Staying Steady on Strategy

The pandemic may make it tempting to retool your strategic plan. But if your plan is aligned with your goals, one association learned, you needn't rush to revise.

Every association leader faced a reckoning as COVID-19 took hold in early 2020, whether that meant helping members access government assistance or deciding what to do with the upcoming conference. Automotive Recyclers Association Executive Director Sandy Blalock was no different, but she also had another consideration: What to do with the strategic plan that ARA’s board had drafted in January, but which still hadn’t been formally approved?

The temptation to make big changes to an association’s guiding documents can be strong when it’s facing strong headwinds, as ARA has been. Though its industry was considered an essential business, Blalock says, “the impacts were still pretty huge for most of our members. … A lot of them had to lay off or furlough people and make changes to protect not only themselves and their employees, but their customers as well.”

We have 50 states that define our industry 50 different ways.

Because ARA has a small staff—five full-time employees—it didn’t have the capacity to make strategic overhauls quickly, and Blalock wanted to take the time to see if it needed to. “In the middle of it, I reviewed it probably once a week to see if there was anything that I needed to bring to the board or bring to our executive committee that we might have to take a different look at,” she says.

Threading the needle of taking action too slowly or too quickly is a challenge for organizations of all stripes. According to a 2015 survey published in Harvard Business Review, nearly a third (29 percent) of corporate managers said they reacted too slowly to threats and opportunities, while nearly a quarter (24 percent) said they reacted too quickly in ways that lost sight of their strategy. Strategic planning documents are designed to be durable—ARA works with three-year plans—but COVID-19 has unquestionably been a black-swan event.

Ultimately, ARA pretty much stood pat when the board finally approved a new strategic plan in late July. Part of what gave Blalock and the board confidence in the document is that its core concerns remained intact during the pandemic. Indeed, two of the four pillars in the document seemed to respond to them directly.

In terms of government relations, ARA has a committee that takes a state-by-state approach to advocacy, and that’s been essential this year. “The federal government has some say (in the industry), but I think we saw that during the COVID crisis more than anything, every state said, ‘We’re doing it our way, that’s our right to do it,’” she says. “That makes it very challenging because we have 50 states that define our industry 50 different ways.”

Another pillar of the new strategic plan, branding, proved just as relevant. Bolstering an industry during a crisis has a lot to do with visibility and image, and ARA has made a decision to invest in addressing misconceptions about what automotive recyclers do. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the high level of professionalism in the industry,” she says. “Most people still think we’re Grandpa’s junkyard.”

None of which is to say that associations shouldn’t shift their strategic direction if they see a good reason to. In April, nonprofit consultant Jarrett Ransom wrote at Bloomerang about how organizations can retool their plans, so long as they keep a few essentials nailed down: keep programs and activities relevant to your overall vision, consider the factors that might keep you from executing, and think through multiple scenarios that might affect your goals.

That same kind of North Star thinking gave Blalock confidence that ARA could stick to its plan without an overhaul. “I think this could have easily rattled everybody, especially when you’re short-staffed,” she says. “But we supported each other and didn’t lose sight of who we were and what our goals are.”

Have you had to make a shift to your strategic plan during the pandemic? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Pattanaphong Khuankaew/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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