by: James Young


“Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.”

Thomas Carlyle

Associations should exist solely to make deep and long lasting impact. 

Like any other organization – private, public, nonprofit, big, small, simple, or complex – associations can set a high bar, build meaningful community, attain superior performance, and achieve innovative outcomes. 

Among many things, we need clear vision and broad-based buy-in. This article will dig into four components of achieving this buy-in: leadership, commitment, selling stretch goals, and balancing the essential tensions of innovation. 

Associations are inherently practical organizations, but we can: learn how to be innovative, get better at understanding our communities, and build new value that keeps our members coming back for more. 

The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. 

Core Beliefs of Extraordinary Leaders

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”

Dennis Gabor, Nobel Prize winning physicist

The best association leaders excel at governance, craft great visions, build permanent momentum, execute inclusively, and share in the credit. 

These are five of the major ingredients to achieving successful innovation. 

Geoffrey James, Contributing Editor for interviewed successful CEOs in order to discover their management secrets. He learned that the best leaders tend to share the following eight core beliefs and practices. 

In adapting them for an association context, these leadership practices serve as a baseline for building a culture of buy-in.

People feel connected and part of something larger than themselves or their roles.

The Tower of Silence – Steve Adey
  1. Innovation is an ecosystem. Extraordinary leaders see innovation as a symbiosis where the most diverse and strategically-focused association is most likely to survive and thrive. They naturally create teams that adapt easily to new markets and can quickly form partnerships with other organizations or competitors.
  2. An association is a community. Extraordinary leaders see their association as a collection of individual hopes and dreams connected to a higher purpose. They inspire staff to dedicate themselves to peer success and therefore to the evolution of the association community.
  3. Management is service. Extraordinary leaders set a general direction and then commit to obtaining the resources that staff need to get the job done. They push decision-making downward, allowing teams to form their own rules and intervening only in emergencies.
  4. My employees are my peers. Extraordinary leaders treat every person as if he or she were the most important person in the association. Excellence is expected everywhere, from the mailroom to the boardroom. As a result, staff at all levels are encouraged to take charge of their own destinies.
  5. Motivation comes from vision. Extraordinary leaders inspire people to see a better future and how they’ll be a part of it. As a result, people work harder because they believe in the association’s goals, truly enjoy what they’re doing, and know they’ll share in the rewards.
  6. Change equals growth. Extraordinary leaders see change as an inevitable part of life. While they don’t value change for its own sake, they know that success is only possible if we embrace new ideas and new ways of doing business.
  7. Technology offers empowerment. Extraordinary leaders see technology as a way to free people to be creative and to build relationships. They adapt their back-office systems to focus on a seamless member experience and the tools that people will use.
  8. Work should be fun. Extraordinary leaders see work as something that should be inherently enjoyable and believe that the most important job of a manager is, as far as is possible, to put people in jobs that can and will make them truly happy.

Hiring the right executive director is an investment in leadership, but it’s not enough. Great leadership is an organizational trait that starts at the top and pervades throughout the culture we create and reinforce day-after-day, year-after-year. 

Leadership isn’t just for bosses. It needs to be nestled and integrated throughout the association.

Distributed leaders can create a wide-ranging positive multiplier effect that helps to seed innovation, foster buy-in, and help your association execute on challenging goals.

The Multiplier Effect of Infectious Buy-In

“I can do things you cannot.
You can do things I cannot.
Together we can do great things.”

– Mother Teresa

Associations need practical, executable strategy as much as they need a solid governance structure or well-prepared volunteer leaders. 

Like all organizations navigating volatility in the modern world, associations need broad-based (deep and wide, operational and cultural) buy-in so our shared aims and aspirations can come true.

This section and the next section borrow concepts from Constantinos C. Markides’ highly recommended book All the Right Moves: A Guide to Crafting Breakthrough Strategy.

If it is to succeed, any strategy or change initiative needs the emotional commitment of the people – staff, volunteers, committees, and board – who are responsible for advancing it. 

Emotional commitment is different from rational commitment. Rational commitment means that people have agreed to the strategy or change initiative at a logical level.

It does not, however, mean they are prepared or willing to do anything about it. Nor does it mean they will change their behavior to support the nuts-and-bolts actions needed to make the strategy come true.

If your association succeeds at winning the emotional commitment of those charged with executing the strategy, those involved will not only do what you propose, they will do it passionately and enthusiastically. 

Signs of emotional commitment are passion, excitement, energy, and pride. 

For such a dramatic change of attitude to occur, people must not only accept and agree with the strategy – they must buy into it.

According to Markides, winning emotional commitment is a four-stage process.

As expected, this process takes time, but is critical to achieving the type of success that drives focus, buy-in, momentum, and success. 

Without emotional commitment, even the most brilliant strategies will fail. 

In stage one, our goal is to clearly explain the strategy.

People will not be receptive to the plan unless they understand what it is and why it’s worth doing. At this stage, you might not expect people to agree with the proposed direction. One simply needs to explain the strategy and the reasons for adopting it.

This stage goes smoothly if there has been sufficient participation in the strategic-building process or if the strategy is simple and explicit. 

In stage two, our goal is to secure people’s agreement to pursue the strategy.

Reasoned argument, open debate, and an environment allowing for disparate perspectives and professional disagreement can help win people over. The use of allies to argue your case can also help. 

So far, all that’s been achieved is rational commitment, which does not necessarily translate into action. 

Stage three focuses not only agreeing to the strategy, but to agree to enact or execute the strategy. 

Environment creates behavior. If you want people to act on a strategy, it’s important to establish the environment to do so. Quite frankly, everyone in all associations has too much to do.

What’s required to execute on strategy is to help people change priorities and, in turn, reward people for contributing to and meeting the strategy’s goals.

By the fourth stage, the aim becomes emotional commitment. The outcome is a passionate, shared, yet single-minded pursuit of the strategy by everyone in the association.

The organizational climate of achieving emotional commitment is supportive, optimistic, caring, contributory as well as focused, disciplined, service-oriented, and clearly and demonstrably devoted to creating and sustaining a healthy culture.

This is what happens when leaders — through word and deed — personally commit to the strategy’s success.

How to Sell Stretch Goals

“Successful innovators excel at stirring things up. They are not afraid to destabilize a smoothly running machine – and to do so periodically – because no one can know in advance exactly when the system will need this jolt.”

Constantinos C. Markides
All the Right Moves: A Guide to Crafting Breakthrough Strategy

Stretch goals are important sources of individual and organizational motivation and achievement. They can help build momentum and deepen emphasis on an association’s most important priorities. 

According to the HBR article The Stretch Goal Paradox, true stretch goals differ from ordinary challenging goals in two important respects:

  • Extreme difficulty. Stretch goals involve radical expectations that go beyond current capabilities and performance. Consider Southwest Airlines’ early stretch goal of achieving a 10-minute turnaround at airport gates. A familiar task was involved, but the target was a drastic departure from the industry standard at the time, which was close to one hour.
  • Extreme novelty. Brand-new paths and approaches must be found to bring a stretch goal within reach. In other words, working differently, not simply working harder, is required. To get gate turnarounds down to 10 minutes, Southwest had to completely overhaul its staff’s work practices and reimagine the behavior of customers. The airline did, however, famously figure out how to reach this goal.

Here is the graphic from the HBR article that lays out a simple flowchart for how to approach and set stretch goals. 

This type of framing can put into context the scale and scope of your goals as well as your association’s ability to meet or exceed your goals. 

It can also help you gauge and compare the complexity of the goals while providing early insight into whether or not they are achievable.

The vast majority of associations should not shoot for the moon. They should, instead, invest in the intertwined pair of strategy and people. 

Why? Because these investments underscore the importance of focused aspirations while deepening our commitment to caring about our most important asset: people!

The opposite of focused aspirations is nearly always ‘all things to all people’ or a clear recipe for an undisciplined organization that will spend the lion’s share of its time firefighting or chasing random volunteer mandates. (see the graphic “is your association ready for growth?” in my article Re-Skilling the Association).

Here is one way of approaching stretch goals that (1) helps you create the right goal while (2) getting people onboard to ensure you can meet or exceed it. 

Similar to emotional commitment, achieving stretch goals relies on voice, inclusiveness, and focus.

This alone won’t ensure your association will achieve your aims, but it will surely create the vital momentum that can only come from positive multipliers. 

Stage one, communicate the goal. People cannot or will not get excited about a goal unless they understand what is to be achieved and why.

Stage two can be tricky. The aim here is to create belief in the goal through early victories. In this stage, leaders must convince people that the objective is realistic and achievable. 

While stretch goals are needed to generate excitement, these goals can also generate disbelief or dismissal as unrealistic or unachievable.

To make these goals believable, we may need to go beyond words. 

Early victories can serve as proof that the ambitious goal is within reach and a key component of community confidence in the overarching association direction.

Stage three is solidifying emotional commitment to the goal. 

This is the most difficult stage of the selling process as it signifies moving from rational acceptance to two-feet-in, all-out emotional commitment

When people are emotionally committed, they will sell the goal, serve as positive multipliers, and help the team focus on crisp execution.

In addition to meeting an important association priority, succeeding at stage three can also provide critical fuel to your innovation culture.  

As we will see in the next section, creating positive crises or necessary tension can result in even better results. These are results that can be replicated, leveraged, or extended.

The Essential Tensions of Lasting Innovation

“There’s no passion to be found playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.”

– Nelson Mandela

Associations are a pretty diverse group of organizations. We’re big, small, complex, and simple. We serve vastly different industries and purposes. 

What unites us? We want to make a meaningful difference in the world. 

To do so, we agree that we need to invest in a focused strategy led by capable, distributed leadership. And we agree that we need broad-based buy-in to build enthusiasm and help achieve stretch goals.  

However, as much as we need to execute our finely-tuned plans, we also need to regularly navigate ambiguity. 

To end this article, I quote from the book Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs, in which the authors claim that identifying, honoring, and navigating essential tensions is a key to developing usable strategies that can take hold and help create important levers for change. 

Combined with a respect for navigating buy-in, these tensions can help create an innovative culture of cross-functional community-building.

The below text and graphic come from pages 194-195.

Some of the qualities that innovators need to master are contradictory.

  • How can I be creative and disciplined? Is it really possible to be practical and ambitious? Yet designers and scientists typically have no particular problem embracing these seeming dilemmas.

Many great advances involve deeply appreciating and resolving the essential tension in a challenge: 

  • “How can a device be smaller, lighter, and more powerful!” Or “How can a car be comfortable and fuel-efficient?” Or even “How can the health care system produce better outcomes and cost dramatically less?” 

Any great innovation system respects and resolves these seen conflicts. The key is to see them as tensions to be managed rather than trade offs that must be made.

This way essential tensions become something that can coalesce teams and propel innovation. Ultimately, it’s a framework to keep the emphasis on focused action.

About the Author

James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.