In August, long-time member Howie Ferguson signed on as the Construction Owners Association of America’s new Executive Director.
We talked to Howie to learn more about his new role within the association and two very important initiatives going on right now.
What can you tell us about your journey from someone just hearing about COAA to becoming a board member? How did you “get your feet wet” as a volunteer in the association? And looking back, would you have done anything differently?
I first attended a COAA conference many years ago in New Orleans as a presenter. I was blown away by the vibe and seriousness with which everyone seemed to take the educational and networking opportunities. Within a couple of years, I got involved as the programs chair for the Florida chapter and, eventually, a member of the national program/conference committee.
I took over as chair of the conference committee, and ended up serving in that role for About 12 years. About halfway through that tenure, I was elected to the Board, which I likened to moving up from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving to the big people’s table. I also became very involved with the Owner Training Institute (OTI) as an instructor and reviewer/developer of content.
I can’t imagine doing anything differently, and it’s the sort of path I’d encourage our volunteers to consider (feet wet, then ever-increasing involvement as time allows).
Howie, in the last month or two, you’ve gone from a long-time COAA volunteer and board member to the organization’s full-time executive director. What was your biggest takeaway going from volunteer to staff member?
That there’s a LOT more to running an organization than appears on the “outside.” I sort of suspected that, but couldn’t fully grasp it until being behind the curtain.
I’m also pretty stunned (in a good way) at the depth and breadth of folks who devote their professional lives to managing associations like COAA. I was fortunate to get to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives last month, and found an enormous and welcoming collection of folks who’ve invented just about all the wheels … meaning, colleagues with established best practices and lessons learned when it comes to association management (very much like COAA).
How is managing the operations of a volunteer-led association like COAA different than what someone might experience in a management role within an owner organization?
Well, the answer now is probably different than what the answer might be in a year or so. But for now, I’d say it’s the relative newness of our in-house management model (COAA was run until 2016 by an outsourced management company) … which means we’re still in the process of confirming that we have the right staffing structure; evaluating the need for better and more integrated IT platforms and systems; etc.
In other words, those sorts of things – even if imperfect – are mostly settled in most owner organizations, while still a work in progress for COAA.
For a while now, COAA has had both a mission and vision statement. Recently, the organization developed a “value proposition.” What is a value proposition? Why did COAA feel they needed one? And what is COAA’s value proposition?
It’s a means of quickly differentiating something (COAA in this case) and explaining how it’s better and more valuable than similar or competing options.
Its development is rooted in a down year in terms of national conference attendance in 2017, which caused us to ask why? The reasons for the dip in attendance were varied. But the good that came from the analysis is our new value proposition … an explanation to current and future members of what makes COAA special and different than other organizations offering educational & networking opportunities.
The COAA Value Proposition boils down to:
- The fact that we purposely offer something for everyone since most owner reps/PMs are responsible for every aspect of a project’s execution
- That we offer “safe haven” events, where failures and lessons learned are as important or more important than successes
- The idea of being humble enough to know what you don’t know, along with a sense that being a “good owner” (the kind folks want to work with), matters and ultimately leads to better and more rewarding projects
What are the goals of the organization regarding the growth of its owner membership base?
We haven’t established specific numeric goals at this point. But a strategic goal established in 2017 was to grow membership both vertically and horizontally. And we’re actively pursuing both of those goals.
In other words, increased depth and involvement for current owner member organizations and new-to-COAA owners from sectors we haven’t historically reached. One specific example of the latter is major airports, which – like higher ed, K-12, healthcare, and other institutional owners – never stop expanding and improving their built environment. Regardless of the particulars of airport planning, design, and construction, their facilities staffs undoubtedly face the same challenges and could both give and receive when it comes to lessons learned, best practices, etc.
What can you tell us about the recently unveiled COAA Way initiative? How has it evolved over the last six months? What’s the plan for the COAA Way over the next year or two?
This is a really cool and important initiative … something else born from the 2017 strategic planning effort and connected – at least indirectly – to the Value Proposition. It speaks to the mindset, culture, and approach of a “typical” COAA owner (and associate), and is both tangible and intangible.
It was first introduced publicly at the May conference in Pittsburgh, but really just as a concept or thought. Since then, a small work group led by John Zahor of University Of Maryland Baltimore County worked to formally & fully define it with words.
The next step is to accompany that definition with a graphic – specifically, a logo that we hope will one day be easily & instantly recognized as being a graphical indication of The COAA Way. For example, you might see this logo sprinkled around a conference or chapter meeting agenda to indicate particular sessions that exude The COAA Way principles.
We’re very excited about the plan for developing that logo in a way that engages the membership on two fronts – both creation and selection. Hint: If people would like to have a voice when it comes to picking this logo, make plans to attend the fall conference in La Jolla!