How to Identify Your Next Challenge

Leaders get into ruts like everybody else, and boards don't always press them. If you're seeking to broaden your ambitions, your employees may provide some suggestions.

This week, leaders in the association community will converge on Salt Lake City for the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition. As a veteran of a few ASAE Annuals, I know that each one has its own particular energy and high points. But there’s one common refrain every year, especially among first-timers: There’s a lot to take in.

Which is as it should be. The heft of the conference directory, filled with dozens of general sessions, learning labs, deep dives, and other educational opportunities, points to a lesson in itself: If you’re not taking in a lot of new information, you’re not doing what you need to develop as a leader.

If Annual isn’t evidence enough of that, consider a recent Harvard Business Review article by author and executive-search adviser Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, who argues that leaders shouldn’t just be in an extended search for new knowledge, but for the kinds of complex stretch assignments that will encourage them to grow. He comes to that conclusion after observing a highly siloed business culture in Japan. “A typical leader rises through the ranks of one division, in one company, waiting respectfully for promotions that usually come only when he’s the most senior person, with the longest tenure, in line for the spot,” he writes. Not a recipe for growth, breadth—or much enthusiasm for the job.

“When you’re doing [reviews] on a more regular basis, you’re actually asking to engage in a two-way conversation.”

As a counter to that narrow approach to leadership training, Fernandez-Araoz points to the example of an Australian bank that identifies high-potential employees with a mind to shake things up. “The company makes sure [the promotion is] not to the same job on a larger scale (in terms of budget and resources) but to an entirely new set of challenges — maybe it’s relocating to a new country, shifting from a staff to a line role, or moving from a turnaround situation to launching a new business unit,” he writes.

If you’re already at the top tier of your organization, it might be difficult to find people to push you into those kinds of stretch assignments. After all, boards can be complacent. Some association leaders gather a “kitchen cabinet” of professional colleagues and coaches to give them an extra push to think more dynamically about your organization. But you also have another group that can help you with that task—your own employees.

This spring I spent some time talking with association leaders and HR experts about ways to improve the old-fashioned, much-maligned performance review. The feature will be in a future issue of Associations Now , but one of the key takeaways is that the path to an improved performance review is one that’s more actively conversational, with more back-and-forths between employee and supervisor about how each can improve. It is indisputably more time-consuming than ticking off 1-to-5 score sheets and having a perfunctory salary discussion. But it’s also more valuable in the long run for your sense of how your organization is running.

Ken Doyle, COO at the Solar Electric Power Association, explained the benefits of that approach this way: “When you’re doing [reviews] on a more regular basis, you’re actually asking to engage in a two-way conversation…. Very rarely are we actually talking about reviews. Part of this is analysis—”Let me tell you how I think you’re doing’ But [also] how do you think you’re doing? ‘What do you think I, as a supervisor, could do better to help you be more successful?’ You really want to engage in a conversation. We’re both trying to meet a certain goal.” The answers you receive in that conversation ought to a prompt—one message about what your next challenge is.

To that end, one more bit of advice: Whether you’re walking the halls of the Salt Palace Convention Center or just keeping tabs on the #asae16 hashtag, build in time to attend one session that’s off your usual path. If you’re in membership, go to a meetings Learning Lab; if you’re in meetings, try an international session. There is often so much pressure to attend a conference with a mind to Bring Useful Information Back to the Office that it’s easy to forget that one way to do that is to loosen up your expectations.

What do you do to make sure you’re still feeling challenged and flexible in your leadership role? 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!