Use Your Association Leadership Retreat to Become 2020 Future Ready

As America’s trade and professional associations enter the new decade, many are facing the same competitive market forces that bedevil their members. Yet often they lack the resources or forward thinking ability to embrace rapidly developing trends, and turn them to advantage.

Some associations are thinking ahead of the curve — and taking action. They are using the annual retreat for more than just run-of-the-mill strategic planning. They are reimagining the leadership retreat to help staffers and board members become “future ready.”

As a futurist and innovation speaker, I’ve seen these leadership offsite meetings become game-changers. I facilitate half day and day-long sessions that open up new competitive space, and discover innovative solutions to even the most disruptive market challenges. If you’ve been tasked with organizing this year’s offsite leadership retreat, I invite you to think of this responsibility, not as a chore, but as a unique opportunity to point your association in a promising new direction. Consider these five benefits:

1. Use the offsite retreat to future proof your association.

“Future-proofing” is the organized process of scouting for threats and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses — and brainstorming forward-thinking solutions. Through discussion, lecture and group exercises, leaders consciously map out the association’s future by first discovering where you truly sit in today’s environment. Based on surveys and pre-work with attendees, we assess the impact of what I call the Driving Forces of Change, unique association marketplace and member trends and plans for exploiting those trends. As a facilitator/moderator, I engage the association’s leaders well in advance of the retreat to begin stirring the pot and asking provocative questions: what trends and competitive market forces — negative and positive — confront the association as you look around, in order to look ahead? What are you and your association doing to exploit these trends? How are today’s developments being used to create new member value and grow association revenue? How has the association developed the innovation skills of its staff, and taken steps to attract and retain top talent? “We want you to come along side us to make sure we’re not missing anything,” one association leader told me recently, “We’re so busy with turning the crank, we need to step away, change the environment, and allow the creative juices to flow.”

2. Use the leadership retreat to develop the innovation skills of your staff.

Busy with the demands of serving members whose expectations and needs are changing constantly, many associations neglect the personal and professional development of their teams. Yet in working with trade and professional associations for over 30 years (primarily as a keynote speaker), I observe that future-ready associations know the danger of letting this happen. Key talent departs for better pay and working conditions. Membership declines, engagement suffers. I believe some of the most consistently creative individuals work in America’s associations, and that they need help in meeting the challenge of rapid change. My sessions focus on the future, but they also arm staffers with how to cultivate an innovative culture, how to collaborate with stakeholders, how to sell one’s ideas, and how to turn their ideas into new products, services and member and board-member -appealing benefits.

3. Use the offsite meeting to assault personal, organizational and industry assumptions.

If you’ve heard me speak, you’ve probably heard me talk about the wellspring of innovation being that we challenge an assumption. Our members only want X. We can’t do Y because … Such and so will never come to pass in our association. An assumption is a belief that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof to back it up. In the Age of Acceleration, what was true five minutes ago, may no longer be true now. Assumptions, left unchallenged, become like barnacles on the side of a boat– they slow us down, or worse, cause us to miss out on market changes. Transformational leadership retreats occur when executives and managers are invited to wonder anew about the assumptions they have long made about customers, markets, culture, the industry, etc. I help leadership teams embrace this mode of thinking gently by first presenting them with compelling future-focused examples of how and where the world is changing. Then I invite them to “play with the clay” and work in teams to go beyond today’s accomplishments and challenges, to enter the world of possibility thinking and “what if.”

4. Use the offsite meeting to tap creative imagination.

IBM did a study not long ago where they asked over a thousand senior managers to rate “what leadership competency do you need more than any other in your people today”? And the answer was creativity. They called creativity the single most important leadership competency in a world that is more volatile, more uncertain, and more complex than ever before.” In the 2020s, successful associations will be those who continue to value creativity and execution, and the leadership retreat is the best environment to renew these vows. Just consider where you and your entire association staff needs not just execution, but creativity, to stay ahead of the curve: to top next year’s annual meeting with even more member-pleasing content and networking events. Your publications people need creativity to better meet the members needs for empowering statistical data and news. Your operations and accounting staff need to embrace new technologies and software that promotes further efficiency. My role as facilitator is first and foremost to tap the creative ideas that are bottled up inside your team, and give them a fair hearing, in a safe and fun environment of exploration.

5. Use the offsite retreat to disrupt your association before your competition does it to you.

Today’s association has competitors coming from every direction. And these competitors will disrupt more and more associations in the new decade, at a faster pace than ever before. In managing the future sessions, I’ll often flash a slide on the screen that is filled with the logos of fallen companies: Kodak, Blockbuster, Sears, Nokia and others. After a pause, I’ll ask the group: “What’s the one thing these firms might wish they’d done more of?” Responses tend to coalesce around the need to “see it coming,” to confront the brutal facts, and to look farther up the road. Managing the Future retreats often help everyone see the trends are leading to an inflection point, and they embolden leaders to make tough decisions sooner., and to take prudent but necessary risks. My 30 year experience working across industries is that disrupted companies, and disrupted industries, saw the handwriting on the wall. But they were reluctant to take bold action. These “managing the future” sessions help clarify the nature of the threat, and give language and build the buy-in for discussing out-of-the-box solutions. The upshot: blind optimism is no virtue, and ideation without execution is mere hallucination. But if the landscape of your association, and your members’ business environment, is in a state of disruption, don’t wait too long to take action.

In summary.

If you’ve been tasked with organizing the retreat this year, why not shake things up a bit? No need to jettison all of the usual agenda. Instead, begin with the end in mind. Envision the cascading positive impacts of a successful retreat that has everyone energized and excited. Go through the agenda and make room for discussion of the future. It will arrive whether we’re ready for it or not.