Can Only the C-Suite Lead Change?

Written by Amalea Hijar on November 20, 2017

Call me optimistic, but I believe in the power of one. Inside each of us is the ability to influence, motivate and lead. While there are many factors at play - which Lauren LeMunyan, Brian Calvary and I discuss in our SURGE session - if you want to be a change agent, you can be, no matter what your formal role at your association may be.

Why do I believe this? Because I’ve done it. For over 13 years I’ve advanced associations without ever being a member of the C-suite. In fact, I’ve addressed some of the most common nonprofit problems—from non-dues revenue generation to member engagement and retention—without ever holding a title higher than Director, at professional societies and trade associations ranging from $1-$150M.

Leading change requires thoughtful reflection on the environment you’re operating in, fine-tuning your soft skills, and an execution strategy that includes the necessary stakeholders. Some of these may seem intuitive and thus you may be tempted to dismiss your ability to acquire them, but I assure you, you can. Earlier this year, my organization was developing its strategic plan and re-organizing itself. To help prepare, I read Switch: How to Change Things When Things Are Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

The book lays out a three step strategy for making a switch, and I found myself regularly referring to the concepts in discussion with my boss and peers. Additionally, when I reflected on my past successes with change, I realized many pieces of the strategy were present. For the Heaths, the first step is broken down into figuring out what’s working currently, identifying the specific changes necessary, and showing the end goal to participants.

To take this from theory to practice, I’ll provide an example from my past. At one association I worked at, there was a gap between when students graduated and when they became members. Eventually the majority of them joined, but we wanted them to sooner, and preferably become highly engaged members so that they would stay. We had two levels of membership and while the benefits were the same, the higher level required a robust application including recommendations, however, retention among members was higher. To start, I interviewed members who had joined at the higher level immediately after graduating, which gave me insights into why they did as well as what the barriers (perceived or actual) to applying were. Next, we changed the marketing materials to reflect those insights. And finally, we clarified and better communicated the value of the higher level membership to the target audience.

For the second step, which I think of in terms of soft skills, the Heaths discuss as motivating others. Again, there are three parts to this step. The first is to get people to feel something about the change you’re trying to achieve; basically, tap into their emotions. Second, you breakdown the process into smaller parts, which seem easier to achieve. Third, you focus on building up the people that you’re trying to get to change their behavior.

Returning to my example, to appeal to emotions and build members up, this meant we did things like creating a video about the value of the higher level membership, including testimonials. We also created infographics around key data points that supported the value of the higher level membership, such as how it affected salary. For breaking down the process, the barrier here was the application itself. Members were overwhelmed by it, especially the requirement of recommendations. So I worked with the application review Committee get permission to share template recommendations (this might sound like something little, but it was a big culture shift). That way, I showed the members that the recommendations weren’t as cumbersome as they thought while giving them an example to share with the people they were requesting recommendations from.

The final step is what I call the execution strategy and the Heaths call shaping the path. The three aspects of this include changing the situation (and the behavior will change in turn), creating habits (which makes the change easier), and spreading the change (as they put it, “behavior is contagious”). For my example, changing the situation or environment meant several procedural things, such as removing a monetary penalty that was in place for students that immediately applied for the higher level membership and waiving the application fee, to create a financial incentive at a time when money is tight.

Creating habits and spreading the behavior were hand-in-hand, because I did things like create a toolkit for local member leaders and professors to help the students apply. The toolkit included items such as a list of all graduating students and their contact information and asked the members to consider writing recommendation letters (with the included templates). That way, it wasn’t just the association encouraging the students to join, it was their mentors and colleagues too. The combination of these activities led to the number of students applying for the higher level membership to increase from one to 36% over two years. I’d call that a win for change, the members, and the association!

While some think the Heath framework is idealistic, I think it’s quite practical. While you might not use every sub-step in your journey for change, the three main concepts lay out a solid path to help you navigate change. As the Heaths say “for things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your team.” In the end, all it takes is one passionate person with a vision to effect change.

Psst, want to hear more about what association executives think is crucial to making change happen? Check out our SURGE session: How to Effect Change No Matter Your Job Title.