Leadership

How Three Rules Support One Association's Culture

By / Oct 25, 2020 (matdesign24/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Three years ago, the education association MISBO established guidelines for how staff would treat each other. They’ve served the organization well through the pandemic.

Damian Kavanagh, CAE, is the head of a small-staff association—7.5 full-time employees—and like most small-staff leaders, he recognizes that group cohesion is particularly critical. As the CEO of MISBO, an association of independent-school leaders, he convened his staff three years ago to answer “two pretty simple questions: What are the characteristics of people you like to work with? And what are the characteristics of people you struggle with?”

I’d argue that those aren’t, in fact, simple questions, but they’re excellent ones to explore when an organization is trying to establish a healthy culture. We know that remote work during COVID-19 hasn’t made culture any less essential and that successful leaders establish norms of conduct that work both in person and online.

MISBO’s two-question process helped it establish those norms. But it also found a way to make them memorable on an everyday basis by distilling them into “three rules that guide everything we do,” Kavanagh says. To wit:

  1. Lead with empathy.
  2. Make it easy.
  3. No more than one battle per day.

Empathy, we know, is correlated to workplace retention, among other benefits. And for Kavanagh, it’s a no-brainer that leaders need to see leadership “through the lens of the other person and really understand what it is they need.”

Making it easy can be a little more complex, though. It can mean cultivating an environment where coworkers are encouraged to be crystal clear with each other about what they need, so as not to sow confusion. It can also be member-focused. For instance, MISBO was looking for ways to streamline the routes for people to access Zoom sessions for their recent virtual annual conference, making sure attendees use the desktop client instead of the web.

We should be perceived as an organization that always makes it easier for others.

“The question in the ‘make it easy’ universe is, if it doesn’t solve the problem of making sure they use the desktop client, then are we just making it harder for them?” Kavanagh says. “It may be that it’s easier for us because it guarantees we know who was in each seat when we run our reports. But it doesn’t make it easier for them. And our default position is, if it’s between members and staff, make it easier for members.”

The “one battle per day” mantra is effectively a reminder about the importance of self-care. “It looks inward,” he says. “It’s about taking care of yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally.”

The three rules have remained meaningful through the pandemic because of their simplicity, Kavanagh says.

“I’ve found that these three points are even more significant [now], but the guiding principles have not changed,” he says. “Our mission, like any association’s mission, is to help people do their jobs. So we should be perceived as an organization that always makes it easier for others, helps others, and understands their perspective and what it is they’re going through. The three statements had a timelessness before COVID, and I think it’ll be that way after COVID.”

And remote work, in itself, shouldn’t change your culture, so long as leaders are willing to monitor it. Rather than blaming the pandemic for disarray, now may be the time to establish—or reestablish—the principles your organization will abide by.

“The question to ask is, were you really a collaborative team before you went virtual, or were you a collection of independent workers?” Kavanagh says. “If you were a collection of independent workers, what do you think Zoom would have changed about that? It’s not the platform that has changed the culture. The culture was already there. The platform is just exposing it.”

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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