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What Advice Do U.S. Associations Have For Tough Times?

October 2020
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What Advice Do U.S. Associations Have For Tough Times? Cover Image

Two prominent association leaders weigh in on what’s important

While uncertain times often bring stress, they also bring opportunity. As the world undergoes major changes, the face of leadership at associations needs to morph with the times. Organizations both large and small are already struggling with how to serve members and stay relevant in the changes brought on not only by the impacts of the coronavirus but also the challenges presented by younger generations in the work force and how to prioritize diversity and inclusion.

Leading groups of people during times of stability is fairly easy for most leaders. However, the judge of a great leader is whether they can still lead when the world has been turned upside down. The management of associations has already begun to look toward what the future holds and are thinking about how to lead their organizations now and in the future. Most leaders say they’re confronted with having to make more decisions in a substantially shorter timeframe than before – often without the time to gather the data needed. And even with the data, it’s often a moving target.

Stanton Chase sat down with two prominent association leaders, Ann Feeney (CAE, Co-Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council at the American Hospital Association) and Scott Grayson (CAE, CEO of the American Public Works Association and the Canadian Public Works Association), to hear their take on what leaders should be looking at as they navigate the crisis with the wellbeing of employees and association members in mind.

The disruptions from the pandemic and the public attention to racial and socioeconomic inequality have made many more organizations look closely at diversity, inclusion, and equity. This new focus means there’s a growing awareness that changes in leadership and leadership styles are more important than ever. The leadership suite will not only become more diverse in the future, but all will have to pay more attention.

Millennials, especially, are increasingly likely to consider an organization’s economic, environmental, and social impact before buying or joining. This creates more pressure for companies to speak out openly about social issues, including diversity, and to take action.

Feeny points out that while COVID-19 largely drove #MeToo out of the headlines, the movement has empowered many women to report sexual discrimination and harassment. In turn, “this has made organizations vigilant about prevening discrimination and harassment,” she says, thus removing an obstacle to women’s advancement.

“Some of the behavioral changes that the pandemic created can indirectly foster a more diverse leadership,” she adds, adding that many organizations are allowing or even encouraging workers to work full-time, permanently from home. “This will mean that opportunities will be open to candidates all over the country, increasing the diversity of the potential field of candidates.”

In a similar vein, more organizations have found themselves becoming more collaborative internally and externally, united for shared purposes amid the need to identify and solve problems and meet opportunities immediately. Feeney believes this will lead to more inclusive organizations as groups that may not have worked together closely before are trying to keep and build upon that new spirit of collaboration.

“Formal and informal networks will become bigger, wider-reaching, and more inclusive at the organizations that are successful at building and sustaining collaboration,” she says. “This, too, will open opportunities.”

For the leaders of these organizations and associations, though, certain character traits must be honed for them to be at the top of their game in creating new initiatives and fostering a secure workplace environment. Grayson says it’s not enough for leaders like him to rely on established skill sets during these unprecedented times. Rather, they must focus on cultivating the interconnected behavioral traits of compassion, positivity, honesty, courage, serenity, and a sense of humor.

One of the most important elements he discovered in recent months has been the need to show compassion and empathy for staff. “Everybody deals with the pandemic and civil unrest differently,” he says. “People need a leader who is going to reach out to them and find out how they are feeling. This is a scary and uncertain time for some and for others it is not. One size of dealing with people does not fit all.”

In order to be empathetic, leaders must stay positive. “I try to come to work (virtually) with a positive attitude every day,” Grayson says. “I do know that we are all in this together and we will weather the storm and come out on the other side with a stronger bond as a staff and as an organization.”

But to fully get the team on your side in conveying how you’ll all get through this, leaders must first and foremost be honest. Grayson says it’s crucial “to be honest with the staff about the current economic threat to associations caused by loss of revenue due to cancellation of trade shows and declining membership. Everyone sees that there is a high rate of unemployment in the U.S. I can’t promise that everyone will keep their job but I can do everything in my power to weather the economic storm so we can try to keep them employed. Just saying that is not enough you have to share your strategy and vision.”

Being that honest about sometimes unpleasant truths – and mistakes — takes a strong degree of honesty. “A leader must have courage to be wrong,” he says. “During this time, leaders cannot possibly have all of the correct answers, but we need to make decisions and they could be wrong. What is worse is to be frozen in place and not make any decision at all. In some cases it may be better to make a bad decision than no decision at all.”

For this level of honesty, serenity and a sense of humor are key. Being able to trust in the decisions you’ve made and accept the path you’ve chosen needs an “inner calm,” according to Grayson. “If you are a frenetic leader, it is going to permeate throughout the entire organization and cause harm.”

Likewise, Grayson believes good leaders can bring some humor to the realities faced by his staff and members. “It is not about the ability to tell jokes. It is about being able to laugh at challenging situations and at oneself while creating a sense of levity among the staff,” he says.

As we move forward, associations and those who lead them will continue to change and grow with the challenges of our society. While trade and industry associations face a high level of stress and uncertainty, many are being proactive to help lead their members and others to navigate the changes in their industries and our greater society. The future for leadership at associations will require new ways of thinking and the behaviors that welcome the new ideas and the inclusion of everyone.

About the Author:

Thom Singer is a Director at the Austin office of Stanton Chase.

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