Any job at an association should be driven by strategy (both explicit and implicit). Staff are key to getting any strategy implemented and embedded in the organization. What is often overlooked, though, are the ways in which any job at an association has the potential to affect strategy.
This truth may feel more distant for young professionals (YPs), but, in fact, they can be some of the most important resources in the organization for making sure a strategy is grounded in reality and aiming in the right directions. In the Mock Strategic Planning Session moderated by Meredith Low at the 2018 CSAE Conference, a group of young professionals and other volunteers gathered to explore how YPs affect — and are affected by — strategy within associations.
YPs range from entry-level staff to senior management. And associations vary in their approach to strategy, from limiting it to confidential boardroom discussions, to a more democratic approach involving staff at all stages.
Understanding this range, here are some ways that YPs can contribute to strategy:
- Be knowledgeable and thoughtful. Perhaps your organization is excellent at ensuring its strategy is embedded and communicated at every level. But this is unusual. Even if your workplace is a bit more typical – which means the strategy isn’t all that clear or well-articulated at the staff level – the choices staff make every day amount to the strategy-as-enacted. Asking good questions, trying to understand why things have been decided as they have, making connections between your work and someone else’s… these are ways staff at any level play a key role in making strategies successful.
- Have a fresh take on long-standing issues, especially if the organization is facing generational shifts or needs to play catch-up. Sometimes – not always – young professionals can be more familiar with certain practices or technologies just because that’s how they’ve come of age in the workplace. This can go beyond the notion of “digital native,” to include habits of working across siloes or applying more current research methodologies.
- Make sure some time and mindshare are allocated to developing formal strategy processes. Read any background documents thoughtfully and critically, study up a bit on strategy, and make sure you understand your role and what’s expected of you in the process.
- Ask good questions. At all stages, strategies should be queried and assessed. Do not hesitate to ask questions, even about decisions that have already been made. Understanding the thought process behind those decisions will help you play your part. Your organizational culture may facilitate those kinds of questions, or it may discourage them, so you’ll have to calibrate your style and frequency of questions accordingly. Make sure your questions are good ones.
- Remember it is complex for everyone. Strategy should tackle foundational questions such as, “Why do we exist? How can we be successful? What are the hard choices we have to make? and, What if we’re wrong?” Nobody has a crystal ball, not even the board or senior management. Those questions you’re asking? Some of them won’t have an answer right now. You’re creating the answer together, as an organization.
We designed this conference session to be interactive, with YP volunteers (and others) role-playing scenarios illustrating various challenges at different stages in the strategy process while debriefing with the audience members. After the session, we asked the YP participant-performers to share their sparks of insight:
Make sure everyone is clear on their roles.
As Katie Lemenchick, CMP, National Program Coordinator, Mental Health First Aid Canada, noted from her experience during the session, one topic that garnered quite a bit of attention was role clarification.
“Particularly in the first scene (“Planning for planning”), we saw that the chair of the board was vague on roles, and the executive director of the association let the board take over but did not brief them on their roles. The key takeaway of this scene was that even the planning process should be thoughtfully planned and everyone needs to be briefed or reminded of their roles. It’s a good practice to send everyone a copy of the “Board Roles and Responsibilities” ahead of time (something that should already be on file, but helpful to look at again as a reminder).
The second scene in the session had a similar takeaway: with both staff members and board members at the strategic planning table, there should be clear expectations on who leads the decision-making process. When it came to the topic of staff members being invited to the meeting, the discussion was about how staff members (particularly YPs) feel that, although they’ve been invited to the table, they do not have the authority or permission to speak up. It was fascinating to hear from audience members who held senior management positions saying that they would indeed like to hear from staff/YPs during the strategic planning because they know that staff hold information that must be shared.
The last session scene really hit home for me: the executive team at the association (such as the executive director and senior management) must take leadership, and in my opinion, should take a united and confident stance when coming back to their staff. With no leadership and confidence, then staff are not going to get the guidance that they require and as mentioned, it could likely mean that goals and tasks will not get accomplished. “
Have the right information at hand
Veronica Amirault, Executive Administrator & Event Coordinator, Canadian Association of Research Libraries, outlines the inventory of information you’ll need in planning.
“The Mock Strategic Planning Session highlighted the importance of identifying and communicating about the information gaps you need to fill for a successful strategic planning process. Taking an inventory of information was deemed as valuable during the planning stage to ensure that knowledge gaps were being filled.
A successful strategic planning process is shaped by the stakeholders’ perspective and how the association adds value to its customers, vendors and market. Methods to collect this information include examining past plans, member surveys and advice from senior staff. Additionally, various forms of primary and secondary research may be performed, at times by young professionals, depending on available budget. Young professionals are encouraged to ask questions, determine ways to contribute to strategic goals, and clarify information gaps.
Cultivating a thoughtful inventory of information will guide the chosen approach, ensure strategies are feasible, expose governance challenges and manage board expectations. Should it be found that managing leaders don’t align to the strategies, it will help them remain focused and productive. This will also prepare staff for changes in expectations and roles during the strategic planning process.”
Decide if you’ll use a consultant or an internal staff member as a facilitator.
Pamela Hicks, Executive Director for Camp Liberté Society notes:
“One of the first decisions that you should make regarding a strategic planning session is whether you are going to hire a consultant or use an internal staff member as a facilitator.
While the cost of hiring an external facilitator may seem like a good reason to try it in-house, the cost of hiring an external consultant to facilitate the session may be considered as an investment in your organization’s future.
Consider all the costs, both human and financial, of preparing for and completing the strategic planning session, above and beyond the costs of the facilitator, (travel and accommodation, staff time, volunteer time and honorariums). Now imagine that it was wasted if the group did not come to consensus and arrive at a plan to see the organization through the next three to five years. Would you still consider it a saving? What if they arrived at a plan, but it wasn’t attainable because of financial, human resource, or other limitations?
Someone from outside your organization is able to lead the session without bringing any internal biases to the discussion. An external consultant does not arrive at the session with preconceived ideas about what the outcomes of the day should be and it allows for the full and honest participation from the participants.
An external consultant also benefits your staff who are participating in the session in two ways. First, staff members are able to participate fully in the session and focus on bringing relevant and useful information to the table in a way that they are unable to in the role of facilitator. Second, junior staff members may be reluctant to impart useful information if their supervisor or senior manager is leading the session for fear of repercussions.
Involve staff – especially young professionals – in all stages of strategic planning
Sarah McCabe, Membership Engagement and Administration, AMCES, also comments on how staff can shape the planning process:
“In most cases, it is helpful, (some would say critical!) that staff are involved in all strategic planning stages, from pre-planning to implementation and review.
When it comes to pre-planning, staff are an important resource as they can provide validated industry knowledge which in turn can help shape the strategic planning session. As the plan is set, staff often take a back seat to board members, but they can still provide valuable insight.
During the implementation and review processes, young professionals have an opportunity to step up as leaders. Young professionals can ask questions to clarify processes and procedures. By asking questions such as “Here is what I understand, here is what I don’t understand, can you help me?” and “Can you explain the root or source of that idea?” all parties involved are able to break down strategy and build it back up in a way that is relevant for everyone in meeting the intended outcomes.”
Consider implementation and resource constraints
Mara Juneau, Programs and Credentialing Director, Orthotics Prosthetics Canada (OPC), also comments on implementation and resource constraints:
“What really struck me in the planning session is how the implementation of a strategic plan is a time where a lot of questions are likely to arise. This is also the realm where a lot of young professionals operate, me included. No matter how good a plan is, allocating resources and adding or removing programs will always be something organizations struggle with. These are not easy decisions. Staff time must be accounted for and management sometimes need to say no to certain things. The discussion of using budget to push back and as a framework for implementing a strategic plan at the organizational level was a big take away. Remembering that budgeting is one of the ways prioritization is shown. It seems to be that it should be the first step in vetting whether the plan is viable.
Another learning moment is how the implementation plan should be considered a living document; it’s not set in stone or final on day one. This really stuck with me — the way the layers to implementing the plan peel like an onion, exposing new processes or decisions that need to be determined for its implementation. It reminds me of the importance of change management and the need for flexibility when making organizational changes.”
Make sure to Measure.
Sarah McCabe, Membership Engagement and Administration AMCES, outlines the importance of measurement of the plan:
“Having a strategic plan is important, but useless if the plan cannot be measured. It is key to think about how all existing and new daily activities tie back to the plan. Staff and employees are motivated by ‘why’ and the ‘purpose’ for doing things. Having clear pathways from activities to strategic objectives allow us to determine if the services in place still have purpose.
Measurement also makes a big difference when it comes to living and working with the plan. Metrics should be established to track accomplishments within the supporting action plan. Metrics can be divided into milestones, or quantifiable measures (such as increases in membership from year to year). All metrics should align directly to the objectives decided upon during the strategic planning process.
Measurement allows for staff and the board to clearly see how their ongoing activities and services promote the strategic plan. In using measurement methods, staff will be more likely to question activities. Informed questioning will improve activity planning, better supporting the achievement of strategic goals.”
Not sure where to start with your organization’s strategic plan? Working with your team to discuss the points raised in this article is an excellent place to jump in. Happy planning!
Meredith Low is a strategist, working with associations to create effective and evidence-driven strategies. Her career spans engagements with associations and other not-for-profits, small to large companies (including the Fortune 500), and government. Her firm has worked with associations in health care, financial services, natural resources, construction, education, risk management, urban planning, and others. She can be found at meredithlow.com and on twitter @LowMeredith.
Want to learn more about strategic planning? Strategic Planning for Associations and Not-For-Profit Organizations is one of CSAE's key bookstore resources –