Convening a Summit with Authority to Lead Change

The Obama administration has stepped up its use of convening authority and is lining up a series of summits to invoke commitments to systemic change in the absence of cooperation from Congress.  Associations also turn frequently to stakeholder summits to secure voluntary commitments to major changes.

Last week when the stories about Obama again using what he called the “power of the telephone”, I was thinking about how convening authority works for associations while drafting a proposal to facilitate a high-stakes summit for an association this fall.  As I observed in an earlier blog and magazine article, associations can have a naïve view of what will happen if they convene a summit:

Declare a purpose and bold aspirations. Convene 100 or more influential leaders and stakeholders. Invite provocative ideas. Facilitate dialogue. Encourage breakthrough thinking. Celebrate shared vision or new opportunities. Watch change happen.

Summits are never that simple. That is why I saw some important lessons in Obama’s use of convening authority and shared the story with the volunteer leader chairing the proposed association summit. The White House doesn’t really have much more power than most associations to lead change in their sphere of influence. Summits only work if they are designed to get results:

  1. Have a worthy purpose for your summit. Obama’s latest summits are focused on getting more needy students into college and hiring more long-term unemployed people.

  2. Expect the leaders you invite to promise to commit to concrete changes.  Obama makes it a condition of the invitation that the participants will do their part.

  3. Engage a broad range of corporate, nonprofit and academic groups with a stake in the change.  This way you get a mix of perspectives and options on what might work plus you make people more accountable to one another for the proposed changes.

  4. Define the desired outcomes in advance.  The Obama administration sets policy targets for its summits. Know where the opportunities for agreement might be and make sure everyone who comes understands the opportunities for progress.

  5.  Use media to make the most of your agreements and your progress toward change.  The Obama administration used a multi-channel approach to promote the summits. Participants tweeted their participation and commitments thereby leveraging their networks for influence. Mainstream media covered the event providing public recognition and credibility.

  6. Build on and aggregate the changes people are already willing to make to create a sense of momentum. One White House summit participant acknowledged that their institution’s commitment was not a new initiative, but the White House gave them an “HOV lane and they were taking it”.

As one White House observer was quoted observing, 20% of the time something’s going to happen that leads to a meaningful impact; the other 80% of the time the summit’s buzz ends with the next news cycle. Or as I have seen in associations, the buzz ends with the association’s next set of annual priorities.

Convening authority is a power that should never be squandered.  You can get the changes you seek if you start with purposeful planning, set high expectations for participant commitment, and then stay the course.  Living up to your own stated priorities and commitments is the hard part for any leader and organization, whether you are President of the US or president of your association. Don’t convene anyone until you have a clear understanding of what you will do the many days after the buzz dies down.