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Lessons in Leadership

Every association professional has likely witnessed or contributed to the 'all in the family' style criticism that exists between local, state, and national branches of associations. (I liken it to the unspoken rule that exists in my family among the five siblings – we're allowed to criticize one another, but we become fiercely protective when an outsider criticizes one of us.) I'd been hearing some of this about the American Society of Association Executives this spring and summer as the society stumbled a bit in launching its annual conference. When ASAE canceled its annual in-person conference and shifted to virtual but kept the same pricing model, long-time supporters railed at ASAE's business-as-usual approach. They chided the society for missing the opportunity of the virtual event by not re-thinking pricing, engagement, etc. Next came a monumental shift – ASAE announced that the event would be free to members and just $99 for nonmembers. Welp, that certainly wasn't business as usual. This post is a hat tip to ASAE leadership because their handling of this year's annual conference illustrates important lessons for all association leaders about agility, value creation, and innovation.

Lesson #1 – Fail fast and learn from it. 

ASAE leadership listened to critics and changed its course of action based on what they heard. Think about what it took for the leaders of an organization of ASAE's size and position to do this while on a global stage observed by hundreds of thousands of association professionals. Courage, humility, and curiosity are at the top of the list. National conferences held at gorgeous venues have their own challenges: costs related to hosting thousands of attendees, limited audience due to travel expenses, additional time away from the office, and perceptions about national travel/venues, etc. Instead of forging ahead with a plan that failed to utilize the opportunities that a virtual conference presented, ASAE leaned into an all virtual event and removed the barriers that limited attendance in the past.   

Lesson #2 – Challenge assumptions. 

Many association professionals and our supplier partners assume that sponsors won't get as much visibility or access to prospective customers in a virtual platform. ASAE's sponsors and exhibitors expected to see and be seen by roughly 6,000 attendees. Instead, they gained access to 10,000 attendees, and the duration of that access and visibility will be sustained over three weeks. In the case of sponsors, their brands and messages will be viewed thousands more times and by thousands more prospects than they would have if ASAE had stayed with its original plan.

Lesson #3 - Go big or go home. 

A strategic decision poorly executed bears little fruit. ASAE's use of the conference platform, attention to preparation, and decision to keep the event open for three weeks illustrate that leadership aligned conference planning efforts to not just welcome thousands of first-time attendees but to deliver exceptional value to them. Registrants of ASAE's Annual Conference experienced a wow factor with the event platform and video production the event delivered. And they'll be able to attend more sessions and with greater convenience than at an in-person conference. This will significantly increase the likelihood that those attendees will purchase additional products and services from ASAE in the future.   

There is no formal connection between ASAE and MSAE as there is with many state associations and their national entity. In many ways, ASAE could be viewed as a competitor of MSAE. Complex association 'family' dynamics and competition aside, ASAE President and CEO Susan Robertson, CAE, and her team are to be congratulated for the courageous leadership and smart implementation they demonstrated with this year's annual conference. Bravo, ASAE! Thank you for the leadership lesson.  

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Avatar  Christine Saunders 5 months ago

Thanks for the foot-forward article and taking time to give applause where it is due.


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