A Last Look at Leadership in 2015

From succession planning to going global, association leaders faced a host of challenges that will likely resonate in the coming year.

Years from now, we might consider 2015 as a comeback year economically. Interest rates ticked up, the unemployment rate ticked down, and though nobody would argue the country was in perfect health, companies (and by extension associations) were less busy tightening belts and playing defense.

And when you do less of that, you’re more free to think ahead—to consider where your organization is going and what’s needed to get there. I don’t plan this sort of thing in advance, but a lot of my posts in the past year gravitated around the theme of preparation and looking forward. And with that big theme, five more points emerged. Consider the below an ICYMI version of leadership posts from the past 12 months.

You don’t get traction by shooting off emails and building websites. You get on a plane and find the people who can help.

  1. Boards need shaking up. Dysfunction still reigns in many association boardrooms: Elected leaders fear change and are prone to the occasional toxic squabble. But associations have also responded by finding ways to get talented volunteers into top leadership roles faster, and by pressing themselves to stay focused on strategic issues. As Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (formerly the Consumer Electronics Association), told me in March, “I think it’s very important that every CEO has a good understanding with their board about their respective roles, and that they be empowered. If the board is micromanaging the CEO, then everybody loses. And If you try to play your board [as a CEO] and not use them as an asset, you’re going to get in trouble as well.”
  2. Planning for your next leaders is on today’s to-do list. A better economy means good people have more opportunities to work elsewhere. When CEOs leave—especially if they’re long-tenured and charismatic types—associations can struggle to find their bearings. That’s also true when it comes to staff and board members. Succession planning isn’t just a good practice for making sure that you have a pipeline of good leaders, though; as one study suggested, it’s also a prompt for organizations to have a strategic discussion about the directions they want to move in: “It is about ensuring organizational sustainability by identifying and addressing key vulnerabilities so that the organization is not dependent on any one leader, funder, strategy, or way of thinking.”
  3. Weak management schemes weaken staff. From Taylorism on down, workplaces have suffered from management ideas that seem foolhardy in retrospect. It’s no different now—workers understandably bristle at the idea of having cubicles that gather data on their activities, and Zappos staffers were resistant to its self-management “holacracy” initiative. Not every management method needs to be put up to a vote by rank-and-file staffers, but one reason these ideas don’t take off is because leaders weren’t communicating with staffers about potential downsides. The infamously stressful culture at Amazon, as reported by the New York Times earlier this year, prompted one observer to note that the retailer was missing an important principle: “Have empathy.” Not a bad lesson for a lot of staff management.
  4. Winning globally means planning roots early. Earlier this year I spoke with 40 association leaders about their experiences working in China. While each association does work in the country differently and has enjoyed differing levels of success, one common theme is that getting ahead there means a lot of time building relationships. And there are no shortcuts. You don’t get traction for your training or licenses or meetings by shooting off emails and building websites; you get on a plane and find the people who can help. When the Chinese government began tearing down golf courses there, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America could have panicked. But the close ties it built in the country in previous years means now it can play a leading support role as the industry gets restructured. “If they do come down with new regulations, that will essentially provide us with a road map for the education to provide,” GCSAA’s Eric Boedeker told me.
  5. Pipe up about your screw-ups. Association folks are often resistant to talk about mistakes—they’re not obligated to report financial miscues the way public companies do, but they still have a lot of stakeholders to please. But the recent popularity of Ignite-style gatherings in which entrepreneurs shared their failures sends a signal that not only are mistakes a part of running an organization but that speaking about them openly can unlock opportunities for doing better. If you’re the type to make resolutions, this may be one to plan on for 2016.

What were your biggest lessons learned from 2015, and what do you plan to change in the coming year? 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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