What Association "Power and Influence" Really Means in Washington

My good friends at CEO Update (www.CEOupdate.com), the source for association news and executive careers, held one of their premier events recently entitled "CEO Update Live: Power and Influence" at the SunTrust building in Washington, DC. The panel, made up of some of Washington's most celebrated association executives, headhunters and PR specialists talked about how Washington perceives power and influence. Having been in the association business, advocating before Capitol Hill, and positioning both the beer and broadcasting business before legislators, regulators and the public, I thought that the contributions of the panelists were important and relevant.

But the collective conversation missed key elements in creating real power and influence that need to be addressed and included in future conversations. These additional elements are critical to the truly successful CEOs so he or she can achieve real value for their members or shareholders. Real power and influence comes from making sure the CEO gets these six areas right:

Achieving quantifiable and measured results

Achieving real results -- passing a bill, changing a regulation or increasing the size of a trade show, or increasing corporate profits -- result from setting and exceeding quantifiable goals. Unfortunately, Washington is filled with senior staffs who worry less about 'bottom line' results, and are more concerned with the latest rumors on who is coming into or leaving the President's Administration. Focusing on qualitative measures means ensuring your entire staff is measured on annual results with specific numerical goals. The CEOs goals should permeate throughout the entire organization so that the entire team focuses on attaining the same results.

Moreover, if you have a senior staff, you should have them explain their goals to the entire organizational team. That means they will have to understand and internalize the goals themselves. In my case, this meant that the entire staff of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) worked together to achieve the top goals set by the Board of Directors.

Executing communicating the mission and vision of the organization to Congress and the general public

Effective organizations share a common simple vision that can be easily articulated by everyone in the organization. Over 72,000 trade associations are all trying to influence the Congress and Washington. Those that succeed have staffs that have internalized the organization's mission. Not having a clear mission means that you are not working at maximum effectiveness, giving other groups a leg up in the very competitive Washington atmosphere. Unless your organization's mission and vision are clear, the CEO and the organization can become distracted by the often competing agendas and priorities of various members or stakeholders. With a clear mission and vision, it is nearly impossible for others to hijack the association's agenda.

Demonstrating superior stewardship

Stewardship is all too often forgotten in Washington. The trappings of being a CEO often mean club memberships, first class airfare, limousines, extravagant accommodations and other expenditures to make your life easier or less burdensome. But real power and influence does not come from someone seeing you get in or out of a limo on Capitol Hill (one of my NAB Board members suggested this actual idea to me). I am not advocating that senior leaders of organizations take an oath of poverty. Instead, expenditures on CEO trappings are "opportunity costs" -- money that could be used for other purposes, including building your congressional reputation or industry image. We should ask ourselves: Does this expenditure serve the association and its members well? Influential and powerful CEOs create a culture of exceptional stewardship.

Minimizing reactive 'crisis communication' through pro-active initiatives

The panel discussed the role of managing crisis communication. Matt Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation, suggested that leaders should see a communication crisis as an opportunity to leverage ideas and reputation to tell a positive story. Matt is exactly right. But effective CEOs should spend more time working with their senior staff to anticipate, minimize and resolve future crises before they occur. The attack on beer as an unhealthy beverage over a decade ago was stopped in its tracks by an aggressive, scientific-based discussion of the health benefits of moderate beer consumption. Today, when you type in "beer and health" into a search engine, 298,000,000 results appear. Those on the first page reinforce the message started and amplified at the NBWA some ten years ago. Sometimes a crisis just occurs; but often anticipation can disarm or prevent it, so that it does not distract the organization from executing it's planned communication strategy.

Seeking new knowledge constantly to create value

Influential and powerful leaders constantly seek new knowledge about the industry sector they lead. This is hard for the busy leader. Those who are exceptional leaders are constant learners. The leader walks the floor at the trade show to seek out new products or innovative services. The leader looks for unusual perspectives on the future of the industry. You can often tell those association CEOs who take this responsibility seriously. They engage, ask questions, make notes, read critical analysis to hear what the adversaries are saying and seek a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. Those who assign junior staff to look out into the horizon signal the organization's team that the future is not important. Influential leaders help set the future vision of the industry.

Serving as the face of the industry, especially when being challenged by antagonists

Public verdicts on industry issues are almost instant in today's media dominant world. There was a time when the association or corporate CEO did not need to be media trained nor had the obligation to speak directly to America through the news media. But that day is gone. Today, the public wants to see and hear from the leader speaking on behalf of the association, industry, or company, especially if the sector is facing a broadside attack. Certainly, the senior communications staff can often appear to fend off the many challenges an association or industry faces. But on the big issues, the top person is the one who must step into the breach and articulate the well thought-out response or position. One positive consequence from serving as a public spokesperson is the increased attention the leader receives from Capitol Hill. The late Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) once told me his real objective for appearing on the Oscars was because members of Congress and congressional staff all watched the award show. Then, whenever he wanted to visit a member on Capitol Hill, he would be quickly remembered and get immediate face time. Jack taught us all a valuable lesson on strategically appearing on television to increase your influence and power.

The issues discussed at "CEO Update Live: Power and Influence" will hopefully begin a candid and important conversation on how power and influence are really determined, not only in Washington but around the globe. In my mind, the variables above are essential for the conversation to be productive and meaningful.