Why the CEO is the Key to Innovation

Written by Amanda Kaiser on January 9, 2018

I am very American in that I believe in the underdog (or maybe this is less about being American and more about being a product of the 80’s?). I would like to think that what it takes to succeed is the will, the grit, and the tenacity to get to the end.

As a staff member of an association, I would like to think that if I have a useful and winning innovative idea, I can bring it to market. And then this success could be the jumping off point for the whole association to become innovative. But when it comes to innovation in associations, we are not so egalitarian.

When the National Business Aviation Association commissioned me to conduct a study on association innovation, we wanted to find out the critical ingredients needed to get association innovation started. Do you need ideas, a process, or the right culture? Yes, yes, and yes.. and you need something else too.

We found that for association innovation to take hold, an association needed one other key component: A CEO that was totally behind having their association become innovative. It has to be the CEO. It cannot be a VP, an isolated department, the board, or a single person that pushes the association to become innovative. Yes, you can see sparks of innovation in a department because of a department head, but other departments won’t automatically emulate them.

The CEO is the key. And the behavior of the CEO matters a lot. It is not just about saying that innovation is a good thing, we found that innovative associations have CEOs actively involved in innovation. They are:

  • Advocates
  • Cheerleaders
  • Visionaries
  • Persuaders
  • Overseers

The role of the CEO in association innovation changes somewhat depending on the size of the association. In smaller associations with less than 15 staff people, the CEO tends to lead, maybe even do the first innovative project. In the meantime, they are also defining the association’s innovation process. In larger associations, CEO’s are less likely to be involved in the details of the actual project, but they are still involved. They closely monitor the project so they can give a pat on the back here, and some resources there, to ensure the project is a success.

CEOs of innovative associations provide the vision and the resources. They nurture the new culture and work to improve morale. They make the tough decisions, helping naysayers move on, and forming processes to get the best ideas heard no matter who generates these ideas.

Association innovation is dependent on the CEO. That is a lot of responsibility on all you CEOs, but there is a lot of opportunity for you too!

Editor’s note: this study was the very catalyst for a session at SURGE 2017: How To Effect Change No Matter Your Job Title. Click here to watch the session on demand.