“We totally appreciate you being our voice,” a member and laboratory leader told Michelle Hoad as she stood in the lobby of their hospital.  She was on her way home after visiting the government and had found a couple of minutes to swing by and personally update the member while she was in the area.  Three years into her tenure as CEO of MLPAO she had built a network of leaders like that one, increased membership by 35%, and delivered on her promise to “change everything.”  It wasn’t easy though... 

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Medical Laboratory Professionals' Association of Ontario

Note from John: "I incorrectly stated Michelle's credentials in this interview's introduction. She has a Diploma in Business Administration from Seneca College not a 'Certificate of Business Administration'"

Key Takeaways

On the Importance of Starting with Assessment

  • How doing an audit first set the stage for growth. 8:54
  • How Michelle ran her own focus groups and used that data to set strategic initiatives for the next year. 19:10

On Effective Tactics to Grow

  • The impact of personal touch on growth.  26:35
  • How Michelle built a think tank that has driven growth and become a strategic asset for the association 28:05
  • How her think tank has helped them to identify training opportunities to better serve members and increase revenue- training that their only competitor can’t provide. 47:30

On Member Value

  • Michelle’s “corporate hack” to build member value and how that led to increasing services for members that they don’t have to pay for and is cheap for the association.  37:20
  • “Look in the places you wouldn’t think of looking” 48:22

On Staff & Culture

  • A simple and quick technique Michelle uses to evaluate the effectiveness of staff administrators 10:55
  • How Michelle built a performance focused culture with her staff that led to a 28% improvement in renewals compared to the previous year.  15:00
  • The key trait your membership and marketing coordinator needs to have 25:00

On Working With Your Board

  • If you want to grow, “don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions to your board” 51:20
  • The infrastructure Michelle uses in her interaction with her board and how policies develop as people need clarification.  34:50
  • The four metrics Michelle is evaluated by her board and how she aligns two of those metrics with her membership marketing coordinator (membership numbers) and her manager of professional services (certification revenue) 35:35 & 15:35


Full Transcript

John Hooley: Okay, I'm John Hooley. I'm the President of Steward. I'm here with Michelle Hoad who has a Certificate of Business Administration for CAE, and is the Chief Executive Officer of the Medical Laboratory of Professionals Association of Ontario. Thanks for being with me today.

Michelle Hoad: Thanks for having me.

John Hooley: So the reason I wanted to talk to you today was because I saw you at CSAE, and you gave a fantastic presentation on turning around an association. You started with 2,000 members, is that right?

Michelle Hoad: We were at about 2,300 members, right.

John Hooley: 2,300 members? You saw really great growth as you worked through your time there where you currently are. But what I noticed in your presentation when you started was you talked about your physical fitness and your avocation. When I saw you do that, I first thought like, "Okay, it's somebody explaining what they love." But as we got into what you went through, I was like, "Oh wow, I can really see why that was so important." Can you talk a little bit about your background there?

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, sure. So I grew up in a family of complete athletics. Three older brothers who spend most of your childhood them throwing a football to me, then I threw a football back and that's what happened.

Michelle Hoad: I went to school, studies phys ed for the first year, and then I had to, unfortunately, drop out because my mother got sick. Then I went back to school, studied business. But I think one thing that was pretty core for me was the importance of staying physically fit. I believe that there's actually a core relation between physical fitness and mental fitness. So I kept that up.

Michelle Hoad: I got into doing competitive triathlons for a period of my life. Got certified as a fitness instructor, as a personal trainer and did all of that in the spare time. I believe that is the core of what built my mental strength. This morning I woke up and ran three miles. It's what I do. It's the best way to get energy. So that fitness component part of my life has been there and it will always be there.

John Hooley: You currently still do it, right? You run a business on the side.

Michelle Hoad: I actually have a fitness business that I do. I just don't have a lot of time for it right now. But I teach a few spin classes a week just when I've got some time. I've got two classes on the schedule. But, unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of being able to train others right now.

John Hooley: Yeah. Yeah, so I was doing a little bit of internet stalking of you before we hopped on the call today, and I was reading your blog. What stood out to me was how disciplined you are, how driven you are and have been consistently over time. It made me think of, in your presentation, how you talked about your commute going to work and what you faced when you got there.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah.

John Hooley: So you were hired by the Board to take over the association, and what I remember from your talk was that you specifically had a mandate to make changes there. Is that right?

Michelle Hoad: Correct.

John Hooley: What were they hoping for? What was the situation when you came into it?

Michelle Hoad: So I had inherited an association that had a Executive Director that was there for 20 years, and the Board brought me in and pretty much said, "We really need to look at changes," and what is the changes going to look like from the perspective of we need to move the association from functioning like it was in the 1980's to current day?

Michelle Hoad: So speaking to the commute, I live in Hamilton and the position was in downtown Toronto. So that was a 20-minute on a good day drive to a train, and an hour and ten train ride to a 25-minute subway ride, and then a five-bock walk. So door-to-door was two hours and 20 minutes one way.

John Hooley: Wow.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah. You make the best of it. It affords you the luxury of watching tons of Netflix and other things you wouldn't be able to do. But when I first got there, I inherited a staff that had been there for a very long time. They were used to very specific processes and the processes worked. That's what worked for them.

Michelle Hoad: So with the mandate of change and walking into a staff that had been doing work the same way for 15-20 years, it was definitely a challenge.

John Hooley: You said that it worked, but I assume the Board brought you in for a reason. What were some of the symptoms of being back in the 1980's and being behind-

Michelle Hoad: Some of the examples were just a misunderstanding of how Outlook works. They didn't understand there was a calendar feature in Outlook. They only thought that it was used for email. They were tracking membership numbers in a notebook. So they would actually have a notebook with a pen, and as a new member came in they would actually write the next number sequence. That's how they tracked it.

John Hooley: So it's up to 2001, it's just like a long list of numbers?

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, yeah.

John Hooley: Wow.

Michelle Hoad: I had an assistant that dedicated several hours a day throughout the week sharpening pencils because we also offer an exam here in Ontario. So she would sharpen 1,200 pencils over a period of four weeks. They ... What else did they do? Their ... Oh, let me think. Their communication methods, they didn't like using an email-based software program to update members. They felt it was bothersome for members. They liked-

John Hooley: So they were sending mass communications from their personal-

Michelle Hoad: Yeah. They didn't think that was a good idea. A lot of the communication they did was by paper direct mail. So when I first did the analysis of the financial perspective, I couldn't believe how much time and money was being wasted into printing material and sending it out. Every single board package was mailed, first mailer, second mailer, third mailer, mailed to 12 different directors living in an area. It costs to mail here.

John Hooley: Wow. So you said that it worked for them, but I assume it's a ... If it was working, the Board would not have wanted changes. I think in your presentation you said that there was a 2% year-over-year decline in membership.

Michelle Hoad: Correct.

John Hooley: Did that drive the decision to try to bring in fresh blood and to turn things around and modernize?

Michelle Hoad: I think what happened was the Executive Director that had come in prior to me had, in her first 10 years, had done a very good job of dealing with some major changes that was happening in our profession. Then I think the Board became very hands-off, and I think what she started to do was she started to not really implement anything new because what she'd started with in 1996 worked. So therefore, there was no need. The last time they did a membership increase was in 2000 and we just-

John Hooley: Oh wow.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, so we just did one this past year. But I think what happened from the Board perspective is they became very hands-off and they didn't want to jump into any changes because things had worked. Then I think there was a culture that was built at the leadership level where the organization is running just fine so there's really no need to change anything. I think the Board had collectively decided they weren't really going to push for change unless there was new leadership.

John Hooley: At some point in time, they decided that that was necessary because they started to talk with you, right? You were notified there was a position going to be opening up by some of the Board members.

Michelle Hoad: Correct, correct. It was interesting because in my first interview when I went in there, it was probably, I think, one of the most candid interviews I'd ever had because I was very, very knowledgeable of the association. They just said, "If you could change two things, what would it be?" I said, "We could be here for an hour because I would probably change everything." That was a bit of a joke now moving forward because I still keep in contact with a lot of past Chairs that have left, and they said, "When you talked about change, you really meant it," and I said, "Well, things needed to change."

John Hooley: Right. Didn't you consult for a while?

Michelle Hoad: I did.

John Hooley: When you first came into your position, I think you mentioned in your session that you did an audit as your very first thing.

Michelle Hoad: I did.

John Hooley: How did that impact things? How did that perspective coming in ... Because I doubt that every CEO or Executive Director that rolls in, the first thing they do is say, "Okay, how can we approach this rationally?"

Michelle Hoad: So, I had just actually completed my CAE designation with the CSAE, and my final assignment was I chose to do it on accountability in an association. So what I did was I did accountability from the top level down to the bottom employees. So it was a great project because I looked at how does every level of an association stay accountable from governance right down to operations. So I had just come off of that, and when I joined the association at the time I thought, "This is a perfect CAE assignment." It was perfect. So I thought, "What I'm going to do is I'm just going to do an audit on every single department that exists, and let's just see what shakes out of it."

Michelle Hoad: I didn't expect to find everything that I found. I really thought I would find, "Let's update our technology. Let's update some of our processes." But through that audit in the first I think it was 40 days that I had done it, there were some immediate things that needed to happen. Items such as security, such as ensuring that things were stored properly. But as I mentioned in my presentation, the culture needed to change. So if we were really going to implement all these changes, you need the right people in the right jobs in order to make that happen.

John Hooley: Right. Did you get pushback when you were doing the audit? I know a lot of times if people begin to sense that they're being assessed or that their performance is being assessed, they dig in their heels and, "Why do we have to do this?" Or, "It's always worked this way."

Michelle Hoad: I had a little bit of pushback from some of the admin. I asked them to ... and this is a process I've used in the past, where you pretty much grab a spreadsheet and if somebody has an administrative job, you grab five categories and then dump in what are the five core things that they do. I'd asked them if they could just, on average, put in by the hour or by the half-hour, every day what they did. The pushback I had from admin after about a week and a half was that it was too cumbersome for them to do that. I had an employee in tears saying that it was too hard for her to track what she did.

Michelle Hoad: I didn't really ... You know what, I think I said this in the presentation where I felt like I was being punked every day. I couldn't really comprehend that. But then as the weeks bled on, I realized that this specific admin wasn't very busy. So it was hard to fill out the spreadsheet when you don't really have a lot to do.

John Hooley: Right. Yeah, and I can understand how that would be very threatening.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, yeah.

John Hooley: So, one of the things you touched on a little bit was you said there was what some people might say is a culture of entitlement, like, "This is the way it's been. We deserve our jobs. We don't have to prove that we're providing value to members or anything like that." That seems like a symptom of it. "I'm not doing a lot. I'm not willing to tell you that I'm not doing a lot because it's dangerous to keep you doing this." Did you see other things that were like that?

Michelle Hoad: I had the opportunity to review just processes like performance appraisal processes and how compensation increases were applied, and there was a history of compensation increases given pretty much regularly year over year. There wasn't a strong core relation related to performance, so that was a bit concerning. I think it got to a point where when you got to November there was an assumption you're getting a raise and you're getting something else. That's because that's just what happens each year. I found that practice to be a little concerning because in our current day everything we do is measurable and accountable. So performance appraisals is one way to do it.

Michelle Hoad: So, that was the one area that I noticed. Even small little things like there was a ... we had a budget line set aside that every ... right before the holidays, there would be a certain amount of money allocated to a gift card to every employee. They would automatically have a Christmas lunch. They got to pick where they went to lunch. That was a standard thing they did every November. So, when I first got there, they were astonished that I hadn't booked a lunch, that they didn't get their gift cards, and I'm trying to catch up, right? I'm trying to catch up with all their processes. But there was ... the assumption was, "That's what we get every year. It comes on November 3rd," and that's what the expectation was.

John Hooley: Yeah. So, I don't think that is singular to the association space. I think there are businesses that establish a certain amount of dominance when they become like that. But do you think those sorts of attitudes and that sort of culture is something that you see more of in the association space? It can happen with ... because a lot of these organizations go way back.

Michelle Hoad: I actually had five years at another association that I was there for a period of time and it definitely existed. The culture, I think, sometimes in association is because you are underpaid, because you have less benefits. Because of that, there's an expectation that you get other things, and those other things become, I think, a certain feeling that you're entitled to those because you're being underpaid.

John Hooley: Right.

Michelle Hoad: Right. So, that's one thing I've tried to do is build a culture that's completely different. I think one thing that's really important is not-for-profit doesn't mean ... I like to look at it as not for loss. So you run an association where you're not losing money. But I come from that corporate world, and the corporate world, you earn every single thing you're given, and if you have the potential to potentially earn more ... That's an example right now what I've done with current staff is my compensation has specific factors associated to some very key performance indicators, and I have now expanded that to staff. So my Membership and Marketing Coordinator, her targets now are specific driven to membership. My Manager of Professional Services, her target's a specific revenue specific to certification. Those two roll-up to me so everybody's accountable.

Michelle Hoad: So they come in and they have a target. Today's a perfect example. We have had membership open now for six weeks. Our renewals are 28% higher than they were current-day last year, and that is primarily because we've got a Membership and Marketing Coordinator who's got a target to drive membership.

John Hooley: These are ... I know from your presentation, but I think I need to make it known for the sake of this recording, but these are new people, right?

Michelle Hoad: Correct.

John Hooley: Do you have any ... I think I'd mentioned to you over email, culture's really hard to make changes to when it's established. Do you have anybody from the old organization?

Michelle Hoad: No, I didn't. I would say of the group that was there, there was one lady that ... We ended up shifting the office and moving it, and the move was fairly distant. So they chose not to come, so we managed that. There was one lady ... Actually, she was the one with one of the longest tenures there. I'm sorry, she was there the shortest tenure but the eldest of the group who was the one that embraced the change. She said, "This absolutely needs to change." It's unfortunate she didn't join with us, but if she did, she would've been tremendous.

John Hooley: Yeah, and you didn't move arbitrarily. It wasn't an arbitrary decision. Wasn't there ... When you did your audit, you found this certain expense [inaudible 00:17:31] and the location was one of them.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah. So we were located in one of the highest rent areas in Toronto. We were slightly north of Toronto, one of its highest rent districts. The move now is saving us almost $1,900 a month in rent.

John Hooley: Oh wow. Pretty nice.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, yeah. It's nice when you can shift that money, right? Now we're shifting that money to member services where the members are actually benefiting from the additional money.

John Hooley: That's perfect. How did you ... I think a lot of this came out of your audit, right? How did you prioritize what you found? You said security was a high priority. I think you mentioned in your talk that somebody off the street could literally walk in and look at some of the private information.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah.

John Hooley: But what were ... How did you choose what to focus on in terms of improving the association?

Michelle Hoad: I think there were five components to the audit, but I think the ... So, I went based on what had the largest impact to the membership and actually what had the largest impact for us to increase revenue. So, from a revenue perspective, getting to members, communicating to members, and explaining membership value was priority for me and the association, and that meant updating our technology. So, updating everything from our membership database, how we were communicating. One of the key things we did was we actually went out and we offered two membership focus groups and asked the members why they were members, why they weren't members, why they left the association, and we grabbed that data. Then that helped us funnel for the following year the priorities.

Michelle Hoad: I think it's interesting because my background came from when I spent a little bit of time in the finance world. I think the value of membership is so important. I say the value of money is so important, but every time you expect somebody to spend money, there has to be a purpose for them to do that. In the not-for-profit association world, it is even more heightened because a lot of membership isn't mandatory. For us, it's not mandatory, it's optional. So, the thought process is always, "How can we get into your pocket to pull that money out so you're going to send it to us?" There has to be a catch for that. So, that's what drove the priority. So first, it's let's look at member value and asking members what they want through the two focus groups, which we did.

John Hooley: Did you do one of those focus groups yourself, or did you bring in a consultant, because I know you had consulted a few times.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah. Nope, we ran them ourselves, and that was just because I've got a fair bit of marketing background. But it was we preset what the questions were, so we paid for them to come, so paid for their expenses to come, put them in a room for a day. My background of fitness also really helps because we made sure it was interactive. But it was great because we had different variety of stakeholders that said they had never seen this happen with this association before, so they were curious. But the data coming out of both of those groups was very, very helpful for us to drive forward what we needed to do and change.

John Hooley: Did you find anything in those groups that surprised you or that was different than your assumptions going in, like you thought members were going to value this or want this, and actually that wasn't the case?

Michelle Hoad: I think the thing that surprised me the most is we have a membership base in healthcare here that has struggled for a lot of years because of shortages in this space. Now we have a group that it takes a lot to make them happy. I'm going to state it that way. It takes a lot. It takes a lot for them to see change. It takes a lot for them to be convinced something's going to happen. So, a lot of the feedback I got was it may not matter what you do, people may just not choose to come back. So, that was a surprise for me, which then made us work harder at trying to figure out there's got to be a catch somewhere.

Michelle Hoad: In the last two years, we've started to notice we have a shortage of lab technologists here in Ontario. So, the work that we're doing this year and upcoming year is all about government advocacy and the importance of that in speaking to the government. So I'm in at least once a week talking to the government, and I've made a point of actually going out and visiting all our labs and talking to members and telling them about the work we're doing. That now has become the main membership value proposition for them because they're like, "Great! Somebody's our voice with the government."

John Hooley: Nice. In terms of the labs, who is the member? Is it individual technicians? Is it the lab operator?

Michelle Hoad: So, there are technicians and technologists. We have two groups here. So, they both ... They're either working at what we have here in Ontario, a private lab or a public lab. So, a public lab would be a hospital, and the private lab would be a private institution that runs a similar service.

John Hooley: I think you mentioned that a lot of your membership growth has been through these in-person meetings, is that right?

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: When you talk about the value of membership, do you see different objections depending on what you're highlighting, like with advocacy? Are you seeing the same objections that you got before? Is it easier to sell?

Michelle Hoad: Now I'm able to speak to a core issue that they have. So this whole shortage of technologists right now is alive and well with everybody that lives and breathes it. So, our most recent magazine that we just published, we actually published real stories of people that are living the nightmare. So it's great because now you've got a technologist who says a great story of a couple out in Northern Ontario that are trying to retire but they can't, and people in their community know what they do. They say to them, "You can't retire because you do our [inaudible 00:24:02] work," and they can't retire, right? So it's stories like that where the every-day technologist can actually open the magazine up and go, "This is me. This is my problem whether I live in northern part of the province, or southern part of the province, or east, or west."

Michelle Hoad: In Ontario here in Canada, it is extremely large province, so people can be thousands of miles away from each other and have the exact same issue. So, that concept of community is really starting to work for us.

John Hooley: Oh wow. What was the ... We talked about culture a little bit in the staff before. What's the culture like in the association? Do you feel like it's strong, getting stronger? Do you think it was diminishing, because I know the membership was in decline before you took the reins. Are members connected to each other? Is there a value proposition there?

Michelle Hoad: Yeah. So, from a staff perspective, I feel pretty fortunate because I think we have the right people in the right job now. I say that because we have a Membership and Marketing Coordinator who enjoys speaking to members. That may sound very basic, but you need somebody who likes talking to people, likes solving people's problems. One thing she's very good at is she thanks people for their membership. It's so simple, right?

John Hooley: Is that Tanya?

Michelle Hoad: No, that's actually Danika.

John Hooley: Ah, okay.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, Danika. So Danika joined us in July of this year. But perfect example is we had an email list go out last night from my computer with my name on it saying, "You haven't renewed yet," etc., etc. I got an email back from a person who hasn't renewed in several years, and she said, "I read your email this morning, and it's just really nice to have somebody personalize an email that comes directly to me because you're interested in me joining." My inside voice is, "Well actually I didn't write it. It was one of my staff who's fantastic at writing."

John Hooley: That's the burden of leadership. You just have to take credit for everything good.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, so she said she's just great that way. There are conversations where I'll overhear her talking and she'll be talking to people and they can't find a job, and she'll make suggestions on different job boards, and then she'll get emails saying, "Thanks very much for taking the time." I think the culture in our current day is we are missing, and I say this because of technology, but we are missing the personal factor of actually taking the time and effort to actually speak to people. I think the lab tours that we're doing now is making such a large difference.

Michelle Hoad: Next week, I'm headed out again so I'll visit three labs next week. But the drive will be ... The first day's an hour drive, and then I go another hour and a half further and then I'll come back. Then I'm in Toronto. But just getting in front of these people and giving them a chance to listen to what we're doing, the response is, "Oh great, someone's actually talking for us." You know?

John Hooley: Right. Yeah, so just to get an idea of numbers, the organization was in 2% decline year over year for 20 years.

Michelle Hoad: Yep.

John Hooley: When you came in, how many members did you have?

Michelle Hoad: We had about 2,200 and a half, so almost 2,300 members. I think we were 2,279.

John Hooley: And you've been CEO for about how long? A year and a half? Two years?

Michelle Hoad: So three years-

John Hooley: Three years.

Michelle Hoad: ... a couple of weeks ago, yep.

John Hooley: And what's the membership numbers look like now? How's that decline look?

Michelle Hoad: So our renewals that closed for this year were at 3,100.

John Hooley: Oh nice.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah.

John Hooley: That's pretty great considering the trajectory. That's a huge c-change. I think I asked you at the end of your session what you attributed to, and you said these lab visits.

Michelle Hoad: Yep.

John Hooley: Do you think that's most of what it was?

Michelle Hoad: One strategy I tried, which has worked well, is reaching out to the leadership of labs and building a community there. So, last year we brought together something I called "a think tank", and that's not my idea. There have been think tanks all over the world, done all the time. So, I invited every lab leader here in Ontario to attend, and we had 62 show up. So these are Directors, CEO of labs, and just a chance for them to get together and talk about what their issues were. What I did at the front of that presentation is I actually mined a whole bunch of data specifically to what's happening. So retirement data, data at hospitals, what our potential future could look like, and then had them break out and talk about what they think their core issues are. Once I did that last year, I kept their information, and I have been emailing them once a month. We call it "In the loop" just because that's a terminology in the lab, around changes that may be pertinent to them at a leadership level.

Michelle Hoad: What that's done for me is it's provided me a pool of potential Board members, and it's provided me the opportunity to network with them where they're now inviting me to the lab to speak to their staff. So, I like it because my personality is I like talking to people, that's just the way I am, and finding commonalities with them. Meeting with this group now, I'll just get people that call me and text me. I'm the center of information now, and that's really nice to have that, right? That has worked really, really well. So, influencing the leadership of the membership that we can get has worked for us.

John Hooley: Yeah, that's brilliant. That's a really great strategy. I like how you took something that was working, and you made it even better. Did you ... For the original think tank, was that a paid event, or was that something that the association did?

Michelle Hoad: We actually paid the first time. It's funny you say that because I just finished the budget, and we had this big discussion at the Board meeting around do we pay for them to come back. I think what we've decided is we're actually going to run ... Now we're going to call it leadership consortium. It sounds so much neater. We're going to assign a small cost to it, so just to cover food for the day, and then they have to get there on their own. But now that they know what it's about, we've got people on a wait list now that want to come. So we're running it next June.

John Hooley: Oh wow.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, yeah. So we're going to do that.

John Hooley: Yeah, I love it in terms of an influence or strategy because I imagine it's hard to talk to every member. You think about doing the ... you driving on the road all year if you had to talk to every member.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, I've got a key director in downtown Toronto. So, I was in to see the Ministry of Health who's our key person that we talk to about shortages, and I was on the GO train going down, and I haven't talked to this person in a while and so I had his number, so I texted him. I said, "Listen, I'm in to see the government." He's a director of many labs in the area and I just said, "Do you want to maybe get together for a quick coffee or me to drop in and say hi?" So I was able to see the government and I was running late. So I dropped into his hospital and we literally met in the foyer for a quick hug and just like, "How did it go? How did the conversation go?" Then he said, "Can you stay for lunch," and I said, "I'd love to but I got to go home and I got to work out tonight." I try to keep my priorities right because my Go train's [inaudible 00:32:01] time to get home.

Michelle Hoad: So I'll go see him again, but it's just nice to have that connection where I can just text him and he could say, "Drop in to say hi." It's hard to get that face time sometimes.

John Hooley: Right. I think it must feel good to feel like you were an asset to these people, to feel your members really value and appreciate what you're doing for them.

Michelle Hoad: And it was interesting because on my way out, he made a point to say to me, "We totally appreciate you being our voice." It's just little comments like that that make all the work worth it.

John Hooley: Right. But it's been hard. You had to change a lot. You mentioned, I think, in your talk that you brought in a governance consultant to think about the Board's roles and what they should be doing and shouldn't be doing. How did that factor into things?

Michelle Hoad: In the beginning, it was really good. So, I had a Board that was very open to change. So, it's interesting because I've just had a changeover in Board right now, and the first group that I had, the first two groups were easy. They got their role, they understand how we function, there was a lot of change. So they went from extremely operational to more of a Governance Board, and we are a governance ... And I say Governance Operational Board because they need to build their own policies. That's what we do here.

Michelle Hoad: To now, what's happened is the expectations of our Board have gone up, so the quality of our Board has gone up. Now I'm having Board members come in who've sat in other Boards who are pure governance and don't expect to do anything. So I have my Chair who texted me last night, and she goes, "The problem is we're so good," and she goes ... She said, "Now we have such good people, but the bar is so high." She goes, "We really need to figure out how to be less good," and it was more of a funny text message.

Michelle Hoad: But now I'm in a situation where I might have to bring my governance consultant back in, and I think we're going to do that. We've got a Board Development Committee that looks at development for the Board to figure out how do we set the clarification of role and responsibilities from every position and what they do, and that they need to be a little more hands-on, if I can say that.

John Hooley: Did you ... I saw a couple sessions at CSAE. Did you have job descriptions as part of your Board seats?

Michelle Hoad: We do. We do. So all the Board Officers have job positions, descriptions. We've got a Board Policy document. We have 45 policies that everything from how my performance appraisal process works, to how their expectations are when they come to a Board meeting, to our reserve fund how that works, our investment strategy how that works. Everything's documented.

Michelle Hoad: But one thing I'm learning meeting after meeting is more policies start to originate when you need clarification.

John Hooley: Right, where the gray stuff is.

Michelle Hoad: Yep.

John Hooley: So part of the changes, something that you discussed earlier was the metrics. You got metrics for your performance. What do those look like? How are the evaluating you?

Michelle Hoad: So there's four metrics that I get measured on. One is a percentage of income over admin expenses has to be less than a percent. They measure me on total member income, total member numbers, so a driver of numbers, and total revenue in certification, which is our alternate revenue stream. So those are the four numbers that we use. Then, as I mentioned earlier, I drive two of those down to staff.

John Hooley: Right. Part of that that's changed since you took over was you've added some different revenue streams.

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: One of them you noticed early on, right?

Michelle Hoad: Yes. So membership revenue and certification revenue were the two main streams. Continuing education was one, but we've really worked at increasing that. Those are the three core ones now that are working well for us.

John Hooley: How did you ... what's that?

Michelle Hoad: So the other one is ... I call it a sponsorship vendor stream, but we starting to offer education events where we actually invite vendors to show up and they get 10 minutes on stage in front of a crowd, and we're charging for that. So, that's another little revenue stream that's starting to build for us.

John Hooley: How'd you come to the decision to expand your streams? Was it the need for more revenue? Or was it the perception that there was a potential weakness because you're standing on, what, just one leg of revenue?

Michelle Hoad: When I first joined and I lay out ... It was neat because in most not-for-profits you keep everything, so there was data back to 1980. So, I like numbers, so I pretty much charted from as early as I could until now what membership revenue looked like, and as I had mentioned, it was a 2% decline in the last almost 12 years. That was pretty much good incentive to look at either there has to be another way to find revenue, and I say that as a driver of services, right? So it's not just looking at money but trying to figure out what service you can provide to members so that they're willing to pay for it. I think that's my corporate hat that I always bring. I think service, and I'm thinking money because that's what it is, right?

Michelle Hoad: Then on the association side, it's member value. So they associate that, and that's the way the two are married.

John Hooley: Right, so the question is how can we provide more value members.

Michelle Hoad: Correct, correct. That's what we did. We're still asking ourselves our question. I'll tell you one strategy we've come up with in the last little while that's a little different is looking at providing services that members don't have to pay for, but where members think that membership value is going up. So right now we've done this whole podcast, and we started with podcasts where we've been interviewing members each month about the shortages. We have had tremendous feedback about it. So, these are every-day people. We have a Marketing and Membership Coordinator who goes to a local library, she doesn't pay for the recording room, she records through Zoom, and we post it through, of course, the standard medias that you can do. We've just had members that have just said, "It is absolutely fantastic to have this option where we can listen to other people's problems."

Michelle Hoad: What that's done is it's encouraged people to come back so our membership revenue's going up. That's been because of value through podcasts.

John Hooley: So do you periodically reach out to expired members that chose not to renew?

Michelle Hoad: Yeah. So we actually have individually emailed each one. We've followed up with a direct-mail letter because there's other people that communicate that way, and we have followed up with phone calls.

John Hooley: One of the positive influences on that has been that podcast. You have your voice for their government, but also a voice for each other.

Michelle Hoad: Yes, yes.

John Hooley: That's awesome. That's a great strategy. I like that you're scrappy about it and going to the library.

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, we're just ... It's actually pretty neat. I think the name, which is even funnier, is called the [Merry Berry 00:40:08] Library here in Hamilton. Everybody just loves saying the name. [crosstalk 00:40:19]

John Hooley: I love it. That's awesome. The ... sorry, I just lost my train of thought. I was looking at your member benefits page, and I noticed on there one of these ... You were writing a program called "The Healthy Lab Challenge". It's very much is a reflection, I think, of your personality. But what's the challenge?

Michelle Hoad: So mental health has been a very, very big, big factor or campaign here in Ontario and in Canada. So there's been a big push on mental health. What we thought might be a good idea is to explain that from an extension of mental health is ensuring that you are physically healthy because there's a portion of feeling better if you are feeling better physically. So we decided we would challenge all the labs in Ontario, and the challenge was if ... So we needed ... You enter a team. Of the team, two people at least had to be members, so we didn't make it extraordinary. You had to lose 5% of your body weight in a quarter, so the whole team had to. You had to participate in a community event, so whether that's a walk or a run for some purpose. The third factor was you had to write up a short essay, not very long, under 800 words of how you implemented healthy health habits in the lab.

Michelle Hoad: We did it by quarter. Every quarter, teams would be entered. Whoever hit the challenge would win $1,000, and they would share the $1,000 across the lot. So you're right. Definitely was influenced by me because I thought ... I even offered free suggestions or any type of advice. But when I do my presentations at the lab, I would talk about it. One of the neat things is that a lot of teams enter in January, which just makes a lot of sense. What the trend was, which I knew this, but I wanted to see it actually happen was the Q1 groups, three quarters of them wouldn't hit their target. Q2 groups definitely would because it's the quarter before summer.

John Hooley: Right, it's swimsuit season.

Michelle Hoad: Correct, correct. The Q3 groups completely missed it. I call it "the beer and barbecue tour". They just ... Not a good time to do it. Then the Q4 group, Q4 ended up being the busiest group, which I thought ... It's Thanksgiving, it's the holidays, but they all liked doing it through that time because it enforced the whole idea of controlling through the holidays.

Michelle Hoad: So right now, I think we've got four labs that are entered in this quarter, and we've ran it for two years. So we've decided we're not going to run it next year. We've got another campaign that we're going to start next year around advocacy. But it's really resulted in lots of great feedback for us. It's a way labs for them to work together on feeling better. We truly believe a healthier lab technologist and lab assistant produces a healthy work partner, produces a healthy workplace. So, there's a full extension of that from just ... yeah.

John Hooley: Yeah, I think it's a good example ... It's probably not a huge initiative, a huge shift or anything like that, but it's a good example of adding value, right, where you can?

Michelle Hoad: It is. The funny thing right now, too, is when I go out and do the lab tours, we buy pizza for the labs. So I'm talking about the healthy lab challenge, but then they're eating pizza. So I try to apologize for it. It's funny because they'll say, "Don't worry, we'll take the pizza. We'll take the pizza." I'm like, "Okay."

John Hooley: Right. So that's very different, I think, than probably any other organization. It's definitely one way that your association probably stands out. You said, I think, in your talk that you have one competitor, right?

Michelle Hoad: We do.

John Hooley: And that is your national organization?

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, we do. We compete for members in this province. So the national organization provides membership services for all of Canada. We are here specific in our province, so we're competing for the same people.

John Hooley: So this unique ... It's cultural but it's also a unique challenge. I'm sure it makes you different than national. National doesn't do anything like that do they?

Michelle Hoad: Well, what's challenging ... What their limitation is they can lobby federally, but they cannot lobby provincially. So, that is our differentiator here. So, the way it works here in Canada is a bucket of money is pushed to a province from the federal government, and the province then decides where they're going to spread it.

John Hooley: Right.

Michelle Hoad: So they are able to influence federally what happens, but healthcare decisions are made at the provincial level. So that would be the reason you would join your provincial association because we can actually influence how that money's spent.

John Hooley: Right. Right, so that's a key aspect of your value proposition is being able to make that distinction.

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: Do you run into any objections around people who are like, "Well, I'm already part of the national association. Why would I sign up?" Are there any other ways that you are able to add value or differentiate yourself?

Michelle Hoad: I get that objection probably every day, actually. [crosstalk 00:46:02] a lab tour, I get people who are like, "Well, why would I join both?" So what we promote, our company line is there is value to both. So we look at it as ... The way I talk about it is if you live here, you actually have the opportunity to join two. So, you have somebody working for you nationally, and you have somebody working for you provincially. That's how we sell it. Then I say, "If you need to pick one, I would suggest you look at who's going to actually help you in the province you're working in, and you can make that decision on your own." But we have made a very big effort to ensure that we promote both. They're one of our stakeholders. They're one of our partners. We do compete for the space, but ultimately, we're working for the same people. So, we try to tow the company line.

John Hooley: I imagine it's very challenging.

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: What about for the non-membership services you offer? I believe you offer training and some other things. Is it tricky to compete with national? Do you have to change your value proposition in terms of if somebody trains through you versus national?

Michelle Hoad: Yeah, we both offer courses. We both offer the same services. One thing we try to do is we try to stay linked in with what the actual needs are here. We've had success working with the leadership group and having that network with the leadership group because they'll call us up and say, "Can you guys do something specific to x, y and z?" And we said, "Absolutely, we can." So, that is starting to pick up for us. That differentiates us definitely from the national. I think one of their limitations is because they have to provide national services, they can't just jump to one province ... It's like having a national association in the U.S., are you going to go across country to provide some training? If you're trying to provide assistance to all of the country, it's a little bit harder. So that little niche for us really works well for us.

John Hooley: Right. Very much a niche advantage for marketing, being able to be more narrow.

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: In terms of the growth, the organization, is there any advice you would give another Executive Director or CEO that was experiencing that ... just drifting downward slope? Is there anything you would say, "You should really think about things this way," or, "You should really try this," or, "This is what's worked for me the most"?

Michelle Hoad: I would say my one piece of advice is I would ... I don't know how to say this. It's look in the places you wouldn't think of looking. I say that because I think not-for-profits have ... I wrote up a paper on the history of not-for-profits, and if you look at why they existed and why they started, they started because there was a core group of people that needed the same thing. So they thought, "Let's get together and let's see if we can go somewhere and get a deal because we're all asking for the same thing." That's why associations started.

John Hooley: Right.

Michelle Hoad: So, I think as the provider of that service, I think sometimes we get so close-minded thinking, "Well, that's why we're here, so therefore, that's what we should be providing." The challenge I would have is don't just assume that's the only thing you can do, right? I say that because we're an association that started in 1963. So, we started specifically assisting medical lab technologists because back in the day there were doctors, there were nurses, and there were MLTs. What happened as healthcare started to grow is lab assistants showed up. So what happened was lab assistants became part of the fold, but the association name never changed. They still had originally called themselves Ontario Society of Medical Technologists.

Michelle Hoad: When I came in, the discussion was, "Who else could we potentially include in our fold," which is looking at it completely differently because you're not just looking at two groups of people. So the area of growth for us has now been, "Who else sits under the umbrella of the lab?" That [inaudible 00:50:32] pathology assistants, they're clinical microbiologists, there's a whole group of people that we haven't even scratched the surface yet and talked to in regards to membership. I think I would say if somebody's coming into a role where they've got to think, "How am I going to drive membership," remember it's don't be so limited. You've got to try to find solutions in areas you've probably never even thought about.

John Hooley: Right. Yeah, limitations on perspective.

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: It reminds me of Nintendo, they're one of the world's oldest companies. They go back to 18 something, and they started off selling playing cards. So, very different, it grows over time. People's needs change over time.

Michelle Hoad: Yes.

John Hooley: That's some great advice.

Michelle Hoad: The other thing I would say is don't be afraid to ask the hard questions to your Board. I say that because some of the questions I asked them is ... Continuing education is a perfect example. It's been a service we've offered here forever and ever. But there's so much free continuing education, does it really make sense to offer it? Is it a value of service? That's a question right now that they are contemplating. Maybe we look at offering all our education for free.

John Hooley: Yeah.

Michelle Hoad: But raise your membership fees. Maybe offer maybe a package like, "We'll give you all of this stuff that you used to have to pay before, but you're going to pay a little bit more." It's just looking at solutions in a different manner.

John Hooley: So one of the things that I've seen with associations is they tend to be very risk-averse, and the Board in particular, nobody wants to be blamed for any sort of setback or failure. There's a sense that any bad thing that happens is terminal, like your reputation is forever damaged and people can't make mistakes as easily. Have you experienced that? How do you get around that?

Michelle Hoad: I had ... It's interesting because our financials up until the year I got here, the association had never lost money.

John Hooley: Right.

Michelle Hoad: And we were sitting on a very, very large reserve. When I came in, the Board was very, very specific. A lot of stuff needs to change. So the first budget I presented was a loss, or as admin people like to call it, reinvestment, that's the sexy word now. So, for three consecutive years now, we've had a loss. We've only had one member that's asked the question. At all our AGMs because the member said, "Why are you guys losing money year over year?" It was great because our Chair addressed the question by saying, "We need to reinvest back into the association because we were pretty stagnant for 15 years."

John Hooley: Right.

Michelle Hoad: Right. I think that was the biggest thing for me was ... my fear has always been, "We're doing all this work, we're doing all this work," and we've got to try to get back to balance, which we're hoping to do over the next couple of years. But when your Board directs you to make changes, and it's an investment of money, they speak to it at the membership. But you're the person sitting at the helm saying ... people are looking at you like, "What are you doing in there losing that kind of money?" But it's always marrying the value for what you've spent and then seeing the benefit, and that the growth in membership has been really, really helpful for us.

John Hooley: Yeah, it's interesting because I was sitting at a table where, after your talk, I talked with a few of the people, and somebody said that their organization was in that circumstance where they had developed this Board [inaudible 00:54:19], but it's because nobody was doing anything. Somebody else said something about concerning disbanding an association because it had become irrelevant, but they still had all this money sitting in their accounts. So it's definitely an interesting thing to see, and I think for your situation, specifically, when you come into an organization that they don't have doors on their offices, and they're writing their membership numbers in a notebook, there's a whole bunch of ... I think in the technology world they call it "technical debt". Things that we did in the past that are going to cause massive risk, and they have to be risks in the future that have to be paid for. You can't put it off forever.

John Hooley: So, it's a very ... I think your story is very interesting. That's why I wanted to talk with you today. I really appreciating you taking the time to share it, and to share your lessons and what you've learned going through it. So thank you so much.

Michelle Hoad: No problem. Thanks for the time.

John Hooley: Okay.

Michelle Hoad: Okay.

John Hooley
President, Steward

John is a graduate of 10,000 Small Businesses, a certified Customer Acquisition Specialist, and a Zend Certified Engineer. He speaks and writes on connecting digital strategy to association goals. Outside of work he's an avid traveler, climber, diver, and a burgeoning sailor. He also volunteers with Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters.