The Executive Solution Circle: Some Thoughts on Our World Going Forward

2020-2021 CalSAE Board Chair

For many of us, 2020 has been a difficult year personally. For our industry, 2020 has been the most challenging year in living memory. Yet, in the midst of this adversity lies opportunity. That is why, against the backdrop of 2020, the theme of this edition of The Executive is “Evolve.”

Many of our colleagues, especially those in the realm of event management, find themselves in a much different landscape today than just six months ago. I’ve watched on social media as far too many colleagues reported lost jobs or announced they were switching careers altogether (a move I hope is temporary because there are some fantastic people we need back). Many have also endured health challenges related to this pandemic; what once seemed like a remote threat has now become something that has touched all our lives at some level.

 

Evolution is defined as a “process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change, growth or development.” I wouldn’t use words like “gradual” or “peaceful” to describe the seismic shift occurring in our industry, but I believe strongly that we will come out of 2020 a more grown and developed group of professionals. We must because the alternative to evolution is extinction. While that may sound dire or dramatic, the reality is organizations that fail to adapt as their environment changes around them, do so at their own peril.

As individual organizations and as an industry, we must explore how we’re going to evolve, now, even if answers may not yet be fully available. Starting today, we need to look at our industry (if not our world) in pre and post 2020 terms.

EVENTS

Although there have been challenges in pivoting from in-person to virtual conferences, our experience at The Core Management Company has shown there are also opportunities. These include the ability to increase conference attendance by appealing to elusive audiences for whom in-person options were previously cost prohibitive. We’ve also been able to develop a stronger conference value proposition because there are now more continuing education units available than traditional in person events could provide. With respect to virtual platforms, our staff has found they come in all types and price ranges. While it’s true you cannot simply cut and paste a live conference program into a virtual one, you don’t necessarily have to completely alter your program to fit a specific virtual platform. There are plenty of options out there – researching them does take time, but investing that time will help you find the one that best fits your needs and the needs of your members.

Every association professional would agree that a certain magic happens when people get together – especially in the area of relationship development and cultivation. This magic is especially vital for vendors, exhibitors, and sponsors who are the financial lifeblood of events. Thus, a big part of our industry’s evolution will be a move toward “hybrid” conferences and events as a way to capitalize on the benefits of both the virtual and the in-person gathering. This too will come with challenges. While you may enjoy some of the benefits of both virtual and in-person events via a hybrid model, organizations can wind up having to do double the work and incur double the cost if not careful, leading to budgetary deficits and staff burnout. Effective management of any additional resources needed to make hybrid events financially successful and sustainable may be where the real evolution opportunity lies in the post-2020 world.

MEMBERSHIP

How long and how deep this economic downturn will be is simply unknown. While some industries may be bouncing back at a faster rate, the trends we’ve seen in our AMC are that employers’ 2021 budgets are being examined with intense scrutiny across the economic spectrum, and that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future. Some employers that used to cover professional association memberships, will not do so next year. Some companies that are trade association members are holding back on what they see as discretionary spending. In the wake of these trends, associations must make a compelling business case for continued membership – not as a “discretionary” expense but as a critical investment in increasing revenues and decreasing costs. The same holds true for commanding the narrative to prospective members.

This begins with a clear understanding of your total value proposition, encapsulated in a phrase I use often: “Know thy value prop.” In that spirit, this is a great time to analyze the usage of programs. For example, does your association know how many and which members are utilizing your benefits programs? Is your value proposition the same for every member or does it vary by type, size, or geographic location of members? Are you marketing your programs accordingly? Is there an unmet need your association could be providing? Do you know how many dollars your association saved or earned your industry by advocating for or against policies, and are you communicating that effectively? Does your dues structure provide a sustainable revenue stream if industry consolidation occurs? If you’re a local society or association, and a big part of your value proposition has been access to local events, are you able to capture some of that sense of community in the virtual world – at least temporarily?

Evolution in this area starts with making sure the right questions are being asked with respect to membership value and continues towards success when the answers inform a savvy and timely membership recruitment and retention strategy.

MANAGEMENT & GOVERNANCE

If conversations I have had with close association executive friends are any indication, remote working arrangements, while not perfect, have generally worked surprisingly well. Even colleagues who were adamantly against the very concept of remote working have come to realize that at least modified remote office work structures can and should be explored as viable options. For our AMC – which already had a partially remote workforce to begin with – forced remote working has reinforced that a fully remote model, if necessary, could sustain operations for a prolonged period of time.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that fully remote workforces will become the primary model for our industry post-2020; as discussed earlier, the nature of in-person collaboration is something that cannot be effectively replaced by the virtual. At least not yet.

Some also believe certain kinds of association work, namely financial and/or administrative, may be better suited for brick and mortar environments, meaning some amount of office meeting space will remain a requirement for most associations, just maybe not as much as they’ve needed in the past. As Boards and executives look to cut overhead costs, reducing the square footage of office space may be a good place to start without necessarily eliminating it altogether. If that trend takes hold, the effects could be momentous. Effectively removing geographical barriers to staffing would revolutionize the way we hire. Accessing talent will no longer be limited to a candidate’s location. Of course, each association’s needs are unique, and undoubtedly, HR considerations – up to and including future labor-related legislation – will play a large part in determining what staffing models are feasible going forward.

I say that while acknowledging “Zoom fatigue” has become a real phenomenon, for most associations, driven by a desire for increased efficiencies of time and money, virtual platforms are here to stay for Board meetings. This necessitates asking certain questions. Will fewer opportunities for personal interaction lead to a less cohesive Board? Conversely, if meetings are virtual, does this allow for more time spent on Board business (vis-à-vis travel), and do virtual options free up dollars to use in other areas of an association’s mission? The answers will vary for each organization, but the question of whether Board meetings will evolve has already been answered. Now it’s just a question of how.

DIVERSITY & INCLUSION (D+I)

This is an area where some of the biggest evolution opportunities lay before us, and let it be said, this moment demands we lean into the prospect of change as individuals, an association, and an industry. CalSAE’s Board is currently involved in conversations to this effect. We’re asking more questions than anything else. Is “Diversity and Inclusion” still a relevant term or is it outdated? What is it exactly that needs fixing and what is CalSAE’s role to fix it, and for whom? Jim Anderson, CAE, CalSAE President & CEO, Stephanie Stephens, CalSAE Vice Chair, and I recently met (virtually) with ASAE President & CEO, Susan Robertson, and members of her staff to discuss their own experience down this path. ASAE’s leadership commitment some years ago to engage on D+I and the result has been remarkable strides that continue today. It’s important to note that the CalSAE Board is going into the process with no pre-conceived notions of what a successful outcome looks like. As the adage says, the journey will be as important as the destination. I am immensely proud to have this initiative commencing in my term as Chair and am excited to see where it leads.

I would like to end this article with two heartfelt thoughts of appreciation. First to our CalSAE staff.

And to you, our members – thank you! Thanks for your membership, thanks for your loyalty, and thanks for being there for one another. We would be nothing without you. Stay safe, healthy, and full of optimism, for while challenges may still lay ahead, we’re not alone. We have one another to get through this and a whole new world of possibility ahead of us.

Continue reading on CalSAE’s The Executive here.

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