Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers” is about conditions that create super successful people. He believes it is not simply a level of intelligence and thousands of hours of practice, it is also opportunity. In his book “David and Goliath”, he talks about the disadvantages of taking a bright student and placing him/her in a top-notch prestigious institution of higher learning. He believes that there is a high chance that the exceptionally bright student, when placed in an environment of all exceptionally bright students, will quickly become demoralized and will underperform. These two ideas come together quite nicely when thinking about small trade associations or non-profit organizations.

Many of those who work at such organizations may be living Gladwell’s theories. Gladwell’s idea that a small pond is actually more advantageous for bright individuals and the opportunity that small associations afford may allow people to thrive.

When you decide to accept a position at one of these small ponds you will soon:

  1. Learn to make due with resources that the organization just simply cannot afford.
  2. Sink or swim. In order to achieve goals you need to learn to wear many hats.
  3. Experience an intense feeling of ‘belonging’; you have become part of a family.
  4. Have an extraordinary opportunity to become a leader and agent of change.
  5. Be able to express your creative-side in helping to solve problems and work as a team.

Make Due

At times it can be extremely frustrating. You know you need x, y, z to get a job done, but it’s just not in the cards due to a lack of finances. But you are trying to serve your members and help the association grow. This forces you to come up with creative ways to achieve your goals with little help. Just a couple of small examples that show you will need to use your brain:

  • You can’t afford Photoshop for a staff of five, so you purchase just one license. Now your business process has to change so all image manipulations are done by one person.
  • Printing costs have skyrocketed, so you have to come up with a way to substitute electronic versions that can be distributed easily to your members.
  • Licensing costs of your AMS are killing you. You know that you can tap into your database using MS Access and those staff who just need reports or need to query don’t need a license to do so. Anybody can create queries and reports in Access and you won’t need to hire a high priced .net developer or a SQL Reporting Services professional.

Sink or Swim

If your association is to keep up with technology and keep member benefits thriving then staff is going to, at times, be thrown into the pool without a life-jacket.

Perhaps it’s time you moved some of your live seminars online to save costs while still delivering valuable information to your members. You probably don’t have an LMS expert on hand, or maybe never even tried an online webinar product such as Adobe Connect or GoToWebinar. Suddenly someone at your association needs to become an expert. It’s an opportunity for hands-on learning! You don’t often get those opportunities in a large organization, so take it while you can.

Part of a Family

After working at the same association for so many years, the people I’ve worked with have become like family. You struggle with the challenges together, you strive for the one same goal – to serve your members, and you cry together over tragedies. It’s a bond that isn’t likely to be made in a big pond. When you have such bonds with people, you are more likely to work harder and care more intensely about the organization and the mission to serve its members.

Agent of Change

When you are just a little fish in that big old pond, you are not likely to be heard. Who’s going to listen to an idea that the guy in the mailroom has at IBM? But in a small pond, every voice NEEDS to matter. This gives you an opportunity to become an agent of change. How satisfying is that? How can you get bored with a job that gives you an opportunity to ‘matter’?

Creativity and Teamwork

Many times I’ve been is a situation where a challenge is presented and my superior is up to her eyeballs in other pressing matters and so… “Go figure it out” is the only answer! Wow! I get to use my creative juices and then feel quite proud about it afterwards. That’s amazing that I have an opportunity to be creative.

You can see from the four theories so far mentioned, that small pond organizations need people to think outside the box, to be frugal and creative with solutions, and to be part of a family. Working for a small pond association is Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of opportunity, one of his keys to unlocking the secret of becoming an “Outlier”.

Thanks for allowing me to share my experiences and thoughts with you!

J A Beres

Malcolm Gladwell References


David and Goliath: