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In general, organizations depend on staffers at the top of the org chart to set strategy and lead – and associations are no different. While this traditional leadership structure has worked for generations, as the demographics of our organizations and members continue to change, this structure may be holding you back. 

Whether you’re dealing with young professionals, folks new to the association industry or simply staffers in a non-leadership role, finding ways to engage and grow leadership at every level is more critical than ever.

The Association Staff Landscape

When discussing diversity in leadership, we often think of gender or culture. And while those criteria should undoubtedly be a top priority to future-looking organizations, diversity in age, work experience and career trajectory should be seen as a similar benefit. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Board Diversity Learn More >

Today, we have a unique intersection of generations in the workplace with Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and now Generation Z. Similarly, shifts to remote work and staff additions in the wake of the Great Resignation have added first-time association professionals to many organizations. 

What Are the Challenges for New Leaders?

While many associations have done a good job of bringing all this diversity together – are they making similar strides in allowing those voices to be heard? The biggest challenge to this is often a mindset change. 

“If they don’t know about our organization or industry, how can they contribute?”

Your new hires have little to no experience specific to your organization. But you hired them for a reason! However, your existing culture may be standing in the way of finding meaningful ways to translate that skillset or experience. 

Remember when we talked about the intersection of generations in the workplace? Existing leaders may not see this diverse thinking as a valuable tool for your organization. This can often cause non-leadership staffers to feel that their ideas are not as good or have no place in the organization when often they can be a significant asset.  

6 Strategies for Encouraging Leaders in Your Organization

Understanding the benefit of a “leadership at every level” mentality is easy – it helps bring fresh ideas to your organization and encourages purposeful growth. Making that change in your organization may not be. 

So how can associations create an environment where everyone can chime in? Here are six strategies to start finding new leaders in your association.  

  1. Invest in Professional Development & Mentorship Programs: Providing young professionals with access to mentors who have been in the space for some time can provide guidance and support as they navigate the challenges of a new work environment. Similarly, giving them access to training can help foster new skills they can implement in your association. 
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  1. Lead by Example: New managers and supervisors should take the lead in promoting an atmosphere that values open dialogue, encourages feedback and welcomes new ideas from all team members regardless of seniority or experience level. 
  2. Encourage Discussion: Make sure conversations stay on topic but don’t be afraid to let discussions meander into unexpected directions if it leads to fresh insights or productive debates. Also, remember that not everyone will be comfortable speaking up, so think of ways to involve all personalities. Also, look to create a safe space for staffers who aren’t as interested in sharing ideas aloud with idea boxes and forms!
Related: Finding and Empowering Introverted Association Leaders Learn More >
  1. Reward Great Ideas: Recognize individual contributions with tangible rewards (e.g., gift cards) or intangible ones (e.g., public recognition); this will motivate staffers at every level to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions.
  2. Increase Diversity: Hiring staff with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives is only part of creating an inclusive culture. Creating opportunities for staff to share that expertise regardless of age or status within the company hierarchy is the second half of that equation. 
  3. Allow “Side-Projects” During Work Hours: Setting aside designated times where staff is allowed (and encouraged!) to explore personal projects can spark creativity and generate innovative ideas. Whether it’s a new initiative like a virtual event or podcast, or just something fun, creating space for collaboration and growth can help encourage contributions from everyone. 

What Does Leadership at Every Level Mean? 

The bottom line is your organization is filled with mission-driven professionals from all walks of life looking to make a difference. The priority for associations, in turn, should be finding ways to bring these leadership perspectives to the forefront. 

Whether you’re setting them up with a mentor, encouraging spirited discussion or letting them explore side projects that can help bring new results to your association’s mission, leaders can be found at every level as long as they're given the space and confidence to do so.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
January 10, 2023
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.