A Leader’s Role in a Digital-First Strategy

Successful digital transitions don't happen in a vacuum. They require leaders who have a clear picture of what needs doing, and the ability to get others behind it.

It’s a truism that leaders aren’t supposed to know every last detail of how the organization is running. You weren’t hired to upgrade the AMS or price out the F&B expenses for your association’s next conference. But that not-my-job posture can easily become a blind spot. Not thinking about the details of your association’s digital positioning can lapse into not thinking about it at all.

That danger became clear to me while I was working on my feature in the summer issue of Associations Now on what it means to be a “digital first” association. There are a lot of paths an association can take to becoming “digital first,” as the feature demonstrates. Some retooled in a hurry, and some have been working through a years-long strategy. But the common thread is that top leadership made an intentional decision to make a change, and decide what the term meant for the association.

We’ve got to be careful when we design solutions.

That doesn’t mean software, at least not in itself. As Maddie Grant, digital strategist at the consultancy Propel, told me, “You can upgrade all of your software but not actually change how you do things.” And it may not mean finding digital solutions at all. ISACA made a shift during the pandemic to move more of its certification testing online—which made sense for its strategic goal of expanding its international engagement. But as ISACA CTO Simona Rollinson explained to me, applying a digital solution can sometimes decrease value. In the case of the association’s chapters, for instance, technology platforms are considered through the lens of creating in-person opportunities for chapters, not supplanting them.

“People may want to have that social aspect, so we’ve got to be careful when we design solutions,” she told me. “Feedback from our chapters is very important to us.”

The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation, a white paper published in June and coauthored by Grant and Spark Consulting chief strategist Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, stresses the importance of judiciousness and top-level engagement with digital strategy. Successful efforts, they write, come from “a clear mandate from leadership” and “strong support from the C-suite (and from the board or volunteer leadership), actively providing direction and the resources for that change to happen.”

The CEO has a critical role here not just because they steer the association’s direction, but because there are so many people that will need persuading—board members, staff members, other volunteers and stakeholders. As Construction Specifications Institute CEO Mark Dorsey explains in the white paper about a digital platform the association developed, “You have to get the culture and governance right first. Your board has to be willing to change the way they make decisions and to provide the financial support you need to achieve the vision.”

And that all starts with the CEO, along with tech-staff leaders. The white paper points to a recent report from the consultancy Altimeter that shows that CEOs, along with CIOs and CTOs, are most likely to take ownership of digital transformation efforts. CEOs don’t need to know every detail about what making that change entails. But they’ll need the awareness of how important the transformation is, and what it will take to get an organization behind it.

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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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