Strategic Management Articles

Keeping Your Head

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…then you will be a man (or woman, to bring it into the 21st Century)….  If ever times called for a cool head, these are they.  Actually, the rest of Kipling’s poem “If” has great wisdom for today and is worth hauling out of your dusty library or Googling.  More on that later.

So, is this just another screed about the ten things you can do to survive the downturn?  Yes and no.  There is no “ten” list.  However this is a set of practical observations based on a long time in harness.

Don’t panic.  As a scuba diver in training, I was taught that panic would cause you to make stupid, even fatal, mistakes.  The antidote was to slow down, breathe, and assess the situation.   This may be easier said than done, but it’s lifesaving both under and above water.  Yes, every news report seems to speak of escalating disaster and investment abysses.  Yes, maybe you’ve seen a fall off in convention attendance, exhibits, publication ad revenues and the like.  Yes, you’re concerned that members under stress or fired won’t renew.  But don’t assume the worst, and don’t project today’s numbers into the future.  

Start by doing a real, thoughtful analysis of the world in which your members must operate.  Are conditions as dire as the news would imply?  What new opportunities, markets and constituencies are being created by upheaval? 

The average recession (and this still is one) lasts about a year.  And about the time we know we’re in one, we’re half way out of it.  This one started in late 2007 so it’s more than a year old already.  OK, it’s not average and it’s deeper and more intransigent than many, even all, that have gone before but pundits already are talking about the turn around in a year or so.  Now is the time to prepare for recovery.

Don’t retrench, reinvigorate.  Just because you’ve heard that other associations are cutting programs and staff and postponing research and development doesn’t mean that you should.  Cutting programs reduces member value and damages what makes you essential.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use this opportunity to cut poorly performing offerings from your product and service bundle (more about that later).  Cutting staff means that you may not have the needed muscle when the turn around starts.  Now is the time to tap into some of those reserves that you’ve so prudently put aside for a “rainy” day to invest in tomorrow.  If this isn’t a rainy day, what is?

Don’t fall prey to the “that’s not what we do” syndrome.  Ten years ago, we identified promotion of wellness, rather than sick care, as the solution to America’s burgeoning healthcare crisis and created a set of strategies for a client that would have allowed them to lead and change the conversation about the issue.  Their response?  That’s not what we do.  At about the same time, we identified the subprime housing market as a time bomb and suggested strategies to a real estate and financial association that might have ameliorated the severity of the current crisis.  Their response?  That’s not what we do. If ever there was a time to, forgive me, get out of the box it’s now.

Don’t hoard your reserves.  More than one association I know subscribes to the “dog in the manger” theory of reserve preservation: even though I don’t need it, I won’t use it.  There was an old M*A*S*H TV episode where a supply sergeant wouldn’t relinquish a piece of medical equipment because then he would only have two instead of three of them.  The purpose of reserves is to make sure that you can keep operating but, also, to invest in promising future endeavors.  Without research and development in difficult times, you run the risk of falling behind when recovery begins, as it surely will.

Example: by investing in futures research, a west coast real estate management association identified four new markets for its members and an entirely new and lucrative revenue stream for the organization.  It cost them a chunk of money to do the research, but the return will be enormous.  Another example: a healthcare organization also invested in futures research and discovered new opportunities for cross-border and trans-global cooperation and new pathways to raise money. 

Dump the junk.  Every association has some: the tired meeting, the worn-out publication, the poorly attended seminar, the award ceremony that draws few.  A helpful tool is the Portfolio Analysis Matrix, which was designed by Dr. Ian McMillan of the Wharton School to help nonprofits determine the value of their programs and services, what to chuck, what to amplify and how fast.  It can be downloaded free at

Resize.  The day of the McMansion is over and builders are beginning to offer smaller, better designed structures that cost less to operate, which is a good analogy for the association world.  Still many associations labor under the weight of oversized governing bodies – houses of delegates, legislative assemblies, tiered boards, structured chapters – all draining resources that could be applied to creating better and new programs.  Yes, there are traditional and political reasons for a lot of this but with money and volunteerism a challenge why not at least broach the subject?  Example: a design association downsized its leadership after demonstrating that it could save $250,000 a year that could be shifted to helping members.  Example: a large professional association eliminated its demanding requirements for chapter leadership and reporting to make it easier to deliver value at the local level and encourage volunteerism.

Toward the end of Kipling’s “If,” he has good advice that works today:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

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