Start your next chapter leader training session or newsletter with this reminder from James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits:
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
When systems—processes, mindsets, traditions, and practices—become outdated and ineffective, chapters fall into bad habits that inhibit their growth and endanger their future.
Bad chapter habit: Trying to be a mini-national
Duplicative efforts are wasteful, especially for chapter leaders who are stretched thin. Chapters should let HQ do what it does best for members, while they focus on what they do best—and what they can do well.
When a chapter takes on too much, the leader’s job is supersized. Martyr leaders try to do it all, while more reasonable leaders feel like they’re letting people down. Both types are at risk of burnout.
As a result, in the rush to plan and launch programs, decisions are postponed and administrative work is set aside. Exhausted leaders may even step down unexpectedly.
In the long-term, members become reluctant to take on supersized leadership roles. Leadership positions are left vacant or cycled through a rotating cast of increasingly fatigued volunteers.
Good chapter habit: Rightsize chapter activities and leadership job descriptions.
Chapter leaders should review the chapter’s and HQ’s capabilities and strengths before deciding how they can best serve members. Sunset duplicative activities that take up volunteer and leadership time.
Share responsibilities among more members by restructuring leadership positions. Delegate work to committees, project teams, and other volunteers. Recruit microvolunteers to fill temporary gaps.
Bad chapter habit: Staying aloof from HQ and other chapters
If you’ve ever inherited an incommunicado chapter, you know how hard it is to bring them back into the fold. When incoming leaders model the “us vs. them” mindset of outgoing leaders, they never get to experience the benefits of a good relationship with HQ. They miss out on advice, resources, and introductions to chapter peers.
Good chapter habit: Stay in touch with your CRP and chapter leader community.
CRPs can turn this situation around, but it takes extra effort. Solicit feedback and opinions from estranged chapters. Offer to serve as their liaison to other HQ staff. Schedule quick check-in meetings. Ask retired or active chapter leaders to check in on them too.
Whatever you do, don’t rely on email to resolve misunderstandings and difficult situations. Pick up the phone and have a real-time conversation.
Bad chapter habit: Not knowing (or ignoring) rules and deadlines
Some chapter leaders don’t follow rules, file paperwork, or meet deadlines. Whether ignorance or obstinance is to blame, the results aren’t good.
- A letter from the IRS announces the end of their tax-exempt status.
- The website goes down because the domain expired.
- Membership prospects mark chapter emails as spam because they were added to the mailing list without permission.
Good chapter habit: Learn and play by the rules.
Thank goodness CRPs have mastered the art of gentle nagging! But chapters need instruction too. After data privacy training, hopefully, they won’t keep spamming.
Provide a compliance checklist and calendar that reminds chapters about:
- Federal and state tax returns and reports
- Website domain and hosting expiration dates
- Event deposit due dates
- Software subscription expiration dates
Bad chapter habit: Keeping institutional knowledge in their head
If chapter leaders don’t share history, document procedures, keep templates on file, or safely store passwords, institutional knowledge has to reside in someone’s head. Now that’s scary.
When leaders don’t set up incoming officers, directors, and chairs for success, the new team starts at a disadvantage. They’re in the dark about relationships, programs, issues, and other need-to-know information.
Good chapter habit: Put everything in writing or video.
Document standard operating procedures (SOPs)—the processes and procedures for how things get done. “Over-the-shoulder” videos might be easier for leaders than typing it all out. Every officer and chair should leave behind instructions and tips for doing their job, including debriefs on events, programs, and their year in office.
Create a checklist of what incoming chapter leaders need. Provide templates to get them started. Offer to securely store usernames and passwords as well as important legal documents. Provide management systems that automate as many of these procedures as possible.
Bad chapter habit: Not accepting the need for training
Chapter leaders are not association or event management experts. In their daytime jobs, chapter leaders may manage people, lead a department, or run a business, but chapter leadership is not like any job they’ve had before.
Many leaders don’t dedicate enough time to training because they assume they can handle the role. But if they don’t follow recommended procedures, costly mistakes can result. Outcomes are dicey when chapter leaders don’t understand:
- Financial controls
- Legal liabilities
- Conflicts of interest
- Antitrust and copyright infractions
- Contract negotiations
- Cybersecurity incidents
Taking shortcuts means taking risks.
Good chapter habit: Dedicate a little time each week to learning.
Open up leadership training to more volunteers. They can learn along the way, instead of at the last minute, when thrust into a leadership position.
Make learning convenient and fun for busy professionals with little time for chapter duties. Dose it out in easily consumed chunks that members can access on your website.
Schedule live online instruction too, so members can learn alongside their peers. Host a chapter leader online community or Slack where leaders can learn from each other and from “retired” leaders.
During leadership onboarding, show leaders where everything lives on your website. Organize training resources by function: finance, events, marketing, IT and cybersecurity, governance, etc.
Prioritize their “need-to-know” list. Require incoming officers to get financial and other critical training via brief webinars, video series, or online learning programs. Use your learning management system to track attendance.
Every month, choose a theme for your chapter leader training, community, and newsletter, for example, membership, cybersecurity, event marketing, or sponsorships.
Last but not least, build in guardrails that limit the likelihood a chapter leader will make serious mistakes, such as automated financial, event, and communication systems you can easily monitor.
Bad chapter habit: Focusing on the familiar and the “here and now”
Because chapter leaders never have enough time—see bad habit #1—they do what’s easiest to accomplish and what absolutely has to get done. Many operate on autopilot, copying and pasting what their predecessors did. Since they don’t have the bandwidth for innovation, members end up seeing the same old programs and sponsors get the same old packages.
Because they’re focused on immediate issues, leaders don’t dedicate enough time to thinking about the chapter’s future. They don’t invest resources in developing future leaders. They don’t set aside funds for the technology needed to improve operations and the member experience.
Good chapter habit: Think strategically and innovatively about the chapter and its legacy.
Chapter leaders must aside time at every board meeting to discuss strategic issues, including the chapter’s future—not just the next quarter, but the next few years and beyond.
- How are members and their needs changing?
- Who is part of our community and who isn’t but should be?
- What skills will leaders need? Which members have those skills?
- What trends will affect our members and their companies?
- What do we want to leave for the next generation?
Invite a rotating list of members to serve on a futurist group to research these questions and report back to the board. Talk to chapter leaders from other associations. How are they dealing with issues and trends that are similar to those faced by your members?
CRPs can help by reporting what they see from a national or global perspective. Collect and share chapter bright spots—successful new ideas from chapter leader peers.
Bad chapter habit: Waiting for qualified leaders to raise their hand
Popular confident members raise their hands for leadership positions, but they don’t always have the competencies a chapter needs. Meanwhile, qualified members are out there but haven’t been asked, aren’t in the right network, or aren’t interested in taking on the heavy leadership workload.
As a result, chapters rely on the usual suspects who eventually stop raising their hands. When the leadership pipeline goes dry and positions remain empty, the chapter itself is in peril, along with the membership experience.
Good chapter habit: Constantly develop volunteer and leadership talent.
Identify the competencies truly needed for the chapter board and charge a scouting team with finding qualified candidates. Scouts review volunteer profiles and membership applications, ask for referrals, and invite candidates to volunteer and participate in leadership training.
A microvolunteering culture encourages members to get involved, especially those who are wary of committing too much time. Publish an updated list of microvolunteering opportunities on the website and in newsletters. To encourage participation, chapters should value and recognize all volunteers, not just committee members.
Strengthen the leadership bench with informal mentoring and greater delegation of leadership duties. Leadership succession issues disappear when chapters take good care of their leadership pipeline.
Above all, if you want someone to volunteer, ASK! Make it personal.
Better chapter habits start with small sustainable changes. CRPs can coach and support chapters as they develop new habits, but chapter leaders are more likely to stick with new habits when their peers hold them accountable.