changing daily practices,” she says. “Like making staff meetings more into forums for solving issues and sharing insights from customers, rather than opportunities for show-and-tell.”
  2. Look for small opportunities to make changes. “It could be things like calling members on some occasions rather than sending impersonal, generic announcements; observing members’ behavior in social media and conducting a few interviews rather than relying on survey results; sharing what various employees and departments have learned about members at the end of the day or week.”
  3. Bring employees into the process. The CEO’s “role as the leader of a relationship-focused organization is to figure out how to motivate, coach, develop, and empower people so that, in the new culture they will take on roles of co-creators and champions of change.”
  4. Build teams around solutions. “You have to begin developing units organized around a customer segment,problem, or solution-development that pulls assets from the entire organization to develop integrated solutions for customers.”
  5. Identify champions. “One company identified influential change agents among employees who could think across silos,” she says. “They assigned these people as leaders of the first cross-functional team efforts and gave them the necessary authority.”

Ultimately, she says, high-flown rhetoric won’t do the job—attention to detail and incremental changes are what transform cultures. “The most decisive change comes when it is incorporated into the small routines and conventional practices in the course of a day, month, or year,” as Caraveli writes in the book.

How do you get staff on board with major cultural and strategic changes at your association? 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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!