Lead Forward to Excel in These Disruptive Times

Lorraine Clarno, ACE

Has there ever been a more exciting time to lead a chamber of commerce?

I recently had an interesting conversation with a couple of colleagues which ultimately concluded with the realization and agreement that incremental change, cautious risk taking, and long-term planning are no longer acceptable nor effective in the business of chamber work.

We, as organizations, and as chamber CEOs, are not just politely nudged to push forward; we are expected to lead the way through these constantly disruptive times. At the same time, we face the same challenges that our member businesses and communities do.

Balancing safety and responsibility for staff and members has become a day-to-day process for many of us. We also face staffing shortages and a decrease in volunteer involvement, with business leaders too busy focusing on their survival to commit or contribute their expertise to their local chamber as they have in the past.

Lead Forward

To say our business has changed or is challenging is an understatement, but it is no longer an excuse. That was 2020. As we approach what we could call the second anniversary of when our world changed as we know it — March 2022 — I believe it’s incumbent on us to lead forward and not look back. This means it is time to abandon any hopes or plans that things will ever return or be the same as in our pre-pandemic business model.

Solving community challenges is where successful chambers will excel going forward. Diversifying revenue streams and moving away from convening our members in the traditional way — events — is essential. Specific programming and special initiatives that your members and businesses will get behind and fund to drive quick, decisive, and impactful solutions to their pain points will be key. Workforce development is a paramount example of what we are, or should be, addressing today. Quality, affordable, and accessible childcare, workforce and attainable housing, community safety and homelessness are just a few examples.

That doesn’t mean we stop events or networking completely (in-person or virtually), but we cannot expect to rely on them for revenue and to keep the lights on.

Lean in on Advocacy

The importance of advocacy can’t be dismissed. Advocacy builds our brand, helps our members, and aligns perfectly with our missions. It is incumbent on us to lean in on advocacy and walk the walk demonstrating our value to our business community.

How do we do this? We reimagine. We reconstruct. We rethink. We retool. Most important, we relisten. We do all these every day as needed. Tomorrow is not promised, and tomorrow will not look like today. If you are still trying to do business in the same way with the same programming or the same events as you did pre-pandemic, I challenge you to reinvent.

Remember to use your network in W.A.C.E. and reach out. One of the best things about the chamber industry is how we share, commiserate, and are always there to help one another.

I’m looking forward to our W.A.C.E. Conference in February to learn from each of you and discover how you are navigating reality and “calling audibles” for your chamber and members’ success!

Lorraine Clarno, ACE, is president and CEO of the Kalispell (MT) Chamber of Commerce.