A Post-Pandemic Strategy for Strategic Planning

Boards have become more attentive to strategy since the onset of COVID-19. Two governance experts share suggestions for keeping that momentum.

Governance is governance, as Target founder Ken Dayton famously put it. But governance in the pandemic era is a bit different.

Shifting strategy discussions to Zoom, combined with heightened focus on social justice issues in the past two years, have prompted association leaders to collaborate differently and pay more attention to strategic matters, especially around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). During the first year of COVID, according to the software company OnBoard, boards reported that they were “more effective, more collaborative, and are spending more time on vital strategic issues than prior to the pandemic.”

But the increased (remote) face time that has often come with online board work shouldn’t let associations be complacent. That’s something I explored in a recent Associations Now Deep Dive piece on whether associations should overhaul their strategic plans due to the pandemic. Short answer: probably not, if that plan is well thought through and aligned with your overall organizational goals. But it’s a good time to double-check the processes you use for strategic discussions and the pipeline you have in place for the next group of leaders.

How can a strategy help associations do fewer things but do them better?

Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE

Glenn Tecker, co-CEO of Tecker International, is skeptical that online governance gives association decision-making the necessary gravitas. “While there is intellectual commitment to the decision, there tends to be less emotional commitment, less trust and satisfaction, less of a feeling of engagement,” he says.

To counter that, Tecker recommends that board agendas be crystal clear on brass-tacks matters: that they include time to drill down into a specific issue that’s important in the near term and also to review the current strategic plan to make sure progress is being made (and if not, explore why not). Staff and board members need to work together to define the shape of the strategic plan, he notes; if the two sides neglect each other, the plan will be neglected too. “If the board and senior staff are not participating together actively in the process, we won’t work with the association,” Tecker says of his consultancy. “We know whatever they come up with will never be implemented.”

One upside of the pandemic-era shift to remote, says Vista Cova CEO Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, is that it gave associations an opportunity to slow down and do this work, to pay more attention to strategic matters and the strategic-planning process. After the initial anxiety from the onset of the pandemic subsided, he says, association boards proved capable of adapting and responding.

“There’s only so far that adrenaline is going to get you,” he says. “I don’t see much panic now. Organizations have recognized that they’ve been given an opportunity for innovation and an opportunity to rethink their direction, now that they’ve developed some innovation skill sets.”

But they shouldn’t squander what they’ve learned as things ease back to something more normal. Like Tecker, Aplebaum recommends that associations use their experiences in the past two years to drill down into particular challenges that have emerged. That doesn’t mean jettisoning the overall strategic plan, but honing it.

“Organizations are definitely looking to try to focus,” he says. “Hopefully there’s an awakening that what they’ve been doing for breadth, because they were always doing them that way, they’re sacrificing in depth. How can a strategy help them do fewer things but do them better?”

It’s an especially relevant question these days, and one that can better guide strategic discussions after the pandemic crisis is over.

(jeffbergen/E+/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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