Culture: Newly Defined and More Important Than Ever for Associations

Written by Ken Monroe

Chairman & CEO, Bostrom

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the concept of corporate culture. There is a growing recognition that sound strategies and good nuts-and-bolts operational plans can put associations on track to be efficient, cost effective, growth oriented, and brand successful, but they don’t necessarily result in industry or sector supremacy or innovative leadership. There are intangibles that separate leading associations from the rest of the pack. What are they?

Much of the difference is encompassed by what is explored in the literature, by consultants, and by corporate and association leaders as corporate culture. The concept is hard to define and thus it is hard to determine how to pursue and achieve a strong culture, but finding the key is worth it, as there is increasing evidence that a strong culture is a major ingredient in what distinguishes truly leading organizations from others.

While most of the literature focuses on “corporate” culture, the non-profit sector is equally important, and this begs the question of whether “association” culture is different in some way from “corporate” culture. The short answer is yes. Corporations have the benefit of more focus; specifically, on generating profit growth in support of stockholder value—not their sole focus, but a dominant theme.

Associations on the other hand, are more mission driven and have more diverse strategic goals that are not primarily financial. Association cultures must encompass fundamental purpose(s) that are more difficult to define clearly, and therefore, must consider a broader set of stakeholders. This critical difference makes defining, building and maintaining a sound culture more complex and difficult for associations.

Most working definitions focus on culture as a concept that captures informal assumptions and practices that drive how an organization functions organically. It is based on how people interact, what they think about, and how they value what the organization does and why it does it. It helps define the “style” of the organization, the “tone” in which it communicates, and the integrity with which it interacts with others.

Signs, Symptoms, and Key Indicators

Much of the culture research focuses on measuring key indicators relating to a “strong culture”.

Measurable Indicators of Culture

  • Transparency
  • Inclusiveness
  • Trust, respect
  • Collaboration
  • Strong communications throughout the organization (esp. from top management)
  • Low workforce turnover
  • Absence of a crisis orientation
  • Evidence of real teamwork
  • Ability to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances
  • Existence of a well-crafted set of explicit values

More subjective and less measurable factors include strong “employee engagement,” “clarity” about values, a workforce that seems to have a “sense of community,” and a management team and process that “inspires” strong and consistent performance. These all are characteristics that can result from a strong culture, and pursuing them collectively could help ensure a strong culture. However, it is possible to have many of these attributes and still have a muddled and indistinct culture.

Clearly, most factors related to association culture focus in some way to how people are engaged, treated, recognized, and rewarded and how they relate to each other in the workplace. Since an association’s most important asset is its people, pursuing the best possible workplace environment is a critical first step in assessing the nature and strength of your culture.

Values and Culture

Most associations now routinely identify core values as part of their planning process. This is essential as you start creating and maintaining a strong culture, but there are some caveats and potential pitfalls related to values statements.

One of the dilemmas in developing a set of values is whether they reflect what the association is or what it aspires to. In most cases, a values statement, once developed, is proudly communicated along with the association’s mission so that everyone is aware of what it stands for. As such, a values statement should be a good reflection of what is, because if not, the difference between what is stated and the reality will become apparent. In most cases, this does not attract major attention as it did in the now famous case of Enron which had an elaborate set of values that were clearly not adhered to.  An association whose stated values differ in significant ways from its reality may well experience a cultural disconnect, one of the most important of which is the internal respect of employees and the external respect and support of members and other stakeholders. Hypocrisy is one of the most difficult reputational issues to overcome, and the internal and external reputation of the association is a good barometer of the strength of its culture.

In spite of the possible disconnects related to values statements, engaging in an honest, in-depth discussion of values is an excellent starting point for exploring association culture. It should begin with asking not only what the organization stands for, but why those characteristics are the ones the association cherishes above all others. The core values should capture the heart and soul of the association, and should reflect not only what it does and how it does it, but most importantly why it does it. And it should be evident in every facet of the organization’s activities, not just as a statement in the strategic plan.

The values statement should be short – five or six items at most. Values statements that are a list of all the virtues know to modern philosophical thought come across as more of a public relations statement than a description of the core values that drive the association.

What Is Your Association’s Internal and External Personality?

While a well thought out and genuine set of values is a good starting point, translating it to a strong association culture requires day-to-day reflection of the values in what the organization does, how it communicates, the policies it implements, and how it engages stakeholders at all levels.

This can be achieved only when the values are inherent in the overall management practices and style of the organization and must become “a way of life.” It cannot be a “campaign” that is a time-limited effort with a beginning and an end. It, in effect, must become “the personality” of the organization. An association that is known as one that “walks the talk” is likely to have a strong and consistent culture. A strong value proposition that is successful over time is an excellent indicator of a strong organizational culture that is rooted in a fundamental understanding of what the association is, does, and stands for.

Culture Indicator Questions  

So far, there seems to be no tried and true formulas for how to ensure that the personality of the association is consistent with its stated values. However, there are some clues about this consistency related to the internal personality of the association and its external identity. Both are legitimate dimensions of an association’s culture.

  • Is this an employee friendly and supportive culture? Do your employees often tell friends and colleagues outside the association that it is a good place to work and encourage them to apply for open positions?
  • Is there real rapport between top management and the rank and file employees? Is management considered competent, accessible, and open to input from all employees? Does management actively seek such input?
  • Does the association make a conscious effort to recruit and hire employees that “fit” the culture the organization aspires to create and sustain, while at the same time ensuring that the workforce is diverse in thoughts, processes and demographics and does not become excessively homogeneous?
  • Does the association have an active program of employee development? Do employees feel they have a strong chance of advancement over time? When there are key openings do employees feel they have a legitimate chance of being a viable candidate (vs. others having “an inside track”)?
  • Is the association’s Human Resources office viewed by employees as a place to go with problems or concerns or is it a place that employees avoid interacting with?
  • Is elected leadership appropriately involved in the association at the strategic level, or does management do everything possible to minimize their involvement? Is there a sense of trust between management and elected leaders?
  • Do members and other stakeholders have easy access to the association without suffering through lengthy phone menus or waiting extended periods of time for responses to electronic or mail inquiries?
  • Do vendors and others who do business with the association consider it “a good place to do business with?” What feedback is there, and is it consistent?
  • Is the association considered an active participant in its sector, i.e. professional or trade association? Is it respected and regarded as a leader and an organization that collaborates well with others in the sector, including competitors?
  • Is the association active in its local community? Is it considered a good corporate citizen? Does it encourage its employees to be active in the community?

Positive responses to these questions do not guarantee that a solid, consistent corporate culture is in place, but collectively, they provide a good sense of how effectively the association functions and is regarded.

Once an association has carefully considered the culture it wishes to possess and to project to the world, it must assess how well its reality reflects the culture it aspires to and how to close any gaps. Culture building and maintaining is an ongoing process and as with any goal, it is essential to measure progress. Progress on culture related goals should be part of the association’s regular dashboard measurement process, addressing:

  • How well is the association moving toward the cultural characteristics it aspires to?
  • What are the key culture gaps that most need attention and how will they be addressed?
  • What internal and external feedback mechanisms are in place to gauge cultural competency, and what does that feedback indicates?

Because of the “organic” nature of association culture, it does not lend itself to easy fixes or instant solutions when problems arise. However, if culture is part of the ongoing progress assessment process, the organic nature of it will become a major factor in reinforcing the other goals of the association. As such, investment in developing and maintaining a strong association culture is well worth the time and effort involved. It can make the difference between being one of the pack and a real leader.

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