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Working successfully long-term with your most active, engaged members can lull you into a false sense of security. But as generational and societal forces shift underfoot, it doesn’t take long to feel out of kilter. No one expects to become a victim of their own success.

That uneasy feeling is fear. Fear of change. Fear of falling behind. Fear of failing…becoming ineffective and irrelevant. Fear you’re so “old school” that you don’t have the skills to handle the tide pulling you out into deeper water.

Whether it’s perception or reality, you need to shake it off. Old school is what got you here, and it doesn’t have to render you a relic during a sea change. Ancient artifacts are locked in time, but you’re not. You simply have to unlearn and relearn. You need to get new schooled.

It’s a conscious choice to ask for help. Those 20- and 30- and 40-somethings don’t see you as ancient…just…stuck. And if you don’t get unstuck, you eventually become an impediment. When you ask, be ready for the response, because it will be everything you hoped for…and more.

How do I know all this? This past spring it was time for me to make the ask, so I reached out to stakeholders. Even though a little voice in the back of my head was saying “don’t ask if you don’t want to know” I was gratified by everyone’s candor. They were so glad I asked, they didn’t hold back…and that’s a good thing.

I was gifted with a number of truths that stuck with me:

  • Openness and access are required. No self-interest. No gatekeepers. No cliques. Put away the cookie cutter, because everybody wants in and no two entry points are the same.

  • Everyone is already an established leader when they join. Treat them as such and create spaces where they can learn from one another…be sure to take notes.

  • Stakeholders drive the discussion. Yes, you are in the mix, but they need to lead their own authentic conversations. Pay attention, ask questions, get schooled.

  • The goal is to leave a lasting mark. Influence, yes. Leadership opportunities, sure. But the ultimate goal is impact. Old school experience comes in handy showing how to affect change from within existing systems.

  • You’re not so much a coach or a mentor as you are their champion. Fulfill your role and the resulting relationships will sustain your members’ success and the success of your program.

  • Don’t be just another organization unable to change. If you are, disillusioned members will take their talents elsewhere. It’s okay if some need to go forge their own path, but make a home for those committed to your mission.

I’d always prided myself in being a change agent, but this required change of me. Disconcerting? Yes. Daunting? Even more so. But it filled in so many of the blanks, I understood that this was the path forward to help members and help the organization. It wasn’t personal. There were no hard feelings. I was exhilarated by the possibilities.

So I sent out a recording of myself all new schooled, sharing my learning and asking for more help. Not a text-heavy email or a dense report, but a video speaking directly to stakeholders. As one member told me later, “That video changed everything. I was willing to take the chance that you were actually willing to make change.”

A core group of like-minded changemakers volunteered additional time and expertise to keep me honest in making those changes. It was humbling to receive their wisdom and guidance, and even more sobering to realize the key to success was me getting out of my own way. It’s challenging and exciting and nerve-racking all at once, and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

As a result, I see the changes being implemented elevating the work of our most engaged members. It’s an honor to give them a platform that projects their voices beyond a local context. It’s no longer about what organizations can give busy professionals. No one is looking to sign up for a membership card and newsletters. It’s all about members contributing meaningfully to organizations with which they choose to engage. Be ready when you’re lucky enough that they choose yours.

Yes, there will be sputters and resets and more difficult conversations ahead, but out of this important work trust is born…the kind of trust that builds relationships, making a home for your most engaged members and attracting new ones. After all, the challenge isn’t the landscape shifting beneath your feet…it’s whether the map you’re holding still accurately charts your way forward.

Hope is a response to fear, and fear is an obstacle to hope. Having experienced how my old school ways left me exhausted and exasperated, I am relieved to tell you that this work gives me hope.

Thank you to everyone who provided input and ideas, and especially to Jodi, Lindsay, Izzie, Vanee, Sophie, Becca and George.

Walter McKenzie is Senior Director for Member Communities at ASCD, leading its affiliate, connected community, professional interest community, student chapter and emerging leader programs.

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