As Mike Moss, president of the Society for College and University Planning, Donté Shannon, CEO of the Association for Equipment Management Professionals, and Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, all discovered as they spoke together for the first the time at “Key Lessons from the Path to Resilient Leadership” during SURGE Forward, there’s a way to find clarity in a crisis.
“We have an opportunity now to really become greater good-based organizations, regardless of mission,” Moss said. “That's kind of why we all showed up in the first place. And with that resiliency of leadership and fortitude and persistence—putting all those into the attributes of board members—doesn't mean that we're starting to configure different ways to disagree. We're actually configuring different ways to lead, and I do think we'll start to see much more collaboration and a lot less competition.”
That extends to board members, Shannon said, who must become “comfortable being uncomfortable.”
“You’ve got to be comfortable with flexibility and having multiple scenarios and not knowing what the actual outcome might be because of environmental things that might happen or impact what you want to happen,” he added. “We've got to find people again who are resilient, (to whom) crisis is not something that devastates them—crisis is something that they look at as opportunity.”
Associations were no different. For Moss, the coronavirus meant accelerating the association’s strategic plan while Shannon used the pause in daily working life to refocus his association on advocacy.
“A lot of our partners had these powerhouse government relations departments, and they were starting to come together to lobby Congress on not shutting down our industry, not putting other restrictions on our industry,” Shannon explained. “And I said, ‘This is an opportunity for us to jump in here, right?’ Because, when this is all said and done, this is something that we don't want our members to look back and say, ‘Well, what did you all do?’”
The Country Music Association, which relies on big events for revenue, shifted its efforts to industry support.
“We put in place mental health resources, food resources, job bank resources for our industry,” Trahern said. “Our partnership team didn't have anything to sell. So we repurposed their jobs (and redirected them toward) researching job opportunities” for members.
Associations are only as good as the mental health of their members and employees, so one of Shannon’s main goals was figuring out how to keep his members—who rely on being out in the world—engaged.
“How do we keep them understanding that they still have a professional home here, this is still a place that they can find value in education and training and things like that,” Shannon said.
Moss also stressed self-care for staff: “We worked in a series of wellness days that were mandatory,” he explained. “It was a paid day off and you didn't get a vote — you had to go attend to your family.”
“That ongoing resiliency of our members to have to make changes to serve their constituency, helped us accelerate our ability to service through our accelerated plan, our constituency, and stakeholders,” Moss said. “So I think that's been one of the best opportunities is to also see the wellness aspects that needed to happen.”
The panelists also learned to embrace scenario planning.
“It’s created a transformative level of planning that we weren't able to do,” Trahern said. “We were able to do it, but we didn't need to do it. And now the ease with which we can go through things is so much faster because of that.”
“Scenario planning is not a crisis-only mechanism and tool,” Moss added. “Also, as a matter of practice, it really opens up opportunities.”
That is now part of an “innovation hub,” and it’s been fruitful for Moss and his colleagues. So far in 2021, “we’ve launched two products because of the incubator,” he said. “And so it was the scenario planning—that we really just absolutely stand on as a discipline for our clientele—served us in an innovative capacity that I don't think we could have planned for. So it's been a great lesson from that perspective.”
Another invaluable lesson: board members learning that leadership can mean letting someone else take over—especially in a troubled time.
“One of the things I think was great with my board is they really came together to say, ‘Look, we don't know how to do this,” Shannon said. “‘We're going to look to you to really help lead us through this and tell us what we need to be doing.’”
“If we can energize our organizations based on teamwork, collaboration, surprised leadership — people who came out of this with different skill-sets — our association worlds are going to be so much stronger to be able to do business and thrive,” Trahern said.
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Since 1998, Pete Croatto has written everything from movie reviews to obituaries to advertorials to ebooks. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Christian Science Monitor, Men's Journal, GQ, Shondaland and other high-profile outlets. His first book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, was released in December by Atria Books. (Buy it here!) Follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.