Leadership

The Power Play Behind Global Strategy

By / Sep 9, 2018 (baona/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

To succeed internationally, associations need partners. Which means having a difficult conversation about how much power you’re willing to give up.

Association leaders can rattle off a whole host of reasons why their organization is skittish about going global. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It can be a slog to get the board behind it. It’s hard to identify KPIs, especially early in the process.

That’s all true—and much-discussed. But another factor seems to be just as crucial, but less appreciated: Going global means rethinking how your association looks at power and control, because the task likely demands ceding some of it.

The 2017 ASAE Foundation report, Association Global Maturity: Critical Actions for Successful International Growth, used a survey to explore a number of critical factors that are relevant to an association’s readiness to expand overseas. Interestingly, the area where respondents were weakest was “empowerment of local management.” As the report puts it: “Associations that are new to international operations might struggle to define when management in local markets could and should make executive decisions. Some associations might also strategically choose to filter all decision through headquarters to ensure continuity. However, this approach can be detrimental, as there is a risk of members/customers not receiving enough timely local support and for decisions from headquarters not being relevant or customized enough for local market needs.”

Ceding power is risky, but so is trying to go it alone.

In other words, success internationally depends on partnerships, and successful partnerships rely on a clear sense of who takes on which responsibilities. Ceding power is risky, but so is trying to go it alone. One of the more candid conversations I witnessed at the ASAE Annual Meeting last month in Chicago revolved around the Global Maturity Assessment and how critical partnerships can be. John Schehl, vice president of certification and global engagement at the National Roofing Contractors Association, mentioned that in recent years the association had seen increasing demand for training in India, enough so that NRCA decided to open an office there. The goal was to increase membership, but by the time it shut its office in 2015, it had acquired a grand total of 15 new members.

NRCA is since retooling its global strategy, looking not just at consultants to help crack new markets but also identifying in-country partners to assist. “We know we need partners to implement this,” he said.

As the ASAE Foundation report itself puts it: “Strong partnerships, which could include other associations, governments, vendors, etc., are an efficient tool for entering new markets and provide valuable knowledge and access.” So why pass on something that would make the process more efficient?

Part of the resistance involves vetting—in certain markets, such as China, a partner is critical, but identifying the correct one for your association’s needs can be time-consuming. Beyond that, though, relationships crumble if there isn’t an open conversation about expectations and responsibilities. Earlier this summer nonprofit expert Jon Huggett explored this dynamic in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Why Collaborations Fail.”  And why do they? Three reasons, generally—frustration at one side for not pulling its weight, a perception that the other side is not intellectually up to the task, and personality clashes.

All of which can resolved in large part via contract—but also, Huggett suggests, through an open discussion of what the power dynamic is. “Great collaborations between organizations achieve more than either organization could achieve by itself,” he writes. “But when nonprofit collaborations don’t talk about power and address the implications of power imbalances openly, each party runs the risk of stumbling into (or contributing to) an ugly, counterproductive situation.”

This isn’t necessarily a conversation you need to have directly with the partner, at least at first. The people in the room at an association discussing international strategy can do well to discuss what they’re afraid of losing in a partnership, and what steps they’ll take to address those concerns. And that conversation can help an association do what it needs to in a partnership, which is help establish expectations for all participants. “Clear roles help partners build trust, even if the new roles shift power,” Huggett writes. “It’s easier for me to act if I know what power I have and what power you have, even if you have much more power. It’s harder when the power is ambiguous.”

How does your association handle assigning responsibilities in partnerships, especially global ones? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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