(This is the first in a five-part series and a break from my normal format. During times of economic crisis many questions haunt executives, boards, staff members and volunteers alike. How will we weather this storm? How long will it last? How are our members being affected? Will this signal a decline for our organization? How will we know for sure and what can we do about it? In his most recent work, How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, Jim Collins posits five signs of an organization at risk of or beginning the descent into chaos, decline and - at the very worst - destruction. This five-part series will take a look at each of the main stages identified by Jim Collins and relate them to issues you may be facing as association professionals.)
The First Stage of Decline - Hubris Born of Success
Any association is vulnerable to hubris. Arrogance is not a trait limited to the for-profit corporate sphere as so recently and publicly displayed during our recent dip into economic recession. Hubris stands in stark contrast to confidence. A confident organization exudes a certain sense of capability and attention to detail. Hubris goes a step further where capability becomes unassailable and attention to detail either all-consuming or irrelevant depending on the temperament of the board in question.
In associations, hubris tends to manifest in a couple of different dimensions and you can see clear signs in board actions and communications if you know what you are looking for. Hubris tends to permeate an organization in subtle fashion but if left unchecked can lead to disaster for all concerned. All of the following signs point to an association whose leadership is taking itself entirely too seriously and may be at risk.
Strategic Planning Mania – Show me an association with an 18 page strategic plan that reads like a space shuttle engineering manual and I will show you an association with an overdeveloped sense of organizational ego, and quite probably a very expensive consultant behind it all. It’s not that I’m against strategic planning, believe associations aren’t vital and meaningful, or consultants shouldn’t be fairly compensated for the difficult work involved. It’s simply my personal belief that there seems to be a correlation between how convoluted the final product is, how self-congratulatory the board is regarding its development, and how expensive the consultant was. If your board spends its time repeatedly patting itself on the back for creating some flowery, bloated behemoth of a strategic plan rather than executing specific actions designed to actually implement its ideals, you have some rough water ahead.
Sacred Cows Run Amok – Hubris creates a multitude of sacred cows that are prone to breeding. Pet projects, conflicts of interest, zombie programs that can’t be killed, end runs, legacy building – you name it. Leaders in charge of an ego-driven governance system often believe they are vested with certain “special” rights giving them the green light to lasso as many sacred cows as they have rope. An association that feels itself above criticism will corral and defend entire herds over the questions and objections of their membership. They also run the risk of sharp decline once members decide steak is no longer on the menu.
Decision Making in a Vacuum – Association leaders who succumb to their own inflated self-image often behave in a didactic and perfunctory manner while sarcastically mocking or dismissing dissenting points of view. Hubris will lead them to believe themselves well within their rights to make decisions without seeking input, and stifling legitimate opinions to the contrary. It will also render them convinced they “couldn’t explain it to the members anyway,” while making whiny protestations that the members “should just trust us.” If they can’t explain decisions, they have members who don’t understand them and decline is just around the corner.
Oh, Those Shiny Golden Handcuffs – Associations who corner a market on a particular industry or profession, usually by means of establishing a certification program or other similar benefit, can often fall victim to an over-dependence upon the mechanism that has individuals “trapped” into membership. Innovation becomes anathema to protection of the status quo and volunteer leaders can become enamored of the inherent power associated with the association’s position as provider of a vital entry point into a job market. Members who feel “forced” to maintain a membership develop resentments that can eventually undermine the stability of the organization overall. Passive aggressive member behavior manifests in a myriad of ways from checkbook members depriving the association of energy and talent, all the way to rebellious factions splintering off into specialty groups leaving the association struggling and unable to cope.
Appearance for Appearance Sake – If your association suddenly starts yearning to buy a building “suitable” for its station, investing in massive redecorating efforts or shuttling board members to meetings in private cars, watch out. I’m not saying smart investments in real estate should be passed up in favor of working out of the local YMCA. I’m also not saying that occasionally refreshing the look of your premises so your headquarters appears warm and inviting to the members and stakeholders who visit is a bad thing or that some small, reasonable perks can’t be extended to key volunteer leaders. I am saying the minute you start considering dropping 10k for a statue to place near the entry way because the “members would want us to look as important as we are” you can pretty much be sure you aren’t in Kansas any more, Toto.
Success can be your own worst enemy and can lead to neglect of the members and programs that got you to where you are. A board that looks upon its success with smug satisfaction can develop a sense of entitlement. Too much good fortune can lead volunteer leaders to believe they can do no wrong and to disregard commonly held business principles, the opinions of the membership at large and simple common sense. Allowing a board to squander time and money on things that don’t directly advance your mission and vision puts them in the perfect position to push the organization into a long downhill slide.
Join me next time as I evaluate the second stage in decline – the undisciplined pursuit of more.