BY DAVID JAMES GROUP

The World is Changing … Are You? A Conversation with Bâton Global on the Future for Associations

Stir & Tell Podcast: EP 14 – The World is Changing … Are You? Featuring special guests: Wade Britt, MIBS, Chief Operating Officer and Molly Lopez, MS, CAE, Senior Consultant of Bâton Global (B|G). Britt, Lopez, and podcast co-hosts Chris Martin and Ron Zywicki of DJG discuss how associations and other organizations have adapted to the pandemic and what adjustments do they need to make coming out of it. Topics covered: staff acquisition/retention, workforce development, membership/member retention/dues, strategic planning, and the future of events.
Posted: 7 months ago

The World is Changing … Are You? A Conversation with Bâton Global on the Future for Associations Podcast Transcript

If you are interested in learning more about our conversation with Bâton Global, contact us and we’ll be happy to discuss.

Chris Martin:

Welcome to Stir & Tell, the podcast of the David James group. My name is Chris Martin. I’m the vice president of public relations and social media at the agency. My co-host is Ron Zywicki, president and partner of the agency. The David James Group is an integrated digital marketing and communications agency, specializing in working with associations and mission-driven clients today. Our guests are Molly Lopez; she is a senior consultant at Bâton Global; and Wade Britt, chief operating officer at Bâton Global. Bâton Global is driven to help clients create a culture of innovation and strategic ambidexterity to compete for the present and prepare for the future simultaneously.

Chris Martin:

I got to admit guys, when I was doing some research on your company, I was intrigued by your tagline which is “The world is changing. Are you?” and that’s such a perfect tagline that segues in today’s theme, which is looking at the way associations and other organizations have adapted to the pandemic and as we come out of the pandemic, however that looks in different areas and for different clients. What adjustments do they need to make? What kind of factors do they have to consider now that they didn’t before and what has really changed? We are under the assumption that things have changed, but have they? And if so, how so?

Chris Martin:

Molly, why don’t you start and, and tell me a little bit about Baton and what your role is. I’d love to hear more about how you help your clients navigate this pandemic exit as it were.

Molly Lopez:

Thank you, Chris. Thank you so much. Bâton Global; we are a strategy advising firm headquartered here in Des Moines, Iowa. We’re coming live from God’s country here in Des Moines, Iowa. We specialize in innovation, leadership, research, and strategy. Okay, what does that even mean? Well, in all of those areas, people need help. They need help with exploring opportunities or addressing challenges and that’s what we’re here for; the conversations that lead to outcomes that are successful for them.

Molly Lopez:

I’d like to take a pause right now and have Wade introduce himself. Wade is our COO and I’ll turn it over to him real quick.

Wade Britt:

Thank you, Molly, Chris, Ron for having us this morning. I really like the way that you started the podcast off, Chris; not just because of the emphasis on our tagline, but the questions that it implies. Have things changed and if so, what? I might jump up to about 30,000 feet real quick, and you’ve probably heard this acronym of VUCA, where we try to explain that the world is volatile. It’s full of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Even prior to the pandemic, that was the world we were living in and the pandemic was just a facet of the fact that we are living in times of extraordinary change that’s happening faster and faster. The compression of change is pretty significant. People are just having to deal with more of it. We often tell clients that feel a little overwhelmed by the pace of change the bad news of, it’s not getting any better.

Wade Britt:

When we think about the things that have changed and all of these things are examples that I would say were in effect before the pandemic, but boy, the pandemic really highlighted it and exaggerated some of these features. The sort of things we’re talking about are workforce issues. The United States has a declining workforce in terms of absolute terms and that is very pronounced in some states. You’re seeing impacts on higher education, technical schools, community colleges; enrollments are down, and this is happening at a time when people are facing retention challenges and therefore need the skilled people even faster.

Wade Britt:

You’ve got all these workforce factors that have changed and you then have what we’d call workplace factors. Remote working was a thing before the pandemic and a lot of people resisted it, but this forced experience has let the toothpaste out of the tube. How people grapple with that is going to be very important to their organizational health. We’ve got four generations in the workplace now; never happened before. Lots of opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication and differences of styles. That creates challenges in curating your culture to really maintain effectiveness and execute on your mission and vision. Then data factors; digitization has been a big thing for 25 years now. That one’s clearly not going away and people are struggling to extract meaning from the noise.

Wade Britt:

All of these things are changes that were definitely there prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic really pulled them out and made them unavoidable and have forced people to grapple with them in ways that they didn’t before.

Chris Martin:

I can’t think of the term tagline without bringing in my colleague, Ron Zywicki, who is the president and partner of the agency, and comes out of a creative background steeped in communications, marketing and branding. As somebody that has been running an agency like ours with our clients, it’s been a multi-front sort of issue where we’re trying to shepherd the agency through this while serving the clients at the same time. It’s a real challenge and I want, if you could, just take a minute to speak about what the agency’s gone through and how that’s affected us and how we serve our clients.

Ron Zywicki:

Sure. Thanks, Chris. Primarily we serve associations and nonprofits and their impact is like any other organizational impact; how they’re impacted versus a for-profit company. There’re some differences, but overall we’re all in the same boat here. I just thought about this the other day. I often think back on the email I wrote to our staff around March 17th, saying, “Hey, this thing’s happening. We’re going to give this room out work, go for two weeks and see how it goes.” That was what; over a year, more than two years ago? I’ve lost track of time.

Ron Zywicki:

From an agency standpoint, what I’ve seen and what I’m pleased to report is that what we fundamentally provide our clients; and that is thoughts and thinking and creative ideas and creative strategies to help their communications efforts; that resides within the minds of our talents. That’s able to be leveraged and utilized whether we’re in person or not. I think what we’ve seen, too, one of the things we want to do is provide collaboration among our team members because often that’s how ideas are generated and things are solved. You go into this and you’re wondering, how does collaboration suffer? Does it suffer? Is it the same? Is it better?

Ron Zywicki:

I’m pleased that our team has really been able to pull together and still maintain a level of collaboration and thought leadership and providing creative and innovative ideas to our client regardless of whether or not they’re in close proximity. I look forward to that day when we are able to do that more and more frequently in person. I think the agency has been able to work with this, work with our clients, and get through 2020 and look forward into 2021, 2022 and beyond, and help them transition into a world that’s looking backwards at the last year and a half but looking forward to what we can achieve together.

Chris Martin:

That’s a good point and tees up this next point for Molly. Molly, a lot of your clients have members. Our clients are almost all associations so membership drives, membership retentions are big challenges for our members. It’s always among the annual biggest things that we provide and most important things that we provide for clients. Walk me through some of the mission driven, strategic advice that you give clients who are trying to retain members during a virtual context. Has it been a challenge for them and how have you helped them work through it?

Molly Lopez:

You bet. One thing I think that is paramount to this conversation is making sure we don’t generalize associations. Every association is different and associations take pride in being agile and being able to adapt to the unexpected. This was just the most unexpected, I think, that we’ve all experienced here. When it comes to membership, there’s an opportunity there to really look at is the association mission driven and is there data to back what their mission is about? Have they been serving the landscape? How are the members doing? Having a culture of empathy, knowing where each individual is in their personal and professional journey right now. People more than ever right now are holding close to their time, treasure, and talent. Where they’re expending their energy, their investments, and their time in order to professionally develop.

Molly Lopez:

Associations are there for that. They’re the voice of the industry, they’re aiding in professional development, and truly making sure that they’re meeting the needs of the members. Membership has always been an individual preference, but maybe the company is funding it; and if the company is funding it, maybe in person travel isn’t something that they’re funding any longer. If there’s a virtual component as an option, it could be more cost effective that way. If the individual is funding it, maybe they even want to invest more, but they want customized solutions. They want ala carte options or a subscription model to the services they’re providing. COVID has provided us an opportunity to look at membership in entirely new way. Sometimes we need help in order to do that and that’s what our association clients are contacting us for. That type of help.

Chris Martin:

Do you think traditional annual membership dues and that structure is going to be changing or has changed because of this?

Molly Lopez:

That’s been changing over the years. We had these similar discussions even a decade ago in the association space to say how’s the Amazon model affected the nonprofit? What people want in return for their investment? Those conversations started years ago. This just has accelerated it beyond. We’ll find that there will be digital, and hybrid, and in person meetings. Those are going to continue because each industry and profession is different. Some groups want to get together. Some groups, they’re fine having this be a virtual event, but that’s now the normal going forward. Having those events being an option of hybrid, virtual, and in person. I think it’s communication with the members, Ron. It’s what you said earlier; communication with the members. How are they staying connected with you? Now people are with their devices 24/7. This remote workforce opportunity has heightened even the response time that people are expecting. What we’re experiencing that in the association space. Chris, I don’t know if I answered your question above and beyond, but that’s what I have to share.

Chris Martin:

Very thorough. I appreciate that. Wade, I’m curious about how you might take on a strategic planning process with a client now perhaps versus two years ago. How do you see that role changing? Because a lot of associations have every five years, every 10 years engaged in a strategic planning process. It’s usually a very important thing. From that process comes a lot of new learnings and new approaches going forward. I’m interested how you take clients through that now versus two years ago before the pandemic started.

Wade Britt:

Sure. The process hasn’t changed so much as the emphasis on different factors that have changed. We really encourage all organizations to not look at strategic planning as something that happens on a multi-year basis, but rather something that really becomes part of what the organization does and what they talk about because over a five year period, whatever your plan was pre COVID, there is going to be great swabs of it that are no longer relevant. Thinking specifically about the associational space, and I’m going to generalize a bit here, but associations are looking to provide networking education and career development opportunities for their members, right? All of those things have changed. The nature of networking has changed. The use of social media platforms to support networking has changed. That education is going through vast changes. As micro-credentialing becomes more popular and people question the traditional that must have a four year degree kind of approach.

Wade Britt:

Of course, career development; the whole way that people look for jobs and even the jobs they apply for with a dramatic increase in remote work. All of that has changed. Examining those external factors, how is the landscape changing and what do we actually do about it? We’ve seen a lot of associations wrestle with questions of how do we add more value to our membership because people are scrutinizing cost. People are having a bit of zoom fatigue and want to make sure that they’re spending their time in a way that is focusing on higher order things and taking advantage of some other changing trends like data aggregation. You think about how associations are so well placed to be data aggregators that are then able to reflect new information back to the membership and the sponsors of the membership. That can be very helpful to them in a way that perhaps associations hadn’t branched out to in the past.

Chris Martin:

When you’re talking to board members specifically during consultation; it doesn’t have to be a strategic planning but just in general, what kinds of things are they asking you for, asking you about now that might be slightly different than previously?

Wade Britt:

Good quality research on what is the likely future of physical events to be. What are those trends that were in place pre pandemic and what’s happening as people are starting to get vaccinated and coming out of it being able to have some robust projections on what might that look like and how that could impact the menu of events that people offer and the modality through which they are offered. That’s very much on people’s mind. Membership, as Molly said, is always something that associations are concerned about and different styles of memberships. Tiered memberships are things that a number of associations have experimented with in order to provide a different range of services to members and to try to make the right offer to a member for what they need.

Wade Britt:

I had earlier introduced this idea of the shifting demographic of our workforce. The way that you engage a baby boomer is very different then how you would engage a millennial. A very simple example of that perhaps is the millennials comfort with consuming digitized video content, as opposed to in person. So, that’s a great opportunity where people want to grow their membership with a younger cohort that will persist over time. There are definitely tactics that you can take that have a good success rate in order to do that.

Ron Zywicki:

Wade, I wanted to just ask you a follow up question in terms of workforce development, which you were just discussing. You’ve talked about a number of our clients have expressed different levels of emphasis and engagement on developing workforce or helping their members, I should say, attack workforce development. Whether it’s a trade association or an individual membership model; they all struggle with this. And it’s a something we see everywhere. I’m curious if you have some examples or some things that you guys have been able to provide or ideas you’ve been able to provide through your processes that have helped clients be successful in moving the needle forward on workforce development and tackling change?

Wade Britt:

Sure. I’ll come at this a couple of different ways because there are things you can do that can provide multiple areas of benefit. When we think about the kind of retention and hiring challenges that a number of organizations might have and an association thinks, how can we help our membership grapple with these things? Something that has proven quite popular with some associations that we’ve worked with, is they’ve adjusted the content they deliver to be beyond the associational space content one would typically expect. Courses on maintaining and managing culture. Courses on managing successfully a multi-generational workplace. You might not necessarily think a veterinarians’ association or an association of funeral directors would have that in their wheelhouse, but people like to learn from people that understand them. The idea of, hey, I’m in a state organization that focuses on accountants and CPAs.

Wade Britt:

These folks actually feel better taking a presentation skills communications course from that entity because they know that it is a comfortable and familiar space full of people that have the exact needs that they do. It’s not a generic course. That could be very high quality, but if you’ve got doctors and people that run electric companies, and management consultants sitting in this same room, it’s harder to have those deeper conversations about what matters to those individuals. So, associations are really well positioned to develop content that can help their membership, even though it might not be seen as directly within their purview of content they would normally produce, but it sure is within the purview of helping their membership be more successful.

Chris Martin:

Great. Mel, I wanted to talk to you about the relationship your clients have with their employees because employees have been through a lot the last two years and we’ve talked about the mass resignation before, everyone’s aware of that. There seems to be a lot of tumult in the employee sector, the labor force, and that’s affecting organizations. That affects us. We’re more sensitive to thinking about being more competitive when we’re interviewing a new employee. We’re much more attuned to that than we were a few years ago. I definitely feel it here, but I’m wondering how your clients are feeling it and what they’re doing to help their current employees but then also be more competitive because it’s a buyer’s market right now, right?

Wade Britt:

I can certainly share what we encourage our clients to do. We are advising them from a place, I would say, of deep humanistic sympathy. I use that phrase because the pandemic has really been a blessing in a number of ways in that people have expressed more care for one another than pre-COVID. Simple things like seeing somebody’s kids and pets in the background on the zoom call. Of being more understanding that life interferes in the workplace. I think we have an opportunity to capitalize on that and to be more supportive to our human capital in a way that recognizes and respects their humanity and remote work is a part of that. Whatever the remote work strategy is for an organization, it will have to include some degree of it in the future.

Wade Britt:

There’s just an opportunity to build on that and to craft individual messages for people that meet their needs because when we dive into a workforce, the kind of data that we collect and the kind of tools that we use, really let us segment people differently. I’m thinking in particular about one client where they were worried about comp and benefits. They were going to do this huge full organization comp and ben review, and we really encouraged them not to because what we saw on the data was that they had some dissatisfaction with people that were at a tenure of three to five years. So, it was like they were hiring well and more senior people were paid well, but there was almost this trough. How do you address that trough? It doesn’t necessarily have to be monetarily, but at least you know the specific population that you need to address. At that same client, benefits were overall seen as very good but when we looked at their cohort of employees that were over the age 60, they were very, very dissatisfied.

Wade Britt:

Again, it let people be much more specific about the needed intervention. You don’t have to go out and revamp your whole benefit plan, but you do have to figure out what your older employees feel like they’re missing and maybe do something specifically for them. We really encourage gather the data, understand your people at a very profound level and come up with strategies that work for groups of people and in some cases, individuals themselves. This is a huge driver of retention, buy-in to the mission and it really does improve the engagement that people bring to their work.

Molly Lopez:

Wait. I might add also, aligning your people strategy with your business strategy and the hiring process, the retention focus, team dynamics, some of the tools and platforms that are available and the conversations surrounding those to say, what are the right skill sets for the job function that you have in place? What is a natural fit for someone versus a stretch? All of the data that Wade refers to from an organizational perspective can also be aligned to the individual person. So, I might echo that.

Chris Martin:

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Let me just ask a follow up to Molly because when I ask you about you, you mentioned earlier about how associations pride themselves of being nimble and flexible, and yet in one of the biggest times where that was really required, I’m curious how they actually did it, especially with employees. If you have any examples of how you help clients do that, I’d love to hear it.

Molly Lopez:

Sure, sure. I didn’t say they liked it, but I said that associations take pride in it. That’s for sure.

Chris Martin:

Yes. Right.

Molly Lopez:

There’s the employee perspective and then there’s the board perspective and I’d like to just take a pause for a second to focus on boards. Boards being volunteer elected leaders, and yet the staff are reporting to the boards of directors. When you look at the boards during COVID times, we really had to strengthen our frontline.

Molly Lopez:

What does that actually mean? It meant looking at our volunteer elected leaders, in a way. It’s not the same, rinse and repeat. If you’re the president for this year, it’s not going to be at all like what previous presidents had experienced in that year. You’re looking at the size of the board. Is this a functional board? You’re looking at the talent pipeline. Using short term commitments with a beginning and an end versus tenure board terms, which sometimes they’re called life sentences. Who wants a board term called a life sentence, right?

Molly Lopez:

Really looking at the board functionality and positioning in order to make the board more productive, more functional, more outcome based, and to be higher level focusing on strategy. So, when clients contact us, those are the types of conversations that we have. When it comes to the employees… The phrase in association work is, “do more with less.” How about we do more with more. I heard that yesterday in a comment from an individual and they said, ‘let’s stop saying that. Let’s work together in a way that shows we’re efficient and effective and productive and focusing on outcomes that we all agree upon.’ When we talked about the strategic planning process; embracing that strategic plan, reviewing it, seeing how it shifts, and also financial modeling, that’d be another area of focus I would recommend.

Ron Zywicki:

Molly and Wade, going back to attracting and retaining talent for associations. We talked a bit about compensation, how that may or may not play a role in other things. One thing we do know is that the younger generations coming in or in the workforce, they place a premium on not only compensation, but the kind of company and organization that they work for, and the kind of work that they’re doing. I always find it interesting because associations are mission based and they’re always there to serve some type of a higher cause, if you will. Whether it’s attracting more women to engineering or keeping accountants professional, whatever it might be, but there’s a purpose there. I’m curious, do you feel that associations can lean into that mission based nature? Who they are to attract and retain talent? Can that be a competitive advantage today?

Molly Lopez:

I’d be happy to take a stab at that one, Wade. Absolutely agree 100%, Ron. Nonprofit management only recently in the past decade, maybe at the most 15 years, has become a profession that people don’t just fall into; that they make intentional decisions to join. It’s up to us as associations to really make sure that career path is out as an option at an earlier stage in the career planning process for students, for interns; offering opportunities there. Absolutely. Yes. Association space is great for people who are looking to contribute in whatever industry it might be. Wade, what are your thoughts?

Wade Britt:

Absolutely. I think that’s one of the great attributes of the millennial generation is that they are much more concerned in work life balance. They’re much more concerned with seeing their values reflected in the work that they do. That is going to be an absolute pull for mission driven organizations to really lean into in how they talk about the work that is done. Even in things as boring and basic as what do you say in a job description and how are you positioning the role to take advantage of that? Lots of great opportunities.

Wade Britt:

I’d also go a little further to suggest that with hiring, there’s a wonderful opportunity now, with so many more people really wanting more remote working opportunities, is it lets you have a much wider funnel from where you’re sourcing talent. If your organization is open and flexible in working in this way, so that you’re hiring from a much broader pool of talent. If you have the kind of behavioral data around the jobs that you’re hiring for to be able to rapidly assess the people that fit it well, you’re capable of really blowing out a wide funnel and then narrowing it really, really quickly into people that have behavioral [inaudible 00:31:10] that are going to help them be successful and feel comfortable in the job.

Ron Zywicki:

Great.

Molly Lopez:

Chris, if I may also add, when you brought up the great resignation; the talent pool that’s out there right now, no matter what the generation is, who’ve made an intentional career change. There is so many transferable skills into the association space that the sky’s the limit out there for people who might want to try something amazing, impactful, and new.

Chris Martin:

I know we just hired, at least on the DJG side, our first two remote employees within the last month. We have acquired a PR agency to work with us in 2017, that consists of all remote employees. We’re certainly aware of the strength of that market and positive things that employees in that context can bring. Your point about the funnel is absolutely on point. It’s always a challenge to get top flight talent to come to any scene. You want to be, you want to be as broad and competitive as possible.

Molly Lopez:

Absolutely.

Ron Zywicki:

Wade, I’m going to switch gears a little bit. You had mentioned that clients often ask you to peer into the future and opine about what the meetings of the future is going to look like. I’m going to give you an opportunity to break some news here. A lot of our listeners for this podcast are associations and many of them have a role in meeting planning. We know what the meeting of the future in 2022 might look like, but what about 2027? What will the meetings look like then?

Wade Britt:

Sure. A question way off in here is when are we going back to normal? The answer to that question is we’re not. There’s just been such a profound change that has happened to our society. It’s the result of so many different knock on things. For example, you’re seeing how people are retiring at much greater rates than we’d previously seen before the pandemic. The fact shouldn’t be lost on us that with 700,000 people that have passed as a result of COVID, the impact of that is so much larger because people have now been pushed into caregiving roles or different roles in their families that they had previously.

Wade Britt:

You can just uplift that 700,000, which is already a horrifyingly large number, go ahead and uplift that by a factor of three, in terms of the impacts that ripple through our society. Are things going to go back? No, I do feel that we are seeing a degree of returning back to events; and this varies wildly across geographical location and industry sector, but throwing a number out there like 50% attendance of what you had previously is not real far off the mark. It is reasonable to expect that there will be some growth to that, going to your 20 27 question, but we would still counsel people to be planning for a world where 2027 attendance will be below 2018.

Chris Martin:

The big convention halls, the big McCormick places here in Chicago, for instance, are those going to be convention site dinosaurs in favor of more smaller venues that have more flexibility to contracts and things like that?

Wade Britt:

The nature of these events can really change because having gone to a number of all singing, all dancing kind of conventions with thousands and thousands of people there are very positive and not so positive associations with a big event like that. Going back to how we want to treat people better individually and the emphasis that any organization, but associations as well, need to focus on delivering value to their members. It provides an opportunity to reimagine what an event could be that would be less attended. You’re more concerned about not maximizing numbers necessarily, but curating that audience and with better audience curation, it allows you to deliver more specific services and to do different things at those events. It’s not a dinosaur. It’s not dead. It will still be important and people will still crave this kind of connection. We just encourage people to reimagine what those events could look like if you weren’t really just focused on the maximum number possible.

Ron Zywicki:

Also, I think what we’ve seen too, is the concept of meeting. Meetings suggests a specific time in place. Whereas I think what we see in certain cases with clients is that meeting may be a point in time that they gathered, but what is learned, what is shared there can actually be leveraged and furthered along throughout a year. It changes it from an annual meeting focus perhaps to more of this is a highlight of what you get, how you experience the association but it doesn’t have to be the main point. I’m just curious if you guys have seen similar thought from clients you’ve worked with.

Molly Lopez:

Certainly. The conversations about really leveraging learning management systems, where the content from a conference is repurposed throughout those LMS systems and delivered in realtime. Well, on demand is the phrase I’m looking for. That learning is ongoing and it’s not just as Ron you mentioned, at a time and a place. I also think increasing the virtual customer experience is going to be really important as a part of that. On demand content through LMSs, that’ll be important and then increasing the customer experience or the member experience virtually.

Chris Martin:

Great. Cool. All right. Well, that’s as good a time as any to wrap up. We’re about out of time now anyway, so I want to thank Molly Lopez and Wade Britt from Baton Global for joining David James Group and our Stir & Tell podcast. We’ll have a copy of this up soon and send a link to you guys. Looking forward to maybe our next talk and maybe a year from now, assessing how things compared to the context we’re in right now.

Ron Zywicki:

We’ll have to come back in 2027 to see how good Wade’s crystal ball was.

Wade Britt:

I’m willing to put a crisp dollar bill on it, like .

Molly Lopez:

Chris, Ron, and Wade, thank you. Thanks for the opportunity to be with you.

Wade Britt:

Thank you.

Ron Zywicki:

Thank you.

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