In every line of work, leaders are learning how to adapt to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) work environment.
The possibility of modifications to U.S. travel policy illustrates the kind of rapid change leaders must be ready to handle. I interviewed Iris Rush, the executive director of an international scientific society, to learn how she is leading her team through that uncertainty.
Describe your organization for those who might be unfamiliar with ARVO.
The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) is the largest eye and vision research organization in the world, with a mission to advance research worldwide into understanding the visual system and preventing, treating and curing its disorders. Our members include nearly 11,000 researchers from more than 75 countries.
Is ARVO seeing any significant changes given the recent uncertain environment?
Like with many associations, ARVO’s annual meeting serves as a crucial revenue stream. So when we’re planning the meeting, we use certain key indicators to predict the annual meeting’s success.
The first key indicator is the number of abstract submissions we receive. If you’re not in the scientific community, an abstract is a summary that tells you what the paper/research is about. The submissions are peer-reviewed and either rejected or accepted for inclusion in our conference.
Our abstract submissions were due in early December, one month after the presidential election. Just prior to the deadline for submissions, the number of submissions was down 25 percent from the previous year. While not perfectly correlated to lower registration numbers (which would decrease our overall revenue), it was an immediate cause for concern. We could only speculate why fewer people submitted abstracts, as this was prior to when the executive order changing travel policy was announced, but we knew we needed to take swift action.
What did you do about it?
My deputy executive director and I quickly developed a plan that included the senior staff reaching out to influential members from around the globe, asking them to share their excitement about the meeting. Using ARVOConnect, our membership communication tool, more than 20 members from around the world wrote their own personal missives about the importance of not falling behind on science and progressing research. As a result of their efforts we received a significant influx of last-minute abstracts. But even after that work, total submissions still ended up 8 percent lower than last year. For ARVO, that could result in more than $300,000 in lost revenue.
How did you respond to that potential budget shortfall?
I called a senior staff meeting, and asked them each to work with their teams to identify potential areas for cost savings, and to be prepared to report back at the first of the year. Since we were about to enter the holiday season, team discussions took place quickly. In early January we had an all-staff meeting where each department presented their ideas for ways to either save some money or to increase revenue. We wanted everyone to be part of the solution. Altogether, the teams identified more than $220,000 in cost savings and $30,000 in additional revenue, coming very close to recovering the full amount of the anticipated budget shortfall.
When the travel restrictions were announced a few weeks later, how did that affect you?
We began hearing from some members who were afraid to come to the United States, this time for more concrete reasons than back in December, when there was a lot of speculation and little actual information. It was a chaotic few days, with a lot of concern that members would withdraw or not register.
We quickly identified which members would be directly impacted (citizens of the seven countries), and since the executive order, we have been continually updating our members on our actions. Our website prominently features our latest actions in response to the potential travel restrictions. We coordinated with 163 of the nation’s leading scientific, engineering and academic organizations to send an intersociety letter urging the administration to rescind the executive order.
Now here’s the most interesting part. As of this week, our registrations are not down at all, but are in fact up by almost 20 percdent. Our next indicator will be the early-bird registration deadline at the beginning of March. Until then, anything can change. We’re continuing with the cost savings efforts, but might need to be ready for anything.
So in a fast-moving situation like this, what are you doing to keep your team focused?
The key is transparency. You could look at this situation as a problem or as an interesting challenge. Because we are financially strong, with ample reserves, there was no need to consider making cuts on salary, benefits, people, professional development, or anything that might slow down progress for the organization. But everything else was fair game. Because I had been open about what was on the table, my team knew that their jobs weren’t at risk — I’m sure any team is more motivated when they’re not in fear for their jobs.
When our board of trustees approved the cost-saving measures, I immediately updated all staff and thanked them for their hard work. And then I outlined next steps — registration numbers were up, but we were going to continue acting responsibly. We will continue to be vigilant, making decisions with the most current possible information.
By being transparent and focused on action, we avoided the rumor mill. By providing actual facts, everyone — our members, our staff, our board — feels like they are part of the solution. If it was just me making decisions in secret with the board, I can’t imagine it would have ended up working out so well.