When Mike Moss first wrote for AssociationSuccess.org, he’d only been serving as president for the Society of College and University Planning for a little over a year. But even then, he knew the organization needed a shake-up. At the time, he authored an essay for the site that detailed his approach to ending, as he called it, “a slow response rate to market and member needs.” 

In other words, he wanted the organization to pick up the pace a bit.

Back then, Moss said, for any decision to get made, it would have to move up the chain to a department head, bounce over to senior leadership, go back to the department head and then back down to the individual staffer handling the issue. 

“We were structured to go very methodically slow, which for a very long time has been very successful for SCUP,” he said. “We felt that it was choking our ability to be innovative. … We need to be responsive faster as change hits higher ed.” 

“Innovative for us was being able to be responsive and agile, and that’s what we were structured not to do. We were structured to be steady and basically static.” 

Peeling back the layers on how to undo that structure is what led Moss to first sharing his story with AssociationSuccess.org. In that piece from the fall of 2016, Moss said he “truthfully (had) no idea if everything (would) pan out as expected.” 

Well, it didn’t.

Today, Moss is still president at SCUP, but in the three years since, his eyes opened to just how much work it would take to empower his 19 staffers to move more quickly, get rid of the bureaucratic slow-down that plagued the organization and make all of them more nimble in getting answers and resources out to their members. 

Moss caught up with AssociationSuccess.org about SCUP is tackling this change. Here’s what he had to say.

(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What were the early examples you saw at SCUP of the slow decision making that indicated to you that a change was needed?

We were structured for research, in-person meetings always, in-office always, not taking advantage of the time people had between meetings. We were doing status quo administration work between meetings, which meant we weren’t exploring or brainstorming new ideas because, if you weren’t in the meeting, you clearly couldn’t be making decisions. We had an ungodly amount of meetings. … At that time I was writing the article, (we knew we needed to) do something different. Let’s get away from decision making by titles. … We were also finding that we had to have everybody in the room to make sure everybody was informed, even if they didn’t have any contribution or decision-making responsibility to that discussion. Because they were in the same department, they needed to be in the room. Therefore, other work is not getting done because we had this structure that required teams to meet, not the people across teams who could make things move. 

When you started to consider changing the SCUP structure, what inspiration or materials did you consider? 

At the time, we were exploring a couple different decision models. Where we landed now was RACI model of decision making. … It’s either a curse or a blessing, depending on who you ask, but I’m Lean Certified. I’m a Green Belt, so on the operations side, I come in with a hunger for operational efficiency for Lean thinking. That’s just how I’m wired. …

The most important turning point for us was a cross-functional meeting with one of our constituents, a component group of members. It was a virtual call. The members were all on the TV, and we were all in the conference room on a Zoom call, and there must have been 10 of us in the room. As we worked through the agenda, I kept muting the phone and asking people in the room, do you have a contribution to this agenda? And they’re like, ‘no,’ and I’m like, ‘then go back to work, you have my permission to leave.’ By the time the members stopped doing their portion, and it came to ours, there were only three of us left in the room because we actually had a contributory piece. … After that meeting, they by their own experience stopped assigning people to meetings. They just decided to start only inviting people who it seemed obvious, based on the agenda, needed to contribute.

The frequency of meetings started to die down, as well as the duration of those meetings. We went from hour meetings to half-hour meetings, from staff meetings once a week to huddles every Tuesday for 15 minutes with the full staff. We found those efficiencies to communicate information over time, but there were other things that were hard lessons along the way. … This wasn’t easy-peasy. …

We hadn’t addressed the cause of the decision-making challenge, which was our culture. 

We were experimenting through all the different constructs to figure out why we weren’t able to do it, so we started with the easier stuff, which is structure, to realize it was culture. We didn’t realize how far down into the culture reconstruction we were going to experience. That happened probably about a year after the article. We took a timeout, did a deep dive and brought in a consultant and got after it, from the bottom up, of starting with culture and finishing with decision making.

What did that deep dive look like? 

No one believes anything is anonymous … but we still did surveys. … We just had to accept that, knowing sometimes people were still holding back, but if we didn’t react to the first round of really strong negative feedback, the staff would start to trust us a little bit. 

(One of the surveys),which was run by a consultant, brought in some really malicious, pretty hurtful comments. It was really hard to read. But we got the root cause, unpacked it with the consultant, and we found some of the really brutal, hurtful stuff was rooted in previous leadership. It was years old. It had happened in previous leadership constructs, but those residual feelings, which were basically lack of trust …  those were real. And those were things we needed to flush out. … The consultant helped us put together a series of commitments that we’re still working through. 

(We) largely have the exact same staff (but) it is materially different than when I got hired in 2014. The way we work, the effectiveness with which we work and the speed at which we can implement change is dramatically different. It just took a little bit longer than I think I was hoping for when I wrote that initial article. … I don’t even have a senior leadership team anymore. Those constructs are all gone. We just all work with the people in the room with the people we need to get done what they need to get done, and we barely ever meet. 

We do a lot of collaboration working between meetings and then have confirmation meetings using the RACI chart as a means to make decisions. … I wish I could have told you we knew how to do this in six months. It took a couple years, but we got there, and it came through a commitment to our culture, not as a commitment to one another for productivity. Productivity was the outcome of good culture. 

What do you think it is about the association world that makes decision making so slow

It’s rooted in what drives me absolutely crazy after having done this almost 28 years now. … It’s probably the most obvious thing to everyone but me, but the thing that needed to change was me. … 

From a young part of my career to now, I’ve always been in the room where people are “leaders” and “decision makers,” and so with that experience I’ve had being in decision-making roles from age 21 to age 51, the interesting part with this whole thing is, has been, actually, it was me. … I’ve always been people-centric, but I forgot to include myself.

What I’ve learned in the last year is, it’s an old adage, but it’s new to me: Listen, learn, help, lead. … I used to be the leader trying to drive the change all the time, and sometimes, obviously I wasn’t listening well. I may not have learned what I needed to learn from the staff perspective or on the practitioner side, and I certainly sometimes start trying to lead people into things before I help them get there. … I learned that the things I thought were in their way were often not. … Now, I’m living and supporting the culture that works best for the 19 people in my organization, not necessarily the next place I work or the previous place I worked. 

When you think of what SCUP was like when you first arrived and think of it now, what’s an example of when you began to see that these changes were working? 

We were working really hard to set up three major projects for implementation: a brand new website, a brand new AMS and a new brand, which included everything that comes with a new brand, taglines, logos, everything. And we did a new strategic plan. All four of those things happened in the same 12-15 month window and, because of all the systemic change we’d done to learn how to best work together to add in agility and flexibility … they were rolled out on time, under budget and with great support and inclusion from the membership. … I didn’t have to hire umpteen more staff to get it done. … 

The people in charge of those projects, by the way, all three, are not directors. They were staff who actually had expertise in those fields. … As the president, I only came to meetings related to funding, so I was only there for resourcing or if there was conflict between vendors. … 

That’s how I know it worked, because I was barely involved in a half-million dollars’ worth of projects. … I’m super excited about that because not only did they nail it, but they had enough confidence in themselves and in knowing that when I needed to be there, I would be. It allowed me to continue to go out and build market presence in other ways, so that when these projects came to full fruition, the market was ready for us to move quickly, which we are now doing.

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

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