How to Motivate Around Mission

Roles at associations are in constant flux, which makes it harder for leaders to assign roles. Freeing staff and volunteers to express their own passions around the job can help.

Confession: I don’t think Jim Collins’ bus metaphor is especially helpful.

You probably know the line, which comes from Collins’ bestselling business book Good to Great: Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” The idea is that you, as a leader, can’t implement your vision unless you’ve staffed appropriately for it. Once everybody with the proper skills and temperaments have been slotted appropriately, you can then steer your bus/company/association toward success.

The main problem with the bus line is that it demands rigidity in an environment that, in the years since Good to Great was published in 2001, demands flexibility. When strategic plans need to be iterative thanks to rapidly changing technology and economic trends, straining to slot particular people for particular roles will only mean that you move people around in their seats fairly regularly. That “right seat” today may be the wrong one six months from now.

People come to work for relationships, personal efficacy, and a sense of purpose.”

But even if flexibility is a core part of being the “right people”—which, to be fair, Collins addresses—the bus metaphor has another problem. It implies a clean hierarchy of a driver/leader and compliant staffers/passengers, when in truth there’s more of a back and forth. Sometimes it makes more sense for the leader to stand apart from his or her staffers. And as one business leader suggests, successful leadership is often a function of understanding just how much the reins are held by the people under you.

Consultant Todd Warner’s recent article on this point in the Harvard Business Review is titled “Overcome Resistance to Change by Recruiting the Right People,” but that doesn’t accurately describe what he discusses. Warner’s focus isn’t on recruiting “right” people so much as understanding and supporting the particular cultures of people working with you already. Leaders aren’t always in very good control of their cultures, Warner writes, but they don’t have to be. They’re better served instead by understanding the distinct “tribes” they serve and looking for what internally motivates them.

Jim Collins argued that you do better emphasizing “who” rather than “what.” Warner suggests emphasizing “why” instead of either. “Typical change efforts focus intensely on the ‘what’—what people need to do, and what is the action plan,” he writes. “But by starting with a big question and focusing on ‘why,’ employees can create their own logic and clear pathways for change execution. When change works, people start to talk differently—about different things, or with different people.”

Warner also recognizes that a sense of purpose doesn’t always come from the top down. Of course, it’s valuable for everybody involved to understand the organization’s mission, but how they connect it to their own reasons for coming into work may be different from your own. “People come to work for relationships, personal efficacy, and a sense of purpose—when change can connect with that reality, it starts to get traction,” he writes. “Leaders can help tap into that by encouraging smart, social conversations about execution in the tribes they oversee.”

I think there’s a twist to this, though, when it comes to associations. Volunteer groups, including boards, are often hemmed in by cultures that emphasize entitlement—they answer to the “why” is often “because I’ve served the industry for so long, and it’s my turn” or “because I was asked.” Those people too, require a sense of purpose, but it may require some additional effort for them to appreciate the creative power in their roles. Staffers can be hired for their talent and experience; so can volunteers, but their leaders need to recognize that they might see the role itself, not the mission, as the reward.

Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, hints at this distinction in a recent LinkedIn post titled “Associations Need Creators.” Volunteers can help establish a vision for an organization, he writes, but they also need a reminder that they can do so. “Our volunteers are our workforce that we could never afford, but they are also our industry visionaries,” he writes. “Within their insights and perspectives lay the blueprints to how an association can be the ultimate community and solution provider for their professionals. Explicitly ask your volunteers to help explore unchartered territory, at once working on what is needed now while creating the pathways to tomorrow.”

The people on the bus are always going to change, just as what you need on those people will change. What’s constant is the leader’s need to listen to how staff and volunteers respond to the association’s mission, and being prepared to change course as necessary.

What do you do to understand and support the different culture’s within your association’s staff and volunteer groups? 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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