Intentional Learning: An Essential for Association Staff, Executives & Volunteer Leaders in Turbulent Times

Can you believe only 55 days remain in 2023? Any day now, we’ll start seeing articles about trends and predictions for 2024. Although it’s wise to keep a tap on what’s going on outside the association world, it’s also valuable to see what other associations are prioritizing, worrying about, and hoping to accomplish.

An invitation to help identify association trends for 2024

If you’re a regular reader, you know we’re fans of benchmark reports. The data uncovered by benchmark surveys helps all of us understand what issues are top of mind for association professionals. These surveys also help you see how your association compares to others—a great assist when making a case for a bigger budget. 

You can contribute to the association community knowledge bank by participating in ASI’s (our parent company) 9th Annual Membership Performance Benchmark Survey. It takes only seven to eight minutes to complete and covers:

•    Technology and digital transformation, including the use of AI
•    Member recruiting, engagement, and retention
•    Generational priorities
•    Association goals and challenges

Association executives are worried about their staff’s knowledge and skills

Back in February, we reviewed the results of the 2023 Membership Performance Benchmark Survey. The top four challenges identified by association executives were: 

1.    Engaging members
2.    Improving the member journey
3.    Recruiting and retaining members
4.    Improving staff’s knowledge and skills

Membership issues are always a concern for associations. However, staff competencies is also an issue keeping association execs up at night. Associations can’t rely on yesterday’s skill sets to tackle today’s challenges. 

What are associations doing about the skills gaps in their workforce? Although associations are learning businesses, I often hear complaints from association staff about employers who don’t give them enough money or time to pursue professional development.

The need for intentional learning in The Turbulent Twenties

I recently came upon an article by association consultant Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, executive advisor at Foresight First, about intentional learning in The Turbulent Twenties (T20s)—his name for this decade. Although he wrote this post in October 2020, it still rings true in October 2023. It deserves a resurrection because I don’t think enough associations have taken his message to heart.

Jeff said association decision-makers (boards, executives, and staff) “cannot ignore the sheer depth and breadth of the learning they will need to pursue… throughout the rest of this decade to adapt themselves to an irrevocably altered world, and undertake the difficult work of reinventing their associations for the future.”

He goes on: “Unfortunately, for many association boards, chief staff executives (CSEs) and other governing contributors, learning remains a low-priority activity that occurs on an incidental basis at best.”

With learning, you can’t just keep doing what you’ve always done—that’s not enough. Learning must become a priority for association staff, executives, and volunteer leaders

intentional learning in turbulent times like this tornado and lightning strike on a bucolic valley village

Develop the capacity for foresight

Jeff focuses his attention on association boards, but his advice (or warning) also applies to association execs and staff. He said, “…the most essential learning to be done is the work of foresight, i.e., an intentional process of learning with the future… the ability to understand, anticipate and prepare for the full range of plausible futures, including other unfavorable/unthinkable futures that could emerge during The T20s.”

He said, “Intentional learning with the future must be a team effort that includes varied contributors from both inside and outside associations who bring divergent and provocative perspectives to the conversation.” 

Think about how this might look at your association. Whom would you invite to these conversations? Whose perspectives would you seek? 

When it’s time to develop the capacity for foresight, don’t automatically leave staff out of the picture. They’re the ones who put strategy into action. They’re on the front lines and have intel to share. Consult them beforehand and let them watch the resulting conversations via a livestream or recording. 

Instill intentional learning in leadership

Jeff suggested three strategies to help volunteer leaders bring a higher level of intention to their learning.

#1: “Minimize unhelpful distractions that prevent them from devoting their attention to learning.” Keep the board’s focus on strategy, not operations. No more micro-managing the association. Adopt a consent agenda for board meetings and eliminate the reading of reports. 

#2: “Actively question their orthodox beliefs, i.e., the deep-seated assumptions they make about how the world works.” These beliefs are “serious barriers to learning.” Jeff describes six of these orthodox beliefs in a recent article about The Threatening Thirties

#3: “Reconnect with their intrinsic human motivation, curiosity, and empathy for other people as critical energy resources for sustaining the work of intentional learning over the long term.” Emphasize the value of listening, intellectual humility, and servant leadership. 

Make your association’s stakeholders smarter

Intentional learning is not only an internal mandate; it must be part of an association’s business model. Jeff said, “Associations also must be thinking more deeply about the role that intentional learning can play in stakeholder value creation as they work to alter traditional membership-centric business models for the rest of The T20s.”

He suggested association boards and staff explore three questions: 

•    How can the association make its stakeholders smarter?
•    How can the association support its stakeholders as they navigate uncertainty?
•    How can the association prepare its stakeholders to make better decisions?

Internally, instill in emerging and existing volunteer leaders the strong desire to acquire the competencies needed to steward the association through an unknown future full of unpredictable challenges and opportunities. 

Externally, convince industry professionals (and their employers) of the need for “a continuous flow of learning that keeps [them] employable and enriches the context within which they try to make sense of a complex world every day.”

Last year, 67% of ASI’s survey participants said they were confident about the future. I bet those optimists are lifelong learners. People who invest time and money in intentional learning are usually more confident about the future because they know they can develop the competencies needed to face it.

Before turning your attention elsewhere, take a few moments to participate in ASI’s Membership Performance Benchmark Survey. Your contribution will help you and your peers navigate uncertainty in The Turbulent Twenties.

professional development
lifelong learning
leadership training
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