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  • Writer's pictureWM&R

Listen to the Stories People Want to Tell You

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

I will probably make a big deal in the coming months out of a difference in perspective between you and me. You being paid to lead an association, manage a program, or head member or chapter relations. Me being paid to listen to people and convert it into information you can use.

Early in association career, I bristled at being told that members “own” the association; “membership is everyone’s job.” After all, I had no training before tumbling into my association career, no orientation to how it does and doesn’t resemble the outside world. They just told me about home building and stuff. Job sites. Regulations. Federal reserve policy and economic statistics (for me, anyway).

It was understandable, since I had worked for two universities and a federal agency—not exactly hotbeds of state-of-the-art CRM. AT NAHB I was promoted twice, well beyond my level of effectiveness, so it meant I was doing something right. I’ve often maintained I would never work with me as a client, at least not the 25-year old Acting VP version.

As I got older, I began really listening. It started when I took a sabbatical from association work to do a stint at Marketing General. As a service provider, I needed to listen well in fast-paced environments. I was picking up huge programs with histories, and needed to understand the jargon of several new fields overnight. I had to understand the history and programs of four associations, the nuances of their marketing programs, and speak Confident Marketer very convincingly.

Listening is learning, and learning requires asking the right questions. I had gone to Focus Group Moderator Training School, which taught me how to begin to listen while facilitating small groups. Very different from my grad degree in economics, where everyone assumes everything, and no one pays attention to how real people talk, think, feel, and act.

In my last association job, at NACDS, I became the face guy. I visited our regional chains and met with management teams. I learned retail pharmacy from the inside out, how CEOs think, how they operate, compete, and survive. They sent me to Kellogg School to learn more among Walgreens, CVS, Longs, Albertsons VPs.

In each setting, learning to listen, then doing something with what we learned was an invaluable skill. It influenced my learning style and I think, made me a better leader. Our quality of qualitative research today sets us apart from many other researchers. Great interviews with the right people quickly bridges the gap between what you know and what I need to know, and helps identify what you don’t know yet but need to. Without this step, most quantitative research is like the economic models I learned from in academia—pretty, elegant, moderately useful.

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