Although it’s a good problem to have, it can be challenging to manage an association during a time of expansion and growth. You’re dealing with membership numbers that are up, companies that want to exhibit, and volunteers who appear at every turn. While exciting, it requires that you step up as your association’s leader to ensure things don’t get out of hand while also strategically preparing for the future.
Because I have run companies undergoing rapid growth, my colleagues and I find ourselves specializing in working with associations in the same situation. In some ways, rapid growth is like an unexpected decline (the Great Recession is full of examples if you’re interested in reliving those events). You’re so busy you find yourself in a reactive position. Plans are meaningless, every phone call presents something you hadn’t planned on, and money seems to be flying out the door. Your meetings are suddenly sold out – and your hotel room blocks for the next few years are woefully smaller than you need. Your office staff is scrambling trying to deal with an unexpected increase in memberships, advertisers and special interest groups. Your budget is out the window, as you must hire more staff. And with growth comes breakdowns in communications and systems. You need more data but no one is collecting it. Sadly, you start to hear reports of poor service, slippage and new cracks you didn’t even know you had. So you hire more staff.
Then there’s your Board, who sees opportunities at every turn – new alliances, new interest groups, additional chapters, and special requirements to handle the fast and evolving profession, and new technologies that require careful consideration. The fear is that you are moving too slowly to adapt to all the new opportunities that are appearing, but in reality, do you know which way to go? It’s times like this where flexibility is key and strong leadership is required. It’s like buying a ticket for a kiddie ride and finding you’re on the roller coaster instead.
So fasten your seatbelt and paint on a smile, because you’re in for a ride.
Some useful tips while on your journey:
- Understand the reasons for the growth, what a blip on the screen is and what the future pounding down your door looks like. A good economy is usually not your future – it’s just a sweet spot.
- Avoid the temptations to take on any new opportunities unless they will serve the long-term good of your current clients or members.
- Instead of establishing major new alliances, develop short term initiatives to explore new opportunities.
- Do not take on additional projects that are outside your wheelhouse. Stay close to your mission.
- Keep your eye on the ball – make certain the majority of your members are happy and receiving outstanding member value.
- Drop work that is not serving the greater good. Do not focus excess energy on senior members because it is new members who are beating down your door. While these are tough decisions and may result in some hurt feelings, your energy must be expended to confront the future that is rapidly approaching.
- Realize that a good economy requires greater investment in your current staff or they will leave for better money and better opportunities. Increase salaries and challenge them to develop better systems and tools to run the organization. It’s their future too, and they should invest in it.
- Revisit your strategic plan every year (it should be a three year plan) and update it annually to respond to the new opportunities you have identified as strategically important. Build your budget around that revised plan.
- Growth requires more services to members. This requires more staff, more events, better technologies and yes, more money.
The fact is, rapid growth is expensive. More revenue shouldn’t mean a surplus of profits. More revenue means more work. If profits are extremely high, it probably means you are underspending on your infrastructure. Service will quickly erode, your reputation will deteriorate and retention will dip. If you don’t use reserves now and use them wisely, this period of growth will sour quickly.
Growth is only a good problem if you handle it wisely.