AAO4Life-Infographic_ALL-Benefits_0Lessons in leadership come from surprising directions. I’m impressed with what I’ve learned about the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), a group that has engaged me to speak at their Emerging Leaders conference this month in Miami, FL. Fundamentally, we are all doing business in a membership economy, where sellers provoke and sustain loyalty by wrapping products, programs and services around the needs of buyers, and engaging them as valued members for the long term.

Looking to membership organizations like AAO can provide useful leadership lessons. How does AAO get leadership right? The following key findings come from a recent conversation with AAO’s Executive Director, Chris Vranas.

  1. Use technology to deliver a sophisticated member experience.

AAO has segmented its members not only by demographics, but also by their interests and practice modality. With roughly 20% of its membership outside North America, online communication provides a vital touchpoint. AAO’s website offers communities behind its firewall for groups of members with shared interests. “We wanted to create a tool where they could reach each other and the association on things that were important to them,” said Vranas. “They come to the AAO through electronic means for all of their engagement and communication, not just with the organization, but with their peers worldwide.” The online communities give AAO an additional channel to communicate programs and services. AAO also uses social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter to engage members, and to offer opportunities for members to better engage with the association and each other. The social channels have been slow to develop, but Vranas sees that as part of AAO’s long-term strategy. “Our plan is that the communities will help us demonstrate relevance to our members,” he said, at the time and through the channel of their choice.

  1. Keep a firm finger on the pulse of the next generation of members.

AAO closely studies its members in terms of generational cohort. Vranas realizes AAO needs to attract and impact younger people, in order to assure a pipeline of future members. Vranas observed that AAO’s combined Gen X and Gen Y member cohorts have for the first time become the majority of the membership—51%. These cohorts don’t join professional associations for the reason members once did—they’re more focused on return on investment. Vranas admits this is a new mindset for AAO’s leadership, many of whom remember when joining a medical professional society was deemed an honor. “Now, we need to make sure we’re communicating value for the dues our members are expending.”

Under Vranas’ direction, AAO has begun thinking of programs and services based on where members are in their career, from business basics for members just coming out of residency training, to business valuation for members preparing for transitioning out of their practices. The field of orthodontics is becoming increasingly female; in recognition of that shift AAO is researching programs and services for that demographic.

AAO has always been supportive of its members in donating orthodontic services to those in financial need; it started its Donated Orthodontic Services (DOS) program years ago to make sure that members have a set structure through which to be able to provide pro bono work. Recognizing that the Millennial Generation is very interested in social responsibility, Vranas said, “At our annual meetings we have begun doing things to give back to the communities. I can tell you that when our younger members see that their association is doing something for the greater good, it takes their engagement to another level.”

  1. Deliver unique value that is mission-critical to members.

The medical/dental professional schools don’t teach you how to run a practice; they don’t teach you the business side,” Vranas observed. “We knew that was one of the most valuable things we could do for our members, so we started “Business Support for Orthodontics.” It’s a free webinar series on marketing, financial management, budgeting, risk management, those kind of practice management issues.”

AAO’s annual conference, which is attended by over 17,000 people worldwide every year, offers tracks segmented by relevant interests. “There is something for everyone, based on how they’re practicing and their stage of practice,” Vranas said.

  1. Collect data and use it.

“We use data very closely in terms of how we make decisions,” said Vranas. Data is driving AAO toward deployment of what Vranas calls “the Amazon.com approach,” using technology to understand its members’ habits, in order to serve them better by recommending programs and services based on behavior, just as Amazon does. Data is collected on engagement in AAO’s online communities and social media. Slicing and dicing membership data has allowed AAO to identify what it terms “vulnerable members”—those most likely to leave if dissatisfied.

  1. Use environmental scanning to develop your board’s understanding of key issues.

Once, boards leading associations like AAO spent their time reviewing reams of documents and discussing reports—lagging indicators that seldom led to strategic thinking. Under Vranas’ leadership, AAO’s board uses more frequent electronic communications to deal with reports and decisions. “By the time we get to the meeting, the discussion has already taken place, which allows us time to do environmental scanning,” said Vranas. He described deep dives into topics that could impact AAO’s members, sometimes featuring guest subject matter experts, followed by discussion of strategies to address those issues. “It keeps us ahead of the curve. We would never be able to do any of the things I’m talking about if we did not have a progressive board,” Vranas acknowledged.

Vranas came to leadership of AAO with great intentionality, having developed through previous job experience a desire to work in association leadership in the healthcare field. He keeps himself growing through reading and attending conferences outside the medical/dental profession. “It’s a lot of looking outside. I’m very aggressive about getting data and researching it and bringing it back to our association,” Vranas said.

I’m looking forward to addressing AAO’s Emerging Leaders Conference attendees and becoming a stronger asset to Chris and team at AAO.

Nour Takeaways

  1. AAO offers a compelling case study in ways to improve your own performance by strengthening strategic relationships with your buyers (be they members, customers, or clients) and your board.
  1. Three fundamentals have driven AAO’s strategies: a focus on changing needs as the demographics of its membership shift toward Gen X / Gen Y; delivering mission-critical value; and using data to drive decision-making.
  1. Spending time on environmental scanning, not stale reports, has allowed AAO to develop a progressive board, leading to outstanding organizational performance.


David Nour is an enterprise growth strategist and the thought leader on Relationship Economics® —the quantifiable value of business relationships. In a global economy that is becoming increasingly disconnected, The Nour Group, Inc. has attracted consulting engagements from over 100 marquee organizations in driving unprecedented growth through unique return on their strategic relationships. Nour has pioneered the phenomenon that relationships are the greatest off balance sheet asset any organizations possesses, large and small, public and private. He is the author of several books including the best selling Relationship Economics— Revised (Wiley), ConnectAbility (McGraw-Hill), The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Raising Capital (Praeger) and Return on Impact—Leadership Strategies for the age of Connected Relationships (ASAE). Learn more at www.NourGroup.com.

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