Over the next few months, this column will explore several challenges faced by AMCs and their client association partners. To find solutions, we've asked Michael Reed of Bloch/Reed Association Advisors to connect with leading AMC executives and ask them to share their perspectives on the issues - and the strategies and tools needed to address them. We’ll also pose a series of reflective questions for you to consider as you seek to improve the practices and culture of your organization.
This Month’s Member Experts
Erin Fuller, FASAE, CAE President, Association Management & Consulting MCI USA
Bennett Napier, CAE President and CEO, Partners in Association Management
Carolyn Price, CAE President, CMP Management, Inc.
What is talent development?
Any AMC leader will tell you, the key to happy clients is having knowledgeable, enthusiastic and engaged employees. Although this is true in most businesses, in an association management company, the client’s perception of the entire organization is almost completely tied to the performance of the employees assigned to the account. This means that the systems for talent recruitment and development are some of the most crucial aspects of our business. Unfortunately, these systems are often neglected or overlooked. In an effort to get you thinking about the talent development system in your organization, we’ve asked three AMC principals to share their ideas about how to recruit, onboard and develop engaged employees.
What makes a good talent development system?
“AMC owners and senior leaders have to be keenly aware of their own strengths and weaknesses,” suggests Carolyn Price, President of CMP Management in Austin, Texas. “If hiring and professional development are not the owner’s strengths, it’s time to find someone who can do those jobs well. Early on, we had a few hires that didn’t work out, and we had to rethink our whole process,” she explained. “I realized that there was a unique human resource mindset and specific set of skills our organization needed to acquire so that I could focus on my strengths.”
If knowing yourself is important, knowing your organization is vital as well. Erin Fuller, President of MCI USA in McLean, Virginia, suggests that it’s also important to know where your business is in its lifecycle. “When a company is just starting out and in rapid growth mode, you need employees with diverse skill sets and a broad knowledge base. As your business grows and your internal systems become more specialized, it’s helpful to have talent that brings a specific educational background, a network and a successful track record in their specific area of expertise.” The needs of the organization change as your company matures.
Bennett Napier, President and CEO, Partners in Association Management in Tallahassee, Florida, also cited the importance of being intentional in talent recruitment and development. “We saw an opportunity to improve our business and made a conscious decision that employee development was going to be the key attribute of our organization’s culture. We built everything else around that decision.”
One common mistake that leaders make is trying to fix employee relations issues or morale challenges with training or other interventions that should be addressed by making changes to the recruiting practices of the organization. The leadership challenge associated with talent development is to think of the whole system and how the various inputs influence one another and work together to give you the results you want.
- Does our organization have trained and passionate people handling the recruitment and employee development system of our organization? What could we improve?
- Do we have an integrated talent system that understands the needs of our organization or do we have several functions that are cobbled together?
How do you handle interviews and selection?
Our experts had a lot to say about interviewing new team members. Over the course of their careers each had former employees who had the ability to do a job, but struggled because they didn’t fit into the culture of the organization. “In addition to meeting the educational and professional requirements for a job, we also assess the individual’s team orientation, flexibility and their interest in their own development,” Fuller explains. “We have always had a strong spirit of inclusion, but now, as a global organization, we also look for people who want to develop their global perspective.”
They also cited the increase in the use of technology and assessments in the recruiting process. “One of the fundamental shifts in our recruiting practices was to incorporate job fit and communication assessments of candidates,” says Price. “These tools provide additional data to help in the selection process, and the results also help to inform initial opportunities for professional development.” Napier agrees, “We rely on our intuition in terms of selection, but we do two things to help inform our intuition. First, we do structured interviews in teams and then compare notes, and then we also look at data on assessments and communication inventories and discuss the specific needs on the initial client team.”
- Does our organization make use of appropriate technologies like application tracking, job fit and temperament assessments to improve decision making?
- Do our interviewers evaluate a candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities for a specific job, as well as their fit for our organization’s culture?
Is onboarding important?
Onboarding is the systematic process that focuses on transferring knowledge about the organization, the account team and job responsibilities to a new employee. In the AMC environment, new employees have to learn the cultures of both the employer and the clients to which they are assigned. “We have a standardized onboarding process,” explains Napier, “and it’s completely led by the employees. We want new employees to have a custom experience based on the relationships that are important for their jobs’ success, plus it helps the teambuilding process.”
Fuller shares how onboarding works in her organization, “new executive directors are welcomed onto our client leadership team – which meets monthly for lunch and discussion – and they are assigned three client leader mentors, selected for their own expertise. For instance, an executive director that may have a lot of government relations responsibility will be partnered with a strong lobbyist, and perhaps someone who came into our company with a similar skillset. Mid-level talents have similar onboarding opportunities with being matched with a peer mentor as well as having a number of cross-client teams that meet quarterly.”
In a smaller organization, multiple stakeholders can work together to integrate onboarding and team development of employees. “Everyone gets involved,” explains Price. “We have weekly training meetings that the whole team participates in. It keeps everyone focused on our strategic objectives and helps to build camaraderie.”
- Does our onboarding process support employees when they are hired, or do we provide them with an ongoing structured experience that helps them develop the relationships and habits that they need for long term success?
Do employees have to “own” their development?
All three AMC executives shared examples of encouraging individuals interested in professional certifications like the Certified Meeting Planner or Certified Association Executive designations, but none of the organizations forced employees to pursue credentialing. Napier explains how individual performance goals are managed in his organization. “Each year team members create their own self-directed annual professional development plan and work with their managers with available resources to achieve their goals. Goals and activities must align with and support their client goals, and at the end of the year progress is measured relative to the goals set by the team member.”
Price and her team use outside organizations to supplement inside training. “We’re active members of the Texas Society of Association Executives, and take advantage of local education programs. We also encourage volunteer work so that our employees have the experience of working as volunteers for nonprofit organizations.”
- Are our employee’s goals aligned with our team and organizational goals?
- Are leaders in our organization creating the structures and the environment for employees to own their development?
What’s the most important thing about a culture of talent development?
To have success in the area of talent development, organizations need to have to have a systems approach. “You can’t do one aspect of talent development well, and then hope for the best. You have to recruit well, and you have to bring people onboard and make them feel valued and supported. People have to know that you care about them and their success,” Price explains.
Fuller shares some additional thoughts about the culture she’s building, “Leaders have to develop an environment where people feel empowered to pursue their professional goals while they continue to live full lives. “I don’t believe in work/life ‘balance,’ but I do believe in work/life integration. In our organization, employees are supported holistically in the things they want to achieve in their personal and professional lives.” She also stresses the importance of teams, “individual performance goals are important, but people also seek out opportunities to serve on teams that raise their profiles. They want to build a reputation for being invaluable to their teammates and to the company.”
“Deliberately shifting your organization’s culture can be scary at first,” adds Napier, “but remember, tone is set at the top. It’s important to have complete buy-in from the management team before an organization-wide roll out,” he cautions. “Be patient. People will buy into the process at different stages; don’t give up. Nothing as important as cultural change happens overnight.”
- Does our organization make recruitment and employee development a strategic priority with measured results and accountabilities?
- Do we clearly communicate the importance of talent development to our employees?
Michael Reed is a principal with Bloch/Reed Association Advisors. As association leaders, a former AMC owner and as trusted consultants, Ralph Bloch and Michael Reed have been asking questions that help association leaders for over two decades. They use trust, data and dialogue to help leaders see clearly, plan strategically and act decisively.