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Learning to grow: why now is the right time to experiment

Article by ESAE member Angela Guillemet, Executive Director of INCON, the global partnership of conference and association management companies. The article was published by AMI Magazine.

As part of the Solvay School’s recent lecture series, The Crisis Reader’s Corner, John Metselaar argued that the current health crisis was an opportunity for leaders to move away from planning to experimentation. He coined a new concept called Generative Leaders, which would see autocratic leaders moving from their lofty and bureaucratic strategic planning heights to a role of fostering experimentation and inspiring their teams to learn and innovate. He offers this simple advice for leaders: “You need to get everyone into the game, you need to lift people up, get them learning, experimenting and rising to the challenge”.

He also steered listeners towards Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck’s book, The Growth Mindset”. For those unfamiliar with the growth mindset, think of it as the belief that abilities are never fixed but are being constantly developed, while setbacks are viewed as learning opportunities. To survive and thrive, association leaders should be thinking about how to stimulate a growth mindset and an environment of experimentation amongst their teams, association boards, members and in some cases their industry partners. It is time to encourage an open dialogue on the paths forward, new services, and pricing plans, and to pull together some ideas of what will work and flourish in our new environment and into the future.

Travel restrictions will continue to be a drag on our lives, careers and families. It will require association leaders to reevaluate everything from the content strategy to sponsorship levels to dates for future meetings. Leaders must find ways to empower their teams. If leaders of associations can encourage teams to embrace the growth mindset, they will be able to innovate and put the association on the path to relevancy and success. In this environment, teams feel responsible for delivering their daily tasks and have a sense of belonging, independence and skin in the game, which offer the dual benefit of being essential ingredients for a positive remote working experience.

Nurturing a growth mindset can have many positive outcomes for associations. It is linked to better productivity, improved staff morale and more effective collaborations. If you want your association to come through this period with renewed vigour you should consider cultivating the growth mindset in your organization.

Here’s how:

Think outside of the box

As association professionals, it is our role to deliver content that educates and lifts our members, helps them grow and feel relevant; as well as providing opportunities to build networks and bridges when they have to stay apart. In my association, INCON, we put in place regular learning exchanges between various levels of the organization; marketing, technology, sales and CEO level. The impact has been fantastic as leaders and experts from around the world have shared their ups and downs, exchanged knowledge and break throughs and collaborated on new technologies. These exchanges have been crucial as the industry has been forced to changed its business model and client offering.

During this shaky time for many associations, we need to establish what matters most to our association members, our wider stakeholders, and work from there to create a plan fit for now and for the future. Crisis creates opportunities for people to voice their ideas on how to do things better. Shedding light on the bigger picture can inspire our people to grow and innovate. Now is the time to find ways to share ideas, fuel creativity and re-write how your association operates. Never has the term ‘think outside of the box’ been so relevant!

Show respect and trust

Visible and transparent communication is critical to ensure that your members and your internal teams feel valued. A concerted effort is needed to create a sense of community and trust through regular meetings and communication. Team calls and stakeholder brainstorming session can be used to consult on the long-term growth of the association and to create shared visions.  All ideas and contributions should be acknowledged and shown respect. Some great ways to do this are provided by leadership guru, Dorie Clark, in her LinkedIn learning course on effective listening.

Be curious and tap into unmet needs

To stay ahead of the game, associations need to prioritize essential activities and determine what to keep and what to reduce or eliminate, anticipate future needs and identify new value propositions. Crunching the data is integral to this but talking to members, staff, and sponsors is highly important to understand what people and companies need, what price they are willing to pay and to establish what competing organisations might be doing.  This can be done in a number of ways – in person, over the phone, at a scheduled zoom meeting or by using survey tools. As the marketeer Seth Godin said: “Sometimes it is easier to sell something before you take it out of the box than it is to sell something once it’s already taken out of the box.”

Foster a learning culture

A fellow ESAE member, Alexander Mohr observed, “managing the Covid19 crisis is the best training you have received in your whole career, so don’t let it go to waste!” We need to harness our current challenging environment, to inspire a learning culture in our associations, we need to find ways to explore new ideas, services and ways of doing things. We must move away from fixed mindset thinking such as: “that didn’t work last time”, “that is already covered by association x”, “we can’t charge for a virtual meeting” or “sponsors wouldn’t get any value out of that”.  We can take advantage of some of the current downtime to create a learning culture in our associations and empower teams to upskill, either in their own time or by providing access to education. A learning organisation will find that it is fertile ground to leverage opportunities today and in the future.

Develop team agility

Adaptability and agility are among the most critical skills in turbulent times but also in the AI-powered world. Association leaders must set the expectation that change is a constant and encourage teams to adapt and transform. Leaders themselves need to go beyond legacy systems and older ways of working. Teams need to be empowered to take on tasks that may be out of the ordinary or change their roles entirely due to a change in the direction that the association has taken. Leaders also need to be flexible regarding work arrangements, providing time / funds to upskill or the tools / trust to work remotely.

Crisis and opportunities are two sides of the same coin. The pandemic has ruined beautifully laid plans, decimated budgets and left us wondering what comes next. It is easy to be overwhelmed. The upside of the curtailment in travel and working from home is that we have a little more time in a day. Let’s not fritter the time away but take the opportunity to take a step back and be inspired by others.

Recommended reads for association executives:

Simon Sinek’s “Find your Why”; Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead”;Robert Ige’s “Ride of a Lifetime; and Lindsay Herbert’s “Digital Transformation. For academic lectures and podcasts on topics like “making quick decisions” or “value creation in a digital world”, check out: Wharton and Insead or consult the raft of industry resources that have been made available such as: “tips on moving conferences online” from INCON; or “remote working” from ClickMe


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