Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder/successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In his work, Jeff advises association and non-profit boards on how they can navigate an irrevocably-altered world and shape a better and different future.
A graduate of the Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, Jeff has continued his learning with the future at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Oxford University, Harvard Business School, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and the Institute for the Future. Jeff is the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.
Connect with Jeff on LinkedIn.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Fit-for-purpose association board in The TurbulentTwenties
- The foundational beliefs of a fit-for-purpose association board
- How can today’s association boards become fit for purpose
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:02] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Association Leadership Radio. Now, here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:16] Lee Kantor here, another episode of Association Leadership Radio. And this is going to be a good one. Today on the show we have Jeff De Cagna with foresightfirst. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:00:29] Thanks, Lee. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:31] Well, I’m excited to learn what you’re up to. Tell us a little bit about foresight first. How are you serving, folks?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:00:37] Well, Foresight First is my solo consulting firm, and I’ve been working with associations for more than 20 years as a consultant, spent more than 30 years in the association community overall, including years as a staff person. And I’m devoting my attention to working with boards, to helping them set a higher standard of stewardship, governing and foresight, and helping them elevate their performance and also helping them build their organizations to thrive.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:04] Now, why did you decide to invest so much of your career in associations? What drew you to that group?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:01:13] Well, I’ll be honest and say there was a time when I thought I might do something else, but I kept being pulled back into associations. And so I concluded that I wasn’t choosing associations, they were choosing me. And I have felt that over the course of these last 30 years, and especially in the years that I’ve been a consultant, that I have learned so much about, so many different industries and professions, and have had a real opportunity, I hope, and I believe, to make an impact on organizations across the country and other parts of the world. And so it’s been very exciting and I’m very excited about the work that I do every day, working with boards and trying to help them prepare their organizations for the future.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:55] Now in your work, you use a phrase fit for purpose. Do you mind defining that? And what what do you mean by that?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:02:03] Well, I think that, you know, as I said, over the course of these last few decades that I’ve been working in associations, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the environment. And the entire time, we’ve been told certain things about the way boards are supposed to function, what they’re supposed to do, their role. And I think we’ve reached a point now, especially over the course of these last few years of what I refer to as the turbulent twenties since the beginning of this decade, where the stakes have been raised and we’re really at a moment of truth for association boards, we’re in the midst of multiple crises that we’re facing across all three. Excuse me, all five letters of the acronym that we used in force called Steep, which is refers to social, technological, economic, environmental and political shifts. In all five of those areas, we’re seeing crises emerging, if not full blown crises and certainly critical situations. And that means that for association boards, the complexity of their work is going to increase going forward. There will be less complexity, there’ll be more complexity. And so we need boards that are prepared to deal with those issues in a in a very forthright fashion and understand the role that they have to play in trying to guide their organizations through an unforgiving future. And that really comes to a third point, which is, I think one of the things that we have seen decline over the course of these last many years, and particularly, even surprisingly, during the course of the pandemic, is we’ve seen this idea that there is a shared sense of a common good, that that has really been frayed in many ways, that we’ve become a lot more focused on what’s happening with us, a lot of focus on self interest rather than shared interest.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:03:50] And I think associations have historically been organizations that have helped to build common good help, build social capital. And I think we need to get back to that as we move forward and boards need to play an important role in making that happen. So I see a real opportunity for boards, but it’s also a moment of truth. There really is an upward there is a need here to make a decision about what kind of board are we going to be, are we going to be a board that guides the organization into the future, that makes choices about addressing serious questions or board that will abdicate that responsibility and perhaps continue what predecessors have done over many decades, which is use the future as a kind of dumping ground for problems that were inconvenient or difficult to solve. We can’t continue to do that. We must act to address these issues. And I think boards have that opportunity and that responsibility starting today and moving forward.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:43] So what are some of the symptoms that these boards that may be aren’t taking that step to become that role model or that true north for the industry or the group that they serve? What are some symptoms that hay trouble might be brewing, whether you want to admit it or not?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:05:01] I think one of the things that I talk about is the distinction between being a board and becoming a board. And I think that when you’re being a board, what that means is that you’re really focused on executing on the traditional and expected responsibilities of the board. Every association board has fiduciary responsibilities, and that includes trying to maintain oversight of the financials, of legal considerations, establishing policies and so on. And of course, those responsibilities are extremely important. But if that’s all the board is doing, and then if it’s also doing a kind of strategic plan as a checklist item, something that was felt needed to be done that doesn’t really help prepare the organization for the future, but helps focus attention on what we’re doing today. While there may be value in having that kind of understanding of our current activities, it doesn’t really help us move forward. So if we’re really not investing our attention and our energy in trying to shape a different future for our organization starting today and really thinking about the implications of what’s ahead, not just for the people that we know, but more importantly for the people that we don’t.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:06:13] People who will be coming into our organization or into the profession or industry over the course of the rest of this decade and going into the 2030s. We’ve really got to focus on the impact of what’s coming at us on them, even more so than what’s happening with our own organization. So it’s going to be a challenge for boards to be able to say, you know what, we may have to make sacrifices in the short term that will benefit this association, this ecosystem of our industry or profession, and the stakeholders and successors who will be a part of that in the future. And that’s a very selfless choice, but it’s a necessary one because we have unfortunately deferred so many of the hard choices. So it’s really a choice between thinking about how we’re going to build something that endures over the long term, or really just maintaining a focus on what we’re doing in the short term and then hoping that things will work out. That’s really not going to be an effective approach, given the nature of the, as I’ve said, the crises and the complexity that are in front of us.
Lee Kantor: [00:07:13] Now, how do you help persuade the boards that you work with to be less risk averse and to take this leap? Because it’s kind of a leap of faith? And I’m hearing from you that you’re saying that this is inevitable and you better move on this sooner than later because it’s coming whether you want to or not. And the status quo, it won’t be so status. It’s it’s going to be moving. So how do you persuade the board to take the action and to take the leap?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:07:42] Well, I guess I would challenge a little bit the idea that it’s a leap of faith, because I think anyone who has been watching what’s been going on since we entered into a global health crisis more than two years ago, can see very clearly the evidence of what we’re talking about. If we’re looking at the social division that we’re seeing, not just the United States, but around the world, if we’re looking about the growing impact of technology and the way that is reshaping the human contribution at work and really reshaping so many aspects of our lives. And we’re looking at the challenges of the economy and how the economy is is moving in different directions. There’s parts of the economy that are working well, but we’re seeing tremendous inequality in our economy. We have in the United States, 15% of our population is at or below the poverty line. If we’re looking at the climate crisis and the existential threat that that presents, if we’re looking at the political polarization and the decline of the rule of law and the rise of ideological extremism, once again, not just in the US but around the world, we are seeing very clearly what the future could look like if we enable those shifts and those forces of turbulence to continue to reshape our environment. And so for any association decision maker, whether that’s a CEO or someone serving on a board, the evidence is in plain sight. It’s a question of whether we’re willing to address that evidence directly or whether we are really more comfortable leaving it to someone else. And that’s one of the things that I find particularly challenging, because in so many situations that I’ve been in over the course of my career at once, at the same time, I’ve heard associations talk about how important it is to help young people and how much they want young people to be part of their organizations.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:09:26] And there’s also this idea that the younger people in our organizations may really help organizations thrive and survive in the future. But at the same time, there’s not necessarily taking any steps to help prepare those young people for this more challenging future that is clearly ahead of us. So we’ve got to be able to see what’s actually happening on the ground and then ask ourselves the fundamental question, which is, are we prepared to become more as a board, recognizing that we have special responsibility to those who will follow us, because perhaps those who preceded us didn’t do as much as they could have. But we have seen more. We have learned more, we have experienced more in the course of these last few years. We have lost so much in terms of the number of people who have died from COVID in the United States and around the world. At some point, we’ve got to acknowledge all of those tragedies and acknowledge what’s going on here and say, you know, we’ve got to do better for those who will follow us. We have the opportunity to do that, but only if we’re willing to change ourselves. And if we do that, then we can start to move this organization, our ecosystems, professionally and our industry and our therefore our society forward. And I think that’s really kind of where we are right now.
Lee Kantor: [00:10:38] Now, you said that a lot of like the change is obvious for anybody paying attention. And and I think that when you talk to people in general terms or about a macro world, they’ll be in total agreement. But historically, humans tend to when it comes to thinking locally or hyper locally, they think there’s not really a problem at that level. The problem is a bigger picture thing that isn’t involving their surroundings and an example of kind of the backing that is everybody gives terrible. Calling for government and the representatives, but yet the incumbents win reelection 90 something percent of the time. So when it comes time to actually pulling the trigger and making a change at that local level, everybody is hesitant and they kind of the devil they know is is worth sticking with. So how, again, do you get the people to open their minds that the problem is hyper local, that the problem is within the organization and that they have to be selfless in order to take the steps that are needed to create the change that they want in the world.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:11:50] I think there are there are there are structural reasons why incumbents get reelected to the Congress or to legislatures that are sort of beyond the scope of our conversation here today. But so I don’t necessarily equate those two things. Having said that, I think that, you know, the message is that, you know, right now, the level of trust in our institutions in this society is at really dangerous low levels, whether it’s trust in government, trust in media, trust in technology companies, trust in religious institutions and academic institutions. There is a real trust crisis across so many different sectors of our economy. So for those who are serving on association boards, which is where my focus is, for me, the message to them is understand that you do not wish to be part of the group of institutions in our society that are being challenged because they are not demonstrating their legitimacy in understanding where things are going. Anyone who is looking at what’s happening can recognize that there is a need for organizations like associations to help step in and address some of these issues. I’m not saying that associations can do at all. Far from it. Associations cannot solve the climate crisis that requires governmental action. Associations cannot solve in its entirety many of these big issues. But we can be important and constructive contributors to that process. And that’s why we need to have boards really understand their role differently than we have traditionally.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:13:25] One of the things that I think is so important in the idea of a fit for purpose board is recognizing that the association is an essential, essential 21st century institution that can really make an important positive, some impact on these big issues. If we’re willing to accept that responsibility, that it can take on responsibilities beyond just those, as I said earlier, these more traditional kinds of governing roles that we expect boards to take on and really work with others and their in their communities and their ecosystems to build those industries and professions to be stronger. And fundamentally, boards can stand up for the future of their successors, that they can stand up and say, you know what, we have to take on that responsibility on behalf of those who will follow us and really perform their what I refer to as their duty of foresight, learning as much as possible with the future, and using that long term thinking and action to benefit, as I said earlier, those that will come later into the organization, that it’s really about having that long term perspective. So I believe that there is a lot that we can do and really focus the board’s attention on having that much bigger and wider impact on there on every level of our society, really from the from the hyperlocal, as you describe it, to the national level and beyond.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:45] So what are some action steps that they can take today in order to become fit for purpose? What are some things that are actionable that a board can at least take some baby steps to begin the process?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:15:01] Well, I think it really begins with embracing three ways of thinking that that every board can begin to internalize. And then underneath those ways of thinking, there are practices that boards can adopt. So it starts with making a shift towards stewardship, really understanding that the role of the board is to leave the system better than how they found it. We often invite boards to operate from a leadership perspective and and honestly, I don’t believe that we need boards to lead. We need boards to understand their stewardship responsibilities, that longer term perspective, trying to figure out what they can do to leave it better than how they found it. And again, there are practices that they can perform underneath that. Really thinking differently about governing. How do we make governing about building the capacity of the organization, making sure the organization has a coherent view of what it is capable of, of of doing, making progress the areas it wants to make progress. And then how does it build the capability to to sustain that progress? And then also, how can it really prepare itself to be able to continue moving forward even when conditions get difficult? I talked about really three ideas there of coherence, capability and continuity.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:16:16] And so I think all of those parts of the way of thinking about governing are essential. And then, as I’ve alluded to, the the notion of foresight, the intentional process of learning with the future that for a board is really codified, the idea of the duty of foresight that we’ve got to have boards focusing as much of their attention as possible on long term issues, long term questions, these bigger considerations, bigger critical situations that are before us and thinking about how their organizations can be constructive contributors to addressing those issues. And that’s really where. They need to be and enabling others other contributors in the organization, younger people, more diverse staff and voluntary contributors to the association participating in shaping some of the short term strategic choices while enabling the board to really focus long term and then having everyone really work together and collaborate more fully in shaping a different future. I think these are all things that that boards can begin to do, but it begins with shifting mindsets, and then they can begin to implement next practices to be able to move their work in new directions.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:23] Now, do you have kind of a profile of an ideal board that you like to work with, or are they of a certain size or are they in a certain industry?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:17:33] You know, I work with boards across different industries, professions and fields. For me, the kind of board I want to work with is a board that understands what we’re talking about here, that understands the stakes, that understands that this is a moment of truth, that understands the opportunity before them and the necessity of taking action. And really, another attribute that I would say lead to that is is also a board that is willing to challenge its own orthodoxy. I define orthodox beliefs as the deep seated assumptions that we make about how the world works. When a board is willing to challenge the orthodoxy as opposed to being a perpetuation of the orthodoxy, which is often the case, certainly over the course of 30 years, I’ve seen lots of orthodoxy and associations perpetuated by what boards do, if they’re willing to challenge their own orthodoxy and become important contributors and champions for the process of challenging that orthodoxy, that is a very positive step forward. So I’m wide open to assisting and supporting any association board that is really understands where we are and understands where where we need to go and is willing to shift its ways of thinking and acting, thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy to get to where we need to go.
Lee Kantor: [00:18:45] And if somebody out there wants to get a hold of you and get on your calendar, learn more about your practice. What’s a website?
Jeff De Cagna: [00:18:53] Best place to look for me is LinkedIn. Jeff On LinkedIn is the URL you can use for that or they can email me directly at Jeff at Foresight first. Oh.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:04] Good stuff. Well, congratulations on all the success, Jeff, and thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Jeff De Cagna: [00:19:11] Thank you very much, Leigh. It was a pleasure.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:13] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We will see you all next time on Association Leadership Radio.