The Association 4.0 Podcast allows me to do something I love. I’m able to exchange ideas and opinions with the savviest leaders in the industry. Recently, Jacqualine Price Osafo, MBA, CAE, and I had a wide-ranging conversation about the need to shift and the impact of change.
The adjustments we made to manage uncertain circumstances were once mostly incremental. The pandemic transformed the need to pivot quickly into a necessity. As the new executive director of the Society of American Archivists, Jackie is navigating shifts both in her career and for her organization.
Founded in 1936, the Society of American Archivists is North America’s oldest and largest national professional association dedicated to the needs and interests of archives and archivists. SAA represents more than 6,200 professional archivists employed by governments, universities, businesses, libraries, and historical organizations nationally.
“We preserve historical records so that the past is presented as it happened,” Jackie explained. “Our members are also committed to ensuring that those documents and artifacts are accessible.”
I was eager to hear how someone whose profession revolves around keeping the past in proper perspective has been thinking about the present, the future, and the changes associations have experienced since March 2020.
Make Room for Collaboration and Compromise
“I believe we’ve been tested to try strategies we previously resisted,” Jackie observed. “We’ve had to ramp up and wind down simultaneously. That means being more flexible than ever. The pandemic quickly dictated that some programs should be sunset so that we could begin new initiatives to help us survive and thrive. It gave us space to say no but also to say yes.”
I wholeheartedly agree with this idea. One of the biggest pandemic shifts was the opportunity to move from an emotional point of view to data-driven problem-solving. Leaders scrutinized their business models objectively. They abandoned personal attachments in favor of the well-being of the association and its members. Boards had to make decisions, like whether to hold a virtual meeting, quickly without the emotional attachment to their personal projects. We’ve all stretched in ways that might previously have seemed out of reach.
“Three years ago, if you had asked an association executive if a hybrid meeting was a good idea, the answer would have been, absolutely not,” Jackie observed. “Now, we’ve realized we can do both. We’ve made room for compromise and collaboration. It’s possible to keep our members happy and support the hotel and convention center colleagues who are also struggling to survive. Instead of telling service providers what we want and asking what they can give us, there is a new partnership. The message is, we’re coming back to your city, but it will be different. We’re all in this community together. The pandemic is horrific, but we want to survive and thrive in the midst of it. And we’ve been given the chance to do better.”
Seize the Opportunity for Improvement
Meeting accessibility is a good example of how we can, and have, been forced to improve. Diversity, equity, and inclusion issues have been top of mind for some time. “But” Jackie advises, “It wasn’t until recently that I considered DEI through the lens of accessibility. A virtual meeting works in all sorts of circumstances where members are unable to travel.”
That’s another shift that has opened doors. Our meetings are available to a group of members who were not able to attend in the past. People whose physical, financial, or familial status made it impossible for them to participate can actively engage with the organization.
“Engagement is a keyword,” Jackie observed. “We’ve struggled for that. I am more engaged on a variety of different virtual platforms. So is the rest of the world. I’ll bet that participation in online communities is much higher than it was pre-pandemic. We’ve discovered that we can create a place for our members to connect regardless of where they are located.
“That realization has sparked innovation in many different areas. Online education is a good example. People once thought of an online degree as a less desirable option,” Jackie remarked. “When I was part of the second cohort to get an MBA online from the University of Illinois in Champaign, people kind of snubbed me. Now, who’s doing the online program—everyone. How do association executives step out and find that blue ocean? What is our strategy to discover that fresh opportunity?
“During COVID we had to shift our thought to be more creative. Some folks are going to come along with you on this journey, and some are not. Getting that right talent and being able to move to a space of creativity at home instead of around the water cooler, at a meeting, or during a casual conversation is a challenge. Now we have to intentionally create those opportunities.”
Finding the inspiration that is sparked by spontaneous conversations and encounters is one of the significant limitations in the remote environment. Inability to make those connections may be a reason why so many people are questioning their career paths and sometimes seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Providing meaningful experiences and helping people feel the impact of their contributions is one of the biggest challenges for managers in the era of Zoom.
When I asked Jackie what leaders should do to position their organizations for success, she responded like this. “From a staffing perspective, empathy is extremely important. It’s something I am constantly working on.” But she noted that, as executive director, she must balance the interests of the business with those of her staff.
“I see the big picture,” she said. “The strategic plan is in my head. It’s what I breathe, eat, and sleep and I know what is required to execute. If someone resigns, it’s going to expand the bandwidth of some other folks. I don’t have a choice. I want to meet staff where they are, but they must understand my accountability for the business. People have gotten very comfortable and prefer to work from home, but the association has rent and we’re using the members’ money to pay for that leased office space. It’s a leader’s job to draw the line.
“On the association side, we must keep exploring where we want to go in the future. Those conversations cannot stop. In fact, they are bigger discussions than ever before. If meeting attendance has declined, you need to find new revenue streams. When COVID hit people lost their jobs. Membership projections that are several years old are no longer valid. How do you recapture that money? I feel the constant shift of pulling and growing. It’s like a garden. I’m weeding so I can plant seeds and when spring comes things will be bright and beautiful, but I’m constantly pulling up weeds.”
Jackie believes that the association business model must change. “My fear,” she says, “Is for those who did not shift.” For example, although diversity, equity, and inclusion have been on SAA’s agenda for a long time, it is a huge change that many groups need to address. We can’t just bring a diverse audience to the table; we need to make sure that their contribution is noted. Everyone must have a voice. We’re all invited to dinner, but if I can’t talk, what’s the point of having me there. Let’s figure out how we can do something amazing.”
“I credit the shift in my career to a lot of folks who have helped me on my journey,” Jackie notes. “Many of them looked like me and many did not. But it took all those folks in my different kitchen cabinets for me to be here today. I’m the first person of color to serve as the executive director at SAA. Many of my colleagues who are also sitting in this space are “firsts” as well. That’s good, but it’s also sad because it’s 2021, and we’re the first.
“I am the dream of my grandparents and my great grandparents. I hold that responsibility close to my chest. Being that dream moves my heart because I’m sure my grandparents imagined me as this person. I’m amazed at every single day and I’m proud of my network and my friends and the small and big accomplishments. And I will help the next person. Anyone who reaches out to me, if this is where you want to be, and I can help you, call me.
“When you hold a dream in your heart, you work harder. Even though all those folks have gone, they are still watching me and I’m still responsible. They sacrificed a lot, and I owe them.”
Jackie has an intimate understanding of the need for, and the impact of, big shifts. That knowledge is a prerequisite for leadership in a changing marketplace and will carry both her career and SAA into a successful future.