Dianna Steinbach is the COO of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), Programming Chair and Board Member of the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), and a respected speaker and author on association management best practices. For more than 20 years, she has managed member services and events in North, South and Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania.

Dianna is passionate about helping trade associations and their members identify new trends, plan strategically, develop business alliances, set professional standards, lead their industries through critical change, and position themselves for the greatest success.

Dianna Steinbach
Chief Operating Officer, National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors

What inspired you to work in the international association sector? Would you recommend this career to others? 

I have always found it rewarding to help associations and their executives achieve their goals by connecting them with peers who understand their situation and can provide valuable advice. This is the ultimate purpose of associations – and a much-needed offer: When you look at a sector on the international level, there are so many organisations that are lagging behind in their industry’s evolution and have very limited resources or knowledge. This makes it both critical and motivating to connect with peers and resources in other regions that help them succeed. Even evolved industries and associations can benefit from cross-pollination and exchanges.

I would 100% encourage people to pursue a career in international associations because the people you meet and the lives and businesses you can positively impact are just incredible. There is a different and unique layer of appreciation you will find with members from markets outside of your own that you will not find at home.

How does your association #EmbraceEquity? Does giving a voice and a space to diverse groups make for better results? What are the challenges you encounter? Did you solve them? 

My current association has made a conscious effort to cultivate more diversity in a sector and membership that was known for being quite homogenous in the past. This includes categories such as gender, race, political leaning, age, seniority, and company size – as well as actively reaching out to regions that we had never engaged. One tangible result is the success of our annual Executive Summit in January 2023: which ensured more racial diversity in our speaker line-up, increased the number of roundtables of female professionals, and attracted more attendees than ever before.

When trying to attract new delegate profiles in the past, we may convince them to attend but they would be turned off by how few attendees were like them. They assumed we weren’t the organisation for them. It took persistence and time to diversify our attendee profiles and to make it very clear that they are part of the new face of NAW. This year, younger participants who were ‘ dragged’ to our Summit by senior leaders were pleasantly surprised to see that we finally look and act like the association and the community that they wanted to be a part of. They now want to return and help us build a larger community of the next generation members.

How important are diversity, equity, and inclusion for the future success of associations? What initiatives, projects and ideas can you share that help others understand the real value of DEI? 

DEI is very important for associations to remain relevant to the next generation. Association executives need to realise that the survival of their community will require a shift in mentality. Members don’t join to purchase something – they want to be a part of a community. That community has to represent them and reflect the reality that they are facing every day. People also have many more choices to seek resources, peer exchange, and new ideas. If your association doesn’t make an effort to meet the members and prospects where they are, they will find another option. Last but not least: the reason why a long-standing former board member remains loyal to your association is not the reason why a young professional joins. 

Another factor is being a leader for your industry or sector on DEI: Associations can help their members navigate DEI initiatives and encourage diversity as a way to help them face challenges and remain relevant. Tactics can start simple, for instance by setting a required speaker mix representing diverse demographics at events. 

Here are some simple ideas that may be useful to others:

  1. Diversity isn’t just who people are, it can also address language barriers within international organizations: I once produced a virtual symposium in China that was simultaneously translated into Mandarin and English. The speakers and attendees could hear each other’s presentations in the opposite language, exposing them to new ideas they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to understand.
  2. Equality goes in all directions: We held a Women’s Roundtable where each table had a senior female leader ready to answer the questions of younger female professionals. We soon realized that the leaders where also benefiting from asking questions to the younger generation. It helped them understand how not to stereotype other women as having cookie-cutter needs.
  3. Equity needs the right tools: Sometimes people want to ask questions but are embarrassed to do so in front of peers. Offer an anonymous Q&A where you have a diverse panel of members who are willing to answer the hard questions. Let participants know this is the chance to ask without judgment. The dialogue can be very enlightening.

Ultimately, you will start to realize that breaking down barriers is easier than you’d expect – once misconceptions are addressed and removed.