How to Lead (and Build) a Change-Focused Staff

The Future of Associations author Omer Soker sees a lot of discomfort with innovation. But clear benchmarks and personal support can help get staffs to where they need to be.

Associations behave differently depending on where they are in the world. But often the struggles association leaders face are the same, especially when it comes to being a change agent.

In his new book, The Future of Associations, Australian consultant and former association executive Omer Soker conducted a survey of 1,000 organizations on the continent. Many of the findings will resonate with leaders in the United States:

  • Leaders worry about their performance when it comes to innovation—69 percent of respondents say they do a poor or mediocre job of it. “Commercial growth” is worse—74 percent give themselves poor or mediocre marks.
  • Half of all respondents say that “changing member needs” is one of the biggest threat to their association.
  • Forty-eight percent of respondents say their association is facing a high or extreme level of disruption.

Associations can have a tendency to add complexity over time.

Soker is confident that associations can recognize the changes that face their industries and act to respond to them. His concern, he says, is more often with the staff’s ability to effectively deliver those responses, and CEOs’ ability to lead them during the process. Indeed, it’s process where a lot of associations stumble. He recalls the case of an association that had decided to launch a “no-brainer” online resource. “People didn’t know—’Is this my job? Is this somebody else’s job? Who should do what?’ I wanted to pull my hair out for a while. Then I realized: Maybe they’re not used to innovation, I’ve got to go back to basics and put in clear parameters. It made me realize how important process was.”

Flow charts, benchmarks, KPIs, and parameters are not words that make the heart sing when it comes to effecting change. But Soker argues that they’re essential at associations, not just because they’re fighting the familiar we’ve-always-done-it-this-way mentality, but because associations often accrue messy systems, with lots of overlapping responsibilities. “Associations can have a tendency to add complexity over time through scope creep,” he writes in the book. “When well-intentioned people keep thinking of extra things to add, it can blur the lines of simplicity.”

But in addition to clearing the brush of tangled processes, CEOs also need to be mindful of the anxiety that change can create in their staffs. “There’s a lot of hand-holding early on,” he says. “People need to understand that when you’re taking on innovation, risk is a big part of it, and that’s quite alien to people who haven’t innovated before. ‘If I fail, will I be punished?’ You have to get across the idea that risk is OK. We’re expecting people to make some mistakes.”

It helps if you can build that temperament into your team even before the big change is coming down. What to look for when hiring for innovation isn’t obvious or easy, but he’s picked up a few cues in interviews, especially when he asks a potential hire to discuss a mistake they’ve made. “I look for honesty in simply admitting a mistake, and ideally what they’ve learned from it,” he says. “Red flags are when they don’t admit to any mistakes—I take that to mean they’ll cover up when they actually make one. Or when they make excuses or blame others, or when they talk around the subject and obfuscate.”

Incentives matter during a change process—employees want to know that a leader is seeing what they’re accomplishing, especially if they’re stretching themselves to do it. That may matter more, Soker suggests, than trying encourage workers with financial bonuses, which might get you one-time gains on a project but don’t do much to stoke internal enthusiasm. “Before I thought money was the driver, but now I’m convinced that money is not the driver,” he says. “I think it’s really about acknowledgment and appreciation and self-worth. When somebody understands why they’re doing something and how it impacts what the organization is trying to achieve, when they have that sense of ‘what I do really matters,’ that’s what I try to bring out.”

Leading through change demands clarity and enthusiasm with staff, but also patience—change is often a long road, and the signs that things are moving in the right direction isn’t always immediate. That goes double for boards, which can tend to be risk-averse. But Soker is confident they can come along for the ride as well, so long as the CEO doesn’t hand them too much change at once and can see change as more productive, not disruptive. “The CEO needs to use ‘we’ language and win-win scenarios for a collaborative, not confrontational approach,” he says. “These conversations need to be happening monthly, whether or not the board meets that often.”

What do you do as a leader to guide staffers and volunteers through change? 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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