Vol. 45, No. 5

Virtual ABA BLI 2020: Transformational leadership in a time of change

By Marilyn Cavicchia

“You are in transformation work,” Vicki Clark told attendees of a webinar that was part of the virtual version of the 2020 ABA Bar Leadership Institute.

But she wasn’t referring to the idea of coming up with a signature project through which a president can leave their “stamp” on the bar. Instead, she said, true leaders leave their stamp on people—through the way they treat them, and by encouraging them to be leaders, too.

“What you are really given to do,” said Clark, of Building the Capacity of Organizations, based in Memphis, Tenn., “is to ensure that your members transform—that something about their bar membership has a transforming effect on their professional life, and on their personal life.”

Clark covered a lot of ground during her hour-long presentation, but one of the strongest underlying themes was the idea of change.

A changing world for associations

“We’re working in associations with systems that were not designed for today’s members,” Clark said, adding that if a program, event, or something else at the bar doesn’t work well, leaders should look for the “design flaw” and what could be changed, rather than looking for a person to blame.

Among the biggest changes for membership organizations is something that bars have certainly noticed, but they’re not the only ones: Clark noted that many organizations she works with are seeing a steep decline in their membership numbers.

It’s not a mark of failure, Clark said, to acknowledge this change and to scale some things down, whether by decreasing the frequency of certain events, or by practicing “planned abandonment” in sunsetting some things that can no longer be sustained. The positive way to look at this, she said, is to put the focus on programs, events, and other offerings that make the most difference to members and that help move the mission forward.

“We know so much more now about association management, member engagement, and member development than we knew even 10 years ago,” she said.

Especially in this new environment, where it may no longer be possible to reach the same numbers in membership or event attendance, Clark recommends taking a different view of how leaders think and talk about what results the bar hopes to achieve.

“We usually talk about how many, how much, how often,” she explained, “versus what’s really changing—what’s really transforming.” Leadership and management guru Peter Drucker defined “results” as “changed lives and changed conditions.” Clark believes those metrics are what really matter, and that they can still be met.

To put it more concretely, she advised, think less in terms of how many people attended an event, and more in terms of the value that each attendee received. How did it help them? Did they grow in an important way? Did they learn something? Did they meet someone they hadn’t before?

Adapting to generational differences

One societal factor that is changing both membership organizations and many people’s workplaces, Clark said, is that people all across the age spectrum are now working together. We’ve long known that four generations were in the workforce (Silent/Traditional, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials), and now the oldest among those in Generation Z are entering their early career life.

Now more than ever, Clark said, it’s important not to marginalize anyone, of any age or experience level. “How long someone has been in the profession and in the bar has nothing to do with their passion, with their interest, with their competency, with their desire, and with their participation,” she stressed.

Similarly, Clark noted, especially given the statistics regarding mental health in the legal profession, it’s important to change the mindset that only members who put in the most hours are making a valuable contribution or should be rewarded with leadership opportunities.

“You’re looking for members, not martyrs,” she said. “We need to value the member who is being careful about his or her work-life balance as much as the ones who are willing to put in 200 percent.” It’s possible, too, she added, that those “200 percent” members will burn out—and then you’ll have to start from scratch with the members you’ve been ignoring because you thought they weren’t committed enough.

It goes both ways, Clark added: Don’t assume that your older members have nothing useful to contribute in this new environment, or that they aren’t open to change. Indeed, she said, older members are often unfairly used as scapegoats and as a reason that certain changes can’t be made: “Our older members won’t like that.” Rather than relying on this excuse to “lead from fear,” she advised, find effective ways to explain why a certain change is being made and how it will benefit the organization—and trust that your older members will understand.

Change takes courage

Who wants to be the president during the year that the bar increases its dues? Decisions like that can be very challenging, Clark acknowledged, but it’s a leader lacking in courage who says, “Not on my watch.” Instead of maintaining the status quo (while knowing that something needs to be changed) and just getting through the year, she said, it’s important for the board to do what is right even if the outcome will be unpopular.

“Change is difficult, but not changing is fatal,” Clark said—and again, an unpopular decision can go over much better when it’s communicated in terms of how it serves the bar and helps move its mission forward. Chances are, she said, members won’t long remember that the dues increase (or other unpopular move) happened while you were president; if you have focused on the bar’s mission and on ensuring that each member knows they are valued, then “your legacy is more sophisticated” than any single action that may not be universally beloved.

Change can be less scary, Clark said, if it is made proactively and on a regular schedule, rather than waiting until something is so broken that it must be dealt with right away. Clark recommended asking the board what three things should be revisited—not necessarily changed, but at least looked at—in the next year. In fact, she said, it may be a good idea to lay out the next 10 or 12 years (or five, if that’s too many) on a grid and establish that each year, the leadership team will revisit three systems, events, or strategies. That way, she explained, nothing can get more than 10 or so years old without being examined to see if it’s still viable—and openness to change becomes an expectation for every new board member.

This can even help guide the nominating committee, Clark added: If you know what is scheduled to be revisited in a particular year, then skills and experience relevant to that area can be used as one deciding factor when evaluating new prospects to add to the leadership track.

The power of personal transformation

It’s been said before by many other BLI speakers, but Clark, too, stressed that it’s important not to think of the presidential term as a time that belongs only to that president. “This is not your year,” she said. “It is everybody’s year. Each member is having that year.”

Instead of thinking that they’re in charge of the bar for a year, she added, an incoming president should consider these questions: How can I serve? What things can I do? What changes can we make to ensure that everybody sees being part of this bar association as valuable?

Thinking along these lines “doesn’t mean you think less of yourself,” Clark said. “It just means you think about yourself less.”

Share the credit for things that go well, Clark advised, and always look for ways to engage, mentor, and coach other bar members—and be open to being mentored and coached by someone else, regardless of their position in the bar. Every member has certain talents and experiences to share, she said, and coaching doesn’t have to be a top-down endeavor.

For “servant leaders”—the kind who priorotize service to others over any personal glory—the real meaning of leadership is to inspire and influence someone else positively, so that they think of themselves as leaders, too. It’s important to always look for ways to do this via your words and actions, Clark said, because you never know what will take root.

“Many of us were inspired by someone—by something they said or did—and they don’t even know it,” she noted.

It’s important that the president, too, be transformed by their leadership experience, Clark believes, at the same time that they look for positive ways to change the organization and members’ lives. Whether someone had “a good year” as president depends on how they grew, Clark said, and what they learned about the association, about leadership, about themselves, and about other people.

“That’s what it’s really all about,” she said. “That’s the true transformation. If you change yourself, you’ve started to change the world—and your bar.”