A Last Look at Leadership in 2021

Boards, staffs, and members all had to make changes in the past year, evidence that lessons from the pandemic are becoming a part of association culture in general.

In some ways, for associations, the end of 2021 doesn’t look a lot different than the end of 2020. The pandemic is still a major factor in any serious decision-making process. Politics and economics are still disrupted and uncertain, making forecasting more difficult.

But 2021 was also the year when associations began to apply some of the lessons they learned in 2020. And there’s evidence that they came out stronger for it. Leaders have had to think more about social justice, hybrid meetings and offices, and governance, all of which are good things. Challenges remain, of course, but having new problems to work on means associations aren’t getting too comfortable. Here are a few of the most prominent themes that emerged in my conversations with association leaders over the past year. Please share your own thoughts in the comments.

Boards are learning to adapt virtually. There’s no excuse anymore for a board lacking in tech savvy, now that board members tend to meet more often and at a distance. There are lots of upsides to this: Studies have shown that absenteeism is down at board meetings, and those meetings are more efficient. But while volunteer leaders are more alert to needs around diversity and strategy, facing those issues head-on is still a work in progress. Regardless, the pandemic hasn’t put a pause on making substantial changes; associations can take advantage of a more present (if physically distant) board to accomplish necessary retoolings.

Soft skills in the C-suite are more important than ever. “Emotional intelligence” became an overused buzzword in 2021, but there’s no question that CEOs are being asked to think more about how they understand and communicate with their staff and stakeholders, especially since the modes of communication are different now. And during the era of the Great Resignation, where employees are more likely to move on if they’re not comfortable where they are, those skills are more meaningful. As one report put it: “[For CEOs,] it’s not enough just to listen to their employees’ concerns. They must learn how to internalize what they are hearing so they can anticipate how their actions and decisions might impact employees in negative ways.”

CEOs are being asked to think more about how they understand and communicate with staff and stakeholders.

Managing hybrid is a necessary skill. Whether or not your association is fully back in the office or holding in-person meetings, leaders have become responsible for balancing the needs of people who are engaging with your association both face to face and virtually. That means being creative about how to build collaborative environments, rethinking the skill sets that you hire for, and creating workplaces and event spaces that are fair to a variety of groups. It pays to be inquisitive on this front. Consultant Amanda Kaiser recommends one-on-one interviews to surface concerns: “What we want to do is ask them what they’re most challenged with, what their worries are for the future, and what their goals are both in the near term and the long term.”

DEI is not just a department. Since the summer of 2020, more associations have recognized that diversity, equity, and inclusion is essential to an organization’s success, building it into how it handles hiring, volunteering, awards, and more. Organizations have been asked to do more to gain their employees’ trust and move outside their comfort zones when it comes to board and volunteer recruitment. As McKinley Advisors’ Alanna Tievsky McKee put it: “With a commitment to DEI, it’s critical associations push themselves outside these circles to ensure volunteer leaders represent the diversity of the full members and the profession/industry they serve.” Awareness is a good first step. But, as ever, there’s work to be done in 2022.

(Dilok Klaisataporn/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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