Monday, January 25, 2010

8 Lessons Association Execs Can Learn Like Student Athletes

I sometimes teach a new association executives "boot camp" and often try to figure out where we actually learn what the position entails. Because my teenagers play sports I realize there are certain lessons kids get playing high school varsity and college sports that applies to association executives too:

1. Allow Yourself to be Coached. Sometimes you're going to be asked to play a different position than what you believe you're best at, or to change how you do something. Give the other position or alternative your best effort too. You may find you like it, you may learn something, it may help the organization more, or you may find how grateful you are you don't have to play that position all the time. And when you are corrected/coached, learn from it. There's a reason there's a coach.

2. Don't Blame the Referee. Sometimes you really are the one who made the mistake, or underestimate what others see in your performance that you may not have seen or believe. Before you blame the referee, try to figure out the call.

3. There are Rules. It doesn't matter how much you might prefer to play in a non-rule environment, or how much you hate rules - they exist. Athletes can't just decide they don't want to play by the rules, and neither can association executives. Your state corporate statutes dictate certain rules, the IRS has rules, your bylaws may require certain rules, pension plans have rules, insurance policies have rules, PACs have rules, and on and on. Learn the rules, then play by them. If there's room for rules to be changed, you can work towards that. Where there are rules, there are often penalties too. You likely won't get to decide if you want those to exist or not either.

4. You Improve by Playing against Excellent Players, not Bad Players. Find the best you can find and play with them. That's how you get better. Ask questions. Watch. Find out how to be part of their team even if it's just going to a meeting with them or finding out the methods behind their excellence.

5. Sometimes it Really is about Winning. When you're 9-years old and playing T-ball of course "everyone's a winner" even if they lose. As you get older, especially into high school varsity and college athletics, winning matters. When members join associations it may very well be for legislative, regulatory and legal action on behalf of an industry. If your association needs to win an issue, you need to ensure a win. As one of my daughter's shirts says, "I don't train for second place." You shouldn't train for second place either - if you want a relevant organization. And yes, members keep score.

6. If you don't train, then don't be surprised when you aren't good or aren't ready. Really, how often are good players out of the game for a variety of reasons and then everyone realizes no one else knows how to play that position or can adequately fill in? When I worked for a large national association I spent a lot of time intentionally learning a lot of other people's jobs (above and below me) and was constantly offering to do more and more. When it was time for me to actually do ten other jobs than the one I had, believe me I knew how to do many of them, and/or who to call to find out how. There wasn't a chance I wouldn't know how to throw the ball if I was called to be quarterback. Association management isn't luck. It's training and skill.

7. You're Not the Only Athlete - or the Only Sport - or the Only Budget. There comes a time in every sport where kids learn that there isn't enough money - and it typically seems very "unfair." A team might be asked to give something up, or do with less than what they strongly believe they're entitled to. A single sport is just one part of a bigger athletics department, and athletics is just one part of a bigger school budget. And someone is paying those fees that have to be divided many ways, and there really isn't money for everything. How is it "fair" for the school to spend money on (fill in the blank) when the team or athlete can't have (fill in the blank)? Because that's how it works. Administration is balancing many costs and many demands, and if there are huge problems to be solved - you will be asked to do more with less. May as well learn that in high school or college sports.

8. Take pride in your team and school. A big lecture student athletes get is to have pride in their team and school, and how that's reflected with what they do in social media too. In many schools, you're even going to be off the team depending on what you post - and there are codes of conduct. Some adult employees seem to think that maybe those same lessons student athletes get won't apply to their own career? For example, that someone seeing a party picture from that last conference isn't actually going to translate into the "gosh I'm glad we didn't promote her" decision - or into "ouch - is this how the members think he's spending their dues"? Everyone knows that employees and prospective employees are researched online, right? Just like athletes are.

What you learn on and off the field as a student athlete, you may just need in your association management profession too.


Matt Baehr said...

Cindy - great post. As a former college player and coach, and now association exec, I can say that you are spot on. These are lessons that so many people need to learn in whatever they do, and I am a big believer in sports help you to learn those lessons.

PS - I hate that "everyone is a winner" for so long in youth sports now. I am all for not keeping score at 5 and 6 years old. But at 10 and 12 years old, you don't have to give the losers a trophy. Just a pet peeve of mine.

Kevin said...

Brilliant post! Should be required reading.

You better believe winning matters, and everybody keeps score....assn people (staff and volunteer leaders both) would be better off thinking more like the football team and less like the people running the bake sale.