How to Lead Staffers Who Aren’t Exactly Staff

As associations take on contractors, remote staff, and workers in the gig economy, the staff a CEO leads is more complex. One leader manages that complexity by focusing on culture.

There are plenty of roadblocks for a CEO looking to make changes at an association, but two may be especially prominent. One is that old-fashioned problem of getting risk-averse boards to be future-focused strategic thinkers. The other is a bit more new-fangled: How do you successfully implement strategy when staff is an increasingly complex mix of full-timers, consultants, and other outsourced workers?

Staff wants to be part of a vibrant, growing, communicative, contemporary organization. So do contractors.

Both issues are concerns for Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE, who became CEO of the Construction Specifications Institute about two years ago. Like a lot of associations, CSI outsources some of its activities, such as IT and publications. But CSI was also looking at doing the same for accounting, generally considered an internal function. How to do that while keeping the organization running smoothly, and keeping the rest of the staff from feeling disrupted?

“It’s a question of how you maintain the soul of your organization,” Dorsey says. “While we have a smaller internal staff than we’ve had before, we haven’t actually cut back on the functional areas. We’ve just shifted where we can use outsourcing contractor functions effectively and where we’re going to need internal capacity. We’re going to employ a mix of contractors, individual contractors, contracting firms, remote workers, and also on-site full-time -equivalent workers, which really creates a cultural challenge.”

That’s been documented: A Gallup report earlier this year on the American workplace shows that remote workers tend to feel less engaged with the organization they work for. In that light, Dorsey’s approach to that cultural challenge is to still look for a good cultural fit from contractors. “You need to be assured that your organization’s mission and importance is there in a place where if something crops up quickly, like crisis communication, you can rally them just as you would your own staff,” he says. “And we interview based on their ability to connect with our staff and volunteers. If they can’t fit within the culture, if you’ve got a group that is slow to actually respond, and yet your organization is very entrepreneurial very experimental, there’s going to be a breakdown in trust.”

And in the same way that culture matters for both staff and contractors, Dorsey says incentives ought to remain parallel too. Staff members, it’s often been said, aren’t moved as much by money as we like to think, and that contractors are, practically by definition, outside support that you pay for. Ultimately, though, the best contractors appreciate the association’s mission. “I’m not one of those people believes that you can buy enthusiasm,” Dorsey says. “Staff wants to be part of a vibrant, growing, communicative, contemporary organization. So do contractors. That becomes part of interviewing for culture. If I get the sense that somebody is just in it for the dollar, then they’re not going to be there really when you need them.”

But those newer issues get addressed because CSI focused on that old-fashioned stuff—getting the board engaged in a change process and drawing clear lines about who’s responsible for which roles. There wasn’t disagreement about the issues CSI was facing, such as a decline in membership, and finding that common ground was an important first step, Dorsey says. “We were able to communicate both with chapters and regions and members and staff in a way that said, ‘Yeah, you’re right we need to fix this. We may not agree on how we’re going to fix this but we need to fix it.’ Once you gain that agreement then you can kind of begin to work on those sacred cows and ways of doing business.”

That agreement not only helps get boards focused on the changes that need to be made in an organization, but builds accountability within it. When staff members and contractors know who’s taken charge of which parts of a mission, there’s less confusion, and less likelihood for erosion in morale. “The staff is very clear in terms of who’s responsible for what, as is the board, as am I,” he says. “And that makes it a lot easier, because it takes care of some of those culture-killing issues.”

What do you do to make sure everybody from staffers to board members to contractors are in alignment with your mission, especially during a time of change? Share your experiences in the comments.

(PeopleImages/DigitalVision/Getty Images Plus)

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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