Drivers of Success in Times of Disruption - Perspectives from a European Association
Updated: Sep 30
An article by our member, Lucas Boudet, Director General of the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) published at Boardroom magazine
It is commonplace in management textbooks to state that, in the age of disruption, businesses live and die by their ability to adapt. I would like to take a step back from theories of changes and take a stance in the context of European associations. Unlike companies, which can reinvent their business to safeguard their profitmaking, associations cannot change their purpose at a flick of a switch. They are bound by their raison d’être; it is the cement, the affectio societatis, bonding all their members together. Any substantial change to it may jeopardise their sheer existence.
That being said, it does not mean inertia: how to go about as an association leader? What are the specific assets and challenges trade and professional associations have when facing disruption, which can be understood both as a mere bump on the road or as a radical change in the direction of travel? Amidst the crisis, it is hard to decipher what will be short-lived from what will shape the “new normal”. Reflecting on the latter is important but, without any clear-cut answer, it is key to address both long-term and short-term consequences.
ADDRESSING SHORT-TERM SITUATIONS Associations need to be properly equipped in terms of financial, IT and human resources to ensure business continuity and seize opportunities in challenging times.
It is paramount that associations, despite their “non-profit” status, have financial reserves ab initio or build them through yearly surpluses. It is often a harder sale for associations than for companies as members may sometimes consider that funds are better in their own pocket than sitting in the association’s bank account. However, current times may come handy when demonstrating the importance of such a reserve. It is not a nice-to-have but a must in terms of good governance and sustainability.
Regarding IT resources, Brussels-based associations are often particularly well placed. Catering for members across Europe, they are very often already prepared to hold video conferences and work remotely when on business travel. In our specific case, our association was proactive: we inserted provisions for holding remote general assemblies and board meetings when reviewing our articles of association to make them compliant with Belgium’s new legislation on associations.
The third pillar is human resources, ensuring a dedicated and vibrant team despite the lockdown. First, change is better accepted when its necessity is understood. Given the omnipresence of COVID-19 in the media, it was easy to explain why it was essential to adapt the way we work. We acted as a facilitator providing real-time updates on governmental measures for the non-French or Dutch speaking team members.
Another challenge was to keep the bond within the team despite working remotely. Before the lockdown, together with members of staff, we defined what was the appropriate frequency and means to keep contact. On top of our regular meetings and bilateral exchanges, which we made virtual, we added a weekly informal session to allow anyone to address non work-related issues, share his or her feelings and how he or she is coping with the lockdown. The aim was to replace office small talk; it may seem trivial, but it is key to developing a sense of belonging.
These were the foundations to ensure business continuity, with statutory meetings being held virtually and seminars replaced by enticing webinar series. These were also a basis allowing us to go further. We strove to understand the needs of members in these peculiar times though dedicated information exchange sessions where members could freely share their thoughts and concerns. COVID-19 put unethical practices in the limelight, which was an opportunity to reaffirm our mission ensuring legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising. We released statements, took part in global webinars and collaborated with authorities working on issues of COVID-19 related online scam.
EMBRACING LONG-TERM CHANGE
To remain relevant and adapt to longer-term deep-rooted changes you need to properly identify them, have an adequate strategy and the proper mindset.
Understanding what is going on is the first key challenge, especially as longterm change is very often insidious. However, compared to similar sized traditional businesses, associations are in a relatively good position to gather intelligence and identify weak signals of change. They can rely on their extensive network, ranging from policy makers to their membership which features diverse perspectives coming from different countries and industries.
Secondly, how to act on the change is usually addressed via strategy sessions with key stakeholders and the establishment of action plans. This is a key component of well-managed associations.
The third factor is a committed team which understands and embraces change. Again, it is essential that change is justified for it to be understood. We should not change for the sake of changing. Sometimes, new managers want to overhaul everything based on previous experience or the will to make a difference without carefully assessing the underlying reasons for the change. In that regard, associations have an advantage. A link can be drawn between the need for change and the purpose and values of the association which, very often, are drivers for staff members. In this respect, including members of the team when defining the future is definitely worth considering.
Furthermore, associations cannot change their goal overnight; change is often more related to the way they achieve it, considering the broader context. This prevents situations where one’s expertise can be disregarded as no longer relevant in light of the rapid change of orientation. Furthermore, this allows for time and for change to be presented as a continuity rather than as a rupture. Gradual evolution should be part of the team’s culture. Besides hiring people with the proper mindset, it is important to provide all with the opportunity to adapt through relevant training, nudging, and example setting. The transition must be driven with care and respect.
ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE
Due to lack of clarity on the true long-term impact of exceptional circumstances, it is crucial to be both prepared to navigate on troubled waters and change course if needed. Despite being unable to make quick U-turns, associations are relatively well equipped to handle such situations.
Most of the elements presented above may seem obvious to well managed business associations but one element is never emphasised enough: people, whether the people who make up your team or those who represent your members. It is of uttermost importance to demonstrate an acute sense of care. Being responsible and inclusive will surely help make the change meaningful and ensure that all embrace it. Organisations often cannot drastically change their purpose; people do not fundamentally change, but people can change organisations.