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Vol. 43, No. 6

The strategic mindset: A Bar Leader discussion with chief staff executives

by Marilyn Cavicchia

In recent years, more bar associations seem to be moving away from the model in which the bar’s time, money, and other resources are directed toward one president’s initiatives one year and a whole other set of priorities the next. Instead, many are thinking more in terms of strategy and some amount of continuity—while also being nimble. What does it take to get a bar association into a more strategic mindset? Bar Leader recently spoke with five chief staff executives from across the country:

  • John Baldwin, longtime executive director of the Utah State Bar, and previously director of a state agency;
  • Alicia Hernandez, executive director of the Dallas Bar Association since 2017, and previously with the bar in a different role;
  • Mary Amos Augsburger, chief executive officer of the Ohio State Bar Association since 2013, and previously the bar’s legislative counsel;
  • Harvey Hurdle, executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Association since January 2019, and previously the founder of consulting firm Leap Strategy, focused on strategic planning; and
  • Theresa Hurley, executive director of the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Bar Association since 2014, and previously with the bar in a variety of other capacities.

The strategic planning processes vary from one bar to the next, from the CCBA’s annual retreat to consider the year ahead, to the OSBA’s quite complex process, which involves a task force and extensive input from leaders, staff, and others, resulting in a three-year plan. But common to all of them is that the chief staff executive always keeps strategy in mind—whether they developed this mindset through the course of their career or were always a planner (Augsburger, for example, notes that she created a personal how-to guide when she became a parent). Below are some highlights from our conversation.

Balancing presidential priorities and the strategic plan

Augsburger: I have been very fortunate to work with leaders who are generally aligned on priorities and who understand that continuity is essential for achieving our strategic objectives. When a new president-elect is chosen by our membership, they are immediately brought into the fold and participate actively in our planning sessions along with the current president and the immediate past president.

Because our current strategic plan is our guiding light, it is central to all our discussions big and small. In that way, if an incoming president has a priority they want to advance, they have every opportunity to make that case to fellow officers and the entire board. Their colleagues, I can assure you, are going to want to know how that initiative fits into the framework and priorities they all had a hand in developing. If we are going to veer from the strategic plan in any way or make an exception, it’s a group decision and the president has the board’s support. But our structure doesn’t allow them to unilaterally decide that on their own. 

Baldwin: I raise the issue of being careful with changing priorities and deviating from collective directions on a regular basis when I orient new board members and officers, and the issue is part of our regular agendas during our annual board retreats and when I engage in planning with the bar president each year and throughout the year.  It is a constant reminder, and a gentle one.  We also include the president-elect in regular weekly planning meetings with the president and me, so she or he can understand the issues which are current and the pressures being faced which will be inherited.  The regular involvement of the president-elect also helps train her or him to understand that there are limitations on staff and financial resources and time, and that only so much can be done under their leadership in the course of one short year of volunteering at the head of the board. 

It is a hard thing to balance for good reasons because some have stronger personalities and feel a need to make their mark. Thankfully, that mark is usually positive and helpful. And it is always good to be flexible and adapt to different internal and external circumstances as long as the group is on board and the resources are sufficient and the priorities are clear.

Hernandez: I feel it should be addressed earlier than when someone is already an incoming president. I would like to have a consensus among the board and future leaders that there will be a shift on the approach to how presidential projects/years are handled. Waiting until the president-elect year doesn’t consider how demoralizing or frustrating it may be to the incoming president who has spent years working toward the presidency and has likely already made some plans—at least in his or her head.

It seems like we need a broader cultural shift within the organization that we are going to follow the strategic plan and focus on the longer term goals while allowing each president to have a signature project.  This needs to be a group decision with group buy-in. This is more important now than it ever has been before. Associations need to be mindful of the changing times, decreases in membership, and how associations can address what attorneys really want and need from them. To give our bars the best chance of success during changing times, the focus needs to be on what our members want and need.

Hurley: One approach that I’ve found helpful is to look at an area that needs improvement—maybe one that lacks the support you think it needs—and encourage your president to do something around this. In the past few years, we have focused on the needs of older attorneys, social media, and the importance of diversity efforts.

Hurdle: Our chancellor uses “Chancellor Forums,” which are one-time meetings on specific topics to raise issues he or she is interested in. These allow them to have an individual platform for their signature issues without necessarily creating new programs. We are also beginning to focus more on succession planning for our sections and committees. This will help keep these groups from continually changing direction.

The advantages of a strategic mindset for leaders and staff

Baldwin: Several years ago at a board retreat, our then-chief justice admonished the board to set some direction through a strategic plan and not to become like “water bugs” hopping from one great idea to another. The advantages of a strategic mindset are that resources are more carefully utilized and direction is more clearly identified. We try to address our mission and the focus the state Supreme Court has given the bar. That has served to help our leaders make decisions which are consistent and to avoid spending funds on short-term goals with less value.

Hernandez: The big advantage to me is that you obtain, consider, and study a broader view of the world that brings in varied positions. With it, you are thinking beyond your personal experience and will get a much better idea of what people want and need—not just what you think others want and need. It is eye-opening and exciting to include others in the process and work through solutions.

Hurley: Focusing on the longer term needs, you can build on what you’ve done in the past instead of constantly doing random, different things. It’s easier for staff to think long term because they see the evolution of ideas and how far things have come. Board members only see what happened in the time they’ve been on the board.

Hurdle: The work I have been doing on getting us to work more strategically started in my first month. It was focused on setting direction for staff by establishing departmental goals that were aligned with priorities outlined in the strategic plan. This was a new activity for the staff. We have quarterly check-in against these goals, and progress is reported to the board quarterly. I believe initial reaction was mixed, with some viewing the exercise as creating more work.

I’m happy to say that buy-in is improving. We are celebrating the progress against the goals, and I also gave my team permission to push back when I started to suggest new  projects. The question they can ask is, “Is this new idea in support of the goals we have established?” I believe we are beginning to move toward a more strategic mindset and a culture of measurement.

Augsburger:  In recent years, our board has made a commitment to focus more on the big picture (the WHY) and leaving the myriad day-to-day operations (the HOW) to me and my dedicated staff. At our board meetings, we quickly dispense of our consent agenda, which they would have had an opportunity to review prior to the board meeting, so that we can focus our limited time together on strategic planning and generative discussions. It’s been really positive and has brought a new energy and level of engagement to our meetings. This has a natural trickle-down effect, too. Because when the board is leaning in and thinking about the WHY for our organization, our staff has clear direction and a better understanding of what we need to do.

The challenges of a change in mindset

Hernandez: Change is so hard! Our leaders spend many years working toward the presidency of the association and emulate those before them. That is why I advocate for a cultural shift within the board and greater association.

Ultimately, we need to do what is best for the organization, not one [person] or a small group of people.  Several years ago, we combined two committees, and the combination has resulted in improved staff efficiency and member engagement without losing any programming! There is still one person, however, who bemoans the combination of the committees. It’s impossible to please everyone. We just need to make sound decisions with sound reasons for the decisions.

Augsburger: I won’t sugarcoat this. This level of collaboration and input into our strategic planning takes a lot of time and coordination. And these discussions are not easy, especially when you get into setting priorities. Elevating one initiative means another will just have to wait.

The other challenge I have found is that long-term employees can sometimes have a hard time understanding that “the way we have always done it” no longer works in our changing environment. You’ve got to take the time to work with those valued team members and to get their buy-in because they are critical in implementing the strategic plan and making it a success. It’s all about teamwork.

Hurley: The board doesn’t like controversy or to do something that might get members upset. They don’t always realize how much staff time it takes to keep the sacred cow programs going. It is much easier if the relevant committee can get behind the change instead of me having to try to make it happen.

Today’s environment demands strategy

Baldwin: I am convinced that creative minds need to develop radical new means of helping the huge number of unserved and underserved people, and that bars should be at the vanguard of changing paradigms and creating more efficiencies in problem resolution. Lawyers will always be needed as problem solvers and rational thinkers and ministers and healers. This enormous challenge for strategic direction demands a new and perhaps radical approach by diverse groups of lawyers and policy makers and will require deliberation and some risk. The only way you can address current needs is through the prism of a plan and the willingness to adapt your plan.

Hernandez: [There's also] the challenge of membership—keeping it strong and growing. We need to have a strategic approach to developing services for members.

Augsburger: It’s not unique to lawyers (but perhaps more pronounced because of the nature of our profession), but I read somewhere that since the 1970s, people are working more than 568 more hours per year. There is unbelievable competition for our time and resources, and so the time-intensive, volunteer association model just isn’t as feasible in today’s market. We are trying to meet our members where they are and to find more opportunities to micro-volunteer with the OSBA.

Hurdle: I believe the changes in society in how individuals network is one of the biggest challenges bar associations face. Interacting through social media is very different from the traditional networking offered through our events. Finding a way to bridge the generational differences in networking approaches will be a key to the success of our organization.

Hurley: The reluctance of many firms to change in response to consumer needs, technological innovation, and younger attorneys’ need for more autonomy presents a challenge. We need to be able to help our members understand that they need to adapt—and how to do it—or they will not survive.

For further learning

Our informal panel of chief staff executives recommended the following resources related to strategic thinking and planning: