The Common Traits of Top-Performing Member Organizations

Delving into the fundamental characteristics of organizations that produce above-average results.

By The FORUM Magazine Editors

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Dna test infographic. Genome sequence map, chromosome architecture and genetic sequencing chart abstract data. Molecule structure genetic test. Genealogy sequence vector illustration

A focus on members. Servant leadership. Strategic planning. When McKinley Advisors interviewed 13 executives from 11 organizations that received glowing praise from their members, these three concepts were among the most prevalent commonalities they found.

The results of these interviews make up the findings of the recently-released study, “The DNA of Top-Performing Member Organizations,” which delves into the fundamental characteristics of organizations that produce above-average results as reported by their members.

Here are just a few of the key takeaways from the study:

Grounded in Member Service

It’s no surprise that being member-focused is a common thread for successful member organizations. Every organization interviewed for this study recognized the “importance of an engaged and satisfied membership.” But how do you achieve that noble goal?

According to the study: “Listening to members’ needs through research and acting on the results of that research ranked highest in priority.” This key component was described as a “two-way dialogue” by Kathy Partain, CAE, vice president of membership and marketing at the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). Give your members the opportunity to tell you what their needs are and then use that information to meet those needs. “We have to be a model for our community,” said Heather Hoerle, executive director and CEO of the Enrollment Management Association (EMA). “We learn from our members and our members learn from us. We’re always looking to raise the bar.”

Leadership in Action

Achieving the high level of success found at these top-performing organizations requires powerful and effective leadership. The executives that were interviewed often “prioritize others over any personal accumulation of power.” Simply put, organizational success trumps ego. This approach is called “servant leadership,” a phrase that first appeared in a 1970 essay by Robert K. Greenleaf. The idea behind servant leadership is focusing on the success, growth and well-being of the organization, staff and members above one’s own personal triumphs.

“Leaders who can move organizations forward and answer not all, but enough questions, can be successful,” said Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of the National Business Officers Association (NBOA). The executives who guide their organizations toward continued success know when to take the lead and when to let their staff assume responsibility.

Another consistent theme that surfaced during the interviews was humility. “Humility is an aspect of quiet leadership,” said Jennifer Whittington, CAE, executive director of University Risk Management and Insurance Association (URMIA). “You let volunteers play their role, but as an executive director you have to keep the balls in the air and keep everything moving in a forward direction.”

Strategy Drives Success

The research from McKinley emphasizes two main points around strategic planning: That it’s one of the most important steps to ensuring success and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every organization.

By utilizing strategy as a road map to the future, organizations can stay nimble while remaining focused on its goals. “When I came on, we developed a longer-term strategy that focused on the members and where we wanted to go with the organization,” said Scott Artman, CPA, CGMA, executive director at the National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP). “Our strategy map shows how we support members and staff, and how it furthers the organization as a result.”

Having a strategic plan is only half the battle. Keeping the plan front and center and then prioritizing against the plan are both necessary to maximize its effectiveness. “If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’ll just be climbing an uphill battle,” said Celeste Kirschner, MHSA, CAE, chief executive officer of Large Urology Group Practice Association (LUGPA). “You can get blinded by opportunities, but if it doesn’t make sense to the ‘why’ of your organization, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

A good strategic plan will provide clear direction, but also open up space for flexibility by instilling confidence in staff around their ability to adapt. “Stay nimble enough to make small adjustments, but respect the strategic plan to stay on course,” said Whittington.

To view the full report, visit

About the Author

Written by the FORUM Magazine Editors.

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