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  • NOV 19, 2019

    The Culture That Powers High-Performing Professional Associations


    As I suggested in an earlier essay, “A Time of Uncertainty for Professional Associations in Health Care” professional associations are facing an existential crisis. This era of uncertainty stems from the “relevance gap” that yawns between long-established association offerings and modern professional realities. As a result, the traditional economic pillars of associations; meetings, member dues, journal subscriptions and industry support, are imperiled.

    The “relevance gap” is a challenge that confronts all mature enterprises. It may seem odd to look to the commercial sector for inspiration but retailers, like professional associations, must constantly refresh their strategic approach. During a period of declining revenues, McDonald’s former CEO, Don Thompson observed that the company had failed to “evolve at the same rate as our customers’ expectations….” In short, this sounds a great deal like the current state of many professional associations.

    Two essential elements are required to re-energize a mature organization. The first is the creation of a resilient, risk-tolerant culture. In other words, a “high-performance” culture. The second is creating an organization that structurally supports innovation and internal entrepreneurship. Of these two, the creation of an innovation-oriented culture is by far the more important to achieve and the more difficult to maintain.

    Creating a High-Performance Culture

    Professional associations take great pride in their proud legacies. They see themselves as the custodians of traditions and organizational norms that provide continuity between generations of members. These consensus-based organizations also set the standards of excellence for their professions. As such, they have a duty to be thoughtful and deliberative in the new policies they espouse and new approaches they adopt.

    The problem arises when the deliberate and consensus driven rhythms of associations are out of synch with the new realities of their members. The modern workplace, especially in healthcare, is changing rapidly and at times, chaotically. It’s incumbent upon associations to strike a difficult balance between maintaining the best of their traditions and the need for innovation. They must strive to achieve an equipoise between thoughtful deliberation and decisive action.

    The journey towards a high-performing organization begins with strategic planning. We’ve all seen cases where strategic plans have been carefully crafted, consigned to a filing cabinet and destined to never see the light of day. By contrast, in high-performing organizations, the strategic plan is a living document that informs every aspect of the enterprise. In high-performing organizations the goals articulated in the strategic plan, flow to include and engage every member of the team.

    The successful execution of the strategic plan rests squarely on the shoulders of the CEO and senior staff. It is essential that every member of the senior team be fully committed to the plan. The key to achieving that team alignment is candid communication. One colleague once characterized this as “brutal honesty”. I believe a much more productive approach is honesty without the brutality. By that I mean honesty that’s conveyed with respect and consideration. As the renowned organizational health theorist, Patrick Lencioni wrote, “Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.” Admitting weakness, asking for help and leaving yourself vulnerable but trusting that you operate in a safe environment of mutual support is a rare achievement and the hallmark of the highest performing teams.

    Having achieved alignment and trust at a senior management level, the next task is to engage the entire organization in this shared strategic vision. This is not the product of one “All Staff” or sloganeering in the break room but rather it is a daily recommitment to the vision, expressed at all levels of the organization. It is impossible to “over-communicate” an innovation agenda.

    Senior managers know that innovation is inherently unsettling. It presupposes change, it asks staff to take risks and it requires moving beyond traditional workflow and revenue streams. Senior managers must anticipate these reactions with empathy and understanding. Through mentorship, coaching and training managers can provide the tools staff will need to navigate these changes.

    For an innovation agenda to reach its full potential, it must permeate the entire organization. The goals that the board has set for the CEO must cascade to include every member of the team. Each must be able to see how their individual contribution maps to the overall success of the association. Once you achieve organizational alignment and create a safe space for new ideas, the culture of innovation can truly blossom.

    We started from the premise that we’ve entered a time of uncertainty for many professional associations. This uncertainty stems from the “relevance gap” that yawns between the traditional value proposition of the association and the realities of the modern workplace. As a result, the long-established economic pillars of associations; meetings, member dues, journal subscriptions and industry support, are imperiled. This is a dilemma that all mature enterprises face. The associations that will thrive are those that are most able to evolve at the rate of changing member needs.

    There are two essential ingredients required to re-energize a mature organization. The first and most important is the creation of a resilient, risk tolerant culture. The second is creating an organizational infrastructure that structurally supports innovation. In subsequent essays, I’ll talk about the structural elements necessary to maximize the innovation potential of a high performing team.

    Today’s association executives live in an era of ever-accelerating change. That is our new reality. Building teams that can thrive in this new reality is our duty.