Burn Conference Traditions Immune From Criticism

People don’t trust institutions today says sociologist Dr. Josh Packard.

We don’t think institutions have our best interests in mind he says. We believe they serve the interests of the professionals who created and run them, and they serve the interests of perpetuating their own existence.

Your association, annual conference, and governance are all institutions. As such, you’ll need to earn more trust and loyalty from your members, attendees, and suppliers, who now have higher expectations for transparency, authenticity, and value. You need to see them as people first and not just customers or vendors.

Who Do You Trust?

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, only one-third of Americans trust their government to do what is right. That’s a decline of 14 percentage points from the 2017 report.

The report further revealed that trust is at an all-time low for other institutions — including business, NGOs, and the media. Outdated traditions, hierarchy, and bureaucracy can significantly contribute to lower trust.

So we turn to people who know us and demonstrate care and concern for us says Packard. These institutions provide expertise without honesty while our friends and family provide honesty without expertise. At the end of the day, we trust honesty more than we trust expertise.

This Year’s President

One of the sacred cows for associations and their annual conference is attributing notoriety to the office of the president, board chair or annual conference committee chair. For most association executives, calling this out as a sacred cow that needs to be barbecued is a CLM (career-limiting move). But as a consultant, I can call ‘em as I see ‘em.

During some consulting gigs we hear references to “Dr. Smith’s year” or “Sally’s year” when referring to past annual conferences. If that’s a common refrain at your organization, I feel your pain. This post is for you.

If your conference includes a presidential address, reception, or other similarly branded event, you probably need to make some changes. Conferences are for the profession — not the elite leadership. They shouldn’t be a rite of passage or a way for someone to leave a legacy. Conferences are there to serve the paying attendees. Organizations that don’t put the attendee first in every conference experience they offer lose an opportunity to grow trust and loyalty.

Embrace Servant Leadership

In my opinion, the best path to growing trust — at a time when it has never been harder — is to fully embrace the tenants of servant leadership.
In his book, The Leadership Experience, Richard L. Draft defines servant leadership as an approach “in which the leader transcends self-interest to serve the needs of others, help others grow, and provide opportunities for others to gain materially and emotionally.”

When applied to an association, leadership should always strive to leave the profession and the organization stronger once they complete their service. Leaders need to be exceptional stewards, and most especially in high-visibility environments, like conferences. That could take the form of:

  • Not having a flavor-of-the-year presidential priority for the association or conference to manage.
  • Yielding the stage to someone who can challenge the profession to advance—not a board or committee member.
  • Losing the teleprompter in favor of authenticity.
  • Being present, accessible and participating in educational and networking sessions designed for the attendees.
  • Empowering staff to reach objectives and staying out of the details.
  • Bravely barbecuing legacy, as well as ineffective processes, traditions and governance models.

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2018.

What are some additional ways your organization can demonstrate authenticity and transparency at your conference? How can your organization invest more time in listening and understanding your customers as people first in order to build trust?

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