A Last Look at Leadership in 2017

From advocacy to orientation, there were plenty of challenges for leaders, but also some new opportunities.

If disruption is your thing, 2017 was your year.

The first year of the Trump presidency is the most obvious example of how this year wasn’t business as usual—it was forever topic A on cable news and social media. But the shifts were wide-ranging. New technologies, especially automation, sent a lot of association leaders scrambling to determine what those transformations meant for members. An ever-increasing wave of sexual-assault allegations in the political and media worlds opened up a conversation about power and what’s required to halt its abuses. And the nature of how work gets done, from remote employees to gig-economy workers, presents a new set of challenges for the industries associations serve.

But some things remain the same. It’s not exactly reassuring to know that CEOs continue to struggle to manage employees and agendas, or that boards aren’t as well-trained or oriented in strategic thinking as we might hope. But they are at least known knowns, forever part of the association-management landscape.

I didn’t enter the year with a plan to cover particular issues on this blog. But I did tend to gravitate toward a handful of themes. So for this, my final post of the year, I wanted to highlight a few of them, since they’ll likely stick around through much of 2018 as well.

How you maintain the soul of your organization is just one of the major challenges.

Advocacy has never been easy. Now it’s very complicated. The Trump presidency has roiled the political waters and created an increasingly divisive environment—advocacy pro Matthew Zeblud told me that many associations have been more careful about how they deliver their lobbying messages to members, for fear of sparking anger where once there was merely discomfort. That’s a problem, but perhaps also an opportunity to change up messaging and explore partnerships that might’ve been unthinkable in a different political environment. Former Obama administration press secretary Josh Earnest, similarly, says that associations would do well now to look beyond their usual base—a pitch to a legislative expert will need to show that there’s interest in your case beyond the association’s own garden.

Boards still aren’t well-oriented. A study earlier this year reported that less than half of board members say their association had a defined onboarding process, a frustratingly persistent trouble spot at associations. And it’s all the more agonizing because solving the problem is fairly straightforward. NACE International, for instance, has had success with a series of just-in-time training videos that get board members up to speed on the basic responsibilities they have as volunteer leaders. There may not be a way to make matters such as antitrust and governance models sing, but they’re culturally and legally essential to the work of the association and worth investing in. That can be a delicate message for a CEO to deliver, if he or she doesn’t want to be perceived as meddling, but it’s still an important one.

“Staff” isn’t what it used to be. More and more workers are doing their job remotely, which has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, they enjoy more flexibility, but on the other, they also feel more disconnected from their jobs. Those warring sentiments can be messy even for a leader who knows that the work can get done even if people are in different offices, from a variety of perspectives, from annual performance reviews to daily check-ins. Team-building can provide some cohesion, but it can also sow frustration. And that task is further complicated by the fact that an association’s work now more often involves a mix of staff, consultants, contractors, and other outsourced workers. Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the Construction Specifications Institute, describes this task as “a question of how you maintain the soul of your organization,” which is to say it’s a big one—it’ll ask you how you’ll maintain consistent standards for your organization while respecting the fact the work experience is no longer as unified as it once was.

Diversity remains a bottom-line opportunity and cultural challenge. Women are still shut out of many top leadership positions, boards still lack diversity, and organizations still have plenty of blind spots when it comes to hiring and supporting diverse talent. And even once diverse talent is in the room, bias remains a problem. One of the most striking statistics I came across this year says that more than a third of employees who say they experienced on-the-job bias have withheld ideas in the past six months. Beyond being simply disrespectful, bias is drain on resources for organizations that will likely have to replace such workers, who are busily polishing their resumes. And it closes off an essential resource as well. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that a wide variety of landscapes are being transformed. To address that in 2018, we’ll need all the good ideas we can get.

(tumsasedgars/iStock/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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