In all the years I’ve been working with Associations and Chambers of Commerce, I’ve never really had what I’d consider a “complete reclamation project” where we had to come in, burn down the existing structure and start from scratch. In fact, almost every client I’ve ever worked with around the world has been doing things pretty darned well. Several of my Chambers have earned 3-, 4- and 5-Star Accreditation. These are high-performing organizations. So why on EARTH are they bringing me in to work with their Board, their staff, their volunteers?
It’s simple. Most organizations have one problem in common. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small business, a trade association, a Chamber of Commerce or a massive corporation. The challenge they all have is a LANGUAGE problem, and I’m betting I can help YOUR organization perform at a much higher level by simply helping you solve this one issue.
I think most everyone knows that when talking about Chambers and Associations, I believe that ISSUES and ADVOCACY work should be at the absolute top of every discussion. But here’s where the LANGUAGE BARRIER becomes a problem…there are only a very small handful of people (probably at the very top of your org chart) who speak the LANGUAGE of Economic Impact, Workforce Development, Skills Gap, Business Retention and Expansion visits. How can we hope to act as one unit, everyone on the same page, if most of the staff doesn’t understand the discussion?
Case in point, I was working with the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Cape Town, South Africa last week. This is the OLDEST existing membership organization in all of Africa, dating all the way back to 1804! Trust me when I tell you that Sid Peimer, the Executive Director or the organization, understands the LANGUAGE of economic development. There was one additional staff person and POSSIBLY two Board Members I identified during my week with them who could have a significant discussion about what they’ve done to help make their community a better place to live, work and play. Think about that for a moment. An organization that has been around for more than 200 years, has had its hands in literally HUNDREDS of projects in and around the city, and only 4 or 5 people out of nearly FIFTY could talk to me about any of it.
We, as leaders in the Non-Profit Management world…and as business leaders in our communities…have a moral imperative to help our people learn to speak the language of business development. It is vital to the success of the organization that EVERYONE can understand not only the details, but the implications of the work we do. We’ve all heard the phrase “If they WRITE it, they’ll UNDERWRITE it.” Well, it doesn’t just work in the Boardroom. We need to include our staff at Board meetings so that they can hear the discussions, understand the debates, learn about the issues and fully comprehend the desired outcomes. They need to hear the words and understand what they mean. They need to be engaged in the discussion so that real comprehension is possible. They WANT to be inside…but because we’ve assigned them to roles like Marketing and Sales and Finance, we’ve shut them out of the process.
So, what would I do differently to solve what I suspect may be a SIGNIFICANT problem at YOUR organization? Here’s a real short list that I think you’ll appreciate:
- Insist that all staff members attend Board meetings. Staff members can certainly sign the same confidentiality agreement your Board members sign. Your Board DOES sign a confidentiality agreement, right??? If the discussion turns to payroll, HR or other personnel issues, you can always go into Executive Session and continue the discussion in private without staff in the room.
- Never allow another agenda to be written that doesn’t include 3-4 minutes of education on specific Issues/Advocacy/Legislative Agenda items currently being worked on or recently completed to the benefit of the entire community. That means staff meetings can’t begin until SOMEONE steps up and speaks the language for a few minutes, acclimating the staff to hearing it. It also means we can’t begin a Business After Hours, a networking session, a Board meeting, a committee meeting, our expo, an interview or even a luncheon without 3 or 4 minutes of education at the top. Period.
- Be sure to give everyone the opportunity to speak the language occasionally. Ask them to help break down the WHY of a project. For example, Jay the Plumber doesn’t understand why your organization has been so actively involved in improving the downtown corridor. He works on the other side of town, never comes downtown and can’t grasp why HIS membership dollar has gone towards something like this that will never help him. Have a staff member or a volunteer…someone who doesn’t typically get involved in these matters…explain why Jay the Plumber SHOULD care. Lead them down the path of talking about job creation, economic impact to the community, tax revenues, improved infrastructure, crime reduction and so forth. Make sure they’re FLUENT and can detail to Jay the Plumber why working to create a Business Improvement District is beneficial to EVERYONE in the community.
- Get your people to THAT level, and many of your problems with motivation, teamwork, dedication and more will simply begin to fade away. Your staff will be more committed and loyal, seeing themselves as PROFESSIONALS as opposed to just having a J.O.B. Your Board will be more ACTIVE, something I hear complaints about all the time. Your volunteers will do a FAR better job of telling the community about their PASSION for what the organization stands for, and the community at large will see you and your team in a much different and ELEVATED light.