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The Achilles Heel Of Association Leadership


One of the ironies of associations is that the strengths that led to their initial success may actually be detrimental to their ongoing growth.

Most associations start with a group of passionate volunteers that serve in many roles. They are intricately involved in all the functions of the association.

These core volunteers oversee the organization’s daily operations, make all the decisions, manage each committee and approve every purchase. While the role of these early volunteer leaders is imperative to the association’s success, it can easily become the Achilles heel of that association’s growth. In order to continue to grow and advance, the association needs leadership that engage a different set of skills, talents, and systems to maintain growth over the long haul.

The Achilles Heel Flare Up

An association’s’ Achilles heel flares when its volunteer leadership become entrenched in past practices as the only way to manage the organization. These leaders don’t want to give up decision-making responsibilities and want to avoid growth. They want to keep the organization at its current size as they fear growth will cause the organization to lose its intimacy and community.

These volunteer leaders embrace the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way syndrome. This mindset subtly overtakes impassioned leaders and their community of like-minded individuals. The leadership slowly evolve into a static machine that can’t adapt to their changing business climate and context. The once entrepreneurial volunteer leaders become a rigid, inflexible legacy monument in the name of tradition and past success. What once positively influenced the association’s growth begins to hinder continued growth and progress.

Inside Out Organizational Failures

Frequently, an association’s leaders are experts in their trade or profession. However, they often lack expertise and experience in running a business or fostering organizational growth. Likewise, they have a limited amount of volunteer time they can dedicate to the organization. At some point, that association reaches its leadership resource capacity stage.

The association’s leadership becomes so involved in the daily operations of the organization that they don’t even realize where they are dropping the ball. Sometimes those leaders are so busy planning events, choosing event menu items and venue colors that the miss the nearby symptoms of internal hemorrhaging already occurring. This is a common challenge for young and small staff associations.

“Ninety-five percent of organizational failures are due to internal problems,” explained turn around agent Dave Ferrari.

Volunteer leaders have to improve their observation skills to look for cues of growth challenges. The organization will eventually outgrow its toddler and tween clothes, so to speak. At some point, these leaders will reach their volunteer resource capacity and need to hire staff. If not, they feel overwhelmed with micro-managing all the organizational decisions. This is where the Achilles heel develops into burn-out.

The Utopia Of Your Associations Founders And Volunteer Leaders Can Become The Dystopia Of This Age

As the association begins to grow, bear fruit and make a significant difference, the number of paid staff must also grow. It may actually sound counter-intuitive because what got them to their current level of success cannot sustain them.

Associations must then trade the working volunteer and startup leaders overseeing all the operations for leadership and staff that value front-line member facing strategies and practices. They need leadership that can keep an eye focused on the future and also on what must get done today to get them there tomorrow. These leaders use their limited resources to plan for the association’s future, not just for today.

An association’s leadership has to keep their eye on the organization’s growth and match their governance, leadership and strategy to their size. If not, every trivial matter will rise to the top for the volunteer working board to solve and the organization’s growth will eventually plateau and stall.

What are some of the traits of an association that has reached its volunteer leadership resource capacity stage? What have you seen successful associations implement to transition from working board to more strategic boards and staff overseeing the operations?

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Jeff Hurt

Jeff HurtJeff Hurt

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