Alleviating the Culture of Conflict Between Functions

Written by Jocelyn Gunter on April 8, 2019

What I love about the association world is that we all wear so many hats and develop such a diverse set of skills. However, the roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities are often blurred. In the corporate world I believe there to be a natural state of cultural conflict between Marketing and Sales. In the Association world, I have seen a similar state of tension between the Marketing and Membership functions.

When I was the CFO for ARMA International, I saw this grey area pop up around budgeted funds and related financial metrics. Over time, we found various solutions to alleviate conflict, and finding what works best was and continues to be a process. Here I will discuss the solutions found in conflict situations and tried over several years.

Solution - Have all parties represented at the same level for conflict resolution

Situation: At this time, the Marketing and Membership department heads both had a seat at the “executive” table. While conflicts arose, we had a relatively streamlined approach for addressing those conflicts with all executives in constant negotiations with the objective to provide each team with a clearly defined direction for strategy and deliverables.

Pro: Having all stakeholders represented at approximately the same level in the organization chart, the process and professionalism was consistent

Con: The process of relaying concerns and solutions was not without politics and was not always a good use of our time

Solution - Define the handoffs using a clearly defined decision tree

Situation: Flash forward a couple of years and we had a structure that was less top heavy. As the Deputy Chief Executive, I had oversight of the Association’s Marketing and Sales functions while the CEO had oversight of the Association’s Membership functions. Part of this time the teams were primarily internally staffed and part of this time there was a 3rd party marketing membership firm in the mix. In all cases, the 2 or 3 different “teams” were at constant odds as to who owned the overarching strategy as well as the monitoring and ultimate authority of the tactics. There was an overlap in the measurable objectives and certainly an alignment of how their objectives mapped to the larger organizational objectives. But still, they all believed themselves to be the “experts” and felt strongly about the voice, the offers, the frequency, the segments, and the points at which collaboration was expected.

The decision tree method we used was to show where the collaboration was to take place, and where there was independent authority. We also outlined when and how a disagreement was to be escalated.

Pro: This solution was helpful in moving the needle towards a healthier balance of collaboration and compromise but only slightly

Con: At this point, the culture of conflict had taken root and the formalized points of collaboration also opened up opportunities for increased finger pointing when objectives were not met

Solution - Clearly separate and define responsibilities between the functions

Situation: Flash forward another couple more years and the staffing and funding for outsourced services is smaller than ever but the inherent push and pull remains. With an increased focus on component support, driven by the membership team, we were shifting roles and responsibilities again to leverage the strengths of each team while alleviating the tension. In a rather drastic shift, we decided that the Marketing team should take full ownership of the strategy and execution of the membership cycles involving awareness, non-member engagement, and joining. The Membership team had full authority on the strategy related to the member welcome and engagement as well as the renewal cycle. Marketing was still responsible for the execution of that strategy within the communication channels, but Membership was the accountable party for all monitoring, strategic shifts, and reporting of these metrics. This solution received a lot of support and buy-in from both teams.

Pro: There are fewer points of conflict and both teams feel less pulled to manage both the recruitment and retention strategies

Con: The only real risks identified in this solution relate to how the recruitment and retention initiatives are balanced when capacity shifts in one team or another, as well as the prioritization of those efforts in the communication channels

So far, this has been our best bet.

We’ve found that outside firms or internal marketing staff with general experience but who are not in-tune with the association trends and who do not make an effort to understand what is different about your specific profession, end up with more tension than those who invest in learning the association trends and consuming the organization’s specific data findings. If they have all of the answers before they fully understand the problems, that’s a red flag for us.

I hope our journey in bringing these functions into alignment is helpful in assessing your structure, staffing, and processes.