A Last Look at Leadership in 2020

Nobody wanted or expected a year like this one. But as 2020 ends, it's a good time to look at a few lessons worth hanging on to.

Now that 2020 is finally heading out the door—”And stay out!” I’m tempted to yell at it—there are lots of good reasons to avoid looking backward. Vaccines are on the way, a contentious election season is over and done with, and everybody is entering the holiday season eager to turn the page.

But ignoring the experiences of the past year would be a missed opportunity. For much of this year I spoke with association leaders about how they were responding to COVID-19, and they were doing the difficult but necessary work of figuring out how to handle typical association tasks like strategic planning and staff management in a brand-new environment. In 2020, associations proved themselves to be up to the challenges they faced. For that, if nothing else, it’s a year worth remembering.

Below are a few of the lessons that sprung out of 2020, and I hope you’ll take a moment to share some of your own lessons learned in the comments.

Agility is more a part of associations’ DNA than we thought. At this year’s ASAE Virtual Annual Meeting & Exposition, many presentations were about how capable associations were at pivoting in response to COVID-19, changing how they handled meetings, advocacy, and serving member needs. The new environment meant that associations could be more flexible about how they operated and were free to try new ideas in ways they wouldn’t in a “normal” year. “This is the time to try it—if it doesn’t work, just blame COVID,” said the leader of one online meeting of association leaders. It was a time to explore new partnerships and new ways to keep your association’s culture intact despite working remotely.

Focus on what you can do well now, and members will see it.

Oh, and about “normal.” Stop fixating on it. The early days of the pandemic meant throwing out the usual association playbook of tactics and member marketing. “Question every single line item that you have and why you have it and why you are asking people to pay for it,” association consultant Shelly Alcorn, CAE, told me just as everybody was buckling in. As the pandemic has stretched on, it’s been important to avoid complacency and simply wishing for the more familiar times to return. Rather than worrying about when face-to-face meetings are coming back, think about how you can serve members in the current moment. “We are telling our people that no matter what they do, it will never be as good as what we did before, and we cannot wait to get back to doing things that way, without even trying what we could be doing now,” said Joy Davis, CAE, managing director of member products at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists. Focus on what you can do well now, and members will see it.

You can do governance well in a crisis. Board meetings tend to have a ritual-and-ceremony element to them—the mixers and dinners and icebreaker exercises are there to create a sense of belonging and cohesion, so volunteer leaders can get important collective work done. Those things are hard to replicate virtually, but not impossible. Earlier this year I explored what made one online retreat work well on a practical level—chuck the real-time report-outs, keep an eye on your introverts, beware of Zoom fatigue. But though the meeting format might change, it’s just as important as ever to avoid being reactive and tactical in strategic meetings. The experience of the Automotive Recyclers Association as they redid their strategic plan in 2020 is a reminder that such plans aren’t meant to be a response to a pandemic but resilient enough to handle all sorts of challenges.

There’s a lot of DEI work still to be done. The protests around racial inequality that followed the killing of George Floyd by a police officer last May were not new, but this year there was a stronger urge to do more around diversity, equity, and inclusion than simply acknowledge its importance. Texts to Table, a video series/podcast on race and leadership featuring four Black association executives , was essential viewing for me and many in the association community this year. Leaders needed to be more mindful of how remote-working environments can exacerbate the negative treatment of marginalized groups. But DEI work will only be successful when the C-suite shows real diversity. As Rob Henry, vice president of education at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education put it: “Until we change leadership, this will not matter. I believe people are committed to diversity, but they are more committed to their cultures. And what we have to do is bring in more diverse leaders who will change the culture.”

(serggn/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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!