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December 20, 2011

Top Desk

Continuing to Advance Our Collective Vision

by Joe Mariano, President, U.S. Direct Selling Association (DSA)

Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.

It isn’t easy to follow a legend. I was excited and honored to be asked to take the helm of the Direct Selling Association earlier this year, and after 26 years working on behalf of direct sellers I felt I was more than prepared. Nevertheless, my predecessor, Neil Offen, had been an acknowledged industry leader and icon of direct selling for 40 years. In his office were framed publications heralding him as “Mr. Direct Selling” and a DSA Hall of Fame award that sat on a lit pedestal in a corner. So, excited? Yes, but with huge shoes to fill—and expectations to match.

Part of my confidence, however, stems from the fact that there is always a team to call on, whether that be the DSA staff in Washington, D.C. or any number of member executives around the country from whom I have gained both knowledge and inspiration. I also found enlightening a number of books and articles—including one that was sent anonymously, The First Ninety Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders, from the Harvard Business Review Press. (If you sent it, please let me know!) So I was hardly alone in facing this new duty and there was plenty of assistance, advice and guidance available. Yet, ultimately, the responsibility was mine alone as President of the association. Based on input and my own experience with direct selling, business, and the association itself, I committed myself to several approaches for the new position.

Direct selling is an industry full of very smart people who have built or maintained large and successful businesses.

Build on Past Success—The advantage of having my predecessor around during a rather lengthy transition after the formal announcement of his retirement was the opportunity to engage in some real, substantive analysis of what had worked for him and the association over his 40 years here. Neil Offen was a remarkably successful lobbyist and player on the Washington scene, and his vision was a significant part of the formation of the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF) and the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA). It became clear that DSA’s government relations and advocacy program were most successful, and that it was imperative to keep a focus on that area, and ensure continued success by maintaining or increasing the resources we devote to it. As a result, we have laid out an ambitious but concrete expanded association strategy that details reaching out to political organizations, enhancing visibility of our advocacy efforts within the industry, working with partner organizations, and being even more legislatively proactive in order to protect and enhance direct selling in the marketplace.

Notwithstanding our many successes on the legislative and regulatory front, I am committed to doing more. No organization can rest on its laurels and survive. DSA will build on the foundation of its past success to explore new programs and activities that will enhance the value of the association to its members. We are determined to clearly demonstrate that DSA is an invaluable tool in the success of direct selling companies.

Reach Out and Learn—Direct selling is an industry full of very smart people who have built or maintained large and successful businesses. I was convinced that we needed to reach out to these constituents in their roles as customers and leaders to discuss what the association should be doing, and to get their counsel on what I needed to be doing as President. These conversations have been a treasure trove. I began a series of outreach meetings with industry leaders—both old and new—even before officially becoming President. In small groups and one-on-one, I and members of DSA’s senior management team met with dozens of mid- to upper-level executives from a wide variety of DSA member companies to gauge their sense of the health of the industry and association, and to solicit their ideas about the association’s future agenda. Additionally, I undertook a “whistle-stop tour” across the country in six major direct selling centers and discussed industry concerns and association plans with almost 1,000 executives. These meetings have driven the development of the association’s work plan, as well as my own approach for the coming months and years.

Have and Communicate a Vision—
It is clear that no one person controls the destiny of anything, much less a $120 billion worldwide industry with some 70 million salespeople. What a leader can and must do, however, is develop and deliver a clear and consistent message. The most effective leaders and advocates I have seen reduce their messages to the simplest formula and repeat it often and without embarrassment. I’ve taken this to heart and have attempted to deliver DSA’s message to our membership, policy-makers, the press, and anyone else who will listen. It is a message of success, optimism and cooperation that I have repeated in DSA’s weekly e-newsletter InTouch, in speeches, and in meetings: I believe our industry can double its size over the next few years, while we help people deal with this recession, and work together to ensure that government regulation encourages—not discourages—this great business model.

What a leader can and must do is develop and deliver a clear and consistent message.

Embrace Others—Our past successes as an association have been greatly dependent on a highly competent and experienced staff. Earlier this year I promoted three essential members of this staff to develop a true senior management team. All of us are intimately involved in strategy development and program implementation on a cross-departmental basis. I am confident that each one of these dedicated professionals could run the association successfully with the assistance and support of the rest of the team.

Additionally, I am committed to look past parochial competitive concerns with other organizations to explore relationships that might benefit our member companies and executives. Some associations and companies will husband their knowledge and resources, fearful that working with others or allowing others to get the credit will somehow diminish their own success. There is a variously attributed quote that speaks to the thought: “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” I believe this sentiment rings true in an association, particularly, and have undertaken a serious exploration of cooperation and collaboration with other associations, vendors and publications to benefit direct selling. As long as the goals of these organizations are consistent with the mission and objectives of DSA, we will find areas in which we can work together to serve our members.

As long as the goals of these organizations are consistent with the mission and objectives of DSA, we will find areas in which we can work together to serve our members.

Don’t Be Afraid to Succeed—It is easy for an organization with a 100-year history and longevity at the top levels of leadership to believe that it has seen and done it all. Similarly, associations—particularly established ones—have a tendency to be risk-averse and to take no action unless there is 100 percent consensus about new endeavors. Such an approach may be safe, but it limits opportunities for growth and real success. I have directed DSA staff to look for opportunities for success, and to be willing to take some calculated risks for that success. One example of a significant initiative that reflects this strategy is DSA’s new ERA initiative. Our “enhancement, recruitment and awareness” pilot program is a significant communication effort to see how and if we can affect public perceptions about direct selling in a way that will benefit member companies. There is no guarantee that the program (which will begin in the first quarter of 2012) will affect any perceptions—thus the risk—but it is clear that we will learn from the endeavor. Equally clear is that if we are not willing to take a risk and act, we definitely will have no impact, and will learn nothing. I hope the program is a model for us and our approach to new endeavors in the future. We cannot be afraid to succeed.

Be One’s Self—
One of the best pieces of advice I have received came from a direct selling CEO who took over from another industry legend. No slouch himself in the ability and personality departments, this executive advised me to be myself. “Don’t feel obligated to do things the way your predecessor has done them. Be yourself, with your style, your idiosyncrasies, and your freshness,” he advised. It seems like sound advice.

Direct selling has endured through decades of economic turmoil, social change and challenge to some of the core aspects of our business. This has been possible because an untold number of people have believed that personal empowerment and an entrepreneurial spirit are fundamental components of success. They have fought to preserve and advance direct selling, and many have become legends. I am proud to serve as but one of the warriors entrusted with the responsibility of rallying our many resources to ensure our collective vision becomes reality.

Joe MarianoJoe Mariano is President of the U.S. Direct Selling Association (DSA).