Leading Change in a Traditional Association
Chief Executive Officer at Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards (Part I)
Perusing the website of CLARB one would assume that administering and scoring the Landscape Architect Registration Examination (L.A.R.E.) is the primary value proposition and Raison D’être of the association. But to Joel Albizo, its CEO since 2007, its greater value is its role in establishing and promoting licensure standards for the profession in close collaboration with the 53 state licensure boards across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico who are its members. By doing so CLARB places itself strategically at the critical juncture between public health, safety and welfare, regulatory bodies and landscape architecture professionals.
It was shortly after assuming this position that Albizo realized that exams represented only a portion of licensure—albeit an important part. Depending on one product for your value proposition is like building “a house of cards” that collapses on the first blast of wind. The bigger issue, Albizo realized, was regulation and its role in protecting the public. How can the association best help its state and provincial board members become effective regulators in a stressful and changing environment? Surely this was the greatest value CLARB could deliver.
Although Albizo’s first addressed points of immediate pain, he did not become mired in operational details and incremental improvements. Instead, he focused on the big picture, putting in place strategic systems and new capabilities for transforming the association’s focus from products to solutions:
- An efficient business model
- Data-driven decision making processes
- Collaborative, outcome-oriented teams
- A culture of discovery and experimentation in which questioning assumptions was encouraged
Collaboration and disciplined re-examination yielded a fresh understanding of the “business” the association was in. CLARB was “not in the exam business, per se, but in the “public protection-through-competency-assurance” business,” Albizo decided.
Re-thinking the nature of one’s business is not for the faint hearted. It means that you are no longer playing at the margins of product, process or pricing innovations. You now have a new basis for re-organizing, re-focusing and creating new competitive advantage for your organization. No transformation can take place unless you are willing to re-think the very nature of your business as the market and the criteria for what constitutes value change.
Albizo is not new to “unorthodox” thinking and disruption. While his first job out of college was at a trade association, Albizo did not follow a straight career path within associations. He wanted a bigger challenge and a test of his entrepreneurial acumen. At the time of the dot com boom he found his ideal destination as a VP of sales and marketing at a startup online provider of gardening supplies and information and web host for industry firms. His new position also meant plunging headlong from the slow pace, process and hierarchy-driven world of associations to the pressure cooker of a technology startup. Nothing was predictable or taken for granted in that new world. It was “trial by fire,” as he describes it. Albizo had to generate sales and raise capital, suddenly bearing responsibility for revenue in a fluid, chaotic environment with multiple players across industries. Conversations with potential investors were very different from those with colleagues from established, stable organizations with expected lines of business. He remembers the probing, challenging questions investors asked that stretched his thinking far beyond the “association framework” and pool of concerns. “Exhilarating,” he calls it. “It was exactly like what you see on Shark Tank.”
Yet, a few years later, feeling “burned out,” from the 24/7/365 demands of an aspiring tech startup and missing the breadth of association management Albizo returned to the .org world as Managing Director of Marketing and Communications at the Society of Actuaries, where he rose to the position of deputy executive director of marketing and customer service delivery, leading an award winning profession wide branding program and every major change initiative undertaken by the SOA during a multi-year effort to become a market-focused organization.
The lessons he had extracted from his technology startup days, however, became defining characteristics of his leadership and perspective on business, especially:
- The importance of instilling, and acting out of, a sense of urgency
- Keeping complacency at bay
- Thinking big and going after a big vision
- Seizing opportunities, taking risks and learning by doing rather than elaborate planning
- Team work and collaboration across silos or industries.
I asked him about the obstacles association leaders face and the factors that have kept many of them stuck and prevented them from leaps in growth and competitiveness.
One of the obstacles Albizo sees is the difficulty of leaders to extricate themselves from an auto-pilot mode of thinking (not that they don’t want to) and “get beyond politics, processes and tactical concerns” to see the whole picture and re-think their business from constantly fresh perspectives. Asking the right questions, identifying a framing a problem correctly are essential for getting to solutions.
The inability to think strategically and outside existing frameworks and assumptions does not allow one to get to the real roots of problems and frame the right questions, thus dooming the quest for the right solutions from the get-go. This when habits of thinking become traps, “trapping you in an ever increasing cycle of misery,” says Albizo. And this is why one of Joel Albizo’s most important principle of management is to develop and nurture a culture of strategic thinking, collaboration and continuous innovation.