Leadership Lessons From #ASAE21

Disruption is still the watchword in 2021, but many speakers at the ASAE Annual Meeting found solutions rooted in what's tried-and-true.

Getting back to basics is the new innovation.

This seems like a peculiar, contradictory takeaway from the leadership sessions I followed during last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting. But a consistent message among many leaders who spoke was that dealing with the crises of the past 18 months requires a new focus on first principles—clear strategy, engaged volunteer leaders, and strong leadership. If there’s a difference, now, it’s in how “strong” is defined. It’s no longer synonymous with “assertive” or “demanding.” Rather, strong leaders now are decisive but flexible, more reliant on collaboration.

As Andrew Chamberlain, managing director of Consort Strategy put it in the session “Intersectionality of Crisis and Opportunity—Governance as Leadership,” association leaders who did best during the pandemic were “not reactive but responsive,” with boards that didn’t lapse into panic mode. Similarly, C. David Gammel, FASAE, CAE, principal at McKinley Advisors, highlighted the importance of a strategy-focused board during his session “Strategic Board Agendas: 10 Tips for Meetings With Impact.” Smart association leaders are unafraid to take the reins to ensure that board agendas stay strategic, he said. “Boards will work on what you give them,” he said. “If you give them nothing, they’ll just pick what to work on.”

Boards will work on what you give them.

But that tried-and-true governance advice doesn’t mean new ways of thinking about leadership haven’t been necessary. During the session “Responsive Versus Reactive Strategy: Coming Out Ahead in Times of Crisis,” American Dental Association VP of member and client services, April Kates-Ellison, discussed the importance of leaders shifting from a familiar growth mindset to a “pivot mindset,” constantly reassessing what member and chapter needs are and how to deliver on them. (For those keeping score, #ASAE21 featured three sessions with “crisis” in the title, four with some variation on “survival.”) During the same session, Stephen Gold, CAE, president and CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance, said his focus shifted toward a more iterative, community-leader role, one that will endure past the pandemic. “It’s responsive leadership to say there’s no going back,” he said.

In a remote environment that’s still disrupted, leaders have to think more about what their presence is and how they’re seen. During “Reimagining Your Strategy for an Uncertain Future,” Elena Gerstmann, FASAE, CAE, executive director of INFORMS, discussed how leading during Zoom calls and building trust from a distance requires a different leadership style. Leaders now need to “reduce that hurricane strength” and present their authority more collaboratively and iteratively, as pandemic-driven circumstances change and meetings move to hybrid and in-person.

None of which should suggest that associations can’t do what they were doing before the pandemic—help their industries grow and generate more revenue to better do so. During “A Look Inside a 32% Growth Association During a Pandemic,” National Grants Management Association Executive Director Andrew S. Goldschmidt, CAE, shared how his association expanded meeting revenue and membership in the past two years.

That success was a function of a redoubled commitment to data-driven decision making, contingency planning, and attention to detail. That, he says, allowed NGMA to commit quickly to moving education to virtual platforms. But it also stuck with doing some things the old-fashioned way. For instance, the group tried using direct-mail reminders about membership renewals, which worked surprisingly well; it turns out, he noted, that many members were having work mail forwarded as they worked from home.

NGMA also held the line on attendance fees, confident that its content was strong enough to avoid discounting. Keeping an association humming, he said, requires a multifaceted strategy that’s attentive and responsive. A new world doesn’t necessarily require new-fangled ideas: “There’s not really any particular silver bullet,” he said.

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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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