A Last Look at Leadership in 2016

From governance to government, association leaders had plenty to be concerned about in 2016---and a smoother ride in 2017 looks unlikely.

If leadership is all about steadiness at the helm, 2016 has been an especially challenging year for leaders. Storms, headwinds—pick your metaphor, this year had it.

The broad disruptions were all over—in politics, economics, and technology. And as I look back over a year’s worth of writing on leadership for Associations Now, it’s clear that all of those changes have had an impact on how association leaders do their work. The supposedly “everyday” stuff of managing a board, working with staff, and planning meetings aren’t so “everyday” now.

Three broad themes emerged most prominently this year as I went about my weekly business of writing about leadership. But I suspect—to the extent that the future is at all predictable now—that they will also be themes that associations will be discussing well into 2017.

Relating to government will no longer tidily reside in the government relations department.

Getting the right board matters more than ever. An association that isn’t responsive to shifts in its demographics, and fails to build a board that reflects it, might easily find itself in the middle of a public kerfuffle it doesn’t want. But beyond that, the challenges that associations face in terms of membership and revenue mean that those strategic plans truly need to be actionable and effective. And boards need to be better equipped to respond in a crisis as well.

One consistent frustration of governance work is that board members are often ill-prepared for governance. “In their day jobs they’re not necessarily used to being in roles that require them to think or act or work strategically,” consultant Jolene Knapp, CAE, told me earlier this year. The good news is that the strategic-planning process can be made simpler and more palatable for volunteer leaders. But the challenge of finding effective board members to replace the current ones remains a challenge.

Managing and evaluating staffs is more complicated. CEOs have their own on-the-job issues to deal with, from getting better educated about global markets to being more alert to cybersecurity issues, now that—no joke—the break-room coffee maker can cause a network meltdown. But the biggest day-to-day challenges likely involve the rest of the staff org chart. Staffers may be more distributed around the country (or world), which creates a new set of management issues. Your allegedly inspirational awards program may, in fact, be alienating. And gender bias, especially in the C-suite, remains persistent.

Employee evaluations may be the biggest leadership challenge of all, though. They’re essential from a payroll perspective, but they don’t always accomplish the motivational (or remedial) work that they’re meant to. So new evaluation ideas pop up routinely: The corporate world faddishly abandoned performance reviews a while back, and now (perhaps still faddishly?) has learned to embrace them again. No one system will work for every organization, but in a work economy where employees want more flexibility and opportunities to stretch their skills, leaders will be challenged to do more listening to those employees’ needs.

Politics and ethics are claiming more of the stage. Last month Donald Trump won the presidency, in defiance of pretty much every established polling aggregator and expert you could name. How you feel about the election’s result is entirely your own business. But the hyperpartisan mood that preceded the election—and that will likely persist—is one that associations will need to reckon with publicly in years to come. Conflicts of interest and matters of fairness and equality are a key concern for a lot of association members and stakeholders now, and relating to government is no longer something that will tidily reside in the government relations department.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how two associations were forced to respond quickly about holding meetings in states that passed legislation challenging guidelines on equality issues. The right response will be different for every association, and the issues may not be limited to meetings. And though it’s not necessarily a given that legislation regarding equality and ethical issues will emerge in 2017, it’s safe to say that you have vocal members, staffers, and stakeholders who are now very mindful of those issues and will expect your association to make an appropriate response to it. You can’t work up a response in advance to a challenge that doesn’t exist yet. But you can—and should—have a plan for how your association will respond to that challenge.

What’s missing? What leadership issues do you think will be especially pressing for associations in 2017? Share your thoughts in the comments. And thank you for the emails, comments, and suggestions you’ve sent my way throughout the year.


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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