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February 28, 2011

Why an AMC is a great place for the young association professional

Opening up my email early on a Monday morning, I see my conference chairs have decided they would like to add a live Twitter feed stream at our conference. Not having done this before, this could easily make for the start of a very bad day, but luckily I work at an association management company (AMC) and recalled having a lunchroom conversation with a coworker about their client adding the very same thing to their meeting. Instead of dread, I just head down the hallway to my coworkers office to discuss the details of this project.

If you would have asked me what an association management company was five years ago, I would have just stared blankly back at you. Little did I know then, an AMC would be the single greatest influencer of my professional career and has prepared me for my role as associate executive director in ways only an AMC could offer.

To start, the AMC model provides associations with executive leadership, specialists, and professional services. My AMC is structured in a way that each client has its own staff, and the support services (such as IT, web, accounting, HR, etc) are shared among the clients. Now, you may be asking what makes an AMC so much better for young association professionals (YAPs)? Well first, I'm not saying an AMC is better for the association, I'm saying different. I'm not making any judgment calls on what type of structure is better for an association's members or their mission. What I am saying is AMC's can give YAPs a unique experience.

What type of experiences? For starters, how about having a mini-ASAE in your office? As I mentioned in the story above, instead of one membership or education department, imagine having access to 10, 15, or more people doing a similar job, just a few feet from your desk. It only takes a few conversations to track down a person who can show you how their client handled a similar new project your volunteer leadership has thrown at you. This becomes especially useful when you are located outside of the DC/Chicago markets. As someone located in the tropical paradise (if I wish enough it might come true) of Milwaukee, Wis., the pool of people working in association management is a tad smaller.

AMCs also offer you a window into multiple organizations at the same time. Unlike a stand-alone, you are exposed to a wide variety of organizational cultures that range from formal and business-like to some that seem to be more of an extended family. Having this exposure allows you to learn what type of organization culture fits you without having to jump jobs.

Finally, for YAPs, payment comes in many forms, the first of which is experience to put on your résumé. AMCs afford you a great opportunity to gain broad experience in a relatively short amount of time. Although I have technically only worked for one client my entire time at my current AMC, I have had the opportunity to work on cross-team projects with a number of internal groups and attend other client's annual conferences.

These are the main reasons I feel my experience working at an AMC has been a valuable asset to my career, but as I'm still in the beginning stages of my career, I would be interested in hearing from others as to what about their first job in association management made a lasting impact.

Benjamin H. Butz, MPA, is associate executive director of the American Association of Medical Society Executives, a client of the association management firm Executive Directors, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis. He is a graduate of the inaugural class of the ASAE Leadership Academy.

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Through the maze: A career in association management

When I first entered the workforce at an association in Denver, I would often ask my colleagues how they had come to enter the association management profession. More often than not the response from seasoned professionals was that they just sort of "fell into it." My entrance into the association world was similar, and I quickly found that the experience was not uncommon among other young professionals.

In fact, a small group of us (Benjamin Butz, Jennifer Connelly, Emily Crespo, CAE, and me) from ASAE's Leadership Academy for Young Association Professionals Class of 2010 were so curious about how one both discovers and navigates the association management career path that we decided to do a little research. Our goal was to ascertain some ground-breaking data that would allow us to definitively outline the association management career path and provide a checklist of assets needed to succeed as an association executive. What resulted instead was a sort of toolkit (pdf) that we hope will help young (and not-so-young) professionals better-understand the myriad career opportunities available through association management. The 24-page resource provides an overview of the association community, illustrates why associations offer important career options, and highlights some of the benefits of working for associations.

In addition, we interviewed association professionals from diverse backgrounds to see if we could define a true career path within association management. While these narratives did not result in a checklist, they did allow us to identify some common experiences that helped our interviewees navigate their own career paths: mentoring, networking, volunteering, professional development, passion, flexibility, and ultimately a desire to make a difference in the world. As Jeffrey N. Shields, CAE, executive director of National Business Officers Association said in his interview, "If you're service-oriented, focused on fostering relationships, and passionate about the association's mission, you'll find a wonderful career opportunity in association management."

So what's your story? Can you relate to the other professionals interviewed in this toolkit (pdf) or did you grow up dreaming of being an association superstar?

Beau Ballinger is a project manager at AARP in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the inaugural class of ASAE's Leadership Academy and serves as chair of the content subcommittee for ASAE's Young Association Executives Committee.

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It's a Takeover!!!

That's right, the young association executives have overtaken this blog. This is Beau Ballinger, project manager at AARP, and we, the young executives hereby commandeer this communications channel.

EDIT: By the way, you have the Young Association Executives Committee to blame for this!

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February 25, 2011

How Would an Oscar Affect Your Organization?

Almost anyone who goes to the movies has probably seen the Oscar-nominated The King's Speech. The remarkable film captures the lifelong battle of the future King George against the serious stuttering that threatens to weaken his leadership at a time when he is ascending the throne and speaking out against the rise of Hitler.

It also shone an unprecedented spotlight on a personal and professional challenge faced by millions of adults and children worldwide.

"We've waited a lifetime to get this kind of interest in stuttering, so it's thrilling for us," said Jane Fraser, president of The Stuttering Foundation and vice president of the Association for Research into Stammering in Childhood, Michael Palin Centre, in London, when I gave her a call today for a pre-Oscars chat about the impact of the film on her organization.

"Our website hits have doubled," she added, noting that speech therapists across the country report a big jump in the number of inquiries from people who stutter and their families since the movie's Christmas Day 2010 release. "One of the therapists we refer to in Chicago said she had a 70-year-old man come in this week.... Across the board, that movie is so meaningful that anyone who has seen it will never laugh at stuttering again."

Maybe that's why one of the foundation's videos, Stuttering: For Kids, By Kids, has been viewed more than 50,000 times in the past week. The charity, which educates and refers stutters and specially trains speech therapists, also "whipped out a poster three weeks ago," Fraser laughs. "We designed ["Stuttering Gets the Royal Treatment] Friday morning, and on Monday at 5, it came off the press. The printer had never done that before. Everyone at the print house was excited." She had no problem securing permission from the independent film company, The Weinstein Company, to use photos from the film in the poster, which also directs viewers to the foundation website.

What have been the biggest impacts of the film on her group? "The exciting thing about The King's Speech is that people realize they can become fluent," Fraser enthuses. "... It's obvious in the movie that speaking is a lot of work, but ... some of the methods you see in the movie [such as learning to speak in phrases rather than entire sentences] are techniques that have been used over the years."

It also focuses on the "beautiful therapist-patient alliance. The king got to the point where the therapist was his close friend. Like all therapeutic situations, there are ups and down, but the beautiful way this relationship unwound is important.... You must have that total trust between the professional and the patient." She thinks film viewers will better understand how that deep relationship works.

You can join Fraser and her staff in rooting for the foundation and The King's Speech Sunday night during the 83th Annual Oscars Ceremony. Watch a trailer and learn more about this Best Picture Nominee here.

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Inclusion as culture

A final little digestible thought from the Diversity + Inclusion Conference: Diversity and inclusion is not a program. It's not project. It's not an initiative. If you're thinking about it in these terms, it's time to adjust your thinking. Diversity and inclusion is either part of your culture or it's not. It's either woven into the fabric of your staff, leadership, and membership or it's not. The good thing is, we are continually weaving the fabric of our organizations, the culture is always evlolving (for good or not). So we have to recognize that wherever we are in incorporating inclusivity into our organizations, it's ok, as long as we acknowledge the importance of it.

I know, I'm talking about semantics here. What is incorporating D&I into your organizational culture if it's not by means of D&I initiatives or programs? What's important is the end game, or perhaps better stated as the lack of end game. Stressing the importance of D&I during planning does not make it part of the fabric. Having leaders say it is vital to the future does not make it part of the culture. So, yes, have the conversations about what inititatives/programs/products your organization can do around D&I issues, but be sure the conversations about how these things are intended to affect the culture of your organization in the future.

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Capitializing on a critical event

Another small idea that was the topic of a lively discussion, is capitalizing on an event to forward a D&I agenda or otherwise create a teachable moment. There was general agreement that working to create such an event is resource intensive and leads to only limited opportunity for success, especially for an organization that has embraced the ideas of diversity and inclusion, but struggle to find ways to apply it.

There are two keys I got from the discussion. The first is bide your time while you're waiting for the event wisely. Work on incremental progress, plant seeds of ideas, and be prepared so that when a critical event does arise you can quickly begin to capitalize on it.

Second, be selective. Don't try to make everything into a critical event--there's a bit of crying wolf in that scenario because when a truly teachable moment comes along, you will struggle to get people to listen to you. This is the art part of being a D&I leader, recognizing the right critical event.

So what do we mean by critical event? There's no simple answer. Court cases that make the news could be one--particularly if it strikes close to home. A staff or volunteer incident; a planning process that calls for D&I focus; national or international events - say racial tensions or drastically changing demographics in the city that will host your next annual meeting. It could be anything, really, the key is being able to recognize it and prepared to capitalize on it.

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Who is responsible for diversity and inclusion

As I reflected on the first day of the Diversity + Inclusion Conference, and how to write something for Acronym, I found myself falling back on a few small, digestible things - in contrast to what I thought would resonate with me, which would be deep, hard, sometimes messy thoughts and ideas. So here is one of those small chunks, and I'll write up a couple more.

Once D&I becomes a strategic priority for an organization, to the point that there is an identified staff person or department responsible for the D&I agenda of an organization, that person or department should establish protocols that are similar to other departments that serve internal customers.

For example, if you're the champion of or have responsibility for the D&I role in your organization, you are not tasked with writing the plan of ensuring your organization's marketing materials reach a diverse audience any more than a CFO is tasked with developing the marketing budget. Your role is to be a resource for the various departments to help them think about how they can be inclusive in the programs they manage, and your role is to look at the big picture of D&I in the organization. As one manager of multicultural affairs talked about this idea, he was clear that there is a great temptation to be sucked into being responsible for the success or failure of D&I initiatives on a programmatic level. But just as the CFO is generally not held responsible for a program that fails to make budget, the D&I leader needs to resist the temptation, and ensure success and failure is a shared by all the leaders in the organization.

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February 24, 2011

Three thoughts from the Diversity + Inclusion Conference

At the morning sessions at ASAE's 2011 Diversity + Inclusion Conference, there were three sound bite moments that resonated with me that I want to share.

The first came from Peter O'Neil, CAE, CEO of the American Industrial Hygiene Association who is serving as the MC at the general sessions. As part of the discussion on whether or not D&I initiatives are deliberate shows of favoritism, he said: "Fair is not equal. Being fair equalizes the playing field." When you use that as a frame, the debate changes. You're no longer talking about whether or not one group is favored, you're talking about whether or not the playing field starts off level. There will still be opinions on both sides, but I think that frame encourages a healthier debate.

I didn't catch the name of the person who said the second one (if you read this, let me know and I'll make an edit to give you credit). When you're hiring someone, you're not comparing John v. Mary. You're comparing how you think the team will function with John in it v. how the team will function with Mary in it. I think that happens at least in part intuitively, but I think it's an interesting lens to apply, and it's one I plan to use in the future.

Finally, there was a notion brought up by Jeffrey Cufuade from Idea Architects about how to accurately think about the long-term nature of a D&I culture. His analogy was to think about it like you do retirement planning. You make small investments how and when you can as often as you can. The short-term result is not likely to be impressive. Your reward is compounding interest, which becomes amazing over time.

As a quick aside: for those who have not thought about the miracle of compounding interest recently here are two examples. You start with $1,000 and invest $1,000 per year for 35 years and it grows at 5 percent per year. You contribute a total of $35,000, but your savings after 35 will be more than $175,000. Now, change it and start with $5,000. Your total contribution then is $39,000. With the 5 percent interest, you're going to end up with $212,000.

I'll follow up with more later from the conference.

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Quick clicks: Strategy and PR edition

This week's collection of interesting reads includes a pair of items about strategy and governance and a pair of case studies in handling challenging PR situations. Enjoy.

Strategic planning. Jan Masaoka at Blue Avocado begins a two-part series with an exploration of the common failures of strategic planning at nonprofit organizations. She promises some alternative approaches in the follow-up.

Effective boards. Virgil Carter at the Plexus Consulting Group blog shares five qualities of high-level governance.

Social media/PR crisis. Shannon Otto recaps how the Red Cross deftly handled a "rogue tweet" last week, when its Twitter manager sent what was supposed to be a personal tweet out through the Red Cross's account. The Red Cross managed to spin the episode into a fundraising meme.

Social media/PR crisis, part II. Maggie McGary points to a recent exchange between Forrester Research's Josh Bernoff and the Public Relations Society of America. Bernoff asked PRSA to strengthen its code of ethics; PRSA said no thanks. Maggie says PRSA "miss[ed] out on a huge social media opportunity." I'll let you decide, but either way it's a story that should make you think about how your association would react if called out by an influential blogger.

Conference engagement. Jeff Hurt shares six meeting engagement takeaways from Chris Brogan, who spoke at EventCamp Chicago 2011. "A well-organized event does not usually create attendee loyalty. A great conference experience creates attendee buzz, loyalty, and an attendee's desire to return," Jeff writes.

Conflict. Jamie Notter shares a tip for conflict resolution: move toward the conflict.

Online communities. Julie Secor at Socious explains five ways you can mess up the launch of your online community, and she shares advice on how to avoid these mistakes.

Games for learning. Jeff Cobb highlights an excellent example of how a nonprofit can use a simple online game as an educational and fundraising tool that creates an experience, not just info, for potential donors.

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February 23, 2011

Managing Court-ordered Volunteers

There's a fascinating article in this month's BlueAvocado.org about how and whether nonprofits should agree to use "volunteers" that are court-ordered to do a certain number of community service hours as their punishment. These folks are often first-time offenders for things like driving under the influence or petty theft.

I've never read an article about this before, so leave it to the always-terrific Susan Ellis, president of the volunteer management consulting and training firm Energize, to take on this thorny issue.

Especially helpful is the way she frames the conversation needed by any nonprofit considering a court-ordered volunteer policy. Ellis lists questions such as whether "mandatory volunteers" should be assigned the same type of service as traditional volunteers, how volunteer management systems may need adapting for this particular population (for instance, nonprofits generally must complete a weekly report about the volunteer), and the attitudes of staff about working with court-ordered volunteers.

She also is clear about potential biases and benefits, such as data showing that many of these volunteers end up serving their organizations far longer than legally required because they enjoy the work and/or believe in the mission. And who doesn't need passionate volunteers?

For leaders unfamiliar with the 11 types of alternative sentences, Ellis suggests skimming a free online resource that defines them and identifies which ones might apply to nonprofits.

I'd be interested to hear whether and how associations as well as charities are addressing this in our community. Please post your comments here.

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February 22, 2011

Book Blogging: Constructive advantage for associations

My last post explored the serious and irrevocable challenges our society faces and called for associations to adopt new beliefs in order to succeed in the decade ahead. In The New Capitalist Manifesto, author Umair Haque argues for a shift beyond 20th-century competitive advantage, toward the 21st-century framework he calls "constructive advantage." According to Umair, constructive advantage is built on five cornerstones (shown below in bold italics) and flows from five sources (shown below in bold):

  • Loss advantage stems from a value cycle that renews resources and makes waste useful. Example: Associations can create a technology-enabled value cycle that makes it possible for stakeholders to renew dated knowledge resources while situated in a meaningful social context without wasting time and energy.

  • Responsiveness is the result of fluid, on-going, many-sided value conversations. Example: Associations can nurture greater intimacy with their stakeholders by creating opportunities to discuss, deliberate, and express dissent through social networking platforms.

  • Resilience, an evolutionary edge, is achieved by competing with an enduring philosophy. Example: Associations can create thicker value by going beyond strategy to embrace principles of continuous experimentation and learning that drive radical innovation.

  • Creativity happens when companies strive to complete marketplaces, creating new arenas of competition. Example: Associations can design new business models that make it possible to serve underserved markets and segments previously considered impossible to serve.

  • Difference happens when companies seek meaningful payoffs that matter; when companies produce betters, they literally make a difference. Example: Associations can shift their focus from simply delivering outputs—i.e., products and services—to achieving better outcomes for their stakeholders.

The intention behind constructive advantage is not to outdo your existing rivals on the narrow terms of the current competitive landscape but, in Umair's words, to "build a disruptively better business," with long-term positive consequences for current and future stakeholders, as well as society as a whole. Associations adopting this new mindset will be better able to achieve "smart growth" through the creation of thicker, more enduring value.

Over the last year, the phrase "build to thrive" has emerged as a personal mantra, an urgent appeal to association leaders to take responsible and purposeful action to prepare their organizations for the profound uncertainties of the decade ahead. My final post in this series will share a set of critical questions on which staff and volunteer leaders can reflect to ascertain whether their intentions are focused on the future or stuck in the past.

Let's close this post with a question:

How is your association creating its "constructive advantage?"

[BIG NEWS! If you're planning to attend ASAE's Great Ideas Conference at The Broadmoor next month, I will facilitate an informal group discussion of The New Capitalist Manifesto on Tuesday, March 15, beginning at 2 p.m. in Colorado Hall Room E. Please contact me at jeff@principledinnovation.com if you have any questions.]

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February 21, 2011

What Would You Have Done Differently in Your Association Career?

On recent calls with ASAE's Leadership Academy as well as the Young Association Executives Committee, members openly discussed their own challenges and experiences working in associations to date. Fascinating discussions to participate in, while reflecting on my own limited experiences in this field.

In advising a colleague, how would you answer the following?

  • Looking back on your time in associations to date, what would you you have done differently to better your effectiveness? Your career?

  • What do you see as a common, yet avoidable mistake for young professionals?
  • What tools have you found to be most beneficial for your work (I.e. I couldn't function without, nor put a pricetage on my Google Reader account and eclectic source of daily feeds)?

Interested to see the experiences from the association community. I'm sure the responses will be helpful to association professionals of all levels!

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February 15, 2011

Book Blogging: Hunter or captain of an ark?

In The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, author Umair Haque asks readers to imagine two worlds:

The first is a big world of abundant resources and raw materials, an empty world where demand is infrequent and easily satiated, and a stable world where disasters are infrequent and weak. The second is a tiny world, emptying of raw resources, a crowded world where demand is always hungry, and a fragile world, where contagion of every kind can flow across the globe in a matter of minutes, days, or weeks. [Emphasis in original]

Umair continues his allegory by comparing the big, empty, and stable world to an untouched game reserve, while the tiny, crowded, and fragile world is more like an ark. In Umair's view, the former description accurately depicts the world for which "industrial era" capitalism was built, and the latter captures the state of the world in these early years of the 21st century. The economics of the last century have used the rules of daily hunting on the game reserve: maximum efficiency in going after the biggest game. Unfortunately, these rules have also led society to consume, borrow, and use resources to the point of serious harm, placing our sustained prosperity in peril.

The realities of today's world, Umair argues, demand a new approach to creating meaningful value and achieving smarter growth. He writes:

To gain an intuitive feel for 21st century economics, put yourself at the helm of … an ark. You're the captain, and on board, every resource you've got isn't just valuable, but invaluable. Whether people, trees, animals, ideas, trust, creativity, or governance itself, you must safeguard all against damage, depletion, and exhaustion. Conversely, every resource you do decide to utilize must results in more tangible, meaningful, and enduring benefits than merely ephemeral "product" to be overconsumed.

Some association leaders continue to view the last few years of economic distress as nothing more than a cyclical occurrence that ultimately will ease into a so-called "new normal." But I share Umair's view that we are the midst of an irrevocable shift that will force us to reconsider all our fundamental beliefs. My next post will explore some of the new beliefs we will need to adopt to navigate our arks safely through the treacherous waters ahead.

Let's continue the dialogue. Please post your comments below in response to the following question:

Are you leading your association like a hunter or the captain of an ark?

[BIG NEWS! If you're planning to attend ASAE's Great Ideas Conference at The Broadmoor next month, I will facilitate an informal group discussion of The New Capitalist Manifesto on Tuesday, March 15, beginning at 2 p.m. in Colorado Hall Room E. Please contact me at jeff@principledinnovation.com if you have any questions.]

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February 10, 2011

So long, farewell ...

This is a sad post for me to write. But it's a happy one too. New beginnings often can be both.

This is my last post as a staff blogger for Acronym. I'm leaving my position with ASAE for a new job with Stratton Publishing, and, as such, I won't be part of the Acronym staff blogging team anymore.

Blogging here has been a wonderful experience. I remember when I first started writing for Acronym, four years ago, being terribly nervous each time I hit "post": What if I got 10 comments saying that I sounded like an idiot? Or what if I never got any comments on my posts at all?

But over time I grew to love blogging. Since I come from the periodicals world, I'm used to working for weeks or months to put something together, waiting while it's distributed to readers, and eventually hearing some responses back. On the blog, I could write spontaneously and hear back just as spontaneously. I could build one-on-one relationships with people in a way that's really difficult through a magazine or newsletter. And I learned to love the time I spent interacting with Acronym's fantastic crew of guest bloggers, as well as the equally fantastic association blogging community, which is growing and changing all the time.

Two years ago, I moved into the role of editor-in-chief at Associations Now, which really cut into the time I had available for the blog. But Joe Rominiecki and Scott Briscoe were kind enough to let me keep my hand in through Quick Clicks, liveblogging at conferences, and the occasional "regular" post.

I won't be disappearing completely--I'm sure I'll still be commenting on Acronym, and other association blogs as well. But I'll miss being a part of the behind-the-scenes at Acronym. I can't speak highly enough of Joe and Scott as colleagues, and Brian, Carolyn, Conor, Diane, and the many other guest bloggers I've worked with over the years as volunteers and insightful professionals.

Thank you to all the Acronym readers and commenters for making the blog experience such a great one for me!

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Quick clicks: Chief Attention Getter edition

A few of this week's interesting blog posts and articles talk about methods for focusing the attention of your audience in certain ways, which makes me wonder if anyone out there has the title of "Chief Attention Getter." I think that'd be a fun title to have. Or better yet, "Attention Getter in Chief." Anyway, here are this week's links:

Attention. Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, points out that the kid in the Darth Vader costume in Volkswagen's Super Bowl ad was a patient at one of her association's member hospitals, and that hospital capitalized on the buzz around the ad to draw some attention to its work. A good example of being ready for the spotlight, she says.

Focused campaigns. Jeffrey Cufaude touts the value of rallying attention, effort, or contributions during a short time period. Think pledge drives or awareness months. "The crowd is busy," he writes. "But if we want the attention and the participation of the masses, a short campaign can provide a focal point for their contributions and be a fulcrum for greater results."

Twitter buy-in. Craig Sorrell makes a guest appearance on KiKi L'Italien's blog to share his success story of encouraging Twitter use among members and staff at his association.

Conference value. Nancy Lublin at Fast Company offers a checklist to determine whether a conference is worth going to. It's somewhat tongue-in-cheek, until you realize that your association's potential conference attendees consider the same factors when they think about going to your conference.

CEO contracts. David Patt, CAE, encourages association CEOs to pay special attention to severance clauses when they negotiate employment contracts.

Data outcomes. Wes Trochlil explains why focusing on outcomes is more important than focusing on inputs when building an association management system.

Optimism. Earlier this week here on Acronym, I asked if you have to be an optimist to be a leader. Shortly after, I came upon an article from the Winter 2011 MIT Sloan Management Review highlighting a study that says "People with optimistic dispositions get jobs more easily and get promoted more."

In chief. You might already be aware that Associations Now's fearless leader Lisa Junker, CAE, is leaving us. (Big shoes to fill, but here's the job listing if you're interested.) Anyway, I got to wondering why the title "Editor in Chief" originated (like "Commander in Chief"). Why not just "Chief Editor" or "Chief Commander"? The answer is a bit fuzzy, but the "in chief" construction appears to date back to feudal times. And there's your useless trivia for the day.

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February 9, 2011

Anyone for challenging authority?

My last post offered some thoughts about what association CEOs may need to do to be successful in the "reset" economy. One of my thoughts related to the need to enable our teams to constructively challenge authority.

With my CEO hat on, let me offer a few observations on what gets in the way of constructive engagement:

  • Trust. With credit to Stephen Covey, what are the perceived intentions, competencies and track record of those involved in the conversation? There must be mutual respect along these lines for robust dialogue that includes dissent.

  • Accountability. CEOs have true "profit and loss" responsibility and are also held to account for the myriad "soft" measures of success that exist in the association environment. Boards, beyond their obvious duties, have a powerful motivation to make their peers and colleagues proud and not be perceived as backsliding on previous progress. This must be recognized.

  • Language. Boards tend to use language of the profession, industry, or cause while staffs use different kinds "association" or "consultant" speak (as I've heard board members describe it). Words do matter.

  • Authenticity. I don't know how to say it elegantly, but I believe that CEOs and board members have a radar for insincerity. Maybe it's even too finely tuned due to being told what we want to hear for years. This is as much the leader's fault as anyone else's, and we need to allow our teams to be candid.

  • Style. This is more about how CEOs and board members think, communicate, and act and has all kind of roots, from background to reinforcement. As squishy as it may seem, I believe that differences in personal style can create substantial friction to the collaborative process.

In my view, we can begin to overcome these barriers by being emphatic and respectful in our approach so as to value the unique perspectives and views of those whom we seek to challenge. Speaking of engaging the chief staff executive, one of the most interesting and insightful articles on the subject is "Inside the Mind of the CEO," by Jim Lukaszewski. One of the great quotes from his work (I think it applies to association execs, too):

"Believe it or not, there is no school for CEOs, anywhere. There is no educational organization to teach the next CEO of Coca-Cola how to do that job. Being a CEO is a completely on-the-job training experience. There is only one such position in any organization, and each is completely unique."

As the reset economy CEOs, we have to accept and appreciate that these times call for every mind in the game. We can't do it all, we can't control or engineer outcomes, and we face challenges that will surely confound us if we don't think and act more creatively and, ultimately, effectively. We also need to appreciate that not everyone will share our common experience or realities (see above quote), and that's probably a good thing in the sense that the thinking of our teams will not be shaped by the exact forces that shape ours.

We also must recognize that, while we as CEOs have unique accountabilities for the direction, resources, and progress toward important organizational goals, there are many others inside the organization (and outside) who want and need to make meaningful contributions, either through new perspectives or insights or helping to shape ours or those of the team. To do this they will need to challenge authority.

We need to learn how to let them.

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February 8, 2011

Disruptor or disrupted?

In our recent podcast interview, Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business (Harvard Business Review Press), told me he makes the following pitch, in the form of a simple question, to boards that need to be persuaded to confront what Umair regards as the "existential threats" facing so many organizations today and going forward:

Do you want to be one of the disruptors, or do you want to be one of the disrupted?

This question is the perfect way to frame the series of posts about The New Capitalist Manifesto I'll be publishing on Acronym throughout the month of February. In these posts, I will do what I have been doing for the last few years: challenge association leaders to take seriously the idea that their most significant responsibility is building their organizations to thrive over the next decade and beyond.

I'm sure that some association boards and CEOs would prefer to dismiss Umair's question as a rhetorical scare tactic, but what's actually happening in the world around us does not support that view. It's not just about the increasingly rapid flows of learning and knowledge that have overwhelmed the association's traditional information franchise, or the growth of social technologies that have made interaction and collaboration ubiquitous and inexpensive. Today's associations exist as institutions within a broader economic system that is seriously out of balance, something we have all experienced firsthand in the last few years. As a result, our ability to create authentic, meaningful and enduring value--what Umair calls thick value--is compromised. To change the dynamics of this situation and create a different kind of future, incremental change will never be enough. We need truly transformative shifts in both thinking and action.

Association leaders need to get comfortable with this reality very quickly, and engage in the work of transformation as a strategic imperative, not an intellectual exercise. In every organization of every size and scope, we must act to disrupt ourselves without further delay. If we don't, a rapidly failing status quo will continue to wreak havoc with "what we've always done," and cause further damage to our long-term prospects for success. There is no middle ground here. We must be bold, or those willing to be bold will supplant us.

In this post, I have staked out my position. In my upcoming posts, I will develop these themes further and explore ideas from Umair's book that can help individual associations, and the association community as a whole, think differently about what is possible going forward. Of course, this is a conversation, so I hope you will share your thoughts in the comments below. Let's begin the dialogue with Umair's question:

Does your association want to be one of the disruptors, or one of the disrupted?

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Bookblogging: The New Capitalist Manifesto

Please welcome our latest Acronym bookblogger, Jeff De Cagna. Jeff, as I'm sure you know, is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC as well as an association blogger and a regular commenter on Acronym.

Jeff will be writing about The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business by Umair Haque, published last month by Harvard Business Press. Jeff has a lot to say about how Haque's insights apply to associations and the future of our sector. I hope you'll add your thoughts to the discussion.

Thanks to Jeff for volunteering to share this thoughts on The New Capitalist Manifesto on Acronym!

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February 7, 2011

Do you have to be an optimist to be a leader?

In a video interview with TheRoot.com, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice offers an interesting take on leadership. The video clip is about five minutes long and worth watching in full, but here are a couple quotes that I liked:

  • "The best leaders are people who have that vision that pushes people to think about what's possible but shows them a realistic way to get there."
  • "We sometimes decry vision and we talk about people being too idealistic, but if you are not an idealist—if you're not an optimist—then you can't lead."

I had never thought of leadership in these terms before, specifically that a leader has to be an optimist, but after some thought I've decided I agree. I like that perspective on leadership and that concept of an optimist. An optimist has a positive outlook not because she has blind faith in positive outcomes but because she has a realistic vision for how to make those positive outcomes happen.

This advice is good for association leaders, who have to inspire and guide such a diverse group of followers: board, staff, committee volunteers, chapter leaders, rank-and-file members, and so on. Being able to inspire each of those groups and show them how they each contribute to fulfilling your association's goals and strategy is no easy task.

The question in the title of this post may be a silly one, because who really wants to follow a pessimist? But I'm curious for your thoughts. Are the best leaders you know consistently optimists, as well?

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February 4, 2011

Quick Clicks: Welcome Back Carter Edition

Welcome to this week's edition of Quick Clicks!

- A former Acronym blogger has popped up again in the association blogging community--Virgil Carter, who contributed a great deal to Acronym before he retired as CEO of ASME, is now leading the Plexus Consulting blog. Virgil introduces himself and lays out his planned approach to the blog here. Even if you weren't reading Acronym when Virgil was blogging with us, I highly recommend you take a look at what he's doing in his new digs.

- Judith Lindenau at Off Stage asks if you really know how much your association's governance system costs.

- At the Nonprofit University blog, Laura Otten takes on some practices she'd like to wash right out of the nonprofit sector.

- "We have to, as a community, get the hell off the hamster wheel of busier = better ..." Elizabeth Weaver Engel has a challenge for the association community, based on an insight she had while reading Seth Godin's book Tribes.

- "Real professions have strong associations ... Whether we work on a world-wide level or via one community at a time, virtually or face-to-face, we will make progress only if we perceive associating as power."

- Carol-Anne Moutinho argues that member feedback is what separates good associations from great ones.

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Crafting Bold Conversations

For the third time in as many days I've heard of an organization holding a forum about "civil discourse" or "Communicating with Candor but Respect."

Obviously, the recent shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Giffords and fears that it resulted in part from enflamed political emotions and extreme partisanship have rippled across our association community as it has the political playing fields.

It only takes a nanosecond for most of us to recall an instance when heated talk created high drama and hurt or angry feelings at our board meetings, in education sessions, on our list servs, or in committee gatherings. Why else are the decisions about meeting facilitators or list serv monitors and guidelines so vital? Even those efforts are not always adequate at preventing open hostilities versus candid debate.

So what else can associations be doing to build an inclusive, open, and frank environment for the exchange of opinions, ideas, and knowledge? More training of board members, staff, and others? Stronger rules of engagement? Adoption of a tweaked version of Google's "Do no evil," e.g., "speak no evil?" An organizational Debate Team?

The issue is important as we evolve into an increasingly diverse workforce that can either divide us or boost us. Has your organization used this momentary political time-out to check the volume and "vitriol" level of the conversations around and within the membership and staff? I've read numerous appeal letters, for example, that would be worth a harder look in a calmer time. And we all know how quickly blog post comments can ratchet up emotions.

Yes, we want engagement, but do we want all-out war within the ranks or with our current "enemies"--the same ones who may well be future political allies.

I've suggested to several people that they read or re-read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenney, and Al Switzler to generate some ideas about raising the quality, not the volume, of your organization's conversations. If you haven't read it already, here is the first chapter.

And keep a watch out for an article I'll be writing after I interview Saj-nicole Joni, co-author of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. The book describes ways that leaders at all levels can create, nurture, and manage the "productive dissent essential for achieving peak performance." It seems especially timely now. Click here for a video on the book.

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February 1, 2011

Prepare in advance, clean up afterwards

Acronym friend Bob Van Hook shared an idea on the Executive Management listserver about replacing a board dinner with a cooking class, where the board breaks into teams and cooks its own gourmet dinner. (If the idea interests you, you should be able to log into the ASAE website, go to the EMS listserver and search for "cooking.") It's a fun idea I'd urge you to consider, but it's not what I want to write about.

Bob added, as a joke I'm pretty sure, "We also learned... how great it is to have things prepared in advance and someone to clean up after you're done." It might have been whimsy, but that's an interesting statement. I take two points away from it.

First, if you want to build value for your members, what are things that you could do to prepare things in advance for them or clean up after them - literally or figuratively? Believe me, I know what's it like when too often, your members want you to do their job for them, or have that exact right answer for them. In a rare case, maybe you'll have that for them, but most of the time, it's about getting them prepared for it, or helping them figure out how to assess it afterward. So what could you be doing in these spaces?

A second thing I take from that is completely different. I don't want to give the idea that the CEO is on a pedestal to be served by staff, because that's not right. However, in a significant way, our job as staff is to ensure that things are prepared in advance and that things are cleaned up afterward. Our job is to make the CEO successful. Now if there's an ethical or moral issue, that takes precedence. But outside that, the staff's job is to serve the mission of the organization as directed by the CEO. It's to ensure that things are prepared and cleaned up - and yes, to participate too.

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