Ever heard the expression about the best ideas being created on cocktail napkins?
The American Supply Association’s member benefit CONNECT virtual peer networking program is a real-life example. The idea was a collaboration between ASA and The Distribution Team, a distributor consulting and training firm with a long-time relationship with the association. Both The Distribution Team’s Senior Advisor Marshall Jones and Principal Jason Bader recall sitting at a Starbucks about seven years ago in Greenville, South Carolina, where the idea for connecting distributors was born on the back of a napkin.
“We were discussing ideas to reach distributors’ mid- and-upper-level employees,” Jones says. “We often speak to senior-level executives, but we wanted to broaden the reach to other employees within the companies and allow them to connect with peers in the same role.”
Prior to joining The Distribution Team, both Jones and Bader had careers in distribution, and were presidents of trade associations; the two understand the need for member engagement and desired to help associations reach more distributors.
“Marshall and I knew we wanted to offer something to associations to boost member engagement on all levels, but weren’t sure exactly how to facilitate the idea,” Bader says. “Well, fast-forward to mid-2019 when we were discussing association challenges with ASA’s CEO Mike Adelizzi — that’s when the virtual CONNECT program really started to take shape.”
In the fall of 2019, a pilot program launched. Six forums were held with roughly 20 ASA member companies participating. The responses were so positive that Adelizzi began planning with Bader and Jones to launch a much larger, virtual offering in 2020.
Right as the COVID-19 pandemic was emerging, ASA launched its virtual peer networking program, CONNECT. Nine online peer networking programs offered member employees the opportunity to meet virtually each month in sessions facilitated by The Distribution Team to share best practices and solutions to mutual problems. About 200 ASA members participated in these 2020 virtual CONNECT offerings.
Bader explains the timing of the CONNECT virtual program launch couldn’t have been better. “It was an incredible time to launch something like this; members needed connection and networking more than ever,” he says. “The technology advancements throughout early 2020 really allowed for distributors to participate and take advantage of this.”
After months of more positive member feedback, CONNECT for 2021 has launched with an expanded schedule and additional community offerings. Find more information about the 2021 CONNECT virtual peer groups here.
Bader explains the main goal of CONNECT has always been to give collaborative opportunities to different types of department heads within an organization. “They get the chance to throw out a specific challenge and other members with the same job description offer solutions,” he says. “They get to say ‘here’s what we did, and it worked or didn’t work.’ That shared collaboration helps each one of the peer group members.”
For ASA, the goal in launching CONNECT is to provide value to its members with a program that gives professionals the ability to meet online in monthly peer-to-peer facilitated sessions to discuss common challenges, gain insight and share practical solutions.
A unique benefit CONNECT offers that traditional networking events may not, is the fact that participants are meeting with the same group of peers each month.
“Through meeting with the same peer groups regularly, participants can start building relationships with other people with their same role around the country,” Bader explains, “which, again, provides the ability to collaborate, share experiences and find solutions in a comfortable environment.”
Kimberly Labram, director of HR for ASA member company MC Supply, has been attending the HR Managers CONNECT community and says working with the same people each meeting is critical.
“I think its human nature to hold back and not show all your cards at once, and it can feel a little foreign to do this with individuals that could be in a sense be considered ‘competition,’” she says. “However, I do not have to worry about that within my CONNECT community. I have built trust, and it’s more than just a mutual respect; it’s support for one another. If the group was constantly changing, it would be difficult for those converstions to go as deep as they may need.”
Each CONNECT community meets virtually on the same day and time every month for about one hour. Labram explains this format works well for her. “Having the meetings the same time and length every month allows for us to have consistency and rhythm,” she notes. “We are all very busy and time is valuable. That being said, many times I wish our meetings were more frequent. I don’t believe schedules would allow for that, but I enjoy the time spent in them enough that it’s something I look forward to.”
A continued resource
Building trust and rapport within the peer groups opens the door for participants to reach out to one another any time they need, outside of the regularly scheduled time.
“We’re seeing long-lasting, close relationships being built between the peers in each group,” Jones says. “They’re comfortable reaching out to each other between calls, so they really have a continued trusted resource available any time.”
Jones notes many department heads for distributors are a department of one, and for those people, connecting with others in the same boat is especially beneficial. “It can be a pretty lonely job if you’re handling everything within your department by yourself,” he says. “Participating in CONNECT gives them people to bounce things off of when they don’t have someone within their own organization to do so with.”
Anne Blong, accounting manager for ASA member distributor Equipment Controls Co., says she leaves each meeting learning something new.
“The ability to connect with individuals from similar companies that use the same ERP software as us is really helpful,” she explains. “We’re always looking for ways to improve processes, and ASA CONNECT has connected us with peers who offer suggestions. We can reach out to them directly and discuss different ideas.”
Larbam says the format of CONNECT communities allows the groups to build a true network of resources. “Having that community of fellow HR directors and managers brings peace of mind,” she says. “I now know that if something comes up beyond my current understanding, I not only have Google, but real perspective from individuals I have built trust and connection with.”
Jones explains that a shared goal for The Distribution Team and ASA is to simply make distributors better at what they do. “We’ve seen this goal pan out, especially with the members who have been attending for a while,” he says. “They’ve become more confident and are feeling more capable doing the jobs that they have.”
What to expect
Prior to joining a CONNECT community for the first time, members view a code of conduct video to ensure the goals, expectations and confidentiality of the communities are presented from the beginning.
Each session, which typically includes between 10-15 members, begins with a “check-in” or conversation starter to get peers talking about how they’re doing that month. After that, the group dives into the topic for that particular meeting.
“The topics we discuss come directly from the members,” Jones notes. “The vast majority of the topics are those members have shared, suggested or asked for solutions to.”
Oftentimes, a member will take on the role of presenting the spotlight topic. “We will have worked with them the month prior to create a presentation,” Jones says. “We spend about 25-30 minutes diving into the spotlight topic and then decide as a group on what to explore next time.”
The topics covered within a CONNECT community range from broad to very specific, and while Bader and Jones are present to facilitate the conversation, the overall discussion is member-driven.
Bader adds the hour-long meeting is fairly structured. “We have a lot to get a lot done in an hour,” he says. “Marshall and I have both worked with this format in other venues for a long time, so we understand it and know that it works.”
As certain CONNECT communities fill up — groups are capped at 18 participants — a secondary community for that job title is created. Bader notes that as the program grows and new topics are discussed, the plan is to continue catering to the wants and needs of members.
In fact, Bader and Jones are actively working to add other construction-based associations into the program, such as the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED). “Because of the common operating structure of these distributor verticals, this will provide a richer, more diverse experience for the ASA members,” Bader says.
Blong urges ASA members who are on the fence about joining a CONNECT community to act now. “Don’t wait, join now,” she says. “Your input is valued and appreciated, and you will certainly walk away from each meeting having gained a new perspective.”
Labram agrees, saying she believes the relationships built within each community will be long-lasting. “The possibilities are endless, because as community members, we set the tone and provide the dialogue,” she says. “These groups will be what you make of them; allow it to be the community and team you need to propel your company to new heights.”
The nine virtual CONNECT communities offered to ASA members are:
• Marketing professionals*
• Outside sales managers*
• Showroom sales managers*
• Accounts receivable managers
• Finance managers
• Human resource managers
• Operations managers
• Purchasing managers
• Training managers