I first came across Maggie McGary after reading an impassioned message she wrote in the about frustrations she experienced in the industry. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and what she was saying made a lot of sense. I thought, “who is this bad-ass woman and how can I hear more of what she has to say?”
I quickly learned Maggie works for an association herself, and yet still somehow has time to maintain a blog, and speak at events all the time.
She has been in the association industry for the majority of her career and has amazing experience, which made me all the more excited to glean insights from her in this interview:
Tell me about your experiences working in the association world. What are some of your frustrations?
I would say the lack of resources for technology is a huge one. The whole world has changed and digital is everything. It’s the way people find you, engage with you, and stay engaged and there are so many other things people can pay attention to so you have to stand out. Traditionally associations didn’t need to invest in that. They spent all their money on their Executive Director, senior people, and lobbying. Now, investing in technology is unavoidable if you want to remain relevant, yet my experience is that budgets and staffing often don’t reflect this shift.
The traditional big cost things remain the big cost things. The AMS is one of those. Look at the website of so many associations—it just makes you want to cry. Being the one maintaining the association websites, it’s very frustrating having to compete online for people’s attention without the necessary resources and technology to do it right; let alone the authority to convince staff that web usability is an actual thing and should be the guiding principle of web design, not internal silos or staff opinions. You have to MacGyver everything when it comes to technology, and or marketing, communications—you name it. It’s not only enough that you need to know how to write and edit a website, plus do graphic design and manage print, but you need to know all these skills for what is often a really low paying job AND not have the proper tools to do it well. The resource thing is super frustrating.
Also, some association people have a government mentality. At least in a for-profit company, if someone is impeding on the profits, then at some point it will catch up. In the association world it is okay to keep limping along if you’re somewhat maintaining the work and can come up with the right excuses. Incompetence can kind of flourish. Working in that environment, when you have someone who wants to do a good job and has a strong work ethic, it can be a soul crusher. There’s nothing wrong with just wanting a paycheck, and associations offer a lot of benefits and stability. Many are attracted to that…but when complacency keeps the association from delivering on mission and/or member value because of dead weight employees…that’s just not fair to members, nor is it fair to staff who want to do a great job. As a result, there are a lot of people languishing.
How do you change the status quo?
It’s really important to not be afraid to speak up. You won’t always be heard and you might even get your wrist slapped, but I would rather that than not saying anything at all. There are ways to bring up suggestions or ask questions. I’m big on gathering evidence to persuade people to do things differently rather than just saying, “you’re doing it wrong!” Instead I’ll maybe say, “here are some links that talk about this. They were really successful and we should consider it.” I’ve worked with a lot of people who are really frustrated and don’t think things are ever going to change, so they just keep their mouths shut and do what they’re told. They’re not doing anybody any favors—the org suffers and morale of other employees suffer because they are complaining to co-workers instead of actually addressing issues with management.
In terms of speaking up, I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s worked well a few times, and it has also helped me career-wise because some people value those who are willing to think outside the box. The other option is just refusing to tolerate it and leaving. That’s not maybe the best career advice. To me, no place is perfect and it’s a job. It’s not great to decide, “forget it! If it’s bad, then just leave.” However, if there is something that is broken or morally wrong and you just can’t fix it, especially if you’re someone who did a good job and added value, then leaving can actually help. I’ve worked places where I tried to get a message across, wound up leaving, and they made my suggested change after I left.
What do you feel associations could be doing differently to be more efficient and effective?
Sometimes I worry that my experience is not typical. I think, “maybe it’s not broken and maybe it doesn’t need to be different.” Then the more people I talk to, I realize that I’ve never heard of one that isn’t broken. On one hand, your hands are tied. Associations are innately pre-broken because your CEO is reporting to the Board of Directors. In theory, it’s supposed to be the board setting the business plan and telling you how to implement it, but too many times that leads to a scenario where the blind is leading the blind, or the blind is leading the leader who knows what needs to be done but is forced to do it wrong because the board/exec relationship is just broken.
Board members are leaders in their professions. Depending on the association, they are doctors or lawyers or engineers. Often they don’t know about running a business, and they certainly don’t know about running a member-based association that is supported by membership dues. Sometimes execs and staff are taking direction from people who don’t know what they’re doing and doesn’t want to listen to those with actual expertise in running an association. If you’re someone who works in the association sector because you believe in helping advance an org’s mission, having to work in this way that just flies in the face of success is just depressing. Being forced to NOT achieve mission because of politics or egos—it’s no way to work, IMO.
Associations need leaders who can manage and motivate people. They need to know how to get rid of those who do not perform. I say this in a super pie in the sky way, of course, because I personally do NOT want to manage people or deal with HR issues! But that means that I expect to work for managers who want to manage and know how to do it. I’ve seen managers who don’t know how to manage at all, yet they have the job and keep it because they can’t go anywhere else. Maybe we should require people to prove their dedication to remaining relevant by having them constantly re-compete for their jobs (every five years, perhaps). It would keep them motivated from being complacent and thinking that because we’re a non-profit, it doesn’t matter if we make budget or lose members.