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Your Club’s Future: Why Strategy Matters

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

This issue is focused on the role of governance in achieving club success. The club’s governance structures—especially as represented by its board of directors and key executives—has a unique and important responsibility with respect to charting the club’s future.

Two questions, in particular, will shape this responsibility. They are:

1.      Where are we going?

2.      Who is going to get us there?

The first is a question about strategy and the second deals more specifically with talent management. How these two questions get answered will determine a club’s future.

The Purpose-Driven Club

Simon Sinek, who writes and speaks widely on the topic of leadership, insists that effective leadership and organizational success will largely hinge on the clarity and power of purpose. His mantra is: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

Successful marketing, in this modern era, increasingly depends not as much on outbound selling efforts—persuasive pitches, price-based promotions or high-visibility public relations—as it does on inbound marketing savvy, which is dependent on a compelling vision that attracts followers, just as a magnet pulls metal filings with its invisible force.

Historically, clubs have recognized the power of associational ties, whether those ties are organized around geography, activities, family heritage or other similar interests. But in order to retain both their vitality and relevance, clubs now find it necessary to refresh, refine and extend their primary purpose.

Two of the most successful yacht clubs in the U.S., the San Diego and Chicago Yacht Clubs, have remained strong and vibrant in part because their love of the sport has motivated them to attract the next generation of sailors. Both clubs excel at eliminating the barriers (such as money and experience) that might otherwise prevent an introduction and ultimate embrace of boating. They are ambassadors of the sport.

Multnomah Athletic Club, likewise, retains its premier status by similarly recognizing that authentic athletic performance defines the club’s mission and its enduring appeal. The club’s strategy has demonstrated a willingness to embrace the new and encourage its membership—through both its facilities and programs—to participate in new athletics endeavors and contemporary sports that include bouldering, Pilates and triathlons. The club has, at different times and in different eras, emphasized individual athletic performance (e.g., wrestling and gymnastics in the early 20th century), only to swing more in the direction of team sports and then back again as the times and member interests dictated. In the modern era, Multnomah’s distinctive take on athletics has represented a consistent bridge into the community and inspires its independent nonprofit Multnomah Athletic Foundation. In all this, the club retains its core purpose and lives out its mission, which is to “enrich lives, foster friendship and build upon our traditions of excellence in athletic, social and educational programs.”

Strategic Alignment

The challenge that many clubs face is to build out a strategy that is consistent with the club’s established heritage and culture. At the same time, the operating environment for the club is continuously changing and so the club’s plan for achieving its primary purpose must also adapt.

Adaptation is an important expression of alignment. First and foremost, clubs must reflect the shifting lifestyles and values of its members. Clubs exist in a larger societal and competitive environment that also places new and changing attractions before traditional club members.

Adaptation can be difficult because it requires change in significant ways. This can be doubly difficult in the club world, where certain values and traditions are expressly preserved. However, as Club Trends routinely reports, the best-performing clubs have proved capable of re-imagining their mission in exciting and compelling ways even as tension exists between an established club culture and the allure of innovation.

Peter Drucker, thought by many to be the father of modern management (he originated the idea of “management by objectives”), has a famous quote about the role of strategy. He said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The quote has been used by many to suggest that strategic plans will ultimately count for very little when they encounter the resistance of established habits and the default patterns of organizational behavior. Strategy can’t budge stubborn human inclinations or bureaucratic thinking is how the argument often goes, and Drucker’s pithy quote offers a handy punctuation to that sentiment.

Effective strategy should always be developed in context. The best club plans will, to again use Sinek’s artful phrase, “Start with why,” and then proceed outward to smartly address the “how” and “what.” Club culture can act as important guardrails, keeping plans, projects and budgets in line with the actual motivations and aspirations of members.

In the process, culture can take on added dimensions and priorities. Often this can take the form of greater inclusion and a broader offering. The case of Multnomah Athletic Club is illustrative. In its earliest years the club was closely identified with the highest expression of amateur athletics, but over the decades new possibilities have emerged. As the club explains in a statement of its history, “the most significant change has been a steady shift in emphasis from [club]-sponsored teams, as in the early decades to a strong emphasis on physical conditioning for the entire family and a diverse menu of activities … and steadily expanded athletic and social facilities, including excellent restaurants and meeting space.”

The Big Picture

This article began with the assertion that a plan (strategy) together with the talent (leadership) to direct it was essential for a club’s success. But the backdrop against which strategy and its execution get played out is often the determinative factor. Culture counts. The club that moves confidently into the future is one sure of its purpose and seeks to find innovative and engaging ways of expressing that motivating mission.

Club Trends Fall 2018