New Roles for Association Pros
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A More Disciplined Approach to Projects

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When looking for the right person to lead its new strategy delivery office, the American Planning Association needed someone who was not only familiar with the way things worked but also up for the challenge of introducing project management concepts to staff and volunteers. Mike Welch proved to be that fit.

Mike Welch spent nearly 20 years of his career at the American Planning Association primarily working with volunteer groups and members. That changed in 2021 when senior staff asked him to lead a project management training for a small staff cohort. After training concluded, they asked if he would be interested in applying to be director of APA’s new project management department.

Though he would miss working with committees and special interest groups, the opportunity to be strategy delivery office director was one he couldn’t pass up.

“The organization has been through a lot of transformation since the pandemic,” Welch said. “The training gave me a good understanding of how project management works and the direction that the organization was moving toward.”

That transformation started in 2019 when APA began rethinking its core values and mission. After identifying four key initiatives, the association kept its goal setting focused with specific deliverables, outcomes, and indicators to measure success over time.

“As we finalized the strategic blueprint, it became obvious that we needed a disciplined approach for implementation,” said APA’s Chief Strategy Officer Harriet Bogdanowicz, MBA, CAE. “Our CEO said that he found success at a past organization by applying project management practices.”

APA’s strategy delivery office was created to help ensure that the high-level objectives set by senior staff and the board of directors are prioritized.

“Organizations sometimes operate like a battleship: They take time to move and are slow to turn. Each team or division operates according to what it’s already done,” Welch said. “This department and my role change up that thinking.”

“Organizations sometimes operate like a battleship: They take time to move and are slow to turn.”—Mike Welch, American Planning Association
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Upstream and Downstream

When looking for the right person for the director role, APA wanted someone who understood the breadth of activity in the organization, as well as the culture and the way the organization worked.

“We wanted someone who could move back and forth between high-level concepts and tactical coordination of issues,” Bogdanowicz said. “The individual needed to be an advocate and communicator upstream for executive leadership and the board of directors, as well as provide oversight and coaching for many staff downstream.”

In his role, Welch helps the organization navigate strategy and ensure the board’s high-level priorities are carried out. He also oversees program and project management across the association: aligning, people, processes, measurements, standards, and activities to APA’s business strategy. This also includes monitoring and reporting outcomes.

“A lot of my work involves helping teams use the tools and techniques of project management,” Welch said. “I often find myself helping them get unstuck when they run into problems, and of course, I help them recognize and celebrate their wins.”

The strategy delivery office works to help the association thoughtfully allocate time and resources to high-priority projects and then achieve those bigger objectives.

Early Successes

According to Bogdanowicz, the strategy delivery office has helped staff gain a shared understanding of what APA is trying to achieve and why.

“Everyone has a primary consideration for how we are implementing projects that are strategy initiatives,” she said. “It’s been very easy to come to our board and volunteer committees and say we need to begin changing how we set up board attendance and appoint committees.”

Volunteer leaders are also starting to implement this focus when appointing volunteer committees, according to Bogdanowicz.

“Even if a committee existed in the past, if there’s not a good connection to our strategic work, that committee may not be appointed or may be given a narrow charge,” she said. “It’s been a shift for volunteers, but it’s moving forward.”

Though the role was a leap of faith for Welch, it was well worth it. Not only have members benefited from the new department, but he also said that the regular monthly calls with the board and executive team have improved accountability and transparency across the organization.

“I came into this role with a high degree of trust with the board of directors and a connection to the culture,” he said. “And that’s really enabled me to help the organization navigate strategy and move us away from a legacy-based way of thinking toward a more project management mindset.”

Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now.

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