Monday, January 11, 2016

Going Toe-To-Toe With Your Members

I had another experience this week that I would characterize as going toe-to-toe with one of my members.

And that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's something I wish more association professionals could do.

Maybe I should explain. When I use the phrase "toe-to-toe" I'm not talking about trading punches and breaking wooden chairs over each other's heads. Quite the reverse, here I'm using "toe-to-toe" to mean working together as equals to solve an important problem.

I've written before about how important it is for me and my staff to understand the industry our association represents. Not just who the biggest members are and which association products and services they engage in, but all the different players in the broader marketplace, what products they produce, who they sell them to, and what challenges they have in growing their businesses. As the staff of the association that represents them and their industry, I want them to view their relationship with us as a mutually beneficial partnership. I don't want to be perceived as another vendor just selling them stuff. I want to be viewed as a true business partner, capable of helping them to solve real problems and increase their proftability.

This approach recently paid an extra dividend when I found myself on a conference call with only one member of a conference planning committee. It was Friday afternoon. One member was actually out sick. The work-a-day world of our members runs at an ever-increasing place. There were a lot of legitimate reasons why the situation came about, but there it was. A call where I thought five or six members of our industry were going to discuss and determine a direction for a track of programming at one of our conferences while I took notes and documented action items had suddenly become a conversation between only two people. Me and one of my members.

What did I do? Did I apologize and promise to reschedule? No. I went toe-to-toe with the member, trading ideas for topics and speakers, leveraging the knowledge of the marketplace and my membership that I had built up over my time in the organization.

In 30 minutes we had a good plan in place, and I still had some notes and action items documented. But what was most remarkable to me was that after only 10 minutes or so, two important realizations had come to me:

1. I knew what I was talking about. Really. No fooling.

2. The member accepted and appreciated my knowledge and perspective. He's a whole lot smarter than me and still knows more about his company's technology than I do, but for that 30 minute call he treated me, if not as an equal, then at least like a partner, capable of helping him solve real problems.

And isn't that exactly what I said I wanted?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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