August 14, 2012

Tweets from #asae12, day 3

Day 3 of the 2012 Annual Meeting & Exposition in Dallas was filled with refreshing and provocative tweets with the #asae12 hashtag. Here are a handful of the tweets that you can find in the full hashtag stream.


July 25, 2012

The 40-Year Lesson: Insights from a Retiring Association CEO

Caught in a deadline jam for Associations Now after a snafu that meant pulling several short articles, I was lucky enough to earn the sympathy and help of one of the great leadership icons of our community: CEO & President J. Clarke Price of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Price is actually leaving us all after 40 years of service. He gave notice two years ago and will head out of the office in December to hopefully tee off on the golf courses of Hawaii and elsewhere, then delve into favorite cause-related activities. I had to cut a bunch of Clarke's comments because of space limitations in the magazine, so I want instead to share them here as advice and insights from one of our most admired colleagues.

1. Association CEOs must stop complaining about time pressures and embrace the huge responsibility they bear for the success of their association's social media strategy. "Social media is one of the differentiators today," says Clarke, who has been called a "Technology Superstar" by one of his industry's trade publications. "Too many CEOs--and occasionally myself included--dismiss social media by rationalizing 'I don't have time for that' when we really do need to be spending time in the social media universe. Whether it's blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social platforms, the CEO needs to be vocal as one of the loudest and clearest voices of the association and the profession or industry. I'm critical of myself, because I don't spend enough time being part of the social atmosphere."

2. Being an early adopter of technology tools and applications is essential, too. "It's been fun moving from a two-way pager in the early days to the earliest Blackberry to the Palm Treo to the next gizmo iteration and then to the iPhone and iPad that I use today," Clarke says. "And I still carry an old Motorola Razor that I use just because I'm just more comfortable with that sort of phone, and the battery life is great."

3. In the big, long scheme of things, people mean the most. "As a career accomplishment, being featured in ASAE's 7 Measures [of Success] book was a pretty big deal for the organization and me. But I'm proudest when I think about the people I've hired, some who are still here and some who've moved on to bigger roles in other associations and industries or professions," he says.

4. You never forget some of your earliest CEO mistakes--and what you learned from them. It's apparently a long story, but Clarke says one of his most memorable mistakes involved a simple proofreading gaff. "Proofread carefully," he warns. "... I was almost fired in 1975 because of a very sloppy proofreading job on a bylaws ballot sent to every member!"

5. Have leadership role models--a lot of them. "I don't have just one," Clarke says. "I've learned a lot from colleagues in other organizations (particularly the Ohio State Bar Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and Maryland Institute of CPAs)....[and] just observing and working with John Graham the year I was ASAE chair."

And finally--because who doesn't always want to know this when they talk one of the association world's wise elders--what's Clarke's favorite board management tip after 40 years in the trenches?

"Plan! Think through the likely avenues of discussion and be prepared for the unexpected."

I hope retirement brings you expected and unscripted joys, Clarke. Thanks again for sharing not only your thoughts with me but with so many of us over the years in the association community. I'd love to hear what others have to say about Clarke's tips and observations.

You also can wish him well and hear about the books and information sources that have influenced his past and current thinking as a leader if you join us for the education session "Conversations That Matter: What We Learn From What We Read" Tuesday morning, Aug. 14 in Dallas at our Annual Meeting & Expo. I'll be joining Clarke and another longtime industry leader, Gary LaBranche, to lead a rowdy, fun, and very practical (if last year's version is any indication) discussion of the books, blogs, Twitterstreams, and whatever other info sources (okay, the emphasis is often on books) that have jazzed your thinking in the past year. Leave room in your totebag for at least one free book from our giveaway table!


July 24, 2012

Walls and Fences Can Lock In Associations Unnecessarily

In reading Robert Frisch's new book, Who's In the Room, about effective use of senior management teams, I was especially interested in the author's section on so-called walls versus fences within organizations.

"The idea is there is a set of things we understand that form boundaries of what our options are around what we can do to grow, for example," Frisch said in an interview with me for Associations Now. "They define the borderlines of what we do.... What happens is that when people get into positions of responsibility in associations, [they] get an understanding of the way 'things are done around here.' There's even more of a reluctance to challenge conventional wisdom, because [they may be ] serving an elected term for two years" or not be at the top of the staff totem pole.

Associations are not alone in mistakenly thinking that staff members, leaders, and others usually understand the difference between a fact (a wall such as an understanding that "you cannot do X because of X") and an assumption (a fence such as "you could not do X at that time but things changed, so now it's okay").
"If those walls and fences aren't placed accurately, then you're going to have people making bad decisions," Frisch told me. "It's really a question of, 'What are the very fundamentals of our business model?' It's a critical conversation that most organizations never have."

In fact, I don't recall have too many of those myself. Bits and pieces maybe, but not an overall look at solid versus picket fence stuff.

Frisch says these things are no secret. "People who are asked generally can tell you their organization's walls and fences," he said. "It's the job of the senior management team to go up to those walls and give them a good shake, asking, 'Is this a valid limit to who we are and what we can do, or is this a fence that can be moved? If we move it, can we open up new opportunities for growth and expansion?'"

He recommended questions like 'What business are we in? Who is our customer? What products can we offer? How do we go about conducting our business?'
And it's not just the staff who may build or break down these walls and fences. Most of us probably can think of a time when board members--or perhaps the minutes of their meeting--established a wall when a fence was the intention. Frisch warns that board directives and statements often are not re-evaluated enough, and that trickles to staff both new and seasoned who are heavily influenced by board comments.

"We have to be careful that they won't over-interpret what's being said, and that's why the walls and fences exercises are useful," he explains. "Let's make it very clear--this is what we do, this is what we don't do, this is who we serve, this is who we don't serve, these are the programs we fund, these are the programs we don't fund. How often do a board and senior management team actually walk the boundaries of the organization and explicitly talk about what we do and don't do? That's a very important but rare conversation."

Look for the full interview with Frisch in an upcoming Associations Now.

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June 22, 2012

Executive Volunteering: A Conversation That Matters

I like the new Fast Company interview with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited CEO Barry Salzberg, who was recently named chair of the board for United Way Worldwide. I wish that more association CEOs would talk about their volunteering and what it brings to their professional and personal development so publicly and passionately.

While Fast Company briefly mentions the interesting business model "flip" at UWW in terms of moving the powerful nonprofit's "international agency" from affiliate status to the organization's primary structure, it focuses instead on Salzberg's journey from simple philanthropist to active nonprofit volunteer and recruiter.

"Before volunteering, I thought that all I could do was give and raise money," he says in the piece. "That's important, and I'm happy to do that. But then that morphs into intellectual capacity and idea generation, and then pro bono service, and that becomes very meaningful. It's become a way of life."

He credits his journey with his greater understanding of how executive volunteering and social responsibility strategies can drive charities and associations toward greater success.

"Business strategy and social impact are a powerful combination, especially when companies fully align and integrate the two," says Salzberg in the interview.

Drawing from the volunteering skills and tremendous satisfaction he developed at a series of other nonprofits, Salzberg now is helping United Way Worldwide strengthen its brand internationally to scale up CSR programs. Already, almost 120 companies are engaged in UWW's Global Corporate Leadership program, and leaders are eying ways to further grow its 600 international community-based organizations, as well as the 1,200 in America. Yesterday, they all were activated for UWW's Day of Action which sent more than 50,000 volunteers out to serve their communities.

While Salzberg urges young professionals to get involved in volunteering because it is such a learning experience, he emphasizes that seasoned executives will find they are taking ideas and practices from their pro bono work back to their "day jobs."

When I speak with CEOs at ASAE events, they sometimes tell me about their volunteer work, but it always comes up accidently. Please take a moment today to proactively discuss with someone, anyone, what volunteering has meant to you. That action alone might be all it takes to bring one more smart person into the larger efforts to address world problems.


June 14, 2012

Three Questions on Leadership and Management We Don't Have Answers To

pamela meyer.jpgGreetings from Vancouver, British Columbia, where ASAE's Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management is taking place today and tomorrow. Borrowing a page from my colleague Joe Rominiecki's smart post about questions he still doesn't have answers to, here are three questions, all missing clear answers, that stuck out to me after listening to Thursday's speakers.

Can a CEO ignore the board and get away with it? Associations need strong leaders, a sense of urgency about change, and data to underscore that urgency, Race for Relevance coauthor Harrison Coerver told the audience. But some in attendance pointed out that the real world isn't made up of hard-charging CEOs that work with highly engaged boards. What if the board is disengaged to the point that initiatives could be rushed through without pushback? And, to flip the problem: What if the board is supportive of a CEO to the point that it doesn't ask hard questions about a CEO's vision? The ongoing struggle may be to build a board that doesn't aggressively stand in the way (especially if you can't reduce your board to five members) but also plays a role that prompts a CEO to be on his or her toes.

How much are you personally implicated when your culture becomes dysfunctional? Pamela Meyer (pictured above), author of the book Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, delivered a host of examples, from Bill Clinton to A-Rod to Sarah Palin, that show how people subtly show their hand when they are being deceptive or outright lying. (She hit on some of these examples in a 2011 TED Talk.) We're swimming in lies: Meyer said that we're told upward of 200 a day, and likely do a bit of lying of our own. We've come to accept that deception is just part of the culture now, and leaders may be passively allowing it to happen. You don't need to be a bad cop with staff to, er, police this, but Meyer says leaders need to be better at identifying baselines---the normal behavior in an organization's truthful environment. That way, you can have "an honest postmortem when something's gone wrong."

Why are we still doing annual performance reviews? During his talk, Kevin Kruse, coauthor of We: How to Increase Performance and Profit Through Full Engagement, took a few whacks at the notion that regular performance reviews motivate employees to do more. What it's more likely to do, Kruse argues, is encourage managers and their employees to spend months stockpiling complaints until the review, and sow disappointment when they don't quite measure up on five-point scales. "All they do is enable non-confrontational management," Kruse says. So what do you do instead? Instead of thinking about the tick marks on a chart, leaders create more engaged team when employees feel like the people in charge are actively supporting them---giving them time to learn more and try new things. "What gives people a sense of growth is when you invest in the development of their career," Kruse told the audience.

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June 5, 2012

Hack the Association

People in the association world are routinely exhorted to perform acts of violence upon their infrastructure. Smash silos! Kill programs! Slash committees! After a while, the idea of "sunsetting" feels downright sweet, even if what's getting sunsetted is a whole department.

I get it: Things move slowly in the association world, so it takes some strong language to get people to take notice of the threats moving in their direction. We use those words because we agree they have a certain power over how things get done. But I'd like to propose a better verb: I submit that we need less of a smash-kill-slash mentality when we discuss organizational change. We need more of a hack mentality.

This is the good kind of hack, the take-it-apart-and-make-it-better hack, not the break-into-the-AMS-and-steal-member-data hack. The term has been on my mind for about a week now, ever since I read "Hack the Cover," a sharp, magisterial essay by digital publishing expert Craig Mod about what it means to give a book a cover in the e-book era. Think about it: A cover for an e-book is a ridiculous thing. E-books require no protection from the weather or the degradations of everyday use, and e-reader screens are so small (and in the case of the Kindle, exclusively black and white) that cover art borders on pointless. Smash! Kill!

But covers don't need to be exterminated so much as rethought. "What do we now hunt when buying books?" Mod asks, and he boldfaces the answer: "Data." Once you acknowledge that people don't search Amazon for pretty covers, you can retool the cover to better deliver information about what's inside. That doesn't mean covers can't be pretty---Mod provides some spectacular examples of how the physical book can remain an art object---but elegance now needs to be matched with a growing need to emphasize what's inside the book itself.

It's not hard to see how to apply this thinking to associations: Perhaps decision-making processes become more sensible if they're thought of as opportunities to "hack" obsolete products and services instead of just killing them (or giving them a new coat of paint). I don't mean to suggest that associations unthinkingly smash-kill-slash things; heaven knows strategic processes abound. But how much more motivating do you think it is to tell staff they'll have the opportunity to hack what they do instead of telling them they need to blow it up?


May 31, 2012

Upgrading Diplomacy Skills the Albright Way

Want to refine your diplomacy skills?

Flash back to the enduring advice given by Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to association leaders in this "classic" (June 2002) article, "Education of a Diplomat," which I pulled from ASAE's Knowledge Center archives of Executive Update magazine pieces published by the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives (pre-merger with ASAE).

I thought I'd bring the article up for a re-airing when I saw that Albright and 12 other leaders received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this week from President Barack Obama "for changing the world for the better."


Associations as Networked "Ecosystems"

In an interesting interview article appearing in the May 29 Inc. magazine, business guru Jim Collins references new thinking on leadership that he developed after working with ASAE and the associations that participated in research for the book Seven Measures of Success.

In a discussion of how the Internet revolution has changed business today, Collins says, "The Internet is all about networks and connectivity across networks, so one possibility is that there's a shift to a new fundamental building of society, namely, the network. We may be moving to a world of networks well led, as opposed to organizations well managed. You can't really manage a network, but you can help lead within a network."

Calling such networks "building blocks," Collins points to associations that "are, by their nature, networks. They're fluid. But an association has to have some sort of unity and cohesion.

"So how do you create a great association when it's inherently not self-contained? [ASAE's] researchers analyzed some really high-performing associations, in which you can see this network effect and the importance of being able to lead without direct power. I began thinking that associations may actually be on the leading edge of what more people are going to have to learn how to do. Instead of managing a company, you're managing an ecosystem that is networked and connected over the world."

You can read the full article, "Jim Collins: Be Great Now," here and please feel free to comment below.


May 11, 2012

How Much Influence Does a CEO Have?

Forbes writer Eric Jackson galvanized the business web's attention late last month with a troubling headline: "Here's Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next Five Years." (I figured an association online community manager somewhere audibly sighed after reading that, then began adding new images to a Pinterest board, "Images of Despair About an Unstable Universe.") But embedded in Jackson's provocative argument is an even more troubling claim: Leaders are more or less meaningless.

Jackson's specific point is that however much they try to innovate, web-based companies like Yahoo and Facebook remain products of the times in which they were founded, subject to all the prejudices and blinkered thinking of that moment. Yahoo, for instance, was the world leader in web-portal expertise a decade ago, but that isn't particularly meaningful in a mobile-ized world, and the company is struggling. More broadly, though, Jackson is making a case for "organizational ecology," which argues that:

organizational outcomes have much more to do with industry effects than who the CEO is and the choices he or she makes. [Organizational ecologists] study birth and death rates of populations of organizations, as well as the effects of age, competition and resources in the surrounding environment on an organization's birth and death rate.

Put another way: Leaders are lousy at predicting the future. They stick with what worked when they started, and don't effectively move their organizations forward. So ultimately the future moves the organization for them---or puts them out of business.

It's true that leaders tend to be bad at predicting the future. We all are: every so often I see somebody post a link showing a story from decades ago about what life will be like in the 21st century, and we all have a good laugh about it. But I think association leaders do have more influence than Jackson suggests, and aren't simply passive respondents to market forces.

The main reason I think that is because associations are, practically by definition, active respondents to market forces. An association's role is to listen to members in the aggregate, gathering information about where the growth opportunities and threats are. Not every association does a great job of gathering that information, or presenting it back to members so they can act on it, but the antennae for detecting what's coming next is built into association DNA. Corporations run under the mantra, "Evolve or die." Associations monitor the evolution patterns.

Well, in a perfect world, they do---and enough of them continue to do it well enough to keep the doors open. But reading Jackson's article make me think that the next big challenge for associations---just as much as membership, internationalization, nondues revenue, and mobile---is improving their monitoring skills. If it's true that "the next 5 - 8 years could be incredibly dynamic," as Jackson writes, members will have a growing need for help from their associations for tools to address those changes.

So what does the effective CEO do on that front? Give members more opportunities to meet in person? Double down on online communications tools? More data mining?

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April 18, 2012

Earth Day Offers Visibility, Fun, Engagement

It's Earth Day this Sunday and National Volunteer Month for a few weeks more, so loads of associations and their member companies and professionals are organizing, educating, celebrating, volunteering, and just plain participating in this worldwide effort to bolster environmental conservation.

Here's a snapshot of what some are doing or already have done--and it's not too late to join in yourself!

Start by downloading the free Earth Day 2012 Toolkit , where you can also learn about and be inspired by "A Billion Acts of Green," the world's largest environmental service campaign. And if you're in DC, you may want to check out the massive party scene happening at the National Mall rally and concerts either in person or online (live-streaming at

Sounds like some more partying will go on over at the 2012 Mighty Kindness Earth Day Hootenanny on April 22 organized by the Kentucky Chiropractic Association. The fun is combined with a more serious purpose: promoting a new state license "Go Green with Chiropractic" plate that aims "to elevate the chiropractic industry and its environmentally friendly nature in Kentucky" and raise some money as well.

The Eco-Dentistry Association will host its first tweetchat for dental industry professionals and consumers worldwide "to discuss the essentials of a high-tech, wellness based, and successful green dental practice."

The American Bar Association's Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) in sponsoring the One Million Trees Project-Right Tree for the Right Place at the Right Time nationwide public service project. Started in March 2009, the project "calls on ABA members to contribute to the goal of planting one million trees across the United States by 2014 - both by planting trees themselves and by contributing to the partnering tree organizations." It also is promoting nominations for the 2012 ABA Award for Excellence in Environmental, Energy, and Resources Stewardship.

Entertainment Cruises is partnering with the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has partnered with Entertainment Cruises to offer an Earth Day brunch cruise to enjoy Washington, DC, views while learning from the NAAEE about green energy, environmental initiatives and its upcoming conference.

More than 1,000 volunteers of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) are engaging in 10 signature Earth Day projects from prairie re-vegetation to exotic plant species removal on public lands across the U.S. on April 14 and 21. These events have some powerful sponsors, including American Eagle Outfitters, ARAMARK, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Exelon Foundation, Johnson Controls, Sony, and Southwest Airlines.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has released the First Annual Report of the eCycling Leadership Initiative, which details how the consumer electronics industry has dramatically increased its recycling in 2011 and advanced the goals set by the eCycling Leadership Initiative (also called the Billion Pound Challenge). For instance, participants of the initiative arranged for the responsible recycling of 460 million pounds of consumer electronics, a 53% increase over the 300 million pounds recycled in 2010. The number of recycling drop-off locations for consumers also was bolstered from to nearly 7,500 from just over 5,000 a year ago. And CEA launched to educate consumers about eCycling and energy consumption. By entering a ZIP code, anyone can locate the closest responsible recycling opportunity sponsored by the CE industry and/or third-party certified recycler. The initiative aims to increase electronics recycling to one billion pounds annually by 2016 and providing transparent metrics on eCycling efforts. A billion pounds of unrecycled waste electronics would fill a 71,000-seat NFL stadium.

The American Medical Student Association and Medical Alumni Association at Temple University are planting seeds and preparing a "Medicinal and Edible Learning Garden" and education event to discuss natural medicinal remedies.

The National Parks and Recreation Association is urging people to take advantage of waived entrance fees at U.S. national parks from April 21 to April 29 during National Park Week. Download your free Owner's Guide to America's National Parks. I know a few associations that are planning staff picnics and hikes at local parks and Great Falls National Park in sync with this promotional event.

The New York City Association of Hotel Concierges (NYCAHC) and its affiliate members will celebrate MillionTreesNYC at a "Dig In for Earth Day" tree-planting event May 5 in partnership with Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Parks and New York Restoration Project. Since the program's inception in 2007, thousands of New Yorkers have helped plant over 400,000 trees, with NYCAHC planting more than 2,000 of them.

American Forests' easy online calculator and offsetting options make it easy to offset your home or car pollution (I offset my minivan's emissions for about $17 last year through AF). Earth Day Network also offers an eco-calculator.

Whatever you do, just consider doing something green this weekend and join your colleagues in making the planet a bit healthier for us all!

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April 4, 2012

Every Innovative Team Needs a Conformist

I'm trying to recall how many times in my professional life I've sat in a meeting and heard an exchange like this one:

Person 1: "[Explanation of a brilliant, innovative idea.]"

Person 2: "That's a great idea! I'll make sure it gets implemented!"

Well, I know how many times I've heard that: Never. Usually the response is a little more like this:

Person 2: "That's a great idea! [Person 3, not sitting in the room] would be a perfect person to do it!"

I'm not immune; I'm much more likely to be Person 2 than Person 1. It's not that we're slackers, really. It's just that the business of giving ideas a real-world shape---the un-fun part, the implementation piece, the piece that happens well before we get to congratulate ourselves about a job well done---can be a lot harder than the idea-generation piece. I have this on my mind having read Jamie Notter's smart, provocative post, "The Down-Side of Great Ideas," which lays out this frustration in unmissable bold type: "We are stuck because we assume that we can separate thought from action and still manage to make change."

So what gets us unstuck? There's no easy answer to that, but there's something to be said for two things: First, tamping down our enthusiasm for thinking that innovation and ideation are the be-all-end-all of what teamwork is, and second, intentionally building teams that are a smart mix of thinkers and doers.

That's the message of an article titled "Conformists Boost Creativity," (subscription req'd) published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article discusses research by a group of scholars that suggests there are three distinct cognitive styles: creative, conformist, and attentive to detail. That third style can stifle innovation, the researchers argue, because attentive-to-detail types are overly concerned with picayune matters and are easily frustrated by ambiguity. (I'm guessing the researchers, were they feeling less diplomatic, would've called this style "anal-retentive fussbudgetry.") Conformists are conformists because they're more concerned with how the work gets done than brainstorming, but that's a valuable role when a team is stuck, or just too in love with their brilliance to actually act on their ideas.

"Managers should look not just at what they need and what this person knows [when assembling teams], but also how this person's personality can affect the dynamic on the team," says one of the researchers, Ella Miron-Spektor. "The ideal team should include a relatively large proportion of creative members, a lower proportion of conformists, and not more than one or two members who pay attention to detail."

You're probably thinking the same thing I did: I'm a mix of cognitive types, and I can't be pigeonholed as a creative, conformist, or whatever. But there's an easy way to tell, isn't there? We just have to listen to ourselves in those meetings. When do we step up to do something? When do we punt it to Person 3?

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March 26, 2012

Can you change your association's culture?

Organizational culture is a hot topic at Great Ideas this year. In a well-attended Idea Lab session Monday, attendees took a look at both the ideal and the real.

Led by Jodie Slaughter, FASAE, of McKinley Advisors, the group started by listing characteristics of an association culture they aspired to: one that is "professional without being stodgy," collaborative, respectful, and helmed by leaders who value inclusiveness, ensuring that all members and staff have opportunities to contribute to the mission.

Then came the reality check. With Slaughter's guidance, attendees undertook an assessment of their own organization's culture, ultimately determining which of four types it most resembled (described by Bruce Tharp in his white paper, Organizational Culture):

  • The Clan: a collaborative culture

  • The Adhocracy: a culture marked by creativity, innovation, and risk-taking

  • The Market: a culture driven by competition

  • The Heirarchy: a controlled culture that puts a premium on stability

"There's no right or wrong culture," Slaughter said. "There's only whether the culture fits the mission of the organization."

But when the two don't fit, how to bring change, especially when culture is ingrained in an organization? Some attendees questioned the ability of association staff other than the CEO to change the organization's culture; others suggested that the belief that change can only come from the top is itself a cultural assumption.

Although an organization's chief executive and top volunteers clearly have the most leverage to bring about change, "cultural influencers need not be those officially in charge," Slaughter said.

Ultimately, she said, "culture is largely a function of what you pay attention to. It's changed by what you measure and monitor. That's what your organization values." For example, she asked, does your organization pay as much attention to staff retention as member retention? Should it?

And pretty talk about fostering a healthy culture has to be supported by action and modeling. "You cannot fake it. You have to embody the values that you want to promote," Slaughter said.

Does your organization know what kind of culture it needs to accomplish its mission? Does it walk the talk? And can positive change be a grassroots effort, or does it have to come from the top? Tell us what you think.

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February 17, 2012

Brainstorming, Good and Bad

It's official: There's a New York-based conspiracy to keep organization staff from working together to generate ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an essay in the New York Times by Susan Cain casting doubt on fashionable bullpen-style collaborative office spaces. A few weeks later, the New Yorker has weighed in with an article that also seems to encourage everybody to scamper back to their desks and delete their Outlook meeting notices. In "Groupthink," Jonah Lehrer throws cold water on the notion that brainstorming sessions are useful ways to generate great ideas. He quotes one psychologist's summary of where the research currently stands: "[B]rainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."

Lehrer's article has absorbed plenty of brickbats online, but I don't think he's said anything especially outrageous, really. His point is that while brainstorming sessions in themselves are moderately useful, idea generation works best when healthy criticism of idea is also part of the mix. Alex Osborn, the advertising executive who promoted brainstorming in the 40s, saw it as a two-part process---criticism-free ideation, followed by some process of critique or culling. But in Lehrer's reckoning, organizations tend to forget about the second part, lapsing into everybody-gets-a-trophy mode. Leaders now congratulate themselves for having the process in the first place, even if that means a smart idea for building revenue is now on equal footing with an idea to buy posters with adorable kittens and the words "Let's do a purr-fect job!" and staple-gun them to every employee's cube.

"Organizations are great at killing ideas," wrote blogger Kent Anderson, laying out his own concerns with the piece. "The first step is to create an enforced safe zone in which ideas can flourish. Implicit in the process is that later these ideas will be critiqued and winnowed down." Implicit, Lehrer might say---but not actually practiced. "It is the human friction that makes the sparks," is the line with which he concludes his article. What's missing from this back-and-forth, though, is a discussion of how that criticism---that friction---is best delivered.

So, then: Do you see criticism diminishing or even absent from your brainstorming sessions? If not, what are the ways you deliver criticism that promote the best ideas but still keep those ideas flowing?

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February 3, 2012

What does it take to be an innovator?

The following is a guest post from J. Clarke Price, CAE, president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

One of the most enjoyable assignments I've had in my involvement in ASAE was working on the Innovation Task Force. Figuring out the answer to "How do we cultivate a spirit of innovation in associations?" was simultaneously challenging and frustrating.

The challenging dimension was that it was fun to engage association executives in conversations around that question. I've heard lots of perspectives on the question, I've heard lots of examples of how associations have empowered staff to innovate, and I've heard how staff and volunteers are routinely challenging the status quo and creating innovative programs and solutions in some associations. It's energizing to hear the enthusiasm that some have for being innovators and creating a culture that promotes innovation.

At the same time, talking about innovation has also been nothing short of frustrating. Many of the CEOs I've spoken with seem paralyzed at the prospect of getting their arms around becoming innovative. While virtually everyone seems to recognize the importance of becoming innovative, they just can't figure out how to do it. Too many seem to be focused on innovation as the next big, grandiose new thing they can develop. They're not recognizing that innovation can also occur incrementally.

Everyone understands the concept of "process improvement" in their organizations, but they don't relate that to being innovative. I liken process improvement to "baby steps." By fostering an environment and culture that promotes baby steps, we begin to get people comfortable with the notion of change, and that can lead to comfort with significant change that can lead to major innovations. It's easy to get people thinking about and acting on simple process improvements, and that's far easier than saying "think big" with a hope that you'll see something innovative develop.

I've been in several conversations recently that have reinforced my belief that too many association CEOs are afraid to tackle the innovation challenge because of reasons like "it's too big to get my arms around" or "it will be expensive," or they rationalize that "I innovate all the time." I'd challenge everyone to think about the issue not as an undertaking that's too big to embrace but rather as something where small steps and a culture change can lead to big things.

Regardless of whether one's approach to innovation is through small steps or big steps, what's most important is that we embrace the notion of innovation as something that can lead to organizational excitement and great new things.

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January 13, 2012

The Fiction Fix

Last week I wrote about the virtues of skepticism when it comes to storytelling—why it's important to be wary about organizations that use storytelling to burnish positive images about themselves, because there's a good chance they're covering up messes that don't neatly fit the narrative. Your comments to that post got me thinking more about when storytelling does and doesn't do its job. (And as an editor at Associations Now who's stared at plenty of blank screens trying to write, I think about this a fair bit.)

So let's add one more complication here: At the Harvard Business Review website, author Anne Kreamer writes about "the business case for reading novels." By "business case," Kreamer means to say that reading fiction bolsters the kinds of qualities that we admire in leaders but which leaders sometimes have a hard time cultivating: emotional intelligence, empathy, poise, conscientiousness. There's data to back up the claim. According to one study she cites, people who read fiction were better equipped to detect emotional cues in others. Moreover, Kreamer argues, fiction is a way to experience the rougher emotions we try to avoid in everyday life, the better to deal with them when they do come up.

I like the idea in the abstract, though I think fiction is only so beneficial as a leadership tool. As Kreamer points out, people who already have "high interpersonal skills" won't necessarily benefit. And however I look at it, I'm not convinced that the novel I'm reading at the moment, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, which is set on a mutinous slave ship in 1830, has much to teach me about leadership, even in an inverted, here's-how-to-do-it-wrong kind of way. But I don't read fiction to be taught so much as to be reminded: to remember that there are sometimes voices I hadn't considered, that some of the verities I was sure of years ago (or last month) aren't necessarily so, and that the essential but hard-won personal stuff Kreamer mentions—emotional intelligence, empathy, poise, conscientiousness—still matters. Novels aren't formal training; at best they're refresher courses.

But let me throw it to you, an association readership that I know often balances the must-read business books with less-business-y ones. Is there a business case for novels, as Kreamer argues, or do they serve to bolster the storytelling instinct that threaten to make our narratives a little too pat?

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January 4, 2012

Resolved: Embrace Your Messes

It's four days into the new year, and with any luck you're still sticking to your resolutions to be healthier, kinder, more creative, more organized, and so on. All good things. But I hope you'll forgive me for handing you this double-fudge sundae of a resolution-wrecker: Maybe this is the year you stop trying so hard to apply order to things and instead spend more time acknowledging life's inherent messiness.

I say this after spending some time over the holidays reading the transcript of a talk that economist Tyler Cowen gave at the TedxMidAtlantic conference. (The talk—in the video above—was in 2009, but the transcript appeared late last month.) Cowen's talk is about stories—more specifically, our human instinct to organize our lives as stories. Cowen understands that storytelling is baked into our nature, but he's concerned that our need to describe our lives in terms of conflicts and beginnings, middles, and ends oversimplifies things. "Every time you're telling a good-versus-evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more," Cowen says. Good-versus-evil stories deflect nuance and complication, and it's often the subtle things you need to be the most concerned about.

The line that really hit home for me—and that got me thinking about associations—is Cowen's suggestion about what you should do when a story feels a little too enchanting to you:

Pull back and say, "What are the messages, and what are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell?" and start telling yourself those, and see if any of your decisions change.

Associations, of course, tell stories about themselves all the time: In the annual report, in the board minutes, in the marketing programs, in their internal messages. Those messages can be as simple as "We've supported our industry for decades." But what if the industry isn't the same as it was all those decades back? The decades make for a nice story, but they're not what matters—and, as Cowen implies, leaning on that story isn't going to drive you to make changes in what you do.

So here's the question for the new year (and please do weigh in with your answers in the comments if you're willing): What are the stories you've seen associations unwilling to tell themselves? And a bonus question: Where does that lack of incentive come from?

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December 15, 2011

When the Problem You Solve Is the Problem You Have

Some imaginary situations:

  • An association that promotes international cooperation in an industry has, at long last, assembled a diverse, global board—whose members now can't get along.
  • The staff of an organization that promotes literacy receives regular emails from the Executive Director that are riddled with so many typos and so much opaque jargon that some people are starting to wonder how the ED got hired.
  • An association promoting green technologies has routine staff squabbles on its internal website about office recycling. What is that eco-friendly go-cup lid doing in the trash? Excuse me, but why did I just see a soda can in the mixed-papers bin?

If you'd asked me a while back if there were a term for this sort of thing, I might have just shrugged and said, "Uh, bitter irony?" But a recent edition of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly has set me straight. David Allyn, director of development for New Jersey SEEDS, calls the phenomenon "mission mirroring," a situation in which "organizations routinely become mired in internal conflicts that look eerily like the external problems they were founded to address." The main cause of mission mirroring, Allyn argues, is that stakeholders are hyperaware of the kind of issue they've come together to fix, so that very same issue has a way of bubbling up more often in staff and board interactions.

I'm not entirely sold on the idea. The single case study Allyn addresses is anonymous and a little too on-the-nose: conflict at an organization whose mission is conflict resolution. (It's a doozy of an internal conflict, though: "At one donor event," Allyn writes, "two guests nearly came to blows over the use of a chair.") But it doesn't strike me as unthinkable, either. Moreover, Allyn argues that awareness of mission mirroring should be an essential part of its work, to forestall such conflicts down the line. Organizations that do so will be "less likely to get trapped in vicious cycles of accusation and reprisal," he writes.

Have you ever experienced (or even heard of) a case of mission mirroring? Is simply acknowledging the problem quite enough to help fix it?

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November 28, 2011

One Organization, Two Ideas About Innovation

I spent most of last weekend doing what I hope you did: I spent a lot of time with family, I enjoyed some home-cooked meals, and I took advantage of the surprisingly temperate November weather in DC. This social and highly engaged behavior couldn't last a whole four-day weekend, of course. So late one evening I caved and wound up retreating into Netflix Instant, which is now showing Page One, a documentary about a legacy organization that has a powerful brand name but is struggling to overcome "that's the way we've always done it" thinking and find new ways to innovate and provide value.

Which is to say, it's about The New York Times. The film follows a year in the life of the paper circa 2010, as it attempts to respond to a collapsing advertising market and the explosion of countless new communications tools that threaten to render dead-tree media obsolete. Various pundits (including past ASAE Annual Meeting speaker Clay Shirky) smartly discuss the paper's prospects going forward, but the heart of the movie is the collection of writers and editors around the Times' media desk. They had plenty of big stories to cover: the Tribune Media company declared bankruptcy, WikiLeaks released a raft of classified files, NBC Universal announced a merger with Comcast. At every turn the reporters and editors needed to do the same thing: Test the available facts for their accuracy and for how they're being pitched. Stakeholders want their stories to appear in a certain way in what was once universally accepted as the paper of record. It's the job of Times reporters to push back against that spin.

The irony here is palpable: While the Times' reporters are challenging received wisdom practically as part of their job descriptions, they're doing it at an institution that's often been loath to break free of old models of thinking. That mistake is as true at associations as it is at the Times; in some ways that behavior is baked into the very being of organizations. In 1977, sociologists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan wrote a paper, "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony," (PDF) that argued that an organization tends to sustain itself in part by perpetuating "myths" about itself—stories that can be damaging when they're invoked to put the brakes on any attempts at change. (In case you don't feel like curling up with scholarly articles, a brief summary is here.) It strikes me that the problem at the Times is that it maintains two contradictory institutional impulses:

  1. At the rank-and-file level it respects a base of employees that questions and challenges as part of its duties.
  2. At the leadership level it cultivates a resistance to change, precisely because it's constructed a myth about itself around point #1.

I'm being a little broad-brush here. Certainly the Times has been much more savvy about responding to new technologies and reader habits than a lot of its media brethren. But it makes me wonder if some associations that prioritize innovation do it at all levels—celebrating it in certain departments, or around certain initiatives, but not around the entire organization and not at the level of leadership. Often innovation is something that's discussed as something that needs to trickle down to staff and members; what if it needs to trickle up to leadership?

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October 12, 2011

So You've Discovered a Paradigm Shift, Have You?

Last month researchers at the CERN research laboratory near Geneva delivered some big news: They clocked some subatomic particles as moving faster than the speed of light. I studied English in college, not physics, so I won't pretend to understand the intricacies of this, but I can grasp the fact that This Was Not Supposed to Happen. Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity says that objects cannot move faster than the speed of light; if they do, they would be going backwards in time. (I'm not sure what the implications of that might be, besides providing fodder for bad movies.)

In any event, for the purposes of this blog I'm not interested in the science so much as how it was discussed. Faced with some earth-shattering news that undoes physics and we know it, the scientists at CERN announced their findings with remarkable humility. "We cannot explain the observed effect in terms of systematic uncertainties," Dr. Dario Autiero said. "Therefore, the measurement indicates a neutrino velocity higher than the speed of light."

Dr. Autiero added, in a sentence that suggests more bafflement than celebration, "We present to you this discrepancy or anomaly today."

As somebody who gets plenty of emails every week, both in and out of the nonprofit space, celebrating a "revolutionary" this or "paradigm-shifting" that, I find that kind of care with language refreshing. It also speaks to something that often goes unspoken when big changes are discovered, be they in science or management: Those changes, if they are genuine, can be messy. People long in comfortable positions might wind up marginalized; vendors' services might be no longer needed as an association changes tack; association leaders might discover they're woefully ill-equipped in terms of staff and board leadership to make the necessary adjustments; those same leaders might realize they themselves are ill-equipped to manage through that change.

The reason we use the term "paradigm shift" so much today is thanks to Thomas Kuhn, whose 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, discussed how unsettling seachanges in physics could be, from Copernicus to Newton to Einstein; Kuhn himself absorbed no small amount of flak for his book. I don't mean to suggest that leaders should shy away from addressing paradigm shifts when they see them; just that they should see them as opportunities for reflection and serious thought about what to do next. It's a time to get to work, not break out the champagne; no revolution worthy of the name ever got announced in a press release.

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September 1, 2011

Deconstructing lovable losers

This was originally meant to be a comment on Joe's post yesterday on "lovable loser" programs, those programs that lose money but are too important to kill. The comment seemed too important, so I'm making it a post on its own.

What Joe makes me think about as he coins a new term, is that organizations are what they measure. Dollars is obviously a basic measurement of a program/product/service. I'm not saying we shouldn't measure financials; you obviously have to. But so often that's where the measurement stops - or maybe you measure a few other things (you know the list, recite it with me: butts in seats, total members, member retention, etc.).

I've never seen an association mission statement that mentions the profitability of the organization itself, so it's a shame when so many of our programs and products use that as the primary measuring stick. Most mission statements talk about making a profession or trade stronger, or helping those in a profession or trade be better at it. Finances and the other measurements (cue the chorus: butts in seats...) are at best distant measurements of such missions.

We could easily get one step closer by figuring out how to measure engagement. Even developing some rudimentary metrics around engagement would go a long way to killing Joe's new term - and that's my goal with this post. I think he's right, where associations are right now is calling such programs losers. But start measuring engagement and I'm guessing those lovable loser programs are actually winners, maybe big winners, in the metric that gets closer to telling you if you're being successful in working on your mission.

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August 29, 2011

Statisics are no substitute for judgment

Maybe it's the carry-out place I get my Chinese food from, but I get some of the worst fortunes in those tasteless cookies. I don't get "You're going to be rich beyond your wildest dreams," or even "A night of passion awaits."

Nope, I don't even get fortunes. I get things like:

"A fool judges people by the presents they give him."

"Dig the well before you get thirsty."

Sometimes they're not bad, such as:

"Deep doubts, deep wisdom; small doubts, small wisdom."

And then I run across one that gets tacked to my wall:

"Statistics are no substitute for judgment."

It doesn't say don't use statistics. Far from it I think. I love data. I'm one that hates what passes for data sometimes and think that poorly designed research should be criminal. Data on its own, though, is meaningless. Interpretation of data is what matters, and that's what the Chinese proverb is telling us. Look at the data, but then use your judgment to interpret it. Taking it one step further, judgment about how others interpret data is also critical. That's called scholarly debate. You don't have to be a Ph.D. at a university or thinktank to engage in it. I wish it were a more common occurrence for everyone.

Putting this in the organizational context, I think there are a couple of things of paramount importance.

1. It's critical that there be space for debate. Talk about different interpretations and judgments. These need to be safe, no bullying, as much as possible no hierarchy, sessions. All interpretations are valid and there is not a right and a wrong.

2. There also needs to come a time for decisiveness. Data, and debate about it, can be paralyzing. I don't believe there are right or wrong decisions so much as better and worse decisions, with the decider using his or her judgment.

And two important things to keep in mind about being decisive. The first ties in the debate, and it's what Jennifer Riel from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto talked about at the Great Ideas Conference and again at the Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management. She said the best leaders seek out alternative solutions (not "A" or "B," but the previously unthought of "C"). The second thing to keep in mind is when a decision is made based on an interpretation different than yours, it's not a matter of winning and losing, and it's a mistake to look at it as such.


August 19, 2011

What We Learn from What We Read

Good news--people are still reading. And some are reading a lot (20% of adults read more than 21 books per year, according to a 2010 Harris Poll).

That was clear from the crowd that raised their hands to the question during the session "What We Learn from What We Read" at the ASAE Annual Meeting in St. Louis recently.

The best news--they want to read "smart," meaning they want to be mindful of what reading is influencing the thinking and actions of their colleagues in other organizations while also finding inspiration, ideas, and knowledge in less-common sources such as literature, non-business books, mobile phone applications, new-book aggregation or executive summary websites, and more.

Panelists Jeffrey Cufaude (moderator), consultant Joan Eisenstodt, CEO Mark Anderson, and I shared not only what we were learning by reading beyond the "obvious business sources" (Harvard Business Review, New York Times, etc), but also the resulting ways we've applied that learning to our work and personal insights on everything from community building to leadership to technology.

Since we all admitted our book addictions and the difficulty of narrowing the choices we'd share at the session, our panel posted additional suggested reading and sources around the room, and attendees could jot down on cards anything of interest. For folks at the session or overall meeting, don't forget to download the session materials that list even more resources or to order the CD to listen to the session.

One of my favorite parts was when we asked the audience to share what books and sources they thought others should know about--you can hear their suggestions in the session tape, and I urge you to share your own favorites in the comments section of this post.

In doing my research for the session, I ran into a quote by Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, that we used to move people into thinking beyond their own learning and toward that of their members and colleagues: "...[P]eople are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one's communities."

If true, doesn't that leave a huge opportunity for associations to aggressively curate the overwhelming amount of content for their community?

Most organizations already are trying. For instance, on the plane, I sat next to an Avectra professional who told me that the entire company is reading Race for Relevance and then will gather to talk about it.

Another attendee said that her CEO picks two books a year for the board to read, and it's the first item on the agenda because discussing ideas and new information "gets people's mental juices going" right away.

Our panel added more suggestions such as running regular book reviews online and in publications, offering virtual book/information clubs for members, creating reading-learning-applying online communities for open conversations around new books or sources, mobile apps that aggregate top news of interest, and what-I-learned-from-what-I-read education sessions.

We all have had such a tremendous response to the session that we may pitch it again for Great Ideas or next Annual Meeting in Dallas, and we're discussing the potential of an open sharing community to continue the momentum of the session.

We hope you'll join us in our virtual book nook to share your favorite reads and learning, too.

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August 9, 2011

What is a freak flag and why does Joe Gerstandt think I have one?

Joe Gerstandt is a freak.

I mean look at him...


(Sorry Joe, couldn't resist.) The lede to this post might ordinarily not pass Acronym guidelines, which call for no personal attacks. But I think I'm on safe ground since the title of his session at the Annual Meeting today was "How to Fly Your Freak Flag."

Flying your freak flag means being authentic - knowing who you are and being that person uncompromisingly. It's not that easy, he notes, because at work we're conditioned to fit in, which is the antithesis of authenticity. Which leads me to my question:

How would you encourage authenticity at work?

The point Gerstandt made is so simple, I've never thought about it in that way - our organizations are set up around conformity. We have a defined work week. We have dress codes. And lunch hours.

Yes, many organizations have begun to be more flexible in all of those areas, a testament to Gerstandt's point that nonconformity can be beneficial. But what about status meetings? Or performance reviews? Or staff meetings? Or hierarchies or silos or turf or board meetings or internal processes? There is in fact a long way we have to go when it comes to encouraging individuality and authenticity in lieu of conformity.

A lot of these annual meeting posts ask a single question and are followed by some kind of answer. I wish I had that to offer you here. If I did, it would make this some kind of magic blog post, I think. The word itself -- organization -- implies to me this very sense of conformity, but I don't think the best takeaway from the session would be transforming into disorganization. I don't know how to encourage employees to fly their freak flags at work, I just know that we're going to have to figure it out. The strongest organizations are going to be strong because of it, and you're not going to be able to attract or keep talent if you don't.

Gerstandt tried to help attendees learn about their inner freak flags with the following questions:

Who are you?

What about you is different?

What are you here for?

What is your gift?

Maybe that's a start. Of course it has to start with a culture that accepts and embraces freak flags--and I like that term better than authenticity because it conveys the fact that the practice of accepting it is hard and unusual. What company wouldn't say they embrace authenticity? But that's not even step number one, that's a prerequisite. The hard and fun and fruitful part comes when we figure out how to use all of these freak flags to build phenomenal organizations. Stay tuned, this is new idea for me, and one I think I'll explore again.


June 29, 2011

Losing: An attitude adjustment

For many years, we've told ourselves that it's ok to fail, that we have to fail sometimes or we're not really trying anything worth trying. (While most people give the notion lipservice, whether or not we actually believe that as a part of the Western business canon is another matter--I'm not particularly convinced.)

I want to spark another idea: it has to be ok to lose. Losing is not a personal insult; it doesn't make you less of a person. I think we as a society have lost our grip on this.

Reaching back to early athletics--when they start keeping score, at least--we're taught what sportsmanship is. But if you look around you wouldn't know it. In politics if you win, you have a mandate to bully, and if you lose you have to find a scapegoat to blame. In our organizations, when our boss decides to go a direction we argued against, we may not practice sabotage, but we start plotting the "I told you so" speech. A group of members or volunteers that feels jilted has a kneejerk reaction to start a new organization.

It's time to remember what sportsmanship is. I always thought of it like this: Winning is important. Try like hell to win. If you do that, then you can be at peace with the outcome, because you've taken pride in yourself and you've worked to your ability. The stakes of life are different. As much as it may seem otherwise, politics isn't a game, and neither are our organizations. But we'll be much better off if we inject sportsmanship into how we conduct ourselves in those arenas.

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June 23, 2011

How do you make sure a failure only happens once?

Today we continue with our sporadic series of posts looking toward the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. As I mentioned in my post two weeks ago, we'll ask a single question in each one.

Below, I've posed a question for Kerry Stackpole, IOM, FASAE, CAE, president of Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic, who will lead an Annual Meeting Learning Lab titled "Failing Better."

What's one method association executives can use to manage failure so that one-time failures don't become repeat problems?

Stackpole: Socrates observed "the unexamined life is not worth living." The same could be said of failure. When something doesn't work, there's enormous temptation to brush aside or hide the failure. That's a mistake. Association executives and their staff benefit enormously by making time for reflection. This isn't finger pointing or blaming, but rather it's time for thoughtful analysis. Asking simple reflective questions on the heels of any failure will strengthen the barrier against repeat problems. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What did you do that you liked?
  • What would you do differently were there a next time?
  • What would you change?
  • What can I do to help next time?

Thanks, Kerry. Readers, please share your thoughts on this question in the comments below.

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May 17, 2011

Which "hat" makes the best association CEO?

We association people like to say we "wear many hats," meaning association management often requires broad expertise in several different roles. The hat I generally wear is the editor's hat (which I guess would look like this if we were talking about literal hats), and while editing an article for the June issue of Associations Now today, I came across a quote that got me thinking about these various hats:

"Become an expert in your functional area before becoming a generalist in association management. Exhibiting a strong skill set in your area of responsibility (communications, education, meeting planning, and so forth) builds credibility and a solid foundation for your career. Also, producing results for the organization in your area of expertise will get you noticed."—Gabriel Eckert, CAE, executive director of Building Owners and Managers of Atlanta

Seems like pretty good advice, but it got me thinking: What functional area makes for the best initial education in association leadership? Or, from another point of view, what specific background is most important to look for in a candidate if you're hiring an association CEO?

I'll offer a few suggestions:

  • Volunteer relations, for the skills learned in supporting, guiding, and facilitating member committees and groups, which translates directly to working with a board of directors.
  • Communications, for the skills learned in crafting and delivering strong and consistent messages and building buy-in to those visions.
  • Membership, for the insight gained into exactly what makes members tick.
  • Advocacy, for the skills learned in coordinating collective, sustained action toward large-scale goals.

[These last two might have a built-in advantage that other functions don't offer; scoring major growth in membership or a victory on Capitol Hill is resume gold.]

Of course, association professionals work in a wide variety of functions (just see the list of ASAE professional-interest sections or CAE domains), and I'm sure a case could be made for any functional area. But, I'm curious if you have a strong opinion one way or another. Is there a part of your association background that has proven most valuable to you as a leader? Do great association leaders come from volunteer relations, from membership, or from somewhere else? Or is Gabriel's advice really just about driving toward success in whatever area you might start in? Let us know what you think.

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April 22, 2011

Earth Day: A Chance at Relevancy

Earth Day can be a fraud, a feast, or a fizzle.

It can be a great rallying date around which to publicly re-enunciate your organization's commitment to sustainability and showcase actions you've taken that back it up, or it either can be dissed as a greenwashing exercise or simply ignore it.

But are the latter two options very smart business choices with all of the studies showing the growing influence of eco-conscious consumers, the heightened watchfulness of media and citizen journalists, and the myriad hard data that have emerged about the positive ROI of a well-planned social responsibility strategy that syncs with organizational mission and core competencies?

If that kind of strategy sounds time-intensive to chart, it can be. However, it takes effort to plan any strategy, so I don't think that concern should be seen as much more than an excuse, especially when this approach jives so well with most our community's common goals of operating efficiently, attracting and retaining talent, holding tight to our budgets, bolstering innovation, engaging members, and building brand value.

It's heartening to see the many press releases from nonprofits and associations today as they urge members and consumers to switch to paper-free bill paying, plant a tree, volunteer, recycle, insulate, and more.

Less heartening is that so many associations are silent today. I promise you that no matter what industry or profession your group represents, your members--maybe not all of them, but certainly a growing percentage--are indeed moving toward greater sustainability. This is a chance for your association to be relevant. This is a chance to show value in a new way. There are serious opportunities here for any organization of any size in any location (you'll find some examples at to help members strengthen their businesses and professions.

So celebrate Earth Day today. Acknowledge it with authenticity. Tell staff, members, and others what you already are doing to help lighten your environmental footprint (that kind of self-audit is the first step anyway), and ask them what else you could be doing.

You may find the sustainability journey to be an enlightening road to greater relevancy.


Do less, achieve more

In my January 14 post, "Do association CEOs have what it takes to lead in the reset economy?," I identified three themes that emerged from a candid discussion among chief staff officers at the 2010 ASAE Annual Meeting. Perhaps the most challenging of these can be summarized by this question:

How do CEOs exert even more future-focused leadership while not being perceived as controlling or overly directive?

The premise, which we've discussed in previous posts, is that we have pretty much exhausted our options on the expense side, and now boards, realizing that hanging on until the upturn happens isn't the best strategy, are expecting that we grow our way out of our problems while pushing toward the desired future state. At the risk of oversimplifying the challenge, let me propose a possible approach to get the conversation going:

  • Do less, achieve more. Listening to Matthew May at Great Ideas really clarified, for me, the power of simplicity and focus. Many of our colleagues in the for-profit sector have learned this lesson the hard way, and "taking on too much" is considered a good predictor of failure. I realize that we've been saying this to ourselves for years, but given the above imperative, is there really any other way to move forward?
  • Push the partnership. We can't sustain progress toward big goals if we do not maintain the support of our elected leadership. Neither can we afford to be perceived as controlling or directive or worse. What we can do, however, is to intensify our promotion and facilitation of the board-CEO partnership (e.g. "We need to do this together").
  • Keep things in perspective. Finally, we all need to remember that we are helping an industry, profession, interest, or cause navigate a small part of its journey toward greater relevance. Great progress was made before us and will continue after we are gone. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to help lead an organization through times like these, and the learning experience will be priceless regardless of the quantitative outcomes, some of which will be beyond our control.

What are your thoughts on how we CEOs can become the leaders we need to be in these remarkable times?


April 21, 2011

Rethinking consensus

In a previous post, I put "Consensus bad" as part of the title. I wanted to expand on that idea a little more. There's nothing inherently evil about consensus. It's not something you need to work to avoid.

But consensus should be a warning. It should make you pause for a minute and question how you reached it. Let me explain.

Consensus usually comes about in one of four ways, two of which are positive and two of which are negative.

First, the powerful overcome the less powerful without regard to the merits of the arguments being made. Those without power go along with the decision. Why? Any number of reasons. Some will see it as a duty. Some will feel like they weren't heard or that the powerful had already made up their minds and there was no argument to be made. Some will lack self-esteem. There's no question conclusions reached in such a manner would not be as good as they could be for an organization.

Second, decisions get watered down to appease all sides of a debate. This one can be tricky, as negotiating and give-and-take can certainly be a part of good decision making. However, decisions reached this way are unlikely to be bold. They are likely to be safe and inoffensive; they will have low risk and low reward. Not inherently evil, but if it's the dominant way decisions are made in an organization, then the organization is headed for mediocrity and, ultimately, obsolescence.

A third way a group might reach consensus is that the better argument wins over all decision makers. It's pretty straightforward, and as long as everyone in the group feels like the process has been fair, that all opinions have been heard, and they don't feel pressured to vote with the crowd, then such a consensus is positive.

Finally, a group can devise, consider, and adopt an entirely new option as a result of deliberations. This is the best possible outcome of group decision making. By definition, it's outside the box; it's "other" on a true-false quiz; it's the road less traveled. It doesn't guarantee the decision is right, but I think it does guarantee that the group used the best possible decision-making method.

Two thoughts to leave you with.

First, I'm sure you spotted the corollary between the positive and negative kinds of consensus. There are only shades of difference between the powerful charging forward with their way and an argument that wins over individuals. Likewise, there are only shades of difference between negotiating a decision and developing an entirely new alternative. That's why if you do have consensus on an action, it should be a warning. It should make you go back and analyze how it was reached--was it a positive or negative process.

Second, mandating consensus will most assuredly lead to it, which means many of your decisions (and I'd say most of them) are likely to be the result of bad consensus, and your organization will suffer as a result.

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March 28, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro's Diversity Message Still Rings True

I was sorry to read about the death of former vice presidential candidate and longtime political activist Geraldine Ferraro this weekend. I recalled when she co-authored an article for GWSAE's Executive Update magazine back in July 2000, and oddly enough, I had just had it posted as a resource onto the ASAE Diversity & Inclusion Conference attendee site because its content remains relevant to today's discussions of the subject.

Titled "Reaping the Bottom Line Benefits of Diversity", the article is a warning by Ferraro (Democrat) and President George Bush's Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin (Republican), who jointly write that associations that ignore diversity risk extinction in the coming years. They urge ways that organizations can use training and leadership to leverage the business benefits of diversity and inclusiveness.

The article remains especially timely in light of last week's release of the 2010 U.S. Census results. Among its important findings are data showing that the numbers of Hispanics have grown by more than 43% since the year 2000, or 16% of the U.S. population. That increase means Hispanics have overtaking African-Americans or blacks (at 13% of the U.S. population) as the largest minority group in America. Will organizations or the business community be able to adapt to this level of change in their membership/consumer/worker bases?

Ferraro defined diversity broadly, although she often wrote about women leadership simply because that seemed to be what folks asked her about most. She had many friends within our sector, especially among women's organizations and political groups, and I often saw her on the speakers' lists of a range of nonprofit and association events, despite her battle against blood cancer.

Hopefully, the message she shared in Executive Update 11 years ago and throughout her 75 years of public service, along with new data confirming some of the trends she foresaw, will inspire association leaders to revisit her words and take action accordingly.


March 15, 2011

Culture change framework

When people talk about changing organizational culture, I usually scoff a little bit to myself. It makes me think of the cliché/metaphor of taking miles to change the direction of the ship and I think that's not near close enough to explaining how hard it is and how long it takes to actively change a culture.

Fast forward to a Great Ideas session this morning, "Spotlight on Innovation: First Who, Then What: Creating a Culture of Innovation," in which American Speech-Language-Hearing Assocation (ASHA) Arlene Pietranton, CAE, offered an idea I think is very interesting. ASHA has an aspirational tool it uses to help create the culture they want their organization to have. It's a one-pager with 16 statements on it, such as:

  • Managers are seen as coaches and team leaders. They are valued for these skills. Leadership is participative and flexible.
  • Nonconformity is accepted. People are expected to present innovative ideas. People feel free to brainstorm.
  • People are highly motivated. They seize opportunities for personal growth. People view work as important and fun.

This isn't necessarily going to speed up culture change, but it does give staff aspirations and a clear idea of what the desired culture is, even if there is always work to be done to get there.

You can access the entire document for the next few months in the handouts for the session. (PDF)


March 14, 2011

Seeking out new frames of reference for decisions

webJennifer Riel from Univ of Toronto leads Deep Dive session.jpg

I spent the afternoon of Great Ideas in a new style of session, the "Deep Dive," which is three hours going in-depth on a topic. The session was led by Jennifer Riel of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

To summarize the session in one paragraph, I'd say the idea is the most successful leaders one ones who understand that their frame of reference is no more valid than someone else's. They use this understanding to seek out other frames, which leads to solutions that would not be possible otherwise. For example, if you are faced with a tough decision between two alternatives, the strong leader is able to see the desirable traits in both alternatives and craft an entirely new solution that captures more of those traits.

After the session, I had the opportunity to ask Riel a few questions:

You are trying to think through a tough decision, trying to see alternative frames of reference--how do you know you've reached a point where the thought exercise is no longer productive?

I don't think there's actually an algorithm, sadly. If there was, life would be a lot easier. It's taking steps back every once in a while and reminding yourself of the problem you're trying to solve and saying does this feel like I'm working on that problem or am I getting stuck on an aspect that is different. And so it's giving yourself permission to reframe what you're working on, but I think we often have that moment where we feel the progress has stopped and we can't push further. I think in part it's intuitive but also just giving yourself that moment to reflect.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about research that indicated oftentimes our best decisions are made with just an instant of observation. How does that reconcile with seeking opposable views?

In Blink, which I think is a great book, he talks about the power of the split second decision, but there are also limitations to that right? Sometimes we make that split decision correctly, and sometimes we don't. And the challenge is without a process--without a way of working through, you don't have a way of reproducing the great decisions, and not reproducing the bad ones, [or] in fact teaching people how you made the great decisions. So while I have a lot of sympathy for that idea that we can learn a lot in a very short period of time, for me it's more about saying for those bigger, more complicated decisions, can we create methodology where people can actually learn what we're doing and what our thinking was?

Other than just finding the time to think about it, what techniques can you offer people who want to try to make decisions in this way?

One is going back to finding people who disagree with you, finding people who see the world differently, and trying to find genuinely what that's about, and where it comes form. The other thing that seems simple but can be complicated is turning an issue into a dilemma. So I have an issue that, man it's really hard to get keep my members. It's really hard to keep memebers engaged and that's an issue you can talk about for the rest of your life, that it's hard to keep members engaged. Turn it into a choice. If I'm going to engage members, I can either invest a million more dollars a year in programs, or I can say paid membership doesn't matter and I'm going to engage people entirely outside of the paid membership mechanisms. That's a much more concrete thing to think about and work your way through than "it's hard to engage my members." So the technique is turning an issue into a dilemma or a choice and then working through that choice to sort of go back and solve that problem.

Decision making in the association context, particularly big decisions, is unlike decisions in other sectors. Power is often widely diffused between a CEO, a board, other important volunteers, and so on. So often we have to work to build consensus. How does such a decision-making dynamic affect the ability to make decisions with this technique?

It's about what are you going to do with the opposing views. We get ourselves in trouble when we think our job is to minimize our disagreements and to drive toward some sort of compromise . That's one way of thinking about leveraging that diversity. It's about saying can we tease out where we disagree, dive more deeply into it understand the nature of those opposing models and choices and do something better? I think the fact that you have a diversity of views positions you better to actually apply integrative thinking in groups. I think it's actually easier to apply integrative thinking in groups if you genuinely have respect for other people's views and a position that [a solution] is possible, and then leveraging those other people is going to make it easier than trying to do it by yourself in the dark with a piece of paper.

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March 13, 2011

Responding to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami is one of a growing number of companies that are partnering with nonprofits and associations to help raise funds via their websites for disaster relief agencies such as Save the Children, Architecture for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and the American Red Cross in response to the record 8.9-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit March 11. The Japanese Red Cross has been assessing damage, activating volunteers, and communicating with emergency response organizations overseas that have hundreds of volunteer professionals on standby.

Charity Navigator has issued a tipsheet to help donors avoid charity scams related to the disaster, as well as a list of organizations already involved in relief efforts.

You'll also find a serendipitous article in the February issue of Associations Now titled "How Your Organization Can Help with Disaster Relief" that talks about the process four associations went through to be ready with member volunteers, a crisis communications plan, and other resources that may be urgently needed anytime worldwide.


March 8, 2011

International Women's Day: Celebrating Progress and Potential

In acknowledgement of International Women's Day today, quite a few associations are reporting about the progress or lack thereof of women in the industry or profession the organization represents. The news has been mixed, frankly.

The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, bemoans the low number of women in leadership roles in the newsroom. The rapidly growing field of organic farming and product development, however, is celebrating the fact that women now top four leading associations in that arena--a first.

There also has been growth in "best places for women to work"-type articles and rankings among business publications, women- or workforce-oriented websites, and even some associations. These include , which focuses on companies with "progressive and diverse work practices and environments), National Association of Female Executives and partner Working Mother magazine, and Fortune's Top 100: Women.

It's unfortunate that these lists are as popular as they are. It tells me that the business world still can be sliced and diced into "gets it" versus "doesn't get it." Are there really still such prevalent ambivalence about the ability of women to lead well?

But that's not all of the story. It can be too easy to point fingers at "the man," e.g., the established organization. In truth, too many women still harm their own chances at success, in part by refusing to accept some harsh workplace realities such as believing that hard work alone, rather than connections, will lead to success.

A new Harvard Business Review Research Report talks about the "Sponsor Effect," the fact that many high-performing women "don't have political allies to propel, inspire, and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management." This includes issues such as adjusting their work and personal styles, clothing, and "executive presence."

Sometimes the sponsorship problem is blamed on an age difference. Sixty-four percent of senior men acknowledge that they avoid sponsoring junior women because they fear gossip of a possible affair. That's just plain sad--and frustrating.

How can a young woman address that directly? Or is it the responsibility of the organization to establish formal mentoring systems that ensure senior-junior mixed-gender mentoring is just part of the professional development program overall, and indeed, male leaders would be held accountable in their reviews if they did not mentor younger professionals of either gender?

The latter seems to be a manageable approach, but that assumes the association actually has a formal mentoring system in place, which is a pretty big assumption!

And finally, in the totally-not-surprising part of the study, the report also found that men "cultivate more sponsors than women because they're less constrained by family and domestic responsibilities." The vast majority of working women studied are responsible for up to 75% of the housecleaning/maintenance and almost 60% of the childcare.

That said, women have come a long way, baby, and they can go further if they--and the associations they work in--desire. But it will take work on both sides. Meanwhile, celebrate the progress and the potential by skimming through the more than 1,000 events scheduled worldwide to celebrate the economic, political, and social achievements of women at

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March 2, 2011

Showing up isn't half the battle

You've heard the saying or something similar, "showing up is half the battle." It's what they tell teenagers in high school to get them to go to class. By that dated logic, if you show up and do something, anything, you'll find yourself with a passing grade. In today's marketplace, that approach might get you noticed, but not much beyond that. In fact, I'd argue that if you show up and don't meet expectations, you'll be viewed as a distraction.

Members of Generation Y face several challenges that they must deal with effectively on a daily basis to prove their value, such as a limited experience base, skepticism and general stereotypes (e.g. Gen Yers don't have work ethic, they lack professionalism, they are all experts in social media, etc.). While there are also some inherent benefits that come with being Gen Y, we'll focus on what I consider the most difficult challenge to overcome: skepticism.

Skepticism is what that new middle-aged and older client has when they are meeting with you for the first time and you propose a new idea. It's that nagging feeling while that new idea you proposed is intriguing, as a young professional you lack decades of experience to take you at your word. When you are meeting with a new client, the stakes are raised, the margin for error diminishes. You haven't established a rapport with this group. Let's be honest, if you were 10 years older that new idea likely would have been far less contentious. You have to establish the relationship, prove yourself, and overcome the inherent skepticism.

While skepticism is the most difficult to overcome, it is also the most powerful. If you can make that positive first impression, back your ideas with sound strategy and proven success, and give them something they didn't ask for, you'll create a rock-solid relationship.

Darrin Hubbard, CAE, is an account executive at Ewald Consulting in St. Paul, Minn.

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March 1, 2011

Want to achieve something great? Fail!

It happens quickly and without warning. You receive that first job offer after college and progress nicely in your association career, only to find you're hit with a setback. You may have been laid off, fired, passed over for that promotion, or maybe you totally screwed up that big project--it's devastating! The failure seems like the end of the world.

Young personal finance blogger and New York Times bestselling author, Ramit Sethi says in a blog post from early last year your next actions after that point are what separate good from great. "If you want to ACTUALLY achieve something great, treat rejection as a normal step in the process. Expect it. Manage it. Take action and the next time you get shot down, remember that means you're just getting started."

Every young professional should be prepared for personal and professional failure by following his advice.

Expect it - Expect that failures will come. This does not mean viewing the world as the glass is half empty all the time, but most successes involve risks and failures at some point. Don't believe me? Take a look at history. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper for lack of creativity.

Manage it - It's ok to have feelings of defeat after a failure but don't have a pity party. Treat the failure as a project and manage it. Come up with a plan to resolve or fix the issue.

Take action - Learn and move on. Insanity is often referred to as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting new results. Make plans to not repeat the same mistake. After you've devised an action plan, take action.

Remember, no matter how disheartening an unexpected failure may be, it could just be the start of one of the greatest accomplishments of your life.

Irving Washington is program manager at National Association of Black Journalists in Washington, D.C. He is a member of ASAE's Leadership Academy Class of 2012.

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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 7, 2011

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

In a video interview with, 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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January 14, 2011

Haiti: Where And What Are Associations Still Doing?

The first Haiti earthquake anniversary this week has prompted myriad progress reports from the many associations and nonprofits who responded with volunteers, professional guidance, money, and resources. With almost 500 projects and 80 major NGOs doing on-the-ground work in the devastated region, it's easy to get confused about who's doing what as our community continues to respond to the crisis.

Luckily, this week also marks the release of a helpful free tool that aims to foster partnerships among nonprofits and associations, "strengthen corporate and NGO relationships, and increase transparency and accountability." It's called the Haiti Aid Map, and it's a who's-doing-what-where map with snapshots of projects and their coordinating groups. Created by InterAction in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Center, it was funded by FedEx, a master of organization and mapping.

I encourage you to refer to it, whether you have ongoing projects there or not, because so many of your peers are making a difference in that challenging zone, and you may find something that would inspire your organization to get involved as well.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of things that associations are doing right here in the U.S. that are improving life in Haiti. If you're mostly interested in philanthropic giving, perhaps some of their projects will prompt you to write a supportive check.

The American Library Association (ALA), for instance, has distributed $25,000 to clear and prepare land and complete designs for one of three libraries it plans to rebuild and equip through its Haiti Library Relief Fund . Its needs a lot more money, though--just one library will cost an estimated $325,000-$350,000 to rebuild and equip.

The Haiti-inspired partnership between the American Dental Association's Division of Global Affairs and Health Volunteers Overseas has focused on raising $300,000 through an innovative Adopt-a-Practice program to rebuild 30 dental practices, almost one-third of all dental health facilities in the region. ADA also has developed an International Disaster Assistance Volunteer Inventory based on a survey for members interested in volunteering in the aftermath of an international natural disaster.

The American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, in collaboration with the ABA Family Law Section and Section of Litigation, and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, hosted a free webinar on "How Attorneys and State Court Judges Can Aid in Finalizing Adoptions for Haitian Children Now in the U.S" and is offering its materials for free downloads to anyone interested.

Also, for the record, as a result of such outreach work, many organizations also have found that they've galvanized members, boosted innovation, and added meaningful value to their brand and membership offerings. Please accept my personal congratulations for your efforts and commitment. I've heard astonishing stories of what your members and staffers are doing even a year after the earthquake.


December 14, 2010

Maybe #tech10 isn't really about technology

Charlene Li - Technology Conference 2010

During Charlene Li's opening general session at the 2010 Association Technology Conference & Expo Tuesday, you might have forgotten for a few minutes that you were at a conference about technology.

Li used words like "relationships," "dialog," "support," "culture," and "discipline" in her keynote. These aren't new, high-tech words. They're words we've always known in association management. But she urged association leaders to understand and embrace the ways social technologies are changing have already changed how we interact with our respective communities and industries.

While on the other side of the curtain in the expo hall lay dozens of technology tools for associations to invest in, Li offered advice on how to use them, regardless of which you might choose. She listed a four-step cycle for building relationships with members and customers online (or off): Learn, Dialog, Support, Innovate.

Then she said an organization must build a culture of sharing, defining exactly what it is comfortable openly communicating about and what it isn't. Organizations need discipline, a set of rules and guidelines to empower staff so they know how to interact openly with members and customers, she said.

Li posed a question about relationships: when are you really ever in control? An honest answer would be that, most often, you're not. Leading in a world operating on social technologies means getting comfortable not being in control.

If you've heard Li speak before or read any of her books or articles (in Associations Now in 2009 and 2010, for example), you've heard her message, but it was worth repeating at the start of the Technology Conference, and it set the right foundation for the following two days of learning. "It isn't the technologies themselves. It's the relationships that they change," she said.

Maybe the technology conference isn't about technology at all.

Photo by Scott Briscoe, CAE.

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November 18, 2010

Are you an uninspiring leader?

The 2010 Healthcare Association Conference kicked off this morning with Lance Secretan, Ph.D.'s session "The Spark, the Flame, and the Torch: Restoring Inspiration in American Healthcare." Secretan, author of The Spark, The Flame, and the Torch, says that inspirational leadership has three main components: serving others, helping people grow, and making the world a better place. But before you can create an inspirational organization, you need to start with yourself. Why are you here? Create a mission statement and assess your own purpose and meaning in life as a step toward being an inspiring leader.

Secretan says 65 percent of the current workforce says they would leave their current jobs if they could. With eight percent of uninspiring leaders, it's not surprising that employees have one foot outside the door. Secretan says uninspiring leaders are:

  • Cowardly;
  • Inauthentic;
  • Self-serving;
  • Dishonest;
  • Unfeeling
  • Ineffective.

And it seems simple enough, but inspirational leaders do the opposite of the six attributes above. To be inspirational, consider what he calls the CASTLE Principle:

  • Courage;
  • Authenticity;
  • Service;
  • Truthfulness;
  • Love;
  • Effectiveness.

As you lead today, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you make breakthroughs quickly to exhibit courage?
  • Will you be authentic about your work and will you admit when you make a mistake?
  • Are you willing to serve others, even if it seems inconvenient?
  • Will you make an effort to tell the truth more often?
  • Will you love between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.?

When you put those pieces together you become more effective, and maybe a little more inspiring.

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November 17, 2010

Harry Potter on Leadership

"The end begins." That's the pithy tagline for the launch of the two-part blowout marking the end of the gazillion-dollar Harry Potter movie series, a wrenching reality for those of us who have embraced the boy wizard and his eclectic assortment of friends, mentors, and enemies for the past 11 years.

Tomorrow at 12:01 a.m., I'll be sitting with my son and other hardcore fans watching "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" as the scarred hero, now age 17, attempts to take his leadership skills to--putting it mildly-- the next level in a battle against evil Lord Voldemort that will determine the fate of the entire wizarding world. No pressure there, eh?

But frankly, many association CEOs can relate to the saga and to Harry in particular as he awkwardly fails and succeeds throughout his own leadership journey. Push yourself out of secure positions into unknown territories? Listen to friends and colleagues? Trust the advice of an older mentor? Have faith that your skills are enough to avoid disaster? Put your life (okay, job) on the line to choose "what's right over what's easy"? Been there.

While no Dark Lord threatens us with the Avada Kedavra killing curse, we certainly feel the fear caused by a weak economy, an anxious board, and an absence or overload of information on which to ground our next move. Real courage--the trait that J.K. Rowling states she values most in leaders--and resourcefulness are needed to scramble through all of that.

The Harry Potter series is so rich in its what-makes-a-good-leader theme that it has sparked thousands of articles, blog debates, books (try If Harry Potter Ran General Electric if you're interested), and even entire college courses and conferences.

Only recently did I talk with the young daughter of a close friend and longtime association fundraiser who had written an entire paper for her Cornell University literary class about women leaders in the Harry Potter series--their virtues, failings, opportunities, fears, insights, and talents. That type of leadership debate, even outside of the wizarding world context, continues to keep us in the association community--forgive me--spellbound.


November 9, 2010

White Like Me

We talk a lot about America and its businesses being world leaders, but I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that, as a result of elections last week, the U.S. Senate will include not a single African-American member. That should be of major concern no matter what party you prefer.

The three African-American candidates--all of which happened to be Democrats this time--lost, and the single black incumbent is retiring. According to CNN, "only six black senators have ever served in the U.S. Senate: three Republicans and three Democrats, including President Barack Obama." That raises a mighty serious question about how we as Americans view leaders from minority populations.

And sadly, this problem extends to the power positions within associations and nonprofits as well. I try not to roll my eyes when I hear someone say, "We can't find any minority members willing (or qualified or whatever) to run for the board," or "we don't have many minority members, so our board tends to stay white." Really? I don't see recruitment problems at associations whose names depict a certain race, gender, or other defining demographic--those leadership pipelines appear to operate quite well.

Minorities exist in every field and profession, but maybe they haven't heard about your association, or feel welcome there, or feel like it is relevant enough. Or maybe not enough effort has been made to focus in on tracking down these types of perhaps behind-the-scene members or nonmembers and finding methods to help them engage in ways that they find valuable.

Like the federal face we are now showing the world, we have failed to reflect the true diversity of our nation and our business community. As both parties gear up for the 2012 presidential race, which will again feature wonk talks about the tipping-point capability of voting minority citizens, I hope discussions about current leadership pipelines (or lack thereof) for African Americans and minorities will become much messier and disruptive. And I'm hoping that discussion carries over into the association community because we must take this issue more seriously.

Census data show that an estimated 14% of our population is Black, and that number is growing. We must purge the old excuses about minorities' "apathy toward associations" and try new thinking, new models, new outreach efforts. The world is predominantly nonwhite, and they are watching--both our country and its business community.

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November 4, 2010

Minding the Gap

Next week the Greater Washington Network of ASAE will be holding its "In Honor of Women Program." It seems timely to note there are some women's professional organizations that are doing some very heavy lifting in the transition from aspiring to advance women in the professions to quantifying and measuring real progress. It's heartening to observe that within one adult lifetime, we have gone from watching the first women enter prominent and formerly all-male colleges and universities to seeing 50%( and over) female graduating classes. We've gone from petitioning to get women in the door to getting increasing numbers seated at the board tables and heading corporations. Now, studies indicate we're stuck in a place that needs some different thinking, and associations - as usual - are rising to the occasion.

My personal new favorite is the teaming up of the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Women's Society of Certified Public Accountants with research firm Wilson-Taylor Associates for their MOVE Project. One would think these number crunchers would have long had all these figures down, but they are about to launch their second year of the project to gauge progress from their 2010 results. The key driver? Firms know that women have strengths needed in obtaining and retaining clients. For transportation, what better acronym than MOVE? So my current organization is working to launch a similar project.

Women in Cable Telecommunications launched its benchmarking PAR program in 2003 with membership and program growth and development that can be linked directly to their research. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology found that "Women comprise an increasingly smaller proportion of the workforce at each successive level (from entry to mid to high)" in its research "Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology." Delve into any and all of these studies, and the results are predictably similar: women opt out/are discouraged from/find barriers to success in the top echelons of organizations.

Aside from numerical equity, a pronounced gap appears to be in the view of whether the disparity matters. In a study of corporate boards conducted by Heidrick and Struggles, only 56% of male directors felt women brought a unique perspective to the table, while 90% of women thought female board directors provided something distinctly different. Also evident were gender differences regarding the effects of diversity on board behaviors such as trust and transparency.

Once we successfully knock down obvious barriers to entry, the challenge for women changes from addressing diversity issues as a minority group to much more complex issues of organizational behavior and innovation in order to remove barriers to equity. Solutions are starting to surface based on the science: moving from mentors to sponsors who invest in success of their colleagues; changing evaluation criteria; recruiting women specifically for P&L oversight; evaluating flexibility options; and targeting mid-level women to move upward. I suspect my colleagues who are addressing other diversity issues in their organizations find comparable challenges. This is a true opportunity for associations ...and who better?


November 1, 2010

Buffett's bombshell: Succession planning "Warren's way"

It's always buzz-worthy when a high-profile, much-respected business leader names a successor, so it's no wonder that when Warren Buffett announced that he would groom 39-year-old Todd Combs, who manages a small Connecticut-based hedge fund, as his successor at Berkshire Hathaway, the business world reeled a tad.

What interests me--and is most relevant to associations--about the commentary is the following:

(1) Kudos galore are flying around for Buffett having named a successor at all, especially since he is not ill or imminently retiring. What? My question is why on earth hasn't he identified one long ago? His company oversees a $100-billion investment portfolio, and Buffett is hardly a young 'un. You'd think that with his exposure to the best of the best in the biz world, he would have identified some possibilities a decade or more ago and started nurturing them along, even though he isn't going anywhere himself at the moment.

Journalists are lamenting that more CEOs haven't named a successor, whether privately or publicly, and brought him or her in-house early enough to fully integrate into the culture, customer base, and organization. The same is true at many of America's largest, most potent associations. The CEO doesn't think an exit is in the near future, so succession planning isn't high on the priority list. As witnessed often in the corporate world, this can be a huge mistake. Still, we in the association world continue to wonder why CEO transitions are so hard. They really shouldn't be if the successor has been incorporated into the organization early enough--and that takes a mindful plan.

(2) Buffett's choice is a major surprise--an under-40 guy who hasn't handled nearly the wealth size of tens of thousands of other investment managers. However, Combs' approach--his work ethic and style, especially as they relate to researching information first-hand and not subscribing to "what everybody knows"--are apparently what captured Buffett's attention.

Again, as he has with his investment choices, Buffett bucks the "experience trumps all" assumptions on hiring and goes with his gut, essentially. Sure, he would have delved into Combs' background and numerical track record, but he obviously favors vision, personality, and approach over the details of exactly how much the guy has or hasn't yet managed. Maybe this latest bombshell by one of the business world's most revered icons will inspire CEOs within both the for-profit and not-for-profit fields to set aside the long resumes and look for leaders instead who demonstrate the values and style most needed by their organizations.

And for those incumbent association CEOs smart enough to be shopping for or already mentoring their next assumed successor, perhaps one of the questions to ask is, "What would Buffett do?"

You'll find dozens of association succession planning tools and resources on ASAE's website, (including an--ahem--"emergency CEO succession plan" in this Models & Samples Library list).


October 5, 2010

Maybe the bus metaphor ain't so great

I'm going to have a little throw down with Joe Rominiecki who on Friday called Jim Collins getting the right people on the bus expression the best business metaphor of all time. Here are five reasons why the exact opposite is true, why getting the right people on the bus is a terrible metaphor for what you actually want out of your organizations.

1. Bus? Can you think of a worse mode of transportation to use for your comparison? How about a Tesla electric sports car? (Yes, I just read the new issue of Wired.) True, it's only a two-seater, but small business is the rage, or haven't you heard? Ok, how about getting the right people on your Gulfstream V. Yeah, now we're talkin. At least this much is true, a bus isn't going to be described as good, so at least you won't be the enemy of great.

2. So the chapter convincingly makes the argument that having the right people matter and that you have the right and the responsibility to hire and fire your way to greatness. So why don't you? Reason number 1: You don't see the flaws in your own judgment. I've seen really bright, competent people make some truly astoundingly boneheaded personnel decisions. Reason number 2: You're scared. What it boils down to is unless you just have an evil core, it is not easy to fire someone (some obvious exceptions apply)--especially when we're talking about good people in the wrong place.

3. A bus isn't a transformative object--it implies it's going places, but the metaphor of getting the right people on the bus sounds to me like incremental improvement. I suppose that is ok much of the time, but at some point, any organization that achieves greatness will need to undergo a colossal transformation to retain its greatness, but blowing up buses isn't the right metaphor at all.

4. When I think of the bus metaphor, people are neatly seated in their perfectly assigned seats. Where's the growth in that? Let's get the right people in the arcade instead. Play games, find where you're comfortable (and uncomfortable), learn from each other, grow, interact. Refuse to sit quietly on the bus.

5. Is a bus really where you want to be? It's cramped and smelly. Floors are dirty. And, eww gross, what's that gunk on the back of the seat in front of you? And down between the seat cushions? Clearly you're not the only one who has sat in this seat before. It might have looked good to begin with, but... oh man, what's that? Did someone on this bus have a bean burrito for lunch?

So my advice to you: If you ever find yourself in a bus-like organization where someone is trying to get the right people in the right seats, jump through an emergency exit, kick out a window, pull the stop whatever you can to get off as quickly as you can. If you're lucky, you'll get on to a Gulfstream V organization with air hockey and foosball that's on its way to exotic location after exotic location (with an impeccable cleaning crew waiting at each stop).

(PS - You I know I love you Joe, and loved your post. Now can I have my copy of Good to Great back?)

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September 21, 2010

Connect Through Trust

Emmanuel Gobillot, author of The Connected Leader and LeaderShift, was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended this summer. I have two and half pages of notes with little stars next to the ideas that resonated most with me.

One of the stars came under the bullet "Connect Through Trust." It started out just as one of those "common sense" platitudes you hear from high profile speakers when you begin to wonder "how much did they pay this guy?" Then suddenly you find yourself writing furiously as plans to implement this common sense notion pop into your mind with every word that comes from the podium. You're ready to buy his books, become his fan on Twitter and hug each member of the conference planning committee that secured him.

Gobillot said that the question to ask after every interaction with our members, committees, leaders, customers, etc. is "Have I made them feel stronger and more capable?" This is why no one ever forgets a great teacher, Gobillot said.

Mrs. Taylor was my great teacher. I had her for high school English both freshman and sophomore years. She was the first teacher whose passion for her subject came through in every lesson. I can't think of any particular example; but, I remember how I felt in her class. Excited to read literature and identify the theme. Intrigued by actually understanding poetry. Inspired to write papers and be creative. Energized to show her that I understood what she had taught me. Indeed, I felt stronger and more capable. I trusted her to bring me someplace new everyday. And I worked at her direction - at first for her approval (and, yeah, it was school), then for my own pleasure.

And this is just what Gobillot said would happen. "Make them feel stronger and more capable. Then they'll trust you. If they trust you, it means you've connected with their energy. And they'll start working for you."

How can we make members feel stronger and more capable with every interaction? And not just face-to-face interactions. What about web browsing, online forms, emails, phone calls, registrations, renewals and publications? How do we measure how much they trust us and when we've connected with their energy? Are any associations asking these questions in their membership surveys?

I imagine that Mrs. Taylor knew because I was working harder in class, asking more questions, sharing my opinions, completing assignments early, occasionally talking to her outside of class about Siddartha and The Pearl, and later talking to her about my own writing goals for the future.

What did you do today to make a member feel stronger and more capable? Today I'm thanking some of our younger members who wrote book reviews for our young professionals newsletter. I'm sending them their article in a frame and sending a note to their supervisor (with the member's permission) to let them know their employee supports the profession and is developing other skills. Then I'll ask those young members to do something else - write another article, share an opinion, review our website - because I think their opinion is valuable. And I'll track their activity in our system so we can reach out to them for other positions, maybe leadership roles. They'll be working for us regularly in no time.

Well, I guess that Gobillot really knows what he's talking about. I wonder if he knew Mrs. Taylor?

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September 8, 2010

Serve vs. lead

This is seemingly one of those age-old association debates isn't it? I know it's one I've had at every association I've worked, so I wanted to see how Acronym readers would talk about the issue... if you're willing to share your thoughts: Should an association be serving the members of its industry or profession, or should it be leading them?

I'll start with how I would define serving and leading, and then provide some brief thoughts I have.

Serve - this is helping members do their job right now. There is an apparent or an expressed need, and the association offers products, services, or solutions to meet it.

Lead - the two aspects of leading a profession or industry are (1) anticipating future events and needs and ensuring members are prepared for it--and by its nature, your anticipations and the work you do will be wrong or inadequate a bunch of the time; (2) pushing members into uncomfortable positions to accept realities that may be hard to accept or even to create realities that are less-than-ideal for their companies but achieve a greater good--for the profession or industry, or for society as a whole.

I think based on these definitions, most association executives would say that serving is relatively safe and leading is relatively risky. I, and many others, could easily argue the opposite though. Perhaps more consensus would emerge in talking about risk/reward. Serving is relatively low risk and low reward--low risk because it's relatively easy to figure out how to serve a member's needs well. It's low reward also because it's relatively easy. Leading would be high risk, high reward. High risk because you're going to be wrong some and only incompletely right a lot. Plus, getting people to pay you for making them uncomfortable is really hard. It's high reward because when you're right, you will be providing highly valuable products/information/etc. Also, because what emerges from those uncomfortable positions is usually a new and better way to approach things.

The fact is, associations do a mix of serving and leading. Here's where I like to do the money test--talk to the powerful in the organization and give them a figurative $100 and tell them they need to spend X amount serving and X amount on leading. Where should that money fall?

I'd have to say a $50 split is a terrible answer. You'll probably be ok at both of them--but what kind of organization strives to be ok? Better to have a focus and leave some people behind.

Even worse than $50/$50 is a $60/$40 or even $70/$30 split. With these splits, you're going to be good at one and ok or marginally ok at the other. Why is this worse? To answer that requires a quick aside.

I used to be an unabashed Jim Collins Good to Great supporter. I'm less so now, but only because it's the presentation I have issues with, specifically presenting the ideas as if they were the results of ironclad research. If I mattered to him, this is the part that would anger him: I think the research methods are much closer to anecdotal and qualitative than the objective, quantitative descriptions he gives them in the book. But I don't care, because I do think the points and conclusions he makes are important fodder for leaders to consider and act on. His most simplistic and elegant point: good is the enemy of great.

So why is $50/$50 better? At least at the $50/$50 level you're only ok--maybe slightly better or slightly worse--you have an easier path to great than an organization whose work is good. When things are good, there's an inertia at work against change, and that inertia stifles creativity and innovation.

So in my opinion, we're talking about the need to at least be $80/$20, but which side should get the $80? If you've read this far, you can probably guess where I'd put my $80, and I think it's where most associations should be, too. But every association is different, and it's not a slam dunk that it should be on leading. I think there absolutely are viable organization models that would spend $80 or more on serving. The key is knowing that and developing a staff and volunteer structure that will lead to products and services that solve members' work problems today. Maybe that looks like nothing but a team of consultants. Maybe it looks like nothing but research. But I think it is something that can have real value to people.

A final thought. Based on where I've worked and the conversations I've had the past 9 years, I'd guess that 98% of associations fall somewhere between the $50/$50 and $70/$30 splits--and that represents one heck of a wasted opportunity.

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August 19, 2010

What motivates employees?

A number of people now leaving for ASAE & The Center's Annual Conference & Expo in Los Angeles Aug 20-24 may be hoping to learn about ways to recruit, retain, and motivate staff. A new article in Knowledge@Whartoncontains the results of a fascinating series of studies about whether ranking workers (and, in particular, sharing that rank with the employee) would inspire good performers to greater heights and poor performers to buckle down.

Short answer: no. The worker rock star began slacking off, while the loser workers became discouraged but--although companies apparently hoped otherwise--generally didn't quit their jobs to move on.

After reading the article, I wondered how old the workers were. Would age affect this result?

I had recently listened to the September issue of Success magazine's CD, which shares interviews with 3-4 leaders of interest to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Featured was a terrific conversation with three inspiring and insightful Millennial leaders of the nonprofit Invisible Children.

Invisible Children aims to prevent child soldiering, the kidnapping of youngsters by rebel tribes in Northern Uganda for use as horrific "soldiers" in their battle against the government. The nonprofit, born out of a documentary filmed by student 20-somethings, has been remarkably successful at raising political attention to the problem and engaging supporters of all ages to their cause. (See here for a short video of its Schools to Schools program.).

One quote really stuck with me. The interviewer asked the trio what companies and organizations can do to attract, retain, and motivate Millennial workers. "Millennials value the impossible," one answered. They'll "work like crazy" and are "extremely passionate," but they want to have fun doing it, and they are attracted to projects, causes, and programs that are trying "to do things never done before." They also want their organizations to think beyond themselves and to take their role as a global citizen seriously, the leaders said.

I'm hoping that conference attendees will keep an open mind and the reality check provided by these three brave nonprofit founders as discussions begin again on worker "reward" systems in associations.

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August 12, 2010

Giving Away Success

I love Success magazine for entrepreneurs and small-business owners, especially the accompanying audio CD that features three to four interviews with leaders from various industries. I always glean great information relevant to our sector as well, and the September issue is no exception, because it carries a series about giving--why and how businesses should give, why folks in the top positions should adopt a public giving culture, and why some of the highest impact giving has nothing to do with money.

This is refreshing in light of the major publicity given this week to the laudable efforts of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to convince billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charitable causes in life or upon their death. If the wealth of the 40+ billionaires who have signed on holds true, that means a staggering flow of more than $200 billion into the nonprofit community--and the dynamic duo are far from done.

The pieces in Success had nothing to do with giving of such mind-boggling personal wealth. Indeed, Success publisher and CD moderator Darren Hardy lists 10 "non-monetary tithes" that business leaders could give, ranging from "knowledge tithing" and "mentoring tithing," to "ear tithing" (listening) and "space tithing" (donating the use of an office or meeting room to a nonprofit for events or a satellite office).

The list reminded me of the latest book from Loews Hotels CEO & Chairman Jonathan Tisch, Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World, in which Tisch urges everyone in every field at every level to become "citizen professionals." He defines that term as a professional in, say, architecture who also applies his or her work skills and knowledge to projects and organizations that better their community and beyond.

In my April interview, Tisch echoes Hardy in urging businesses and the organizations representing these trades and professions to talk more specifically about giving. "My hope is that the leaders of many, many associations are willing to have this conversation with their members, ... because the needs are out there, and the reality is that we have so many challenges as a society, if we could use the strength and vision that associations in our country possess--just the sheer horsepower of the men and women who belong to these associations--we could do a lot for this country."

Tisch went on to say that, like Buffett, people seem hungry to do something positive, and they're looking to their workplaces to meet that desire. "Over the years when I've been involved in so many associations," Tisch says, "I have seen people at conventions want to do more. I have seen them ask for more information [about what to do]. When you look back over the past 18 months--one of the most difficult financial periods our nation has ever been through--we've come out of it with a sense of the fragility of our economic system ..., but now that we're coming to a better place, we also have a greater understanding of what we need to do to preserve the pillars of our economy and to try to do more. People are expressing the need to have a roadmap to help them do more."

I'm hoping, like Hardy, Tisch, and likely Buffett, that association leaders are willing to "ask for directions" that let them create that giving roadmap with their boards, members, and customers. At the very least, consider GPSing your own giving route drawing on a full range of "tithing" options.

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July 29, 2010

Three things I've learned from Pixar

Sunday afternoons, I usually end up folding laundry while watching the most interesting documentary I can find on cable. A week or two ago, that documentary was about the history of Pixar. Just watching Pixar staff talk about their work was a learning experience for me:

1. When Pixar built its own headquarters building in 1998 (a headquarters that has been significantly expanded since), a stated goal was to design the building in a way that would "encourage unplanned collaboration." I found that idea fascinating: How do you plan for the unplanned? But Pixar sees such value in serendipity and unplanned connections between staff that it puts significant effort into encouraging them.

2. I noticed that as Pixar began work on each new film, giant figures from that film could be seen in the central lobby of their headquarters. It struck me as a great visual way to remind the Pixar team of the company's central purpose, each and every day. As staff walk through the doors, they can't help but notice the giant figures from Monsters Inc. or The Incredibles and remember that their work is part of what's going to make that movie great.

3. Multiple interviewees during the documentary talked about how each new movie began with some difficult technical challenge. When Toy Story was developed, it was the longest computer-animated movie made to that date (Pixar's previous projects had all been short films). When Monsters Inc. was in production, animating the monsters' fur was a huge stumbling block. When Pixar moved on to The Incredibles, animators had to find ways to create human characters, hair, fabric, and more.

In each case, Pixar's team saw the challenge as an inspiration, not a stumbling block. Instead of saying, "We'll have to scale the movie back" or "We'll have to come up with a character design that doesn't cause us these problems," they used these opportunities to take computer animation to a whole new level. That's not to say it was easy--there was more than one story told about the sheer amount of work it took to lay the technical groundwork for the animation you see on the screen--but the Pixar mindset seems to be one of seeing the opportunity to grow and learn rather than looking for ways to cut corners.

Luckily enough, one of the Annual Meeting thought leader sessions, "Innovate the Pixar Way," will take an even closer look at Pixar. I'm looking forward to learning more. (And in the meantime, there's some great info on Pixar in both Wired and in this HBR blog post.)

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July 27, 2010

A Passion for Business

Did anyone else happen to enjoy two articles in this week's Bloomberg Businessweek about associations? The first one is a three-page piece that uses the Romance Writers of America conference as entry into discussion of the rise of the entire "bodice rippers" book industry. I especially liked learning about how rapidly this section of the bookselling industry was being fractured into micro niches that change in a heartbeat to mimic social changes.

Uniting those splinters, though, is a larger theme noted by one of the profession's leading authors, Marie Bostwick: "There is a tremendous desire for community. Somehow in this world, where everyone is constantly communicating, people have lost real friendships."

Maybe that is why the Romance Writers of America and its conferences continue to grow as well--that desire to get together over endless cups of coffee and a common passion for, well, passion. How might the rest of us better identify and leverage the rising and falling (dare I write, heaving) of membership micro-niches that fulfill emotionally driven needs and interests of our members, rather than more reserved connections related to professional function or title?

The other Businessweek article looks not at an association so much as its leader, the new and increasingly influential association executive director, Rose Ann DeMoro. DeMoro rose to power from a supermarket cashier position in Missouri to lead the rapidly growing California Nurses Association (CNA) and--since December 2009--its evolution and merger into a 155,000-member nursing organization. This new player--called the National Nurses United--is composed of CAN CNA, United American Nurses, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and the dynamic DeMoro is fully in charge at the top.

Whether you agree or not with DeMoro's rather flamboyant style, you can't deny the heart of the article: passion. One woman's focused, determined battle to ensure that "nurses should win every battle."

That a publication dedicated to business coverage should devote six pages in its feature well to address (however indirectly) the influence of passion and community-building on the workplace was as refreshing as a dewy rose. No? Okay, strike that last phrase. I'll keep it simple: The articles are good reading for folks in every field in our sector.

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July 26, 2010

The decision card

I took some advice from Joe and read through some of my notes from the Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management earlier this summer. Connectivity at the event was spotty, and I know I didn't share as much from there as I should have.

So looking back, I found this gem from Bob Rosen, on deciding how to make a decision. At its very core, a person's leadership, or lack thereof, is defined by the decisions he or she makes. Forget leader, we are all, as people, the sum of our decisions (ok, ok, with some unavoidable genetic stuff thrown in). So the decisions we make--from what to have for breakfast to who to flirt with to who to hire to be your right hand--are important stuff.

When you look at leaders in a hierarchical sense--head of a department, head of an organization, whatever--these people, Rosen says, have four decision cards they can play. From most involved to least involved, these are your four choices when you decide how to make a decision:

1. Make the decision. You're in charge, you make the decision, and tell people to execute it or you do it yourself.

2. You get input from others, including sharing your thoughts with others, and then make the decision. This differs from option 1 because you have opened yourself up to the influence of others.

3. You share and receive input, and the group consensus (or hopefully at least a strong majority) decide on a course of action. (A note on this one, as a hierarchical leader, you have to be careful when and how you share your input. By definition, you have a certain amount of power in this discussion that the others do not have.)

4. Finally, you can delegate the entire decision. This is essentially option 1 and maybe the polar opposite of option 1 combined. You are telling someone or some group that this decision is entirely theirs to make.

That's it. Rosen says every time you make a decision, you have to play one of those cards.

So clearly in an enlightened organization, there is only one good decision-making option, right? Option 3. That's what empowerment and the HR management dogma we've all learned since the 1960s has taught us, right?

Sure. Good luck getting anything done in that organization. The fact is, organization leaders (again, the hierarchical kind here) have to use all four of these cards. What I take away from Rosen's four decision cards is that leaders need to think about the situation and think about which card is the best one to play for the organization. Any leader who relies on any one card too often is probably doing a disservice to his or her organization.

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July 13, 2010

Lessons from LeBron

If you paid attention to the news at all last week, you know that NBA superstar LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat, and you know that he announced his decision in an hour-long special on ESPN Thursday night. Needless to say, it was not a popular decision in Cleveland, and reaction elsewhere to the style of his announcement was not much better (at least outside Miami).

To some, LeBron James is just a basketball player, but as an aspiring billionaire, he is very much the CEO of his own empire. As such, business and association leaders can learn a few lessons from the whole debacle:

Don't make vendors or job applicants jump through hoops if they're not being seriously considered. After the free-agency period began, LeBron listened to presentations from at least six teams whose representatives flew to Akron, Ohio, to woo him. We'll never know for sure, but his final decision to join buddies Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami seems like it was the plan all along. As an organization making a decision regarding whom to hire or sign a contract with, keep your group of finalists small. Interviewing people not in contention is a waste of their time and yours, and it may leave them with a bad impression.

Understand that humans react emotionally—even irrationally—before anything else. LeBron delivered the classic "It's just business" line, which is always a mistake. His version was, "I can't get involved in that. You know, one thing that I didn't want to do was make an emotional decision." Problem is, trying to be logical with people in a time of change just doesn't work. Yes, of course business decisions are business decisions, and moving to the Heat was arguably his best option. But "It's just business" will fall on deaf ears 100 percent of the time. Any leader ushering in a major change should plan for winning hearts—or at least minimizing backlash—first and worry about the logistics later. Which leads me to…

Show respect—even praise—for people who will be let down by a business decision. LeBron made little effort to thank Cavaliers fans for seven years of loyalty, and the act of announcing his departure in an hour-long TV circus just made it worse. Contrast this with MLB pitcher Roy Halladay, who bought a full-page ad in the Toronto Sun to thank Blue Jays fans when he was traded to Philadelphia in December. In any major change at an organization—ending a long-running program, laying off employees, etc.—there's no avoiding negative reaction. But acknowledging the past contributions of deeply vested stakeholders softens the pain they feel in some small way. To ignore them is to pour salt in the wound.

Of course, LeBron's not the only one who took the low road. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned an emotional open letter after LeBron's announcement. If you're a Cavs fan, the letter is a catharsis, but if you're a manager or leader, it is a bad example to follow—Steve Tobak at The Corner Office blog explains why. (And if you're a graphic designer with an interest in font choices, the letter was, well, peculiar.)

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July 6, 2010

Write your professional obituary

I am a bit morbid, no doubt about it. I often think about friends and family members, and what I would say at their funerals. I may be a little weird, but there is nothing more powerful in our lives than death, and thinking about the people we love and work with and what will eventually happen to all of them is strangely a fantastic way to understand how much they mean to you. The best leaders aren't fully understood or appreciated until they die.

Our association just experienced a death. One of our longest serving members, a past board president, passed away with family and friends around him, after a long fight. This person, through the sheer force of his will, made it to our national symposium in June, and it was one of the most bittersweet and most amazing experiences I've witnessed; the depth of commitment and care this individual showed to our association was given back to him tenfold during our three-day event, and I was personally moved by the positive affect he'd had on the lives of his colleagues.

This leads me naturally to think of, guess who, YOU! What is your obituary going to read, as an association leader? What about those of your best friends in your profession--what will be said about them when they are gone?

It wouldn't be fair to ask you to think of this without writing my own. Here is what I hope they'll say about me (and I have yet to earn all of this so I can't go just yet):

"He was an individual who dedicated his life to a cause that was greater than making widgets or selling products. He was hard-headed and passionate, which made him a royal pain to be around sometimes, especially when he was wrong. But when he got it right, he was dead on. He cared more about the people around the association and within it than he did about any one project, program, policy, or procedure. And he helped cultivate a strong sense of community through challenge, rapport, passion, and creativity. He touched thousands of lives and had a positive impact on most of them. He was relentlessly focused on the big picture. He contradicted himself all the time and was proud of it, as he felt that nothing was ever set in stone and everything was a work in progress. He didn't always play by the rules, but he never expected anyone else to either."

Your turn?

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July 1, 2010

Quick Clicks: Straight Up

Welcome to the latest edition of Quick Clicks--just in time for the holiday long weekend (for those of you who are in the States). Here's some great reading before you head out to your holiday celebration of choice:

- Welcome to new association blogger Dave Martin! Dave just recently launched the Dirty Martini blog, with the great tagline "Association Marketing Straight Up."

- Amith Nagarajan has written three posts on the Aptify CEO blog following up on his Leadership Inspiration post here on Acronym. He's written on encouraging debate at all costs, making decisions with imperfect information, and challenging your opinion continuously.

- The Connect blog shares 56 takeaways from ASAE's Membership and Marketing Conference and Association Media & Publishing's Annual Meeting.

- At face2face, Sue Pelletier considers a couple of perspectives on the question of whether or not association tradeshows are on their way out.

- At the SignatureI blog, Marsha Rhea considers what the next 50 years might hold for associations.

- The Nonprofit University blog shares a fascinating parable about Goldilocks and the three executive directors.

- Vinay Kumar wonders if we're asking the right questions as we try to improve our organizational performance. On a somewhat related note, Chris Bailey has some suggestions on how you can listen like an anthropologist to hear what isn't being said during important conversations.

- At the Insights From a Future Association Executive blog, Bruce Hammond has started an interesting discussion about the future of magazines.

- Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog shares some lessons learned from arranging a virtual career fair.

- Joe Sapp at the Moving Through the Association World blog (welcome back, Joe!) responds to Brian Birch's recent Acronym posts on building a new website with some advice of his own.

- Rebecca Rolfes suggests a new way for associations to think about growth.

- The AssociationRat blog wonders if the business world has anything equivalent to a walk-off in baseball.


June 29, 2010

Why Staying Mum on CEO Succession Is Dumb

I was sadly reminded recently of a governance issue that most CEOs hate to discuss--succession planning--when I heard about a small nonprofit leader who was suddenly retiring in response to a cancer diagnosis.

Then I saw a new Stanford University/Heidrick & Struggles study that finds "serious gaps in CEO succession planning" in many North American public and private companies. The numbers were startling because I believed that large corporations in particular were far ahead of associations when it comes to CEO succession planning. Maybe they are, in which case, I am far more concerned now that I've read that the average board of directors is spending less than two hours per year on the topic, yet almost 40% of for-profit leaders had "zero" viable candidates to later fill their shoes.

Stanford Professor David Larcker calls the problem a "governance lapse," blaming a "lack of focus" of boards of directors who "just aren't spending the time that is required to adequately prepare for a succession scenario."

What about your board? When was the last time succession was even on your board agenda, especially when you or your CEO weren't thinking of moving on?

I asked a member who has worked in our sector for more than 20 years if she had ever heard a board talk about succession issues. "No, our CEO has been there forever and doesn't plan to leave," she replied. How about die or get sick? CEOs often don't "plan" to leave. That certainly doesn't render the issue moot. Is it that CEOs fear bringing up the topic, not wanting to "give the board any ideas?" That seems lame.

Bill George, speaking at our upcoming Annual Meeting, talks about building leadership and life legacies, as well as developing new leaders, in his classic book, True North.

More direct, though, is another annual meeting speaker, Marshall Goldsmith, whose book Succession: Are You Ready? (2009) guides you through the process of planning and executing a succession transition. He calls it "the greatest challenge for any leader," and that's saying something for this coach who has seen and heard just about everything related to success and failure in business. You can read more about Goldsmith's suggested tactics and advice in an ASAE interview with him in March 2009 called "Smart Succession Planning in Uncertain Times."

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June 28, 2010

Learning from the leadership guru

There are many, many leadership gurus--people who study, coax, learn, and ultimately instruct others on how to be better leaders. And there are probably just as many different ways to describe (take your pick of:) good/great/strong/successful leadership. If you're a continual learner, you've likely encountered several dozen gurus and taken to heart the wisdom of maybe three or four.

It wasn't too long ago that I was at ASAE & The Center's Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management--it's basically a guru gathering. That in itself probably sounds amazing to some and dreadful to others. For those in the latter group, leadership guru-ness (except for the two or three that resonate well to you) is puffery--a bunch of common sense thinly gussied up to sound intelligent. I don't exactly expect this argument to win over those skeptics, but I do argue to them that there is merit to hearing and debating how these gurus describe their points. We're talking about language, how it's used, and what it means to individuals.

So when Bob Rosen talks about three leadership paradoxes, it's less about what he means by them and more about what they mean to you. Are they the words you'd use? If not, why? What do the words mean to you?

It all makes me think about the debate about whether good/great/strong/successful leaders are born or made. My thought on this is that they are about 25 percent born, 25 percent made and 50 percent being in the right place at the right time (luck). And I'll take it one step further: of that piece that is made, probably 75 percent of that is learned from experience--you become a better leader when you are put in a situation that calls for leadership. Basically, that just leaves a tiny slice--not unimportant, in my opinion--that comes from actively seeking to learn how to be a leader. And most of that probably comes less from lectures or presentations or classes, and more from finding ways to interacting with other leaders:

Oh, and Rosen's three paradoxes?

1. Realistic/optimism--we love leaders who are honest but also hopeful and aspirational.

2. Constructive/impatience--we love leaders who are respectful and fair but also challenge us to be better tomorrow than we were today.

3. Confident/humility--we love leaders who have a strong position and point of view but also have the capacity to truly listen, learn, and accepting of alternatives.

What do these words mean to you? Do you agree that strong leaders excel in these paradoxes? Do you think they are even paradoxes at all? If these aren't the right words, how would you describe your brand of leadership? This is where the learning is.


June 24, 2010

Learning to ride the leadership roller coaster

First up of our consultants who lead discussions among small staff associations is Rhea Blanken from Results Technology, who had these takeaways from her session:

Ever feel like you can't get out of the weeds long enough to lead your association the way you wish you could and know you should? Ever feel buried in minutiae, unable to take reflective time to image the future? Feeling unable to use the simplest time management tools because there is no time? Does this sound like a familiar small association staff chorus?

The problem with this long-standing attitude is that it's technically not really a problem. A problem is defined by its "either/or," "yes/no" quality--a decision is made confirming an action and eliminating others. A small association executive has the doing/imagining as well as the managing/leading roles constantly at play--it is not an either/or situation yet we talk about it that way. We must plan more time for "and."

This "and time" requires seeing one's efforts as a set of interdependent principles and actions, each necessary over time to create positive sustainable results to advance the organization. Too much attention on one side or the other will leave the organization lopsided. Too much concentrated activity and resources in the present will leave no room for future planning and vice versa. This is the paradox or contradiction of leadership--respecting the necessary tension between taking the time for now and making the time to think for later. Stop expecting it to be either/or. As often as not, "and" is what it looks like when it's working.

What's necessary is to create a neutral space where comparison, inquiry, discussion, and examination allow the staff and the organization to put into play the positive aspects of the supposed contradiction. This balances both sides rather than trying to force a solution into one. When we try to solve something that is not designed to be solution-based, we get resistance to the solution. A quick review of failed initiatives from board and staff is likely to reveal the reality of this circumstance. When we manage these paradoxes for their benefits and perspectives, we see attainable results. As Abraham Maslow said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Reach into the whole tool box.

A Few Perspectives Along the Roller Coaster

  • Leaders who see the "and" rather than the either/or of life are more effective at mediation, better able to anticipate and diminish problems from occurring, and tend to be better decision makers since they are not limited to either/or scenarios.

  • Make time in your schedule to think in the now and the future. Distinguish between problems that are inherently solvable and finite, and those that are both unsolvable and unavoidable. Investigate both the positive and negative aspects and effects of each side. Then combine the points of view in each to get a more complete picture of the known situation.

  • Be mindful of the organizational preferences to one side over another--if it favors one view over another then the decision is likely vulnerable to being overly focused and out of balance. Be clear on the positive and negative preferences the organization holds for one side over another and the reasons (check out sacred cows and historical baggage).

The bottom line
"Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome."
- Samuel Johnson

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June 18, 2010

Patient, but not complacent

Nine days later, the comments on the "If I gave a commencement speech" post are still coming. (Thanks again, everyone!) Two words doesn't leave much room for nuance, so it's no surprise that "be patient" has different meanings for different people.

Near the end of the post, I mentioned learning patience "begrudgingly." That internal struggle of mine was nicely illustrated by a handful of responses:

First, this tweet from Jacob Wolfsheimer:

wolftrust: What would your two-word commencement speech be? Be patient? How about "embrace change?"

Then a comment from Shelly Alcorn, CAE:

"By continuing to promote 'patient' thinking in little things, we unintentionally stymie our ability to radically change the big things. Yes, be patient. But only when it doesn't matter." (excerpt)

A while later, David Patt, CAE, spoke up on his blog:

"They are often cited as doers, as movers and shakers, or as visionaries, and are praised for their aggressiveness and self-confidence. But frequently, they are merely dreamers. They don't understand that growth usually occurs incrementally. They ignore reality ..." (excerpt)

Hardly the first time a wedge was driven between idealists and realists, revolutionaries and evolutionaries.

These days I fall in the latter camp, but when I said I've learned patience begrudgingly, I meant that it scares me a bit, so I understand what Shelly's saying. What I fear most about developing patience is that one day it might erode into complacency and, worse yet, I might no longer see the difference. The gap between the two is the gap between success and failure.

In far better words than I can, Jamie Notter spelled this out in "The Hard Work of Patience" on his blog this week:

"[P]atience is actually more than not acting. It requires a deeper understanding of why you are not acting, and what work you need to be doing in the meantime. [...] That's hard work. In the conflict resolution world, we call this 'staying through the hard places.'" (excerpt)

Another practical example: Marketers have a rule of thumb that says it takes seven "touches" to establish a brand or product in a consumer's mind. Patience is knowing that the first six touches still count as progress. Same goes for networking, negotiating, and even learning.

And so if I could add three words to the commencement speech, I'd revise it to be:

"Be patient, but not complacent."

While this is ostensibly advice for the young, it's a challenge that spans a lifetime. For association leaders, how do you maintain patience and persistence in yourself and your staff? And is there a tipping point or a warning sign when you know you or your colleagues have fallen too far toward complacency?

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Managing your team to the top

The ongoing World Cup in South Africa offers a fascinating look at how organizations manage themselves in light of ever-changing circumstances and competition. Despite a curious lack of interest by most Americans toward the planet's largest sporting event, the non-U.S. population around the globe is riveted to the 64-game event, with businesses routinely closing for games, and giant TV screens set up in store windows and town squares to enable community viewing.

But even if you're not into soccer (futbol), you still shouldn't miss this opportunity to witness such rapid-fire exhibitions of teamwork, competitive strategy, skills execution, and leadership. Frankly, associations--often plodding, risk-averse, and tentative when they do act--could score some good intelligence from these teams for their own operations.

My husband, Andy, is an executive director of a 501©3, but more importantly, for the moment anyway, he is British and, therefore, a rabid soccer fan. (It was touch-and-go last Saturday when the U.S. played England to a tie, because that game is never "a friendly" at our house.)

During a halftime (hey, I'm not stupid), I noted that much of the Cup commentary could be directed just as easily at specific businesses as to soccer teams. I asked Andy what three parallels--and potential lessons--he most recognized.

1) Of the 32 teams in the World Cup, three to four are obvious contenders for the top prize, 24 or so are very good and could possibly surprise spectators and rise as well, and four or five merit bottom rankings. If your organization is in that 20-odd mass, the questions for the team are, 'What mindset and approach must be adopted, what tactics and strategy must be used at any given moment, what must be perfectly executed, and what pace must we set to leap us from good to great--from also-rans to winners?'

That last query--pacing--is especially critical.

Continue reading "Managing your team to the top" »


June 3, 2010

Knowing the rules is science, bending the rules is an art

As a writing and editing geek, I enjoyed John McIntyre's post last weekend, "You were badly advised," about why many of the hard-and-fast writing rules we were taught in high school simply aren't that ironclad. McIntyre is night content production manager and former copy desk chief at the Baltimore Sun.

In his post he points to "never use passive voice" and "omit needless words" as examples of rules that need not always be followed, but the greater point is that writing (and editing) is an art. One must learn the rules before learning how to bend or break them, and experience alone is what builds that capacity:

Between the simplified introductory rules or one-sentence maxims and some level of mastery of the craft yawns a wide divide. That is the space in which judgment has to develop ... . Be careful about whatever is stitched on that sampler above your desk ... it may not be as helpful as you think.

Leadership is an art, too, of course. Eric Lanke said it best last week on his Hourglass Blog: "Leadership happens when you take those principles and try to apply them to a real situation in the real world, and unanticipated conditions begin to clash with those principles."

We have our "rules" for association management, but they all have their exceptions*. Leadership experience brings the ability to judge when to stick to the rules and when to throw them out.

I'm just an editor, though, so I turn to our experienced association pros out there: What exceptions to the rules have you learned as you've dedicated your careers to associations?

(*An exception to the rule that all rules have exceptions: the rules our government calls "laws." I do not advise you break those rules.)


June 2, 2010

Warren Bennis Counts to Three

I've been working on a feature for Associations Now about how changing attitudes and regulations regarding transparency are affecting associations and nonprofits. Among the interviews was a terrific chat with Transparency author and revered leadership expert Warren Bennis of the University of Southern California.

He listed three starting points to move an organization toward greater transparency, and I'm sharing here to kick off some early discussion:

1. The CEO must "be directed by the board to come up with a set of guidelines for transparency."

2. The CEO "should take responsibility for this" and must "make sure these are understood and drilled down into every aspect of the organization given their dispersion. With globalization, you have offices all over the world, and the rules of transparency are going to be different country by country." Suggested reading: Global Edge: Using the Opacity Index to Manage the Risks of Cross-border Business Opacity by Joel Kurtzman.

3. The CEO must "come up with a way of enforcement," preferably one outlined in a transparency plan.

We talked briefly about that last item--a transparency plan. Organizations need them, Bennis emphasized, and run real risk without them in this current open-air environment. That said, he couldn't recall a good example of one and even asked me to send him one if I had better luck tracking one down. Does anyone out there already have some policies around transparency that they'd like to share? Or perhaps they have notes around discussions of such a document? I welcome a comment or e-mail.

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May 11, 2010

Making difficult decisions

Colleen Eubanks, CAE, is executive director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association and AVP at Coulter Companies, and wrote our second guest post in this month's Leadership Inspiration series. Here's her post:

I have found Patrick Lencioni's The Five Temptations of a CEO--A Leadership Fable a powerful and useful model to follow. In a concise manner, leadership is distilled into easy-to-understand (if not so easy to put into practice) terms. At the heart of the fable, it is clear that an effective leader makes personally difficult choices that have an impact on the organization. Over the past 18 months I have had ample opportunity to put such choices to a test. Our organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2009--due to the combination of a bad hotel contract ratified before my tenure and the catastrophic impact the economy had on our association's main constituency: state and county agencies and employees.

Lencioni's five choices: trust over invulnerability, conflict over harmony, clarity over certainty, accountability over popularity, and results over status all came into play as we moved through difficult and uncharted waters for a year. A little more than a year later, NCSEA recently emerged from Chapter 11 (something only 2% of organizations filing for protection ever do) with a much smaller, more engaged and effective board of directors, streamlined and strategic committees, and an appreciation for the need to make difficult choices, which need to be based in a leader's integrity and very clearly communicated.

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May 10, 2010

Building the self-confidence of others

As we continue Leadership Inspiration month (see the introduction and Joe Rominiecki's first post on choosing a narrow focus when seeking change), here's our first post from a guest. This message is from Kirk Pickerel, CAE, president & CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors:

Jack Welch once said, "Giving people self-confidence is by far the most important thing that I can do. Because then they will act."

Developing talent is one of the things that has given me the most satisfaction in my career. And an essential part of developing talent is helping folks develop the self-confidence they need in order to grow and thrive. It is easy to say that we all learn from our mistakes, but much harder sometimes to substantiate that statement through one's reaction when a person does make a wrong choice or decision. I like to think that my demonstrating my belief in that statement, through helping people learn from their mistakes, has been key to my helping them develop the self-confidence they need in order to be successful.

Heaven knows that I am a perfect illustration to my staff that making mistakes doesn't mean you're a failure! I have made plenty. Learning from those mistakes builds self-confidence and gives people the will to act.


May 6, 2010

Quick clicks: Thursdays with zombies

Good morning, and welcome to this week's Quick Clicks!

- Quite possibly the best thing I've ever seen: David Gammel unveils a wonderful cartoon on the Orgpreneur blog. Go see it. Don't worry, we'll wait.

- Laura Otten at the Nonprofit University Blog has a beautiful post on the many people who looked to her father as a mentor.

- A challenging post from Joe Gerstandt on what inclusion really looks like ("Inclusion is not giving everyone a trophy.")

- Shelly Alcorn has strong feelings about the importance of net neutrality for associations and nonprofits.

- Chris Bonney argues that the power of free is in the mind of the giver, not the recipient.

- Carol-Anne Moutinho at the Association Resource Centre blog considers what reverse innovation might look like in nonprofits.

- Jamie Notter is thinking through some very interesting ideas about cultivating strategy without traditional strategic planning.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog ponders some potential implications of corporate social responsibility for the association sector.

- I continue to love Jeffrey Cufaude's "Wednesday What If" posts. This week, he encourages us to consider what our members would miss the most if it were eliminated.

- Peggy Hoffman considers ways to make chapters and components more effective.

- Jeff Hurt has a few suggestions for ways to encourage active attendee participation in learning sessions--even from folks who might not initially love the idea.

- Some helpful case study posts: Scott Billey at Associations Live on lessons learned from their first webinar, and Maggie McGary on what she learned on the way to 20,000 Facebook fans. (I guess technically now they're "likers," but as an editor I oppose that word.)


April 12, 2010

Quick Clicks: Monday morning metaphors

Good morning, and welcome to a Monday edition of Quick Clicks!

- Acronym's Big Ideas Month helped to inspire an unconference aimed at creating an innovative future for the association community, taking place April 22 in Washington, DC. Jeff De Cagna posted more information on the Hacking Associations Unconference here.

- Jamie Notter posted his thoughts about the recent Acronym post that was removed from the blog.

- Jamie also posted an interesting series on leadership skills needed in today's organizations, including truth, courage, and curiosity.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel has a great post on some of the forces that she thinks are shaping associations today.

- Shelly Alcorn recently posted the last post in her five-part series on how Jim Collins' book How the Mighty Fall can apply to associations. (If you haven't read the first four posts, she links to all of them in the first paragraph.)

- A very interesting post on meeting conference attendees' expectations by Amber Naslund (thanks for the link are due to Shannon Otto at the Splash blog). Representative quote: "We have a fundamental disconnect between what people say they want from a conference session, and what can realistically be delivered under existing models."

- Jeffrey Cufaude is thinking about organizational change efforts, using automotive metaphors; he's posted on detours and dead ends, and what it's like in the passenger seat during such change efforts.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog ponders when good leaders make the decision to pull the plug on projects.

- At the LeaderConnect blog, Rebecca Rolfes considers the board-staff dynamic at associations and how it might impact the way associations approach the future.

- Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog discusses the collapse of complex societies, Clay Shirky, and how both of those things apply to realtor associations.

- Maddie Grant is also thinking about Clay Shirky and his principle that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

- Association blogger David Gammel has launched a new blog, Orgpreneur, which will focus on "entrepreneurship in pursuit of goals that matter."

- Andy Sernovitz discusses the importance of leaving a good last impression on your departing customers, with some advice associations could certainly use to help improve relations with departing members.

- Blue Avocado recently published an article by Ellis Robinson on eight strategic mistakes nonprofits can make with memberships.

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April 9, 2010

Forget cause and effect

In various presentations, questions, and discussions at Digital Now, I've been seeing an interesting theme emerging: cause and effect are getting to be very, very difficult to pin down, and that's just something association leaders have to learn how to live with.

Some form of this question has come up several times in just a day and a half: "How do I monetize this?"

And the consistent answer has been, "Well, you don't really. You make your money elsewhere."

It came up in the session about free yesterday. It came up in a session about building online engagement today. Repeatedly, the answer to drawing financial gain from social media, publications, engagement, and many education efforts is now an indirect one. For example, you create a presence in several social media outlets, you engage with people, they build community around you, and then some of them might buy something from you. Or some of them might join your association. Or the ones who are already members become more likely to renew. Or you sell advertising to people who want to reach that market. You get the idea.

One panelist says we operate in "an ecosystem" where it's increasingly difficult to draw straight lines.

Another says he doesn't like the term ROI (return on investment) in social media; he prefers ROA: return on attention.

We touched on the indirect nature of returns on social media efforts back in November when I argued that social media evangelists have to talk to their CEOs about social media in dollar values. That was a healthy discussion, because translating social media into dollar value isn't easy, and that lack of direct cause-and-effect relationship is hard to sell to leaders or to boards.

It's why warning signs on electric fences work a lot better than warning labels on cigarette packs. The link between cause and effect in the former is a lot clearer (touch the fence, instant death) than the latter (smoke a lot, die of lung cancer 30 years from now).

Of course, you could see this all as a counterpoint to the message from Ian Ayres earlier today about the need for more statistical analysis to inform our decisions. Randomized testing is designed exactly to discern cause and effect. His point, though, is that it takes a lot of discipline and effort to track data, build samples, and test accurately, but it can indeed be done. Cause and effect, or at least strong correlations, can be discovered through data analysis.

And so maybe this isn't a counterpoint so much as it is a complement to the earlier post. As we acknowledge the increasingly complex ways in which business models for associations will work, we must grow more comfortable with a lack of direct cause-and-effect relationships. Or, if we must have those answers, our methods for connecting Point A and Point B must become more sophisticated as well.


April 1, 2010

Quick Clicks: Think outside the office

Welcome to the latest edition of Quick Clicks! I'm actually on vacation for a few days (Scott has kindly agreed to make sure this post goes live while I'm out), so I'm wishing all of you a good day from a remote location.

Here are some of the latest and most interesting posts from the association blogging world:

- There's been some passionate discussion of the decision to remove a recent post here on Acronym. (All other elements of that discussion aside, I'm personally grateful that we have readers who take Acronym so seriously and care so much about whether or not that decision was a good one to make.) KiKi L'Italien considers several sides to the debate, while Shannon Otto comes at the issue from a journalistic perspective. Elizabeth Weaver Engel added her take to her weekly "What I'm Reading" post.

- Deirdre Reid posted a "New Volunteer Manifesto" (and a great discussion sprang up in comments). Deidre will be expanding on her manifesto in a new weekly column on the SmartBlog Insights blog. Maddie Grant highlights some of her favorite aspects of the manifesto in a SocialFish post.

- Peggy Hoffman continues her "Truths About Volunteering" series with truth #17.

- Jamie Notter makes a case for three new leadership mindsets for the future.

- Marsha Rhea at the SignatureI blog offers some advice for associations dealing with chronic unresolved issues.

- The Plexus Consulting blog has some questions about the line between a working environment that's too comfortable and one that's too stressful.

- Jeff Hurt at Midcourse Corrections has some very interesting thoughts on why you shouldn't crowdsource your next conference.

- Speaking of conferences, Joe Gerstandt would like to ask why your commitment to diversity isn't fully reflected in your conference's speaker lineup. And Lauren Fernandez wants to know why more panel discussions don't include a contrarian point of view.

- Jeffrey Cufaude continues his great "What If Wednesdays" series with a post on expiration dates for new products. I love this idea!

- Tony Rossell encourages us to shift from a cost-control mindset to a growth mindset, before it's too late.

- Kerry Stackpole tells a story about the power of passion when it's combined with persistence.


March 17, 2010

From missions to mantras, big deal

I'm still chest-deep in all the Great Ideas Conference stuff. I read each of the 1,682 Tweets that used the #Ideas10 hashtag during the three days of the conference; I've read a couple dozen blog posts on the conference; and I've reflected on the sessions I went to.

A lot of the buzz was about this idea of missions being better crafted. Guy Kawasaki calls for a mantra of four words or less. Dan Pink wants a sentence. And a couple of the breakout sessions talked about crafting missions with more or better meaning. Kawasaki and Pink in particular set the Twittersphere ablaze with their comments. My take on the idea:


I don't mean to downplay the need for mission statements, and the less they sound like blah, blah, blah the better. (I'm in favor of staying away from the one-sentence mission that says this organization is going to help this trade, profession, or interest in these three areas doing these three things.) But the rally that even an expertly crafted Kawasaki mantra will generate only goes so far.

I kind of like what I consider the closest thing I think ASAE & The Center has to a mantra, which is the first half of our Value Proposition: We connect great ideas and great people. There's a certain amount of rallying I can do around that. But that mantra doesn't help me justify decision making. I don't look at that--or any other mantra you or anybody else could come up with for an association of association executives--and see something that will help me justify killing a program or choosing one idea over another.

Missions, mantras, sentences-- or value propositions, causes, positioning statements, visions, or any other synonym or pseudosynonym you can think of--are only really good for one thing: a spark of understanding. Start with any mission statement and there are tons of different directions you can take it, and these are what really matter, not the mission statement itself. Don't expect to take your 75-word mission statement, boil it down to a three-word mantra and suddenly have the veils lifted from the eyes of your staff, volunteers, members, and the public. The dirty business of change is still going to be a tough slog. Perhaps a mantra or sentence or whatever can help, but it's useless without a lot of will, guile, and probably luck.

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March 5, 2010

CEOs flipping the proverbial burger

On Wednesday, Steve Tobak at BNET's The Corner Office blog offered another interesting perspective in response to the CBS TV show Undercover Boss. When I wrote here about it three weeks ago, it was about executive compensation tied to engagement. This week it's a more simple question: should a CEO be able to do the front-line jobs of his or her organization?

Tobak's answer to the question is "no," and I agree with him. At an association, for example, I wouldn't expect a CEO to be able to code a website, juggle meeting logistics, or synthesize research data. A smart CEO hires people who are more skilled at these roles, anyway. And conversely, I wouldn't expect the specialists who do those jobs to be able to facilitate the board of directors, speak on camera as the face of the organization, or even just manage a large staff.

But I don't think Tobak quite says enough about the need for a CEO to have a deep, personal understanding of how the actual work of the organization is executed. To stick with the burger metaphor (in fact, the Undercover Boss episode in question was about the CEO of White Castle), I think the CEO ought to know exactly how long the burger should cook on each side, because the quality of the burger is what the customers experience. Understanding the craft that makes the company's customer experience possible can only better inform the CEO's decisions.

Associations don't make burgers, of course, but they do produce meetings, seminars, knowledge resources, advocacy, and so on. The association CEO should understand the details of crafting these efforts successfully.

This all begs one question, though: what about CEOs and executive directors of small-staff associations? Under a certain number of staff, a CEO doesn't really have a choice but to understand a lot of the front-line work, because he or she likely has to be the one personally doing much of it. So I have a couple questions for association executives out there:

  • At a small-staff association, is that experience with front-line work an advantage, or would you rather be able to delegate more duties?
  • At a larger association, is understanding front-line work a challenge for the CEO?

I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

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February 25, 2010

Quick Clicks: Home runs

Welcome to another edition of Quick Clicks. Thanks to all the association bloggers who give us so much great stuff to link to!

- On the SmartBlog Insights blog, Rebecca Leaman wonders whether it still makes sense for nonprofits to attempt to drive traffic back to a single website "home base." Her question started a great discussion in comments.

- Andy Sernovitz has some thought-provoking comments on how you can take advantage of changing customer expectations (even if they might seem threatening at first glace).

- Jeffrey Cufaude has started a new series of blog posts he's calling "Wednesday What Ifs?". So far, he's tackled paying for dues and other programs and services in multi-year increments, giving implicit rather than explicit permission, and focusing on consistent quality rather than on the big breakthrough.

- Cindy Butts responds to some recent Acronym posts with her thoughts on the pursuit of perfection.

- Kevin Whorton has a great post at the College of Association Marketing blog on the surprising disconnect between the words and actions of one focus group.

- Jeff Hurt has great advice for pumping up the networking potential of your face-to-face events.

- If you're an "emerging leader" and you've ever thought, "When do I just emerge already?" Rosetta Thurman has a post for you.

- Shelly Alcorn at the Association Subculture blog has launched an interesting series of posts applying the rubric from Jim Collins' new book "How the Mighty Fall" to associations.

- Six is apparently a big number this week: A guest post by Mack Collier on Lauren Fernandez's LAF blog shares six truths of building successful online communities, and Aimee Stern shares six great ideas she got at a recent Super Swap.

- The Nonprofit University blog has some thoughts on the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and its implications for nonprofit organizations.

- David Patt has some interesting observations about behavorial differences he's seen with older and younger colleagues. What do you think?

- Jeff Cobb at the Hedgehog & Fox blog has four questions whose answers might predict your future success. (And at his other blog, Mission to Learn, he has a post I loved on learning lessons he's gleaned from watching his toddler.)

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February 23, 2010

Transparency personified

Way back in October 2009 (centuries ago in internet years), Wes Trochlil blogged about an AMS vendor that installed an ombudsman on its staff to represent client concerns at the company. I want to revisit this ombudsman idea, because I've been intrigued by it for a while now. (In fact, it actually came up here once a few years ago, but only as a brief mention.)

If you have no idea what an ombudsman is, check out Wikipedia for a lengthy explanation, or see the bio page of Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander (a fellow Ohio University alum, I must note). Ombudsmen are a growing practice among newspapers, and Andy has written some remarkably frank, honest assessments of the Post's performance, such as this one about its plan for sponsored, off-the-record "salons" in 2009. Andy's columns are published in the newspaper every Sunday. The second paragraph of Andy's bio explains his role:

As The Washington Post ombudsman, he serves as its internal critic and represents readers who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process. In his role, he also promotes public understanding of the newspaper, its Web site and journalism more generally. He operates under a contract with The Washington Post that guarantees him independence.[emphasis added]

Going back to Wes's post about the AMS vendor ombudsman, called the "Director of Customer Care," there's another important note about how the position is structured at the company in question, Aptify:

This position reports directly to [the CEO], and is not part of any other Aptify department.[again, emphasis added]

While an association is neither a newspaper nor a tech vendor, the concept of an ombudsman is one worth exploring for associations, whether in practice or at least in philosophy. If an association created an ombudsman position, perhaps the job description would read like this:

As Association XYZ ombudsman, he/she serves as its internal critic and represents members who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including service quality, price, fairness, ethics, and the governance process. In this role, he/she also promotes public understanding of the association, its products and services, and membership more generally. He/she operates under a contract with Associations XYZ that guarantees him/her independence.

You could argue that this role could or should be filled by the association CEO or the board chair. Or perhaps the COO, the director of membership, or even the communications director. But mission and philosophy often fall by the wayside when an executive has a multitude of responsibilities or a vested interest in protecting his or her own job or department.

The ombudsman as a dedicated position, however, rises above a value statement simply by its very existence. An ombudsman embodies transparency because, essentially, transparency is his or her job. As long as the ombudsman position includes the factors I emphasized above—independence and separation from all departments—the act of creating such a position is a strong commitment to truth, honesty, transparency, and member service.

Knowing how afraid of transparency most associations seem to be, I don't see this idea getting a lot of traction, but in a more ideal world associations would be willing to make this kind of commitment to their members.

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February 13, 2010

Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events

In anticipation of the next weeks’ of avid TV watching of the Winter Olympics in Canada, I visited the official website in search of potential tools, ideas, and takeaways for association event and meeting planners.

I’m pleased to find that groups involved in sporting events and fundraisers (think golf tournaments, walk- and bike-a-thons, team-building field days, etc.) can download a free Sustainable Sport and Event Toolkit ( created by the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) in partnership with the Switzerland-based International Academy of Sports Science and Technology. Topics covered include community and supply chain involvement, transportation, and venue management.

The nine-piece how-to toolkit—aimed at organizers/sponsors of both large and small events--is one of the many social legacy projects completed or underway by organizers and attendees of this month’s Olympics, which kicked off in grand style February 12.

Organizers have spent seven years developing and executing actions and policies aimed at lightening the event’s wide environmental footprint, ensuring an ethical and inclusive competition, and leaving behind a positive social legacy. You’ll find highlights at

However, a summary of 12 of their major initiatives ( provides association meeting planners and

Continue reading "Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events " »

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January 29, 2010

First, assume no one cares

A couple seemingly unrelated thoughts that I've read recently have me thinking about the importance of this question: What if no one cares?

  • On Scott's "Welcome to governance month" post, Maddie Grant commented with a general feeling of angst toward boards, and she said "A friend said to me that people should print my comment and show it to their boards and say, ‘this is what some people think of boards - how would you refute it?'"
  • Then I saw "Three Quick Steps to Clear Writing" on Copyblogger (which, if your job entails writing in any way, you really should be reading). One of his steps: "Care: Clarity comes from deeply caring if people truly understand."

The latter reminded me of the old writer's adage "write for the reader," which really means "consider the reader's perspective, not your own." But with Maddie's comment in mind, I realize that this mindset should permeate pretty much everything you do.

  • For your next membership campaign, don't just assume that prospective members might be interested in networking or improving their careers. Assume that your prospects are content, lazy slouches with no ambition, little desire to expand their horizons, and zero familiarity with membership organizations. Then figure out how to make membership in your association relevant to those people.
  • Next time you call a staff or volunteer meeting, don't just assume that your colleagues want to collaborate with you. Assume they're already overworked and have little to no knowledge of the need for or the fundamentals of the work you'd like to do together. Then figure out how to make them excited about working or volunteering with you.
  • When you give your next presentation at a meeting or conference, don't just assume that the audience wants to learn. Assume that they came to your session because it looked like the least boring session during your time slot and that they don't think your topic is in any way relevant to their field of work. Then figure out how to get that audience engaged.

Of course, in most of these cases, people do care. But don't assume that. Don't assume anything in your favor. Rather, before you take on any task, ask yourself, "What if no one cares about this?" Then, with that perspective in mind, direct your efforts to making sure that you reach the people who don't care. It will make everything you do much more effective.

[On a related note, my colleague Lisa Junker wrote a great article back in 2007 on "red teaming," which is an exercise in assuming the mind of your competition to better understand your own weaknesses. It takes the "What if no one cares?" idea a step further by asking, "What if people want to defeat us?" and addresses it on an organizational level. It's a good read.]

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January 19, 2010

Earthquake Response Efforts Continue

To everyone who has been sending press releases and e-mails about what their organization is doing to respond to the Haiti earthquake disaster, I send you a big thank-you! To avoid weighing down Acronym with the latest updates, all responses are being posted in the commentary section of my earlier blog posts down below. I encourage you to continue emailing me news at Thanks again for all you are doing!


January 15, 2010

My half-baked bubble thought

I'm not even sure I agree with this post, but I'll throw it out there and see if it sticks.

When talking economics or markets, everyone thinks bubbles are bad. It's hard to argue that here on this side of the summer of 2008. But go back to early 2008 or 2007 when personal and organizational wealth was expanding, and the bubble doesn't look so bad (setting aside for a moment that we all foolishly didn't think we were in a bubble). I don't know the numbers, but let's say that 50% of those in subprime mortgages have not and are not in danger of defaulting—the bubble worked pretty good for them, enabling them to obtain a mortgage that they may not have been able to get without a bubble.

But I guess the general consensus is that a striaght line, rising slowly but steadily, would be much preferred to the up and down rough and tumble that actually exists.

So here's my half-baked theory: One overly simplistic definition of a bubble is an increase in mass consumption of risk that reaches a point where risk becomes too great, an event happens, and then there is widespread retreat from risk.

I think in general, associations try to run like that straight line--willing only to take the risks necessary for slow, steady growth. As a result, I think our organizations never realize the full benefits of a bubble. But when it pops, we feel just as much pain as the rest of the world.

If the rest of the world suddenly acted like that straight line, then maybe our measured approach to risk would be ok. But let's face it, when times are good, we always think we've found our straight line, but going back at least several hundred years, that hasn't been the case. As a result, I think, we need to take on more of a bubble mentality. We need to push risky endeavors. Some will fail, and it will hurt. Some will succeed, probably better than they should. And the rest will be somewhere in the middle. I understand it's a yo-yo that might be distasteful, and would require associations to be more flexible in organization and more efficient in decision making than they are. But if the bubble are going to come, then we've got to find a way to get more benefit out of them before they pop.

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January 13, 2010

Associations, Nonprofits Begin Haitian Earthquake Response

As they have so many times in the past, associations and nonprofits around the world are moving rapidly to help the hard-hit communities in and near the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, after a severe earthquake measuring 7.0 quake apparently flattened much of the area late January 12.

With communications impaired, electricity out, and roads blocked by fallen debris from collapsed buildings and homes, organizations were struggling both to track down local staff and members, and to assess how best to assist the densely populated, impoverished region that appears devastated.

Here’s a round-up of some association and nonprofit efforts and news underway:

Within hours of the quake, local Haitian teams of the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières were reporting that damage to their Port-au-Prince medical center and other facilities is “significant” as are injuries to staff, patients, and incoming residents. Additional staff are being deployed immediately.

World Vision International, a nonprofit that helps the poor, said on its Web site that staff in Haiti are trying to assess the damage and configure a response plan, but some workers are struggling just to leave their building because of aftershocks and damage that continue to send walls and building materials into the streets.

The American Red Cross, World Vision International, Oxfam, numerous faith-based relief services, and myriad other disaster relief charities have already set up emergency funds—many of them linked to mobile phone text giving--and e-mailed urgent donation appeals to millions of supporters.

Save the Children’s Ian Rodgers, who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, quickly became the eyes and ears for many media around the globe stymied by the lack of working communication technology and lack of access to the area.

Social media is again playing a riveting role in revealing the extent of the disaster, as well as the types of real-time decision-making occuring onsite and in offices far afield by nonprofit staff and government officials. Twitter updates from charities, federal and international agencies, and others have been running throughout the night as news and photos have slowly leaked out. While no association-uploaded videos related to humanitarian efforts is on YouTube yet, several groups expressed hope they would soon have footage or videotaped interviews to post shortly.

Many professional and trade associations have created global disaster relief funds in the past 10 years and are likely to tap them now, saying they want first to see what primary needs emerge.

Expressing fears about safety, shifting needs, and inadequate information from the hit region, none of the aid charities are accepting outside volunteers at the moment while the groups try to get their own trained staff onsite. Indeed, some are trying to get staff and members out of the Port-au-Prince area while aftershocks remain so strong.


January 12, 2010

Introducing a difficult concept to the board

As part of our emphasis on governance, we're asking a few CEOs to talk about having critical conversations with their volunteers. Here's an insightful two minutes from Tanya Howe Johnson, president and CEO of Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, on how to introduce a difficult concept to the board of directors: (1) position it as board issue, not a personal agenda, and (2) find a champion.

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December 22, 2009

Is mediocrity really the worst option?

Big ideas month continues...

What if associations didn’t accept mediocrity?

So many ways to take this question, so let’s start with the least likely. Let’s define a mediocre program, product, or service as one that nets $100 (you add as many zeros as would be appropriate for a mediocre product for an association your size) and is valued a little by a chunk of your stakeholders. What’s so bad about that? Why can’t you accept that mediocrity?

I believe leaders need to constantly look at both making big, splashy changes and at making tweaks. I’m not opposed to making a tweak to a mediocre program that pulls the net to $110, or that keeps it at $100 in the face of change.

What we’re talking about here is a risk vs. reward assessment. I like to make change decisions by looking at four scenarios for each option you are considering. Let’s say you’re thinking of scrapping this mediocre product in favor of something totally different, what are the four scenarios? One would be that it would be wildly successful and instead of $100 and creating some value, you generate $1,000 and a lot of value. What factors would have to align for this to happen? What are the arguments against it? Another outcome might be that it nets $200, but is highly valued by stakeholders—what are the factors and arguments? The third scenario is a wash and the fourth is failure (and don’t be fooled into thinking there is no value in failure, there is value in trying and failing).

Go through this and if you think the $100, some-value option is the best, then I think it’s a fine decision.

Now, one argument haters will use is that you should never expend resources on something you know is mediocre. I think that’s a dreamworld. I guess I’d agree that you shouldn’t launch a product or service that you think is likely to be mediocre. But if you already have the product, then you already have people with the knowledge and skills to do it. It’s nice to say these people can automatically be retrained for something else, but I say that has to be part of the scenario calculation.

A few caveats:

- If all you have is mediocrity, then you’re in trouble. Part of the risk/reward thing has to account for a holistic look at the organization.

- You can’t let mediocrity paralyze you. If you’re not constantly looking at how it can both be tweaked or blown up and reinvented, then you’re doing your organization a disservice. (That’s true even if you’re program is fantastic—nothing is ever good enough; you should always be thinking of options large and small.)

- Mediocrity can be a slippery slope to bad –particularly in the political world of associations where seemingly no bad program goes unchampioned by an important volunteer.

Now, a slightly different take on the question (and I’ll be quick). If the question is mediocre performance from staff or volunteers, then I say you don’t and shouldn’t accept it. I think there’s usually some obligation to train, teach, coach, etc., but as a manager in your organization, your duty is to that organization, not the employee (or volunteer). I think sustained mediocre performance is a firing offense, and organizations don’t use that option near enough (for staff or volunteers). Finally, when it’s staff, I think there needs to be some financial consideration. You could perhaps describe my position as ruthless, but not heartless. If the organization can't afford money in the form of severance, then perhaps time is the answer (accept mediocrity for 4 months while being accommodating to a person's job search schedule).

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November 13, 2009

Quick clicks: Ideas and excellence

Welcome to this week's round of Quick Clicks. Lots of good ideas:

- To tie into our social media theme for this month, a link to an interesting interview with "digital ethnographer" Michael Wesch (creator of the "Web 2.0: The Machine Is Us/ing Us" video) on the dark side of social media and the future of the web.

- If social media is making you feel overwhelmed (raise your hand!), Rex Hammock has a prayer for you.

- Rosabeth Moss Kanter blogs on the Harvard Business Publishing site about the power of the "15 minute competitive advantage."

- Seth Godin encourages you to remember to ask "why."

- Joe Gerstandt was inspired by Veteran's Day to write about what he learned about leadership from the Marine Corps.

- Are you a manager that cares enough? Rajesh Setty has nine questions to ask yourself to find out. Elsewhere, Bob Sutton lists 21 things great bosses believe and do to encourage innovation.

- More for managers: The Digital Now blog encourages you to lead with the latest brain research in mind.

- At the Associations Live blog, Kathy Johnson warns you not to let unfulfilled or unexpressed expectations ruin your relationship with your board.

- Some good economy-related posts: The SignatureI blog lists eight factors involved in building a results-driven culture in the down economy; the Plexus Consulting Group blog has examples of associtations using the recession to "trim down and muscle up"; and on the Hourglass Blog, Eric Lanke has a fantastic in-depth post on how the different generations may be responding to the current economy.

- The Aptify CEO blog has some musings on how to predict if trial members will convert, renew, and engage.

- On the Association Puzzle blog, Cecilia Sepp and several commenters have advice for new association professionals.

- Short meetings are a good thing, right? Not always, says David Patt.

- Tony Rossell shares some advice on how you can structure your organization around the value you offer.

- I'm linking to this to see if Joe Rominiecki will try to come behind me and delete the link: On the Splash blog, Mark Sedgley uses the Yankees as a model to describe how you can create a environment of excellence.


November 6, 2009

Quick Clicks: The quotable edition

Welcome to your first November Quick Clicks post! Here's some quoteable and noteable posts from the past week or so:

- The Digital Now blog reminds us that "the fish out of water has no other fish to contend with."

- Shelly Alcorn tells it like it is: "You are not Stuart Smalley and darn it, some people are NOT going to like you."

- "We followed the best advice we found and marched confidently forward … right into failure." Get the full story from Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog.

- Jamie Notter asks, "As a leader, do you know if you are truly willing to trust your people?" Elsewhere, Judith Lindenau writes on building the bond of trust between staff and members.

- Two association bloggers were recently quoted by CNN. Bruce Hammond blogs about the experience and clarifies a few things.

- The Nonprofit University blog asks, "So how's that recovery treating you?"

- If you missed Joe Rominiecki's recent post on the crazy idea of allowing first-year members to attend your meetings for free, there is some great discussion going on in the comments. One standout for me: Joe says, "I believe every member who joins an association and isn't meaningfully engaged is simply a missed opportunity."

- On a related note, Mark Buzan offers some ideas for keeping association members interested and active.

- "It’s not the inability to move quickly that hampers associations, it’s the unwillingness to do anything outside of the status quo," posits Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog.

- "What's your Apollo program?" Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog wants to know.

- Chris Bonney at the Vanguard Technology blog has five reasons why playing it safe is a bad idea.

- Deirdre Reid asks where the balance is between managing staff time wisely and providing member service on demand.

- The SignatureI blog has a fascinating "vision of excellence" for association learning and invites you to add to it.

- Aptify's CEO blog has some interesting suggestions for data points associations can collect that correlate to member renewability. (Is "renewability" a word? Do I lose editor points if it's not? Hmmm.)

- Ellen Behrens at the aLearning blog wonders if association learning is lagging behind other sectors.


October 15, 2009

What have your members taught you?

We talk all the time about all the great things our associations have done for the members. I’d like to explore what our members have done for us as individuals. I’ll go first:

- One member taught me that being who you are is the best business model

- One member taught me the difference between markup & margin

- I learned from one member to be careful of first impressions, as they are the first opportunity to underestimate someone

- One member helped me understand that the details do matter, even if I don’t like dealing with them

- A close friend and member taught me to have a sense of humor, even when times are challenging

The members of the association I work for are contractors. They work in the field a lot, and they work long and difficult hours in terrible conditions. The best thing I have learned is that they are out there, professionals with strong minds and hearts who are just trying to make a better lives for themselves and their families. Aside from all that I’ve learned professionally through my experiences, I’ve learned to have faith in the nature and competency of the small and medium-sized entrepreneurs that comprise our membership. It has had a profound effect on the way I view these people. I hope some of you have had similar experiences.

What have your members taught you?

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October 14, 2009

Why stereotypes are good

I admit it, the title is a bit of a bait-and-switch, because I hate stereotypes. I think they are dangerous abominations that breed hatred and contempt between people far, far more often than they lead to understanding and respect between people. I also know that they are absolutely inevitable and that our brains are wired to form them and act on them.

I’ve spent a good amount of energy trying to confront and overcome the stereotypes I believe, and arguing with people about the usefulness of stereotypes. And then I read a fascinating book: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling, Ph.D. Chapter 7 is titled “In Defense of Stereotypes.” I think the book and the chapter provide a good and accurate picture, but they did not change my view of stereotypes. It did change, or at least sharpen, the arguments I use when thinking about stereotypes, however. Here’s Gosling:

“…we use stereotypes to fill in the gaps when we are unable to gather all the information. And most everyday opportunities for perception are riddled with gaps. If you didn’t use stereotypes, you would be overwhelmed, because every item, person, and experience in life would have to be treated as though it were a totally new experience, not part of a broader class.”

There’s a key phrase in there: “unable to gather all the information.” So, stereotypes are good. You need them to function in society. But there are two important points. First, believe what you see more than the stereotype, and, second, distrust stereotypes and seek more information to sharpen the image forming in your head.

The danger of stereotypes and limited information is that they become blinders. Gosling related one study where students were describing people based on a few minutes looking at their dorm rooms. In one room, a pair of women’s shoes in the middle of floor was an obvious first visible clue. There were many other clues that the occupant was, in fact, a man and that the shoes must have belonged to a friend. These clues were ignored or, worse, misinterpreted—warped to fit the first assumption.

I get irked in conversations where broad generalizations are made, most recently that means the conversations around how Boomers compare with Gen Y compare with whomever in the workplace. It’s not that I think the generalizations are bogus—if you’re dealing with intelligent people then there’s data to back up what they’re saying. But I don’t think we put anywhere near enough emphasis that as a population becomes a group becomes a bunch becomes a few becomes an individual, those generalizations become less and less useful to the point that they are useless and only get in the way.

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October 6, 2009

The headaches of petty complaints

I don't envy Washington, DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty right now. As explained last week in the Washington Post, neighborhood groups in DC are embroiled in bitter arguments over the benefit or nuisance of speed bumps that have been installed. The level of outrage engendered by little mounds of pavement is a bit absurd, but leaders are often charged with minding such petty arguments among their stakeholders.

I'm sure most association managers can relate. As mayor, Fenty has more important things to worry about: fixing schools, reducing crime, battling the local AIDS epidemic, etc. As an association executive, you face challenges like finding new sources of revenue, keeping pace with changing technology, or fighting for your industry on Capitol Hill.

Yet, members get vocal about the selection of food at a meeting, word choice in a publication, or the deadline for an awards application. (Perhaps they even send you an email with a red "urgent" exclamation point!) Is your first reaction slap your forehead and say "Gimme a freakin' break!"?

My colleague Lisa Junker makes an insightful point, though: what might seem "inconsequential" to the CEO, who has to worry about the big picture, matters dearly to the individual member. This is a frustrating, eternal truth of leadership.

So what are the options? Roll up your sleeves and stick your hands in the dirty details of minor situations? Ignore them and hope they go away? Say a few words to create the appearance that you care, delegate the problem to the appropriate department, and then move on with other things?

Please use the comments as a therapists' couch. Blow off some steam and entertain us with a few of the petty situations you've had to deal with as an association manager, and then share how you've navigated them.

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October 2, 2009

Quick clicks: Much ado about X

Happy Friday, everyone!

- The association blogging community has been abuzz about a meme started by Maddie Grant's post "The Xer Meme: Have We Sold Out?" Generation Xers and others have replied to her question in droves, including Maggie McGary, Cynthia D'Amour, Jamie Notter, Lynn Morton, Lindy Dreyer, KiKi L'Italien, Matt Baehr, Shelly Alcorn, Ben Martin, Shannon Otto, Jeffrey Cufaude, Eric Lanke, and Elizabeth Weaver Engel. (Did I miss anybody?)

- Kerry Stackpole has some thoughts on associations as lagging economic indicators and what we should be doing to prepare for 2010.

- On SmartBrief's Insights blog, Deirdre Reid wonders if associations need to shift their focus from our members to members' customers.

- Steve Drake asks if you know what your association's assets really are.

- Lynn Morton has some predictions for the future of technology use in associations.

- Jeff Hurt has seen the "new normal" in the meetings industry and has 12 takeaways (and some predictions) to share.

- Rachel Happe at the Community Roundtable blog talks about membership fees in the "free" era.

- The Idea Center blog is hosting a guest post from risk management expert Leslie White on the intersection between risk management, decision making, and a fast-paced environment.

- David Patt has a great example of how your audience can surprise you.

- At the Hedgehog and Fox blog, Jeff Cobb talks about the difference between making and growing a market.


September 25, 2009

Quick clicks: My favorite things

- Jeff Hurt shares his favorite "event planning things," to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. Click at your own risk--it's possible you'll end up with the tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day ...

- Rebecca Leaman at the SmartBlog Insights blog shares a cautionary tale of what can happen when your budget cuts make your members' and supporters' lives more difficult.

- In a somewhat related post, the NTEN blog talks about why online donors leave and how you can bring them back.

- The Plexus Consulting Group blog says that there's no such thing as a business or management objective that can't be measured. (This post particularly resonated with me today, as I'm struggling to determine what metrics can measure my department's objectives for the year.)

- During Hispanic Heritage Month, Rosetta Thurman is profiling Hispanic nonprofit leaders whose accomplishments she particularly admires (here's an introductory post, and the first profile).

- Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog is posting a series of seven steps to building an association online community (steps one, two, three, and four have been posted so far).

- Elisa Ortiz at the Onward and Upward blog lists 7 habits of highly annoying coworkers. (I'm sure no Acronym reader does any of these things!)

- Jamie Notter is thinking about complaining.

- Acronym blogger Brian Birch isn't the only person thinking about volunteers and creativity this week; the CMI Observations on Association Management blog has some insights.

- Aptify's CEO Blog discusses predictive analysis and how associations can use it to improve member retention.

- Stephanie Vance muses about whether success in advocacy can blunt future advocacy effectiveness.

- At The Forum Effect, Jackie Eder-Van Hook has advice for associations on how to work with their attorneys.

- Jeffrey Cufaude has a great list of ideas on how you can be a more "sustainable you."


September 24, 2009

Efficiency vs. Creativity

As I sat in a recent board meeting, and we talked in circles about subjects we have already talked in circles about, I saw impatience and heard frustration. I even heard some bellyaching. Have you been there?

I have noticed over the course of my experience in committees and even staff meetings that sometimes you have to pound your head against a wall several times before you get somewhere. At the same time, our world and business culture drives us toward efficiency and speed—many measure the speed of the meeting these days, not the quality. In our association, our members are all business owners and managers, and they are used to delegating work in meetings, and less used to consensus building and constant evaluation of any given topic. I am here to say that some of the best ideas I’ve ever heard of for our association came when we deviated from the agenda--please don’t pelt me with rotten tomatoes.

Let me give another example. I recently started a task force concerning a topic that is pretty controversial in our industry. I hand-picked 8-10 individuals for the task force, and set the first meeting.

About half of the folks made it to that first call, and we had a meandering, big picture discussion. I then assigned some work and set the next meeting 1 month later. At that meeting, the other half of the folks showed up, but none from the first bunch! We had basically the same conversation, but came out of it with completely different ideas and action items.

Both groups were creative, and the repetition was pretty inefficient. However, the combined ideas are more powerful than either alone. I’d love to claim that this was all by design, but honestly they are a bunch of hard headed folks and I couldn’t get them to stay on track.

My questions to you are:

- What are some tips and tools to manage the balance between efficiency and creativity or efficiency and thoroughness?

- What are some tips for group dynamics without reading a book on it?

- How do we prepare for meetings and help engage and foster creative discussion, while avoiding repetition or off-topic discussion?

Please, don’t just answer having an agenda or applying good meeting management skills ... we all have those or we wouldn’t be here. I mean new, creative ideas that I know people are using out there.

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August 24, 2009

Early career leadership lessons

Past ASAE Board Chair and President of the Ohio Society of CPAs J. Clarke Price shares a painful, early leadership lesson in this video. Drop a comment, I'd love to hear from you about an early work experience that helped shape the person and worker that you have become.

Update: Due to a vendor's player change, the video cannot be embedded directly. To access the video in this post, please choose it from the playlist in the video player below.

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August 17, 2009

“Social is a way of being”

I attended Jeff De Cagna’s session, Associations Next: Serious Questions for 2010 and Beyond this afternoon. Whenever I have the opportunity, I make it a point of attending Jeff’s presentations, which are always insightful and thought-provoking. I find that the questions he raises linger with me long after the conference is over and typically prompt rich discussions with my colleagues. This afternoon’s session was no exception.

After stepping us through a series of 6 questions that get at the heart of what it means to associate, govern, and innovate in the web-enabled 21st century, he asked us to spend 10 minutes brainstorming radically different approaches to our association work. What would make the biggest potential impact, even if it meant making our CEOs, boards, and even ourselves very uncomfortable?

Several of the suggestions that came back were so intriguing, I thought I’d share a few of them here:

- One table suggested making membership completely free (we don’t control the network any longer, so why try to make it into a commodity?). Charge a fair-market price for the professional content that is currently packaged with membership and remove the barriers to the conversation. Then the members of our networks who are truly engaged and truly do contribute to the conversation will be able to join without barriers, making the conversation richer for all. (Any association that has opted for open, publicly accessible social media groups understands the value of this free association and not trying so hard to control the message or limit the participants.)

- Another table suggested crowdsourcing our next annual meetings. Empower the community to make the best decisions on its own behalf and deliver a meeting that is exactly what our attendees want. (NTEN, an association I’ve long admired, successfully structures its annual meeting this way, and their conference is consistently an audience favorite.)

- Another group suggested making board service based not on fixed terms, but on best ideas. Decide who remains on the board based upon record of service, innovation, and follow through. Those who aren’t contributing to the conversation could be voted off the island, a la Survivor. (I happened to be sitting in this session with the president of our board, and this suggestion was major fodder for conversation back at the hotel tonight!)

My brain is still buzzing with these ideas and Jeff’s many good questions, and I can’t wait to get back to my own association to continue this conversation with the rest of my team. How could a radically different ISTE better support and shape the conversation for our members and other educators?

What radical idea will you bring back to your organization at the end of this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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August 16, 2009

Talent goes where it is welcome

One of the best quotes currently making its way around the #asae09 twitterverse is “Talent goes where it is welcome,” as heard in today’s diversity session. I wasn't able to sit in on this particular session due to a conflicting presentation of my own, but was able to hit the high points thanks to Twitter (isn’t social media great?). The quote resonated with me because it indirectly references so many of the themes we’ve been discussing at the conference—how to encourage innovation, how to make our associations truly collaborative, and how to make it easy for volunteers and staff to do their very best work every day. So much of it starts with a commitment to nurture and support talent in our organizations (and the belief that talent can and should be everywhere, and is not a designation reserved for just a select few “rock stars”).

In this morning’s opening keynote, Gary Hamel talked a lot about innovation and the structures that will support it (and in some cases, the lack of structures). I’m lucky to work for an organization that does support talent and innovation, and is willing to recognize those things with enough room to pursue the next great idea. Even still, we grapple with creating the right systems and structures to both attract and retain talent, and also encourage the innovative thinking required to be a world-class organization.

Today at lunch, several of us from my organization were discussing the nuts and bolts of setting up an innovation fund. Who would make the decisions about how to use the money? How would we be accountable to the bigger picture? What would prompt us to stop doing certain things (sometimes even good things) to make room for the great things? Ultimately, the right answer may emerge as a combination of best thinking, and trial and error. But the important thing is the commitment to talent development, at all levels of the association.

How do you welcome and support talent in your organization? And what have you done to make it feel at home? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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The wonderful, amazing capacity to change

Eric Saperston can tell an amazing story. That's no surprise, really. After all, he's an award-winning documentary director. In his packed Thought Leader session at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting, he told the story of traveling across country talking to as many great leaders as would talk to him about why some people are extraordinary and why others are, well, ordinary.

His story is his revelation, and you can catch the extreme cliffs notes version in the video I captured of him below.

But what struck me about the session was the way, right in the middle, he made a fundamental u-turn. He went from no focus whatsoever on himself and those traveling with him, to a focus that is entirely on the four-person (and then three-person) crew. For this to mean much, watch the clip available on this web page. Now imagine what the results of his trip would have been if he had stuck to his original purpose--I'm quite sure there would be no clip to show, and I suspect that there would be no website, and I wouldn't have heard him speak today.

And yet it was such a profound, fundamental difference in the plan he had mapped out. If I learned anything on this first day, it is to be more open to--in fact to actively search for--a direction that is completely different than what a plan lays out. Would I have been free enough from the plan to make the fundamental shift that Saperston made? I really don't think so, but I want to try.


August 11, 2009

Information and knowledge

If information leads to knowledge and knowledge is power, then it follows that to keep and to grow power you need to control and/or ration the amount of information you give out, right? As a scholar and practitioner of corporate and public communications I have never seen this theory written down anywhere nor is it taught in any school I know of; yet it is disheartening to see how many people believe it, or at least act like they did. What is worse, in my opinion, is how many of these people find themselves in management positions—so maybe there is some truth to it? Maybe …

In my experience as a consultant, information sharing on a “need to know” basis is the source of much organizational inefficiency, suspicion, general disaffection and even on occasion a cover for malfeasance. I much prefer the transparency of information sharing on a “want to know” basis.

Well, I have shown my bias on this subject. What do you think, how do good and great managers treat information?

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August 10, 2009

How do you repay a mentor?

I remember it vividly. It was my first full week in the driver’s seat, serving as an interim director for an association. Cash flow was down, forecasted in the red. One problem employee needed to be fired due to lack of performance, bad attitude, and other issues. We had an educational event planned for the next month that was break even at 50, and we had 13 registered (mostly board members).

A key volunteer engaged in the association called me at the end of the week, we knew each other formally but had never had much time to really talk. He could hear the stress in my voice, he knew the signs of someone who was buckling under pressure. He said these words to me: "Brian, I've been running my own business for over 30 years, and it’s no @#&$!@# easier now than it was then".

I can't explain why, but at that moment, those words were more comforting and reaffirming than any other business advice or help others tried to give me. He broke it down so simply, as is his nature, giving me the gift of perspective that I so desperately needed. He called me every day for weeks after that, just to say hello and let me know he was there.

Recently, this person has come down with a significant illness. While I’m confident that he can fight it, it allowed me the opportunity to call him, and say this: "I remember the day you called me and offered support that I needed, and I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. If you need anything, I am here". As two grown men choked up on the phone and said a rushed goodbye, I can only hope that my words had even a fraction of the impact that his did, what a gift that would be to him.

I had another mentor who taught me the difference between independence and interdependence. A third, an association executive himself, challenged me to use my strengths to take control. Another friend showed me how to manage through kindness and positive example.

Not surprisingly, with support like this, our challenged staff took control and made some extensive changes that served as a foundation for growth for the association in future years.

How do you repay a mentor for what they did for you? Please share your stories about those mentors who helped you grow into the people you are today, maybe some of their wisdom and insight will be valuable to others here!

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August 4, 2009

Money …

The desire to focus on “doing good” is a motivating factor that draws many people into association work—and that is clearly a strength; but association executives would do well also to realize that there is nothing crass in using money as a way to measure effectiveness—namely:

- Know that flat or declining revenues may be a sign that something is fundamentally wrong with your program, product or service. This is a warning bell--an indication that a thorough audit is needed of your marketplace, including: a customer satisfaction survey; benchmarking against the competition (if you do not know who your competition is, then that is another problem!); and a trend analysis of the needs of your target market(s).

- Understand that profitability is a measure of efficacy. If your revenues are rising but so are your losses, then either your programs are being mismanaged or your pricing is wrong. In such a situation market success in the form of increased sales can actually destroy your organization if it is not efficiently structured.

- Know that customers expect to get what they pay for. People the world over are prepared to pay for quality and inherently question the value of anything they are offered for free or at low cost. This is particularly true the more things are critical to us. What person needing heart surgery will feel entirely comfortable going into an operating room knowing their surgeon was the least expensive that could be found? Focus on quality and price your product or service accordingly—this is what your customers expect.

An association’s role may not be “just to make money,” but money does serve as a good tool by which to measure quality, effectiveness and efficacy. Such thinking has always been part of for-profit management; and if nonprofits are to hold their own in this increasingly competitive environment they will do well to adopt it! Do you agree?

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July 31, 2009

Quick clicks: Almost August

All kinds of good stuff in the association blogworld this week!

Jeff De Cagna is in the process of creating a map of the development of the association blogging community. If you're a blogger, you can fill out his short survey (it only took me about a minute).

Management guru Tom Peters spoke to the American Hospital Association about the importance of effective leadership, and he shares the questions he asked them on his blog.

Deirdre Reid at Reid All About It (have I mentioned that I love the name of her blog?) captures some legal trends associations need to keep an eye on.

The Association Management Group's blog has some thoughts on updating your bylaws. And while you're at it, Rebecca Leaman has some ideas for how you can also create a more powerful mission statement.

Stuart Meyer at the Association 2020 blog thinks the "distracted generation" will become very engaged with associations (read this post for his list of "the three strangest places I've seen kids texting," if nothing else).

Jeffrey Cufaude makes a powerful point by switching the order of two little words.

Jake McKee at the Community Guy blog has nine tips for communicating with your community members in a text-based format--as many of us in associations do.

Lynn Morton at the Social Networking for Association Professionals blog loves her job.

Lauren Fernandez wonders how and when PR professionals should express their opinions in a public way. Her comments may be aimed at PR folks, but the questions she raises certainly apply to any of us who might be considered "representatives" of our associations.

Ann Oliveri at the Zen of Associations blog shares some interesting information on the psychology of change management.

Bruce Hammond made it back alive from his annual conference, and he has some thoughts on the importance of face to face learning experiences.


July 30, 2009

Transitioning from Young to Young Professional: An Uphill Battle

Do you remember your first grade teacher? What about your childhood friends? Now consider what was important to you at age six. I hate to break it to you, but those days are long gone. We’re “young professionals” now. Where did the time go? It seems like only yesterday I was riding bikes with my younger sister and the neighbor kids.

Fast forward to 2009 and I'm juggling countless meetings, conference calls and deadlines. In addition to my daily responsibilities, I must also manage a career, develop a professional network and engage in professional development. If that weren’t enough, it seems that my young professional status sometimes makes others skeptical of my background, knowledge and skills.

No one said it would be easy. The transition from young to young professional has certainly been an uphill battle; however, following are five recommendations to make this life-changing transition more manageable:

1. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Determine what’s important to you. Establish a home/work balance and stick to your guns. Identify people around you who can keep you in check and who can serve as a sounding board when you just need to vent.

2. Actively participate in a professional association. Do not underestimate what this relationship can do for you. The resources are bountiful and can save you a lot of time and energy in fulfilling your responsibilities in the office. Serve on a committee, write an article or recruit new members. The opportunities to volunteer are endless.

3. Identify a mentor. This is someone who has your best interests at heart, can introduce you to the movers and shakers in your field, can serve as a reference when the time is right and can open up possibilities you never knew existed.

4. Develop a network. Find others with whom you can exchange problems and ideas. These individuals should include young professionals both locally and nationally, as well as others doing similar work at other associations.

5. Manage your professional development. Seek out opportunities to enhance your knowledge and skills. Work toward achieving a professional certification or designation in your field. Stay informed of the latest trends and best practices.

Above all, don’t take “no” for an answer. As young professionals, doors sometimes close more than they open. We don’t have the years of experience to back our education and training. Our “gut feeling” doesn’t always inspire confidence in those around us.

But, be persistent. The key to overcoming challenges is drive and determination. Allow me to remind you of the childhood adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Live these words each and every day, and I guarantee you (to the extent I can) a bright and promising future.

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July 24, 2009

Are you making it easy for your members to volunteer?

It’s safe to say that many (if not most) associations are struggling with two realities these days: attracting younger members and engaging members as volunteers. The old understandings about joining an association and serving in a committee or leadership structure aren’t foregone conclusions the way they once were. This is particularly true for younger workers who want flexibility, recognition, and interesting work from the get go, and may not instantly “get” the value proposition that a professional association brings.

We know that volunteers are more likely to renew, attend annual meetings, and engage more deeply with our organizations, so we have a vested interest in structuring successful volunteer programs. But what are we doing to respond to these new realities? Though many associations have made concerted efforts to attract younger, more diverse volunteers through outreach and marketing campaigns, the single thing that could make the biggest impact may be thinking differently about the volunteer opportunities we offer.

ASAE’s Decision to Volunteer describes typical barriers to volunteering, among them: inconvenient location, not offering short-term assignments, the volunteer opportunity costing the volunteer money (due to travel or other unreimbursed expenses), and not offering virtual opportunities.

Think about your own association’s typical volunteer roles, and answer the following questions:

• Are most of our volunteer opportunities within multiyear committee or officer structures?
• Do we require face-to-face travel or engagement for the majority of our roles?
• How many project-based or short-term assignments are available?
• Do we offer virtual, asynchronous ways to volunteer?

A solution that addresses many of these barriers may lie in your association’s social media strategy. There are numerous ways that short-term, virtual, convenient assignments can be crafted within the tools you’re already using to build community or communicate. Here are a few options that have worked well for us:

• Leading month-long book club discussions on our wiki or Ning
• Serving as organizational “docents” in Second Life
• Greeting new members of our Ning every few days for a month
• Short-term guest blogging
• Offering an informal “UStream” live event about a particular topic

All of these options allowed us to tap into our members’ expertise and provided opportunities that were exciting and rewarding. In some cases, these short-term assignments have been the gateway for a particular volunteer to serve in longer term volunteer assignments (such as a Special Interest Group officer or board committee member). In all cases, it brought the member closer to our organization, fulfilled an identified need, and diversified our volunteer pool.

What are some ways that you are creating opportunities that make it easy for your members to volunteer?

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July 21, 2009

Your lips are moving but I don’t hear anything ….

Communications audits of association members regularly show that members are not aware of much of what their association does—to the endless frustration of the association staff responsible for communication who usually can document how many of various types of communications these members should have received on the subject…. Is it that these communications are not well-written or professionally presented?—no, usually this is not the case. So, what is or what might be the problem?

Have you ever been in a crowded reception where everyone was talking and even as you are engaged in a conversation yourself you all of a sudden hear your name mentioned across the room? That one mention of you by name got your attention, right? Or, again in this crowded room scenario, how about hearing someone whisper the word “fire!”—that has a way of catching your attention too doesn’t it?

In this world of information overload I submit that we have subconsciously trained ourselves to filter out all but those things that are essential to our interests, our vanity, or our well-being.

So the key to effective communications in the “crowded room” of your association is not so much the well-turned phrase or the pleasing graphics as it is knowing and responding to the various vital interests that each person in your audience holds to heart. Do you agree?

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July 17, 2009

Quick clicks: Feeling lucky?

There's lots of great stuff to link to around the association blogging world this week!

Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog says that being an active member of an association can be your lucky charm.

There's been a lot of idea sharing and well, buzz, around last week's Buzz 2009 conference: Maddie Grant has a good roundup here.

A guest post on the Nonprofit University blog has 10 things to love, and 10 things to hate, about nonprofit boards.

The DigitalNow blog suggests trying to see your association through "member tinted glasses."

Matt Baehr at the BlogClump blog writes about the hierarchy of change in associations, and how trying to make start change at the wrong level of the hierarchy can be an exercise in frustration.

Cecilia Sepp at the Association Puzzle blog wants to create a vacation policy for the 21st century. What would you want to see in there?

Web strategy analyst Jeremiah Owyang has an interesting post listing the five organizations allow their employees to participate in the social web, and what they say about the organization in question.

Word-of-mouth guru Andy Sernovitz links to a presentation from PepsiCo on how they're moving into social media, which might be of particular interest to associations that, like PepsiCo, are in the early stages of engagement with the social web.

The Wild Apricot blog explores what to do if your Twitter hashtag and another group's hashtag happen to be the same.

Chris Bonney at the Vanguard Technology blog argues that you can't build a great website by committee.

Ann Oliveri at the Zen of Associations blog muses about how associations can better tap into the brainpower of their past volunteer leaders.

Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog argues that the future of association publishing lies in focusing on the member.


June 30, 2009

The best managers

Business schools, law schools and management classes of all kinds spend a great deal of time and effort teaching us how to get what we want through a variety of what I would call “hard” management tools and techniques. They are “hard” like a tool of any kind is hard. You do this, and this is the result you can expect….. This approach is a black and white world that aggressively seeks to stamp out gray areas.

But what about the very best managers…the ones who inspire us to do better than we thought we ever could? You know the ones…the ones we would do our utmost to please, the ones that make coming to work an absolute pleasure--a humanly and professionally rewarding experience. Hopefully all of us have had the experience of working with or for someone like that at least once in our lives.

You can feel it in the atmosphere of the organizations that are run by such people. It is refreshing, energizing and inspiring. Some small organizations of a few employees have this; but so do some large, multinational organizations. What characterizes such places? Here are some thoughts, please feel free to add!

- They are attuned to the markets they serve—in fact they are so attuned they are sometimes seen as trend setters. They are what others want to be.

- The managers of such organizations walk the talk. And what’s more, they somehow attract and create other managers just like themselves. The whole place takes on their personality!

- A person’s word is their bond in such organizations. If you say you are going to do something, everyone knows you will—or die trying.

- They are high energy places that stimulate creative thinking. They are FUN places to work.

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June 25, 2009

The Quality Mountain

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted and it’s been due to an avalanche of professional demands that has consumed life in the past few months. Nearly all relate to the challenging climb that I’ve come to realize as the quality mountain. Like any ascent, there is more than one way to reach the top. And, like any attempt, slipping or falling is often just one misstep away. The goal is seemingly simple: Avoid the falls that can be fatal, and learn from the near-misses that can in fact make you wiser.

In my world, quality education occurs at the intersection of great people, curricula and infrastructure. Each part compliments the others, and if one fails the rest of the pieces fail as well. This interdependent relationship is nurtured by leadership, not just by senior management but by all involved. It’s critical that everyone feels the need to fulfill both the personal as well as organizational mission, to achieve the level of satisfaction that goes along with a job well done.

It’s a challenge to maintain the direction of heading toward quality. Day to day distractions and the pressure to achieve a middle ground consensus in difficult decision making efforts can take you off course, often without you even noticing it. You have to take time out, on a regular basis (daily, weekly, monthly) to consciously think about where the mission is going.

So, what are some key points I’ve picked up in the past few months?
- Stay focused. When I take my “quality time-outs” and consider where the challenges have been, and consider the final goal, I often come away feeling re-oriented to the original direction.
- Know your data! It’s not enough to just tabulate and collect information. It’s how it’s interpreted and applied that counts.
- Each quality climb begins with the first step. Absolutely corny, and absolutely true. Nothing is insurmountable when you look at it this way.
- Small falls are okay. I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes. We’ve learned a lot from our missteps. We’ve applied our lessons and have improved processes because of it.
- Stay true. What is the goal? Do the decisions you make contribute to the goal? Are you will to settle for less than what you originally wanted? Give yourself a chance to think about these questions, and commit yourself to the sometimes difficult choices you make in order to achieve your goal.


June 24, 2009

Is relevance enough?

Last week, Steve Worth posted about the thorny issue of relevance--how associations can achieve relevance and maintain it over time. His post sparked several interesting comments, but I wanted to highlight one in particular, from Jamie Notter:

"Of course I understand the concept behind the importance of relevance, and maybe I'm just word-smithing here, but the word "relevant" bugs me (and I've been hearing it a lot lately). It feels like we're setting the bar too low. As Maddie Grant has said, having the goal of relevance is like living your life with the goal of being "not dead." Maybe Rebecca's comment about future-focused is part of it. Is relevant really enough?"

What do you think? Is it enough for associations to be relevant? If there is a higher bar we should aspire to, how would you describe it?

If others have thoughts on Jamie's question or Steve's original post, I'd love to hear them! The discussion is here.

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June 23, 2009

Fact-based decision making

When I was a staffer on Capitol Hill I recall hearing two different stories told quite often during debates on the Senate floor.

One was: There are three types of lies in the world—simple lies; damn lies; and then there are statistics!

The other was: As the Bible says, “Come let us reason together.” We all have our points of view on which we differ, but we should at least be able to agree on the facts—they are what they are. Facts are stubborn things….

Both assertions are true of course. No one needs a course in statistics to know that the gathering and presentation of facts is a serious matter and that a lot of pseudo-science underlies a lot of the “facts” we see cited in advertising that bombards us every day. But it is also true that no rational debate can occur and no sound decision can be made that is not founded on the facts. This is true in all cases and particularly true in board of director meetings—those groups of leaders made up of “type A” personalities, all of whom are quite certain they know the way forward…..

As association managers, we have all had to herd cats on occasion, haven’t we? In this, facts have a way of focusing attention in the right direction. Lacking this compass, we are faced with rule by the most dominant personality, the loudest voice, or the one most skilled in Machiavellian intrigue.

But what are these facts on which your organization makes its decisions? Are they what is true for your board of directors, according to their experience?--your membership, according to their needs and perceptions?—or are they what is true for the market at large? When they differ, which set of facts weigh most heavily on the scales for your organization?

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June 9, 2009

Wishing the time away...or not

As we gaze into the tea leaves to see when this “Great Recession” is going to fade into history, you might find yourself wishing, as I do on occasion, that time pass by more quickly so that we can get this disagreeable period behind us sooner rather than later…..

But before we push the “fast forward” button maybe we should reflect a little on what we might be missing by leapfrogging the next six months or twelve or eighteen months—depending on which economist you are listening to.

What I have found in my own firm as well as with many of the clients we are helping these days, is that this recession has stripped away veneers that had been comfortably hiding certain structural and strategic weaknesses that could once be ignored but now can’t. These weaknesses in fact are the real sources of our pain and need to be corrected—why wait, why not now? Once we have staunched the bleeding the best we can, perhaps a useful investment of time is to examine how these once ignored weaknesses can be addressed so that we emerge from this trial stronger for having undergone it.

I know, I know, this is easier to say than to do. It is like building a plane while flying it. So, is there anything easier to do? Well maybe.

The principal strength of the nonprofit community is its rootedness in issues and purposes that are intended to better society as a whole. Look around; society’s needs are crying out. If organizations that were created to help better society cannot now rise to the occasion when there is so much need, then who can? It seems to me that now more than ever could be the time for the nonprofit community to shine. This may mean looking at your mission in a new way…aiming higher, thinking differently and coming up with strategies and programs that make a difference for society and for yourselves.

Well, what are you waiting for?

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June 2, 2009

Tragedy of the Commons

The "tragedy of the commons" is a social phenomenon characteristic of human activity throughout the world. Its thesis is that individuals take care of what personally belongs to them; but they tend to abuse and rush to exploit resources that are shared in common in their haste to get what they can for themselves before these resources run out entirely.

This human tendency to see no further than our own limited interest has always existed of course; but, apart from a few sociologists and environmentalists, it did not attract a great deal of attention until relatively recently. Now with global warming reaching a tipping point, global fisheries in full collapse and every other shared global resource in crisis, even ordinary citizens are starting to realize the impact six billion human souls are having on our planet. Something has to give…..

The tragedy of the commons manifests itself in other ways as well. When given a choice taxpayers everywhere vote to reduce their taxes, even while wondering why the public services they are used to and expect are struggling to make ends meet…. The human brain does not seem to be wired right—or at least wired in a way that can ensure our long term survival.

It seems to me nonprofit organizations could be/should be especially involved in all of the critical issues stemming from these “tragedies of the commons.” Nonprofit organizations are by definition enterprises that are intended to benefit society; in this they are or should be the antithesis of the tragedy of the commons, aren’t they?

Can human behavior be changed in a democratic society that respects individual rights and free enterprise? In this regard, corporate social responsibility (CSR) offers interesting possibilities for nonprofit-for profit collaboration, but does this have staying power and is it enough to make a difference?

Nonprofits that are membership organizations have their own tragedy of the commons of course whenever there is discussion of membership dues. Members don’t like to pay them as a rule…. Are there lessons that can be learned here that might have application in a broader context?


May 29, 2009

The Essence of Leadership

"The essence of leadership... is to pay it forward."

That's what Velma Hart, national finance director and CFO of AMVETS National Headquarters, says in her This Week in Associations Video on leading, particularly in difficult times. I'm still trying to decide if I agree with it not, but I like this thought—that the essence of leadership is not inspiring action by followers so much as inspiring the inner leader of others. I think that fits nicely with a leadership tenet I absolutely believe: that no person truly motivates another. Perhaps some people—leaders—are better at finding and tugging at the strings that people use to motivate themselves than others, but charisma from one will never conquer the apathy of another unless their willing to let go of that apathy.

Check out the full video:

Update: Due to a vendor's player change, the video cannot be embedded directly. To access the video in this post, please choose it from the playlist in the video player below.


Quick clicks: Straight talk

Happy Friday! Here is your weekly roundup of interesting posts from the association blogging community and elsewhere.

Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog asks if you’re still the right person for your job.

In a guest post on the Socialfishing blog, Leslie White offers some straight talk about risk—specifically, the risk of lost opportunities, specifically relating to social media (although what she has to say can certainly be applied elsewhere).

The Signal to Noise blog has some equally straight talk about planning: “The only plan you should make is to plan on improvising.”

Wes Trochlil points out what I’m going to call the “office kitchen conundrum”: “That which no one owns, no one will care for.”

Tony Rossell continues to explore the question “What is one thing an association marketing team must do, if nothing else?”

The Challenge Management blog muses on the strange profession of association management (and hiring people who can be successful at it).

Kerry Stackpole at the Wired 4 Leadership blog has some thoughts on exclusivity, inclusivity, and social media.

Sherry Jennings at the Sound Governance blog has posted a case study on how a nonprofit can work to avoid a crisis if a major source of funding dries up.

At the Forum Effect blog, Doug Eadie shares some insights on the role of the CEO as chief board developer.

I love this: Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog has a great story about how a professor energized his class by lying to them (no, really). (She also recently posted a great roundup of resources on accessible learning.)


April 25, 2009

Associations in Action regarding Swine Flu and Potential Pandemic

With reports breaking all Friday regarding hundreds of both Mexican and American citizens sickened or even killed by a new form of swine flu, associations in the health care and agricultural communities have been busy confirming information, alerting and surveying members about any potential swine flu-related patients, and calming an anxious public even while acknowledging that much—including the original source of the illness--remains unknown.

"At this point, it appears to be human-to-human transmission only," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, CEO, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), in a press statement Friday. "We've been in contact with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV), and there have been no reports of outbreaks among animals, although their members are certainly aware of what's happening and are stepping up surveillance for the virus with federal and state animal health officials."

According to officials, “there is little or no risk of catching swine flu from eating pork or pork products, but as always, proper food handling and hand washing should be practiced.”

The AASV is regularly updating its Web site at with news for its veterinarian members and the general public.

The American Lung Association in California quickly blogged about the six documented cases of this new strain of swine flu in the San Diego area and Imperial County, as well as two cases in San Antonio. It noted that rapid flu tests cannot tell this type of flu from seasonal flu, “and the current vaccine may not be protective. Tamiflu works, as does Relenza.” The post, found at, also notes that “while there are likely more cases in the U.S., there are no large-scale outbreaks.”

As of this Friday night post, however, CNN is reporting that 75 high school students in New York City are being tested for suspected swine flu.

The National Pork Board also has issued a helpful 4-page information sheet about swine flu at

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control has information on the human swine flu investigation at


April 8, 2009

Managers and leaders and visionaries! Oh, my!

I think we can all agree that significant differences exist in the skill sets demonstrated by managers and those demonstrated by leaders. For example, managers administer while leaders innovate.

And, with the widespread availability of self assessment tools, including Myers-Briggs, True Colors and countless others, we can identify and examine our own personality types and the skill sets we possess, making changes along the way to promote success.

But, I’d like to challenge this dichotomy, for a moment, and offer a third dimension for your consideration. In the context of organizations, particularly associations, I think another, very distinct type of individual exists: the visionary.

Whereas leaders may excel in a functional area, such as finances or public policy or programming or communications, visionaries have a good working knowledge of each of these areas, both in theory and in practice.

Leaders possess limited—but desirable—skill sets that may serve them well in the role of department head; however, they are ultimately unable to see and influence the big picture for an entire organization.

In other words, visionaries are even more well-rounded, sought after and rare than leaders. Conceptually, they understand where organizations should go and have the skill sets to attain definitive outcomes.

So, my question to you is this: Do you agree with this delineation? Why or why not? If you agree, how does an association professional, particularly a young professional, become a visionary?

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April 1, 2009

Legislative Fly-In: Is passion all you need?

At an education session on day one of ASAE’s Legislative Fly-in, Amy Showalter, president of The Showalter Group, offered an interesting observation on the power of passion in pleading a case—and just as important, when passion gets in the way.

Talking passionately about something is the perfect strategy when it puts your audience in the position of being on “the side of the angels.” That is, if there is clearly a right side to be on.

That’s not always the case. In fact, it’s not often the case. Usually, there is an opposite argument to be made. Showing excessive passion in such an instance can actually turn off your audience. If the topic has the potential to create enemies for them—or less extreme, if they’re likely to face resistance from at least someone else or some other constituency, it’s better to dial down the passion a notch, acknowledge that there are no absolutes, and explain why your position benefits the audience.

Showalter framed this observation in the form of a Hill visit, but I think it’s just applicable to any situation in which you’re championing a position.


March 28, 2009

A Mentor Remembered

One of my longtime mentors and former nonprofit bosses, Jack Lorenz, will be buried In 12 hours, dead at the too-young age of 69. He was executive director of the conservation organization Izaak Walton League of America for 18 years before retiring, and he hired me as a magazine editor and media manager way back in the late 1980s after I moved to Washington, DC. I stayed there for more than six years, learning and erring as all overworked young professionals do in this sector.

Jack was not organized or formal when it came to mentoring staff. As the "Ikes'" former magazine editor himself, he did a remarkable job of not micromanaging me in his old role. Like IWLA's members, he was of salt-of-the-earth stock, rarely losing his temper and always operating with an open-door, excuse-the-mess style. He wasn't perfect, and he let me be the same. I appreciated that--not many mentors are comfortable acknowledging their own weaknesses. He tried to be gentle when he pointed out mine.

Together we would attend the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, an extremely male-dominated event at the time. It was intimidating for any woman, especially one in her 20s. Everyone always thought I was someone's daughter along for the ride. At my first conference, I almost went home after the first night. The level of sexism and, at times, blatant harassment was quite unnerving.

Jack, though, would get his back up about it, and he was determined that I succeed despite the good-old-boy atmosphere. Because of him, I finally agreed to run for OWAA's national board, which I didn't make the first time. The second run was a ringer, though, and I still count that board experience and its painful challenges among my best professional learning experiences. I never would have taken the risk if he hadn't told me that he believed I could and should go for it.

I'm thinking of Jack tonight, and it's still hard to believe I won't ever see him again. Although I have not gotten together with Jack for many years, I have still felt connected through his crazy e-mailed jokes and the hilarious fishing stories that I'd sometimes run into in outdoor publications.

I'm so happy that he accomplished his lifelong personal goal of fishing every U.S. state and territory, and all of Canada's provinces. And I'm so grateful that Jack lived his professional goal of serving as a strong role model when it came to professional ethics, self-sacrifice, tireless optimism, true passion for mission, and generosity of spirit.

Most mentors never know how fundamentally they touch those they coach--so often their teachings aren't drawn from until a relevant situation arises much later. Maybe that's why good mentors seem in short supply--they just don't realize they're change makers.

I know you're up there watching me type right now, Jack, so I thank you again, and I wish you the best bass fishing Heaven has to offer.

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Associations Participate in "Earth Hour" to Call for Action on Global Warming

ASAE & The Center’s headquarters will join thousands of other organizations, businesses, cities, towns, major historic landmarks, and other sites in 84 nations in shutting off all non-essential lights during the second annual Earth Hour Saturday at 8:30 p.m. EST.

Sponsored by World Wildlife Fund with support from the United Nations and myriad global leaders, the one-hour event aims to be a call for action to address harmful global climate change. The event has attracted massive support, with everyone from the World Organization of Scouts to Hollywood celebrities signing on as a participant, sharing commentary and self-shot videos on social network sites, and detailing to others what they plan to do during their hour of darkness.

Earth Hour 2009 has special meaning since the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and leaders will meet later this year to discuss the issue.

Kudos to World Wildlife Fund for coming up with so many social network tools and outlets for its promotional efforts. For instance, you can download an Earth Hour iPhone application, upload a YouTube video, blog, and more. Go to for details.


March 12, 2009

Can We Talk?

Bestselling author and thought leader Meg Wheatley has created a provocative blog post on the BK Communique Web site—“The Five Conversations We Need to Have Right Now”—to move society toward positive change. What conversations might we in the association sector need to have, in Wheatley’s words, “for the sake of our future?”


March 8, 2009

Now how did THAT happen?

I am a CEO and Education Director of a small staff association. For most of my professional life I have been a licensed health care provider and educator; in some ways I am an “accidental” chief staff officer. A couple of years ago the executive committee of the association approached me to help troubleshoot some issues. The organization had recently lost a key staff person and was struggling to stay upright during a very rocky transition. A business manager had been brought in but resigned after only a few months, leaving the association in a worse position. Having served as the board president of the organization four years earlier, the exec committee thought I could provide some insight about the association and help assess its situation. A few weeks as a consultant turned into a year as chief operating officer, and transitioned to the chief staff officer a few months ago.

It’s been amazingly busy and I felt overwhelmed at times, learning the skill set of organizational management. Resources such as ASAE, especially the Diversity in Executive Leadership Program (DELP), and other association professionals have been very helpful (lesson number 1: no one goes at this alone!). I’ve been able to come to place where, while everyday is still daunting in challenges, it becomes a bit easier to see the brass ring - all of the intricacies of fulfilling the organization’s mission from a broader perspective. It’s easy to become lost in the minutiae of day-to-day operations - and sometimes that’s really important to do. Yet staying down in the weeds can be disorienting; the CEO can’t afford to lose the crucial sense of direction.

Membership is a key example. Our association has had a steady number of members for the past 5 years. No contraction yet no growth. The staff and board have had meetings to talk about why this is the case. Many reasons have been cited - not enough advertising; not enough benefits; few outreach efforts, to mention just a couple. In thinking this over, larger questions came to mind: Just who is our membership? Why do they join? Is there a need that we not meeting? Is there a segment that we are not thinking about? As simple as these questions are, we have actually few answers - no surveys, no data crunching. The mechanics of attracting new members becomes easier if the organization is clear about whom it really serves. We’re working on finding the answers to these questions right now, going through our database and asking existing members about why they joined. We hope to also ask those folks who are NOT members why that’s the case.

We’re using low-cost tools to do this, and it’s slower-going than I would like, but I also know this information will help us in the long run, and make us stronger in the process.

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March 4, 2009

Coach Marshall Goldsmith on Leadership in an Uncertain Economy

A fabulous 13-minute podcast of learning guru Elliott Masie interviewing world-renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith on “Leadership in Uncertain Times” is available free and is well worth getting a cup of coffee and having a listen with pen and notebook in hand.

Goldsmith starts off with some firm advice: “What not to do is fake it … There’s nothing to be embarrassed about” in terms of not knowing what will happen. But subordinates do need to know “where am I going now?”

Goldsmith urges leaders to pursue a six-question dialogue that should help reveal some sensible strategic options:

1. “Where are we going? (And where do you think we should be going?)”
2. “Where are you and your part of the business going? And where should you be going?”
3. “What are you excelling in?” (This is called the “doing well” question, and Goldsmith wishes leaders would ask it much more frequently, regardless of the economic landscape.)
4. “If you were the coach for you, what advice would you have?” (Prepare to be shocked at the honesty of these answers, which are often more substantive and relevant than anything the leader might suggest, according to Goldsmith.)
5. “As a leader, how can I help?” (The answers help you shape an action plan for yourself to best support others.)
6. “What suggestions do you have for me as leader?”

Most of all, Goldsmith warns leaders not to become paralyzed, especially by the big, scary numbers that may result in a feeling of helplessness. “What is, is,” he quotes a Buddhist mantra. “Ask yourself, ‘Given the reality of now, what’s the best step forward? …’”

Don’t hide from what is, he continues. Realize this reality can be hard to face, but you need to let go of the past, the anger, the grief…. "It may all change tomorrow.”

My own interview with Goldsmith on how the weak economic climate has affected board and CEO attitudes of succession planning, as well as guidance regarding what association leaders should do to help successions succeed, will appear in the next week or so on ASAE & The Center’s new economic resources site.


February 15, 2009

The Power of a Professional Network

I was recently asked to research and recommend a technology solution for my association. The specifics regarding the technology are not important, except that I knew nothing about what I was being asked to research and that my association had no previous experience with such technology during its 60 year history.

The real story here – the lesson learned – is about professional networks.

In an article I wrote last September titled, “Transitioning from Young to Young Professional: An Uphill Battle,” I gave five recommendations to help facilitate a smooth and successful transition into the role of “young professional.” Recommendation number four follows:

Develop a network. Find others with whom you can exchange problems and ideas. These individuals should include young professionals both locally and nationally, as well as others doing similar work at other associations.

Last week, I followed my own advice. I reached out to friends and colleagues serving with me on ASAE & The Center’s Young Professionals Committee. Thanks to great people like Garen Distelhorst, Beau Ballinger, Katie Paffhouse and their colleagues, as well as ASAE & The Center staff members Frances Reimers and Alyssa Thomas, I gained valuable insights and takeaways that made my research both easier and more informed – and all in a matter of days. That’s the power of a professional network.

So, my question to you is this: How has a solid professional network saved you both time and energy? Also, if you’re a seasoned professional with an extensive professional network, how would you suggest the rest of us go about growing our own professional networks?

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February 12, 2009

New Study Shows Sustainable Organizations Faring Better in Poor Economy

I’m hearing an avalanche of “greening” stories from association and nonprofit professionals who are either eager to leverage the frequent cost savings, increased efficiency, and positive brand-building of such efforts, or are already seeing tremendous return on investment for such actions.

It seems that anecdotes and solid data about associations and other businesses saving serious amounts of money through their efforts to become more eco-friendly in their IT operations, publishing, direct mailing/fundraising, and other functional areas are starting to spread more rapidly now that the economy has been sinking.

Still, some leaders who may not have much experience in creating sustainable value may be tempted to push the pause button on their organization’s social responsibility initiatives. They may want to think twice. A new study by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney finds that “companies committed to corporate sustainability practices during this [economic] slowdown are achieving above-average performance in the financial markets. … So before tossing out those sustainability practices and initiatives, it might be wise to first determine the real value of the efforts—especially the possible rewards for staying the course.”


Like Santa Claus Quitting Christmas

So ya, after nearly 9 years of serving the International Game Developers Association, it is time for me to move on. As noted on my personal blog, the move is partly my own desire to strike out and try something new. But, partly also my sense that my style of leadership is not what the org needs now.

When I came on board, the IGDA had just 500 paying members, and nothing else. I was able to grow and learn along the years, and build it up to 15,000 paying members and 120,000 "free" members (just as one metric). It was a wild ride.

I came from the game industry, and was the first to admit that I had no clue what I was doing. We just focused on serving the members and listening to their needs. Actually, a few years in, I was struggling with governance questions and non-profit legal stuff. My wife kindly suggested, "Maybe there's a book on this stuff." Duh!

When I found the ASAE, it was like the clouds parted and rays of association enlightenment came raining down on me. It was a massive learning and growth phase for me and the IGDA. (Indeed, a big endorsement there for the ASAE, despite the fact that I've been somewhat critical/confrontational over the years...)

Anyway, it's going to be odd stepping away from something that I poured 9 years of my life into. The response from the game community has been super positive, with hundreds of emails/comments/pings saying thanks and wishing me luck. The best of the bunch was a tweet simply saying: "Jason Della Rocca leaving IGDA is like Santa Claus quitting Christmas." Ya, I had some fans, I guess ;)

Somehow, it all makes me feel like I need to be even more over the top for my "Is Membership Dead" debate at the Great Ideas conference next week! Hmm, though that'll probably kill my chances of getting any consulting gigs in the association space. Ha!

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February 9, 2009

Emerging Professional Success Stories

In my mind, emerging professionals have a lot to offer the association community. In fact, part of the fun of fulfilling this role is spewing our endless supply of new and innovative ideas; tackling difficult and time-consuming projects that might otherwise go undone; challenging tradition; questioning “the way it’s always been done”; and applying what we’ve learned in the classroom to our work.

So, this week, I want to hear about emerging professional success stories. If you’re an emerging professional, tell us how thinking outside of the box has positively affected your association and/or your members.

I’ll start. I serve as a staff liaison to my association’s membership committee. In 2007, I led this committee’s review of our associate membership program, including both benefits and annual dues. As a result of this review, we recommended restructuring. Following about nine or ten months of discussion and collaboration, we devised a tiered associate partnership program (a structure that is becoming more common in the association community, but one that our association had not considered in its 60 year history). Today, this program provides our vendors—whether a small, start-up company or a large, well-established corporation—an opportunity to develop a partnership with us that best meets their organization’s needs. In addition to increased revenue for the association, relationships with our vendors have never been stronger.

So, tell us about your brainchild. What important project have you managed? What lasting impact have you had on your association and its members?

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January 13, 2009

Breaking Through

Jason's observation of a small slice of the association leadership landscape--Old White Dudes--is more than a little terrifying. Stale and pale, I expected, but cloned?

His back-of-the-envelope stats, though, sound like the U-curve of association demographics for race, gender, and age. Changing that mix requires more than board policy or an enlightened nominating committee. It requires a much larger scale response.

Associations are reflections of those we serve. The most successful tend to join associations and those they are willing follow, rise to the top. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his new book, Outliers, those who succeed benefit from a 'web of advantages and inheritances,' not available to all, but possible for associations to replicate.

That's what is being attempted in commercial real estate, and a dozen associations serving that industry are trying to build a new leadership pipeline. Their story is in the new Volunteer Leadership Issue of Associations Now, that I wrote entitled "Breaking Through."

I point it out here because other bastions of old white dudes are being forced out into the open. Last Friday, the New York Times reported on the NAACP's focus on Madison Avenue and the lack of diversity in the advertising business. The agencies' associations mobilized a response to this opening salvo of media attention, but high visibility lawsuits and pressure on advertisers are sure to follow. Stay tuned.

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November 26, 2008

Tutu Asks for Help in Making the World More Caring

It was a remarkable night last Thursday, when I joined 300 other association professionals at a unique “Evening of Thanks” to hear and meet a world leader whose work I and so many millions of others have admired for decades.

Hosted by the American Program Bureau in Washington, DC, we laughed, clapped, and let ourselves be inspired as the ever-charming Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged us to “lift each other up” and to help make the world “more passionate and more caring.”

Tutu noted that God “can’t do it without you” and referenced President-elect Barack Obama’s call for greater service and personal responsibility as well. He pointed to Obama’s election as “something like our Mandela moment” … despite the fact that “racism in many places is still rampant,” and recalled how he had been only 8 or 9 years old when he first saw a magazine story about Jackie Robinson’s rise as a baseball legend.

“I didn’t know baseball from ping pong, but it didn’t matter,” he laughed. “… You don’t know what you’ve meant for our struggle [for equality].” He added that, with Obama’s election, Martin Luther King’s “dream has come true. The day has dawned where his children will be judged on the basis of their character [alone].”

Mentioning activist Rosa Parks, Tutu said, “She marched so Obama could run. He ran so our children should fly.”

Tutu also shared some personal stories about his struggle against prostate cancer and how “this messenger, which could have been of doom, was instead a messenger of grace” that “suddenly awakened a sense of saying thank you” and of greater appreciation for laughter and fun with grandchildren.

He advised us all to “see yourself as a pool of serenity, letting the ripples move out to touch others [in an uplifting way]? Try it this week” … and “give thanks” for all that we have and are.

A great message for this special time of year! You can hear himself yourself, since APB has now posted the full speech online.


October 27, 2008

The integrity we should have

fat%20man.jpgAt the recommendation of a friend I'm reading Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics, the autobiography of Jack W. Germond, best know for his seat on the McLaughlin Group.

Early in his reporting career, he relates this story of one of his small daily newspaper editors:

JS Gray...was totally professional and so was his newspaper, not in the sense that it was a polished and sophisticated product but in the sense that it understood its place in the community. It was there to print the news, no more no less. ...JS backed his reporters to the hilt. When a city commissioner who owned a department store threatened to withhold his advertising because of a story I was writing, JS told him the advertising would not be accepted until he had apologized for the threat. ...The sky, it turned out, did not fall. It never does."

It's not surprising that this passage appeals to my editorial nature, but I think it reaches much further than that. As a manager, that's what you want your employees to think about you. As a leader, that's the type of integrity you need to inspire those around you.

Obviously it applies to the business partner communities that are interested in being in front of your membership—don't compromise your organization. Your organization will be stronger and the companies you do partner with will be better served as a result.

But could it also apply to members? Or certain members? You know the ones I'm talking about. For many it's a mantra to not speak ill of a member, any member, and I respect that. But I think truth be told, there are some people that are just pains in the, um, backside. It's time not to jump when those wheels squeak. Rather, tell them that kind of input is not helpful and that you'll be glad to listen to future input from them only after they've apologized.

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September 30, 2008

Quick clicks: Crisis communications

Here's a quick roundup of interesting blog posts for your Tuesday morning:

- Tom Peters has some timely advice for communicating during a crisis.

- Dana Theus at the Member-to-Member blog has two detailed posts about lessons in social media from the association sector.

- Speaking of social media, Caron Mason started an interesting discussion with a post about helping her association's volunteer bloggers (and the blog as a whole) to succeed. Ben Martin responded with some advice from his own experience.

- Tony Rossell delves into the differences between member satisfaction and member loyalty.

- Bruce Hammond saw the new Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads and thought about associations.

- Feeling overloaded? Chris Bonney is doing a series of posts on how to better manage your e-mail. The most recent post tackles the question of how much your inbox reflects you.

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September 29, 2008

The fine line between reinventing and stalling

Seth Godin's always-excellent blog featured a recent post that got me thinking. "None of us are doing enough to challenge the assignment," he writes; the example he gives is of looking at the words and fonts in a draft brochure instead of questioning the need for a brochure at all. "Every day," Godin writes, "I spend at least an hour of my time looking at my work and what I've chosen to do next and wonder, 'is this big enough?'"

His post reminded me of one of the first people I ever personally interviewed and hired, back when I was still in college. You know how, during an interview, most candidates ask you a couple of good questions about your organization or the position they're interviewing for? This person asked wonderful questions. Lots of them. Thoughtful, searching, insightful questions. We were thrilled to hire him.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, asking questions was pretty much all he wanted to do. And when you're on a tight deadline for a single-day turnaround, it's somewhat frustrating to have a staff person who seems to prefer asking questions to just getting the work done.

And of course, a lot of it is an issue of timing: A series of questions can be a game-changer during the planning process, and seem pointless and frustrating the day before a major deadline.

There has to be some point where the two lines cross--somewhere between "I never do any work because I'm so busy questioning the paradigm" and "I never question the paradigm because I'm so busy doing work." How can we, as association professionals, push our personal dials more toward the "question" side of things? And what we do to try to get those questions out there at a time when they'll be most effective?

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September 26, 2008

Ahhh, the human factor ...

Even when taking into account the power of money and the marvels of technology; when all is said and done it always comes back to people, doesn’t it?

When Warren Buffet, the world’s richest human being, was interviewed recently by Parade magazine and asked what constituted happiness, he replied that for him happiness was not found in the accumulation of vast sums of money or power but rather to have “lived life knowing that you are loved by those who matter to you.” From any other person such an observation might sound banal, but Buffet’s comment rang true.

Clearly, as we witness the meltdown of the capital markets of the world’s wealthiest nation we cannot help but be reminded of the limits of material wealth. And as overwhelming as our nation’s military power is, Bob Woodward’s most recent book reveals that the key to our success in Iraq is found in the network of human connections our intelligence services have woven within Iraqi society—not in any wiz-bang technology or our overwhelming armed forces per se.

So it appeared in the case study research we did for The Power of Partnership, the keys to success in association-driven partnerships were found in the “soft” factors—the human relationships that were strategically woven together—as opposed to the size and muscle power of any one entity.

Lee Iacocca, the famous automotive executive who engineered the turn around of Chrysler in the 1980s, observed in one of his earlier memoires that he was always leery of managers whose performance reports cited their brilliance but noted that they had problems with people. ‘What else is there,” Iacocca asked “that a manager should be concerned with except people?”

But the question remains, are the personal qualities that make certain people so skillful in managing human relationships innate, or are they acquired? Can these skills be learned?

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September 1, 2008

Hurricane Gustav Prompts Businesses and Organizations to Launch Emergency Recovery Plans

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is urging businesses and organizations in the impact area of Hurricane Gustav to execute their emergency recovery plans, which should include the following (note: All associations and nonprofits across the U.S. would be well-served to include these in their own disaster plans.):

· Phone-calling trees and/or a phone recording for employees that keeps them informed during an emergency and provides clear direction for whom to speak with if they have problems.
· An out-of-town phone number that allows employees to leave a message telling organization leaders whether they are okay, where they are, and how they can be reached.
· A clear plan for employees with disabilities or special needs that was created with their input, so all needs are addressed during a disaster.
· Payroll continuity processes and communications.
· An evacuation plan for records, computers, and other stuff from your office to another location.
· Procedures for establishing the conditions under which the business/facility will close.
· Emergency warnings and evacuation plans and other disaster processes. Practice these if possible.
· Employee transportation plans, if appropriate.
· Plans for communicating with employees' families before and after a hurricane.
· Purchase of a NOAA weather radio that has battery backup and a warning alarm tone.
· A process for protecting any outside structures or equipment on your property. Windows, too, should be protected with plywood.
· Knowledge of whether your business phone system works even without electricity. If not, add a phone line that can do so.

You can find other disaster planning articles and information on ASAE & The Center’s Web site, but here are some to get you started:

Quick Tips Regarding Disaster Planning for Hosted Solutions

7 Helpful Disaster Planning Sites

What If? A Guide to Disaster Preparedness Planning


August 31, 2008

Associations Responding to Hurricane Gustav Threat

As always, I am proud to report that many associations have already sprung into action in response to the serious threat of Hurricane Gustav, now a Category 4 hurricane heading toward New Orleans, and the potential threat of Tropical Storm Hannah coming toward the Florida coast. Here are some of the actions associations are already taking:

· The Air Transit Association of America (ATA) has released a statement explaining evacuation processes for residents in the New Orleans area. You can read it here.

· The Humane Association, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, local and national food banks, and numerous faith-based community organizations have partnered in Nashville, Tennessee, to open shelters, distribute meals, and support evacuees from the hurricane.

· The American Red Cross is urging people in the potentially affected areas to register themselves its new Safe and Well Web site at, or call a loved one and ask them to register you. This online tool helps families and individuals notify loved ones that they are safe during an emergency. You also can read and link to the organization’s advice to evacuating families by going here.

· The Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants is urging people in the affected areas to “financially prepare” for the hurricane, using its tip list, which includes the need for having plentiful cash on hand, documenting household goods and valuables, and gathering important documents.

· The National Association for Amateur Radio (ham radio folks) has developed guidelines for potential volunteers interested in responding to the hurricane emergency, warning them not to “self-deploy” and noting that the International Radio Emergency Support Coalition has been relaying reports online since Friday.

· The Texas Hotel & Lodging Association sent an alert to members last Thursday, repeating a local government estimate that 45,000 evacuees could arrive if Gustav hits Louisiana. Local restaurant associations and members have been stocking up as well.

· Social media also is coming into significant play in terms of sharing storm information, relaying community/government emergency operations, organizing nonprofit relief and assistance responses, checking on association members, monitoring local chapters/components, and rallying volunteers on standby.

· Bossier City Firefighters Association is working with the International Association of Fire Fighters to find housing for IAFF members evacuating the area. Like the response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, many local associations have turned to their national associations and leaders for help—and emergency housing is just one such request. Others I’ve seen relate to transportation advice, pet care in the region, and reinforcing communication strategies.

· The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) is actively tracking the storms on the Hurricane Preparedness section of its web site and has the latest NOAA and other weather updates, the status of various airports, an emergency preparedness checklist, and many more resources available to help members and the public stay abreast of rapidly changing weather conditions.

· Various electrical power associations are urging the public and businesses in the potential hurricane zones to review their virtual brochures on preparing for power outages and surges as a result of poor weather. Here’s one example from Coast Electric Power Association.

· A number of associations also are encouraging members to access the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) Hurricane Preparedness page, which contains emergency plans for businesses and families, emergency supply lists, and background on hurricanes in general.

Thanks, y’all, for once again stepping up to make a real difference in the lives of both your members and the larger public. Please know that ASAE & The Center stand ready to assist you in your efforts!

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August 25, 2008

Annual Meeting Hotels--Green and Sustainable

The hospitality sector has long been community-minded, and now many of them are including the planet in their “community,” with special programs, services, and operational practices and goals to lighten the environmental footprints of hotels and other accommodations. I heard about some of these actions from annual meeting attendees staying at the 15 official hotels in San Diego at the recent Annual Meeting & Expo.

Among the variety of sustainable amenities and practices—not all of which were available at each hotel--were the following:

· Reusable towel and linen options
· Biking and walking maps that help you avoid driving
· Water conservation measures such as low-flow faucets and showerheads
· Solar film on certain guestroom windows to reduce heat and UV rays
· Energy efficiency fixtures and light bulbs
· Recycling (sometimes in-room is available now)
· Wellness kits for travelers
· Organic or locally produced food and beverages
· Eco-messaging on hotel television channels
· Organic or sustainability-certified flowers and plants
· Donations to associations and nonprofits operating sustainability-oriented programs such as diversity initiatives, natural resource conservation projects, supply chain management assistance, and more

Other hotels by these leading brands are experimenting with additional options, such as retrofitting facilities for increased energy efficiencies and reduced carbon emissions, preferred parking for low-emitting vehicles and carpools, nonprofit partnerships to offset emissions or help obtain green or sustainability-oriented certifications, organic cotton linens and toiletries, grants for “volunteer vacations,” and employee/guest community engagement programs.

Attendees at the annual meeting were already been asking our staff about such practices in Toronto and Los Angeles, sites of the next two ASAE & The Center annual meetings. Please consider asking those questions at the front desks or concierge stands at hotels during your future business travels as well. Vocal customers, such as meeting planners, will help accelerate the move of hotels toward even greater social responsibility.

Meanwhile, congrats go to our partnering hotels at the meeting for communicating greener and more socially responsible options to recent attendees!


August 18, 2008

Conversations in the Social Responsibility Lounge

Informal programs and chats in the Social Responsibility lounges have produced some wonderful stories of what associations and business partners are doing to move their organizations forward toward greater social responsibility (SR). Here are some snippets:
“How do we move from being successful to being significant?” That’s what a woman from the Project Management Institute said her organization began asking recently, eventually developing a program that moves from caring just about test passing metrics to caring about the whole child.

Richard Moore of the Texas Community College Teachers Association shared that his organization is focusing on four social responsibility (SR) endeavors—community involvement, democracy building, incorporation of SR in educational content, and greening of educational facilities and operations. In addition, since first embracing ASAE & The Center’s SR Initiative a year ago, the association has launched the theme “Community Colleges—Building a Better Texas.”

“This Social Responsibility Initiative fits in completely with what we’re trying to do,” he said.
The Society of Neuroscience had to review its supply chain management after leaders were questioned about whether the copywriters to whom some of its many journals were outsourced in India were being treated and paid appropriately. They then had to give a presentation that showed such outsourcing “validated enhancing of social values,” according to the society’s Marty Saggese. The huge organization also adopted an element in its strategic plan that requires all three SR elements—environmental, social, and economic—to be considered in operational decisions.

Look for Marty’s cool handout at today’s session on greening your organization’s culture: a flash drive made of bamboo.

Other items prompting discussion are two tools being distributed in both SR lounges: a how-to piece on creating a multicultural board, and a checklist/guide for developing a more socially responsibility family lifestyle.


August 17, 2008

Honest Words about Diversity--for a Change

I've lost count of how many diversity programs I've attended in my career, but I thought this morning's General Session on "Looking Through the Lens of Others" was especially terrific. Here are some samples I valued:

--Nadira Hira, the impressive 20-something journalist for Fortune, is an articulate mouthpiece for young and younger workers. Her advice: "Be authentic. Don't try to pretend you're diverse when you're not." In other words, forget the BS.

--Doug Klein, executive director of the Association for Conflict Resolution, noted that the reason race or ethnic-based professional and trade organizations still exist is "because there's a need not being met" by the broader association in that profession or trade.

I immediately recalled a conversation I had with--of all people--actor Louis Gossett Jr. backstage at the last Nation’s Capital Distinguished Speakers Series. He had told me about the evolution of racism from a black professional's perspective, and I had asked him if the time had finally come for the association community to make a commitment to facilitate mergers of broad-based associations with similar niche groups grounded in race or gender as well as the profession or trade, such as the Society of Professional Journalists with the National Association of Black Journalists.

The actor, who founded and actively guides a New Orleans-based foundation to help at-risk youths, said no. He urged associations to instead focus on youth--the next generation of workers--rather than try to overcome the prejudices of the current workforce, which he said was essentially fruitless. Klein's comment today seemed to reiterate those conclusions on an organizational level.

--The always-blunt, always-superb Patti Digh laments that "people aren't focused on retention at all. They just want to 'get 'em in the door.' This lack of "diversity succession planning" was raised at ASAE & The Center's last diversity forum. Basically, no one knows how to do it or even what such a plan looks like. Perhaps that's a project or research idea for our Diversity Committee or for a select task force.

--Co-moderator Cokie Roberts noted, "At some point we have to be the token," but then that representative should "bring others in." That implies a responsibility, not a choice, on the part of the, say, female executive about actively attracting other smart, accomplished women into the organization.

I have mixed feelings on that. I think we should do what we can to attract all smart, accomplished people to our association IF that organization is best set up to leverage their talents and knowledge for the benefit of the members. I'm uncomfortable screening candidates primarily because they look like me or share a cultural commonality. That said, I'm likely to be a more successful recruiter within those desired demographics because of that reality. Comments? I need to think about this more.

A "Say what?" moment: Patti was called by a company that said its white employees were putting nooses on the lockers of black employees. Patti said she could design an intervention, etc. The response? "We're thinking of a two-hour training session."

Quotables from the General Session:

"We talk about diversity as an end in itself, not what that brings us.... Diversity is not a problem to be fixed.... We've damned ourselves in this country by being too PC [politically correct]. You can't know if you're talking to yourself only." --Patti Digh

"We're afraid of [diversity], even though we know it's good for us."--consultant Steve Hanamura

"Powerful" and "moving"--just some of the high praise I heard about the "Peer Perspectives" video clips of diverse association executives.

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July 22, 2008

Two Board and Change Management Resources

Nonprofit commentator and educator Michael Gilbert of Nonprofit Online News always has relevant news and interesting analyses, but I especially wanted to pass along two resources he shares in his latest issue.

First, a helpful, free online brochure titled “People Don’t Hate Change; They Hate How You’re Trying to Change Them” by corporate strategist and change consultant Michael T. Kanazawa of Dissero Partners. Gilbert agrees with Kanazawa’s research conclusion that, contrary to popular belief, people hate organizational change programs rather than change itself. In fact, some data show success rates of "strategy execution and corporate change programs” as just 33%. I’m interested in whether other association professionals who read the 13-page brochure can offer suggestions for making change programs more effective.

The second resource Gilbert shares, and one I’d run into already, is a tips-based article from Guidestar’s excellent e-newsletter, “No-Ask Fundraising: Six High-Impact Jobs for Board Members.” Based on Gail Perry’s 2007 book, Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action (John Wiley & Sons Inc.), these six suggestions might serve as fodder to start a senior staff conversation on the role of the board in fundraising or even a roundtable with board members themselves.

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July 11, 2008

Improving Teamwork

I'm a big fan of the best-selling biz book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, so recently I’ve spent some time on the blog of co-author David Maxfield. Maxfield is in the middle of a thoughtful series of posts about “improving teamwork within your organization,” pulling from the six “sources of influence” explained in his book. They’re worth a read, especially for association leaders interested in accelerating culture change within the workplace.


June 19, 2008

Deviant leadership ideas

I'm at the Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum today, an educational event that Sam Lippman, founder of Integrated Show Management & Marketing, produces every year and that Associations Now sponsors.

The keynote address was delivered by Greg Reid, the chief marketing officer of YRC Worldwide -- they're the huge transportation and logistics company that you likely know from the "Yellow" truck force on the highways. As the CMO of one of the largest transportation and logistics companies, he gave his insights on how tradeshows are part of the current mix in large corporations, and where it's going.

He gave some advice -- what he calls deviant leadership advice -- that I thought resonated, and while he tailored it to tradeshows, I think it has pretty broad applicability. He gave six points to the exhibition and conference executives:

1. Create change - There are three things that you can do about change: resist it (if you choose this course, good luck), embrace change (better, but not where you'll find success), create change. The deviant leader will drive change and thrives in change. It's about creating the change you want to see.

2. Let go - YBR used to shun less-than-truckload (LTL) deliveries, it simply wasn't profitable. Rather than leaving it at that, with pricing and process changes, they made the change happen, with LTL becoming a dominant delivery format. This meant letting go of current business models and their underlying assumptions.

3. Realize you're not in the exhibition business - when he meets with Walmart, he doesn't talk about transportation and logistics, he talks about the retail business. His goal is to understand the business his customer is in and what challenges they face. Same should be true when you approach potential exhibitors -- work to understand their business.

4. Get me there without the need to go there. Travel will always be a part of business, but there is just too much to do and too many places to go -- people can't cover all the ground that needs to be covered -- so be prepared to work with people and companies virtually.

5. Stop selling booth space -- this goes hand in hand with number 3. "When you meet with me, don't tell me the great booth space you have for me. Tell me who's coming and why I care about them and how I can reach them and what it will mean to my business. How will you improve my ROI? How can you help me calculate my ROI? The booth space -- that's why you're there, I need to know why I should be there. It will come up in conversation later, but don't lead with it." Note: quote is paraphrased.

6. Educate. Don't entertain. - we all know that it is important to create an experience for attendees, but the real nuts and bolts of meetings are what is most important. In the larger sense, whether you're talking about a board meeting or dinner or a magazine or a website, some pomp and circumstance, some razzle dazzle is nice, but under the flash is the real constructive meat of what you are trying to do, and that's what's really important. If I'm designing Associations Now and I put a beautiful illustration with a dud of an article, it's still a dud of an article.


June 16, 2008

Quick clicks: Meeting ideas, customer service

Happy Monday!

- There have been some interesting meeting ideas up for grabs in the blogosphere lately. Matt Baehr suggests offering an "unsession" room at every meeting, while Nancy Wilson points out that reusing conference bags can be both green and a creative networking tool.

- Ben Martin ponders whether the process of becoming a board leader tends to squash productive dissent among those future leaders.

- Wes Trochlil has a great question for associations out there that are conducting surveys or other data-gathering projects.

- Bob Sutton shares a wonderful story that shows how a customer's problem can create an opportunity for even better customer service. On a related note, the 37signals blog reminds you that the customer just doesn't care whose fault it is.

- Jeremiah Owyang shows some really interesting examples of how to track a particular issue and how it's being discussed among bloggers, Twitterers, and on the web more generally. (Note that the issue in question relates to the Democratic nomination battle, but, setting politics aside, I'd think these same techniques could be useful to any association.)

- How often do you get to see association management presented as a dream job? (Admittedly, this article focuses more on the industries these trade associations represent than on the profession of association management, but still, it's nice to see some association professionals recognized in this way.)


June 10, 2008

Great Place to Volunteer

I recently spoke at a conference specifically targeted to HR execs/staff in the video game industry My bit was more on macro-level game industry structure/economics, but ahead of me was a rep from the Great Place to Work Institute.

The game development industry is notorious for having an especially bad reputation when it comes to working conditions and work/life balance. So, the HR folks wanted to hear from an expert on making your company a great place to work. Some details on their framework are at their site...

At one point, the rep had audience members huddle into small groups for various exercises. Being a non-HR person who just so happened to be in the crowd, I huddled up with the group next to me to observe. Then they turned to me and asked, How does that work in your association?

Caught off guard, I said in half jest that we outsource all our operations and so we don't actually have staff and hence don't have to worry about being a great place to work. Hmm, but wait, our volunteer base could certainly be viewed as workers. And, using the various frameworks, how do we stack up as a great place to volunteer, or even just a great place to join? Through that lens, looking at the various trust factors (respect, fairness, credibility) and the pride and camaraderie components, I could see places where we do really well (like pride) and others we don't even think about consciously (like credibility).

Will be interesting to see what the upcoming The Decision to Volunteer research/book will cover... (Anyone have a good link to that?)

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June 6, 2008

Stop doing that


Reporting from the Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management in beautiful Vancouver.

I have two thoughts to share about one of yesterday's sessions with Franck Schuurmans, coauthor of Blue Ocean Strategy.

First is an exercise Schuurmans asked attendees to do, assessing the key attributes of their top products. He got some attendee push back when he suggested that if you gave yourself top marks -- and were honest with yourself -- then that is something to look at as perhaps something that could be cut back. The idea is to not do more than you need to do. If you cut back a little, would your members just as willing to engage, and then you could use those resources to raise your scores somewhere else. The idea was counterintuitive to many in attendance--if you have a differentiator, something that works really well, why would you even consider cutting back on it?

The other thought is the idea of where to turn when looking to develop new products, services, or processes that can serve members. Schuurmans said many times: don't go to your members. One idea is to look at other organizations that do similar but different work than what you do. For example, if main reason your association exists is to create community and networking, look at the way growing churches foster community building; if your association is primarily into advocacy efforts, look at the tactics that good, creative marketers and PR specialists use to affect how people think about the products they are promoting.

Another place to turn is completely unlike areas and sectors. For example, are their any lessons in how "American Idol" became the pop fad that it is? Or look at the presidential campaigns and how they deal with trying to get their message heard--what is effective and what is not?

Finally, he says, ask your noncustomers. These are the people who maybe were a member for a year, did not participate much, and did not renew. It's also the part of the market that you have never captured. Engage these people in conversation, and you're likely to hear things that you'd never hear from your members.

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May 13, 2008

Quick clicks: Advice for young leaders and more

- If you've enjoyed Virgil Carter's insights on Acronym as much as I have, be sure to leave a comment in his farewell post. Virgil, we'll miss you!

- Lindy Dreyer at Association Marketing Springboard has posted a passionate argument for opt-in, versus opt-out, listservers.

- For emerging leaders and those with an interest in encouraging them: Bob Wolfe has thoughts on how non-senior-management staff can promote innovation in their organizations. Kevin Holland has a great post on growing your association career. And Bill Taylor, author of Mavericks at Work, has a post for those who are taking that step from non-management to management-level work: “Memo to a Young Leader: What Kind of Boss Are You?”

- The Non-Profit Marketing Blog hits the target with six great steps to social media success. In contrast, Sparkplug CEO has 10 social media blunders that can destroy your brand.

- The Association Forum of Chicagoland’s blog, The FORUM Effect, is adding new guest bloggers each month. This month’s guests include Claire Darmanin (on teaching members the business of associations), Mariana Toscas (on retaining Gen Yers), Mark Dominiak (on getting the most out of advertising), and George Rounds (on successful meetings in a weak economy).

- “Make big promises; overdeliver.” A recent post from Seth Godin that says it all.

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May 1, 2008

Ego versus Idea

One suggestion in the "dream and design" phase of the Global Summit's Thursday session is for associations to look around them and see if it might be worth....disappearing. Seriously. Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists (and--full disclosure--my husband), suggested that association leaders examine where overlapping associations exist and needlessly compete when they could simply merge and "create half the number of associations with twice the memberships and eight times the influence."

It's an interesting thought. Certainly I've been part of organizational coalitions in which external stakeholders such as corporations or government agencies have complained that they could hardly keep track of which organizations may be the best partners in, say, the environmental sector because so many have similar agendas, duplicate programs with different names, and murky leadership within their field.

Call me cynical, but I think ego would be the biggest barrier to even a discussion of what widescale association mergers might mean to society and the earth. In the fascinating book Egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), authors David Marcum and Steven Smith look at business success and performance from the standpoint of ego. Their extensive research concludes that unbalanced ego "becomes the ultimate blind spot," with more than one-third of all decisions in failed organizations driven by ego. they note that unbalanced ego slows change and innovation, and "there is a clear difference in the power of knowing versus the discipline of becoming."

However, nearly two-thirds of executives "never explore alternatives once they make up their mind," and "81% of managers push their decisions through by persuasion or edict, not by the value of their idea." A surprising 63% of surveyed businesspeople report that ego harms "work performance on an hourly or daily basis, while an additional 31% say it happens weekly." That's a lot of poor productivity and decision making, as well as lost opportunity.

Might the research differ among association employees? What would you think if your boss walked into a staff meeting and said, "For the sake of the planet, let's do a competitive analysis in our industry with an eye toward potential mergers?" Would you think, "Oh, my gosh, my job's in trouble." "Has he lost his mind?" "Finally!" "Whoopie!"

I remember one small trade association whose CEO actually requested that the board let him shut down the organization because the programmatic and mission overlap with industry competitors had led to unsustainable financial hardship. The board was appalled at the idea. He suggested merging with another group instead. Still they balked, citing the organization's long history and criticizing all possible merger candidates.

I don't recall what happened to the association in the end, but I do know that the CEO eventually left, and at some point, I stopped receiving press releases from the organization. Perhaps if leaders--whether volunteer or paid--move their egos more to the side of humility, they will find that exploring potential mergers would indeed lead ultimately to accomplishment of their broader mission.

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Speed-dreaming a Better World

Wow--what an amazing afternoon of what I'll call "speed sharing," which reminded me a bit of speed-dating but with people exchanging ideas instead of personal phone numbers. Some of the ideas are natural extensions of the exciting momentum we've been building during this Global Summit on Social Responsibility (SR): an SR listserv, an association SR blog and monthly Idea Swap, create a "Social Responsibility in a Box" how-to toolkit, and a new requirement that SR strategies are integrated into CAE knowledge domains.

But here are some of the larger-vision ideas that got me personally jazzed during today's "dream and design" exercise:

Use ASAE & The Center as "innovation incubators."

Create a "Retired Association Exec Corps" to help coordinate and contribute to SR efforts by associations.

Develop an offshoot version of the United Nations Global Compact that allows associations to sign on in agreement to meet specific SR metrics and standards.

Create a "Bright Light Network"--a coalition of associations that want to work together on social, economic and environmental challenges.

Create a "Seven Wonders of a Socially Responsible World" committee structure in ASAE & The Center to focus on global problem solving in the areas of education, environment, health, prosperity, innovation and technology, peace and security.

Friday we'll be breaking into groups to begin creating something tangible from the best ideas in the various categories generated by our "dreaming." Keep checking back for news of our progress!


An Association Pledge on Social Responsibility?

We’re on break at the Global Summit and have been enjoying the report-outs from the “Dream and Design” phase of the Appreciative Inquiry process. Today we’re imagining what the world would be like in 2020 if associations had become active in social responsibility efforts this year.

The formats in which these dreams have been presented have caused a lot of laughs—“Global Idol” for Associations, “Association Olympics 2020,” “CNN Reports” from space and the Amazon. My group of nine picked up on the comments of this morning’s speaker, former Girl Scouts of America CEO Frances Hesselbein, who explained that a wearying debate about change—in this case, the mere redesign of the Girl Scout pin--was quelled only when Frances promised to continue manufacturing the pin if any member wanted still wanted to order it.
Gripping the ancient Girl Scout Promise and Law as models, my group “dreamed” of a universal pledge that every association in the world would make to become more socially responsible.

Here is our quick draft:


I, [stakeholder such as CEO, board chair, member, and business partner] pledge to integrate social responsibility into the core values and mission of my association, and to that end, I pledge to…..
• Lead by example;
• Be responsible stewards of our resources and operate 100% greenly,
• To educate and train our staff, board, and members on SR principles;
• To increase the strength and speed of global connectivity and collaboration across all industries and sectors and with partners, competitors, critics, and regulators;
• To evaluate our social and environmental footprint on an annual basis as stringently as we do our finances;
• And to recognize and honor those who make a positive difference.

Let me know what you think about the idea of a sector-wide pledge that might build on elements of the United Nations Global Compact, for instance. Maybe I’ll even reward the best responses with a box of ThinMints!

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April 30, 2008

Stories as Influencers for Socially Responsible Behavior

Compelling stories have emerged as potent tools in forwarding discussions about what values members gain when their associations are involved in socially responsible practices, programs, and goals. At both my morning and afternoon tables at the Global Summit on Social Responsibility, association professionals barely took a breath between sharing and commenting on each other’s stories, whether they had to do with an organization’s actions or an individual’s choices. Frankly, it’s a challenge to capture every anecdote for later thought or follow up, but one colleague told me that he had taken almost 25 pages of notes in less than six hours!

I’m feeling especially attuned to the power of storytelling today because I’m halfway through the excellent book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which I thought would be good prep for the summit. Also, co-author Joseph Grenny—whose last best-seller, Crucial Conversations, was referenced several times at my table today-- is speaking August 19 at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting and Expo.

According to Influencer, “people will attempt to change their behavior if (1) they believe it will be worth it, and (2) they can do what is required.” Stories that guide people to those conclusions must contain both “a clear link between the current behaviors and existing (or possibly future) negative results” and “positive replacement behaviors that yield new and better results.”

Those of us at the summit today heard such “high-point stories” recounted on the stage, in the coffee line, and from attendees at some of the 14 connected sites across America. I liked the examples given by CEO Scott Steen of the American Ceramic Society. First, Scott described the rapid membership growth achieved by the National Association of Counties after it cleverly arranged a deal with a corporation that allowed the association to provide prescription discount cards to members for free distribution in every county in America.

Second, he cited the National Academy of Engineers’ inspiring work with members to identify 14 “grand challenges” such as making solar energy affordable and reverse-engineering the brain. The organization then spotlights research and grant money focused on those topics. “They’re saying to their members, ‘Here is where to go to make a difference as an engineer,” explained Scott, adding that the organization is using the initiative to “define their mission in the world and show how engineers and their industry are making huge differences.” I can’t wait to hear what comes out of Thursday’s “dream” process….


April 25, 2008

Unlocking cool

If anyone knows innovation, it’s Jeremy Gutsche, founder of He makes a living studying it. His online magazine follows the newest trends and tells the world what will be cool in six months, a year, or five years. He spoke this morning at the 2008 Digital Now conference.

Gutsche is a sound-bite seeker’s dream, so here are several of his snappy bits of advice on finding and fostering innovation and "unlocking cool," with some thoughts added in italic:

“Situational framing dictates outcome.” What you believe may be blinding you to reality.

“Complacency will be the architecture of your downfall.”

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Don’t try to fight culture or the world around you. Accept it and adapt accordingly.

“Innovations must often fail.” This is perhaps the most important point he made. We have to accept the bad with the good and have faith that every failure is an opportunity to learn and increase the likelihood of future success.

“Create opportunities for failure.” Great example that Gutsche shared: the BBC established a “gambling fund” to develop programs that very few people thought would work. The Office, one of the BBC’s most popular shows (and now a popular show in the United States) was a gambling fund idea.

“Innovation starts with observing your customers.” Put yourself in their element. Visit them in their places of business. Create open online environments for them to interact.

“Senior people need to be crazy.” Aren’t they already? (Sorry, bad joke from a millennial). What Gutsche meant is that senior-level leaders need to encourage, accept, and foster wacky ideas. Too many great ideas from all levels get killed at the senior-leadership level.

“Relentlessly obsess about your story.” i.e. stick to your mission and reinforce it consistently through your marketing.

“Simple, direct, and supercharged.” According to Gutsche, these are the qualities of “infectious” marketing.

I followed up with Gutsche after his session and asked him about his emphasis on embracing any crisis as an opportunity. He even promoted declaring a crisis so as to bring that opportunity out into the open. “When you are in a crisis, regardless of how you got there, you get good ideas,” he says. prides itself on finding the “next big thing,” seemingly in contrast with the previous day’s keynote message about the long tail and the death of culture-wide blockbuster hits. Turns out the next big thing for any organization is just a matter of scale. “So many things can be a success,” Gutsche says, “but that doesn’t mean everyone in America buying a toaster.”


April 22, 2008

Stepping up the conversation on Millennials

As a champion of my generation’s leadership potential, I cringe at reports that perpetuate negative impressions of Millennials. With plentiful images of disinterested, superficial hipsters glued to their phones, computers, and video games, it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to prove to more experienced colleagues that many of us are committed to making a difference. I was heartened by an article on that shares anecdotes and statistics demonstrating how many young women of today aim to become a new kind of leader, driven not by money and power, but by a sense of social responsibility.

On the other side of the coin, a recent podcast from Knowledge at W.P. Carey addresses a troubling trend among young people: cheating on tests and lying on resumes to get ahead in school or career. The discussion depicts the youngest members of our workforce as supremely self-centered, willing to trample ethical boundaries in order to advance their individual goals. More articles come out every day with tips for working with and relating to members of Generation Y, often oversimplifying the issue by making it seem easy to predict behaviors. The underlying goal is one of understanding, but the opposite can easily occur: readers can be lured to believe they’ve discovered what motivates a widely diverse population when they’ve only gotten a peek at one segment.

That’s not to say that experts and researchers should stop writing articles. Having an array of ideas on the table makes for a great start, but we need more opportunities to actively discuss them. This is where associations can step in and become invaluable contributors to the conversation about the role of Millennials. Inviting young professionals to speak at conferences, holding forums where younger and older workers can compare viewpoints, and encouraging Generation Y participation on committees are all ways associations can investigate this issue on a level that is more than just skin deep. I think we can add to the growing list of associations’ social responsibilities the mission to ensure that all of our members develop an experience-based belief that the young people of today have what it takes to become the leaders we need for the future.

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April 3, 2008

Power of positive thinking

He’s the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy, Jack Canfield. And at Springtime’s general session, he gave away a hundred bucks to one lucky attendee.

How did he do it? He held up a $100 bill and said “Who would like this?”

Hands shot up all around the ballroom. One person, though, walked up and took it. And that’s the whole point of his presentation: take action. Yes, the person did keep the hundred bucks, which might have been most of Canfield’s honorarium.

So on to a few specifics. In addition to being the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy, he’s the The Success Principles guy, his latest self-help motivational book. There are 64 principles in the book, but he focused on the first and most important:

Take 100% responsibility for your life and results.

This means you have to give up all blaming and all complaining. And no more justifying, defending, or excuse making.

What does this mean?

Here’s his example for giving up blaming.

A guy could go home from work and discover his girlfriend has left him. Just took everything she owned and moved. The guy could react by saying, (and yes, this is the story he told as he told it) “That bitch. How could she do this?” Or, the guy could reflect and say, “Gee, I wonder what I did to make her leave.”

He also gave the formula for this success principle:

E + R = O

Events plus your response to these events equal the outcome.

He gave the story of seeing a sign hanging in a store saying:

“I’ve heard there’s a recession coming. I’ve chosen not to participate.”

The basic message: visualize the outcome you want and just by visualizing it – and believing it possible, you can make it happen.

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April 2, 2008

Let's look at it another way

Apologies to any long-time Acronym readers as once again I'm going back to something I've talked about before.

About five months ago, diary of a reluctant blogger Maddie Grant got me fired up by saying she prefers to ignore views, outlooks, whatever that are different than hers (my post about it, and her original post). A recent short article from the New York Times Magazine reminded me once again of the value of questioning one's own views.

The article talks about new interpretations of classic social psychology experiments (you have to look past the Elliot Spitzer references, which I thought were a cheap tie into todays pop/political scene). One of the experiments is the one that demonstrated that people are basically sheep, and will go along with the crowd even when they know the crowd is wrong. But a reexamination of the data is less absolute. It turns out people usually didn't go along with the crowd, but did sometimes. Far from being a negative, as the sheep-like description would have you believe, it could be seen as a positive that first, people usually aren't sheep-like, and, second, when they are it's because they've made an active determination that in that particular case the group is more important than the individual.

The other famous experiment in which the classic interpretation is challenged is the one where people think they're giving progressively more severe shocks to other study participants (see an ABC News video re-creating the experiment). The classic conclusion is that people will blindly follow orders from people they see as superior, even when it is morally repugnant. A different interpretation is that people trust those with authority, including trusting their moral judgment.

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March 17, 2008

Next Traditions Discussion Thread


It is a great honor to be the author of this month's cover story for Associations Now. In the print version of the magazine, the article is called, "Beyond Today," but you can find it online under its original title, "The Next Traditions of Association 3.0." I hope you will take the opportunity to read it, and share your ratings and reviews. (The rate and review area appears at the end the article on the website.)

This week, my hope is that we can engage in some dialogue around the article and the implications of the argument I make for your association. To get the conversation started, please take the oppportunity to reflect on the following questions:

+What role does tradition play in your association?

+How does/can your organization use tradition as a platform for innovation?

+Among the six "next traditions" discussed in the article, which of them does your association embrace? Which does your association find it difficult to embrace?

I look forward to our discussion. Please share your insights, as well as any questions, in the comment box below!


March 7, 2008

Something that will make me hate you

Ran across the WikiHow entry "How to Communicate Bad News Effectively" and I absolutely hate it. It offers "The Spin Technique," "Compare and Minimize," and "The Sandwich Method," which is delivering positive news, then the bad news, then more positive news.

I call out this bad article because I've run across this too many times, and I think it's one way I've seen associations hurt themselves. My position is, don't worry about delivering bad news. Just come out with the news, have a discussion about it, decide what action if any to take about it, and move on. Sugar coating things is a huge disservice. In the unlikely event that you successfully minimize the issue, your association is missing the opportunity to make appropriate changes, and the bad news will still be there. Far more likely, your audience will see through your spin and begin to pick it apart. The bad news conversation then takes twice as long, because you have to unravel the bad news first. Have more respect for the people you're talking to than that.

When I'm in a meeting where someone uses the spin technique, the compare and minimize technique, or the sandwich method, I end up daydreaming about the speaker having one of those invisible fence dog collars on, and I have control of the zapper.

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February 29, 2008

"I don't know. Please help me figure it out."

I am learning a lot of leadership lessons these days. Mostly having to do with embarking on projects I can sorta kinda get my arms around, but which expand from manageable to giant when poked with a stick. One such is launching a magazine. Which seems like maybe a sensible person would understand was going to be a Really Big Challenge, which I sort of knew, but didn't really know. I'm not, it seems, so very sensible these days.

So the project is plugging along, and I'm learning all kinds of things that aren't surprising, but aren't easy, either. Like: When launching a flagship publication, you'll have to make design decisions, for which it would be good if your visual brand was articulated somewhere (ours wasn't, so we had a diversion while we created a graphical style guide).

And governance decisions (who will decide the editorial tone of the thing, anyway? How much power should we give the volunteers? And how much should we keep? Before inviting them, we need to define their roles.)

And business decisions (What's a reasonable percentage to give your ad sales vendor? if they take away your online classified section headaches, is that worth an extra 5%?)

All that is totally aside from the part I expected to be the hardest: creating a concept for the magazine, and an editorial calendar, and finding a cadre of writers and giving them assignments (We must first figure out author agreements that are fair to the publication and the [unpaid] authors).

So as my anxiety rose, I decided to do something a little risky: ask the whole staff to volunteer to sit around a table and thrash some things out - I literally just needed someone else to help make decisions.

So I stood up with my flip chart and outlined the work, and said: "There's more to be done than I can or should do on my own. And there's stuff I need help thinking through. I need other heads around these questions. I need volunteers."

And was greeted with silence. Stony silence.

So I sat down - I knew I had a couple of allies out there I could rope in (they weren't at the meeting), so maybe I'd made a doofus of myself, but really I was no worse off with workload. The agenda moved on, and at the end of the lunch something great happened. People stood up, walked over and put their names down to help --almost half the staff volunteered.

What was really great, though, was this: a colleague pulled me aside and said "That was very brave, to ask for help like that. People don't ask for help here. If you don't get enough help, it's because it's not the culture yet. I'm glad it's changing." Another wrote to tell me she liked my 'I don't know everything so let's work it out together' approach.

Asking for help is a lesson from waiting tables. When you're so busy you can't catch up, you've got to be able to stop and articulate what you need. I gained allies because I admitted the job was too big for just me. And the decisions got made, the work is getting done. And everyone who helped has a stake now. That's my favorite part.


February 1, 2008

IT Leadership - It's Your Responsibility

I just attended The CIO/CTO Workshop, where we discussed one methodology for establishing effective teams, the TEAM framework: Train, Expect, Affirm, and Measure. This conversation made me wonder how much time we as IT leaders invest in growing our staffs when we are constantly pushed to do more, to be more productive. Are we the people who barely leave our offices, are preoccupied when we do, and barely talk to our staffs except when something goes wrong? During this session I was really challenged to think bigger about our role as leaders - we have an obligation to our staff to make the time for them, even if it keeps us from finishing that report that is already overdue. It's actually our jobs to make time for our staffs…and I mean more than the cursory "how was your weekend" conversations.

Along with this, the importance of individualized attention for each staff member is becoming increasingly evident to me. Some of our staff members are cut from the same cloth that we are - the "failing to plan is planning to fail" school of thought. But, think about how the advent of gaming has changed things. Gamers constantly "fail forward" - try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, until they eventually succeed. How can we expect these people to come into our organizations with our rigid planning structures and excel? Their natural inclination is to try something, watch to see how it works, make some tweaks, and watch some more. That is definitely not how we are accustomed to working…but is their way wrong? Are we as leaders going to try to shoehorn these people into our formal processes, when it's clearly not how they think? Instead, what if we encourage them to mentor us? Can we step outside our comfort zones enough to learn from them? I think we can, and quite honestly, should….

What do you all think?

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January 18, 2008

Banned phrase of the week

"It is what it is."

Can't stand it.

Saying that means that you accept defeat. You've given up. There are times when all of us want to throw up our hands and admit and accept defeat. I get it; it happens to me, too. But if you don't come back from those times determined to take action, then it's time to get out of whatever position is putting you in that place.

A scenario: A CEO tries to cut the size of her board in half with a major governance change. She gives it her best shot, enlists the help of dozens of volunteers and staff and consultants. In the end, though there was some interest, the board votes against it.

It is what it is, right? The CEO just has to live with all the problems she cited as being created by a large board.

If that's the attitude that prevails, I feel bad for that CEO.

Rather than accept defeat, get to work. Perhaps she should give it a little time and go for it again. And again if she has to. Even better, perhaps she should start developing alternative ideas that might address the problems she sees.

Just because we can't directly change a particular outcome or position, it doesn't mean we are defeated. Never accept things as they are; always work to create what will be.

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January 16, 2008

When right is wrong, and wrong is right.... or so it appears

If you're ever trying to get me to read something, shock me.

Kristin's post about Melinda Gates reminded me of Steven Pinker's New York Times Magazine article, "The Moral Instinct."

Pinker shocked me by telling me that Bill Gates was morally superior to Mother Theresa, and that some guy named Norman Borlaug was morally superior to both. Shock for shock's sake doesn't do it; Pinker uses interesting logic to make the point. You don't have to buy it. I don't, not really, but he does make an interesting point.

What does any of this have to do with Acronym or associations? Well, if you're intrigued, read the article, which is about how we define and use morality and make decisions—and I'm someone who believes every decision is a moral one. But the reason I bring it up is it reminded me of an old debate with Maddie Grant (see here, then here). My position: embrace the counterintuitive, seek alternative and even contrary opinions, find strong "no" people and talk with them. These are ways to add creativity and thoughtfulness to the decisions you make.

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January 14, 2008

January: Leadership & Operations

January, it seems, is the classic time for leadership publications. ASAE & the Center publish their respected Volunteer Leadership issue each January. I generally order extra copies each year for our Board of Governors and Senior Vice Presidents.

I’ve posted twice this month about business operations and technology, because I think it’s important to recognize that successful business operations are a major key to achieve the results and tangible success we desire for our organizations. If you’re interested in operations, as I am, then another good January resource is the January Harvard Business Review “Leadership & Strategy for the 21st Century” issue.

Although written for business, there are many topics equally useful for associations, with features this January such as “Putting Leadership Back Into Strategy”, “Mastering the Management System”, Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy” and the compelling “Innovation Killers: How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things”. Departmental comments in the issue deal with “Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World” and “Where Will We Find Tomorrow’s Leaders”—topics that are as common to the non-profit world as the for-profit.

I am a strong advocate of the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) as a tool to identify strategy and successfully link it with operations, enabling an organization to successfully cascade strategy throughout the organization’s operations, using metrics and key initiatives. Using the BSC, it is even possible to embed strategy in annual performance planning and evaluation for staff and volunteers—which we are doing. “Mastering the Management System” by Kaplan and Norton, the Harvard Business School professors who are the founders and developers of the Balanced Scorecard, is an important read for those of us looking for ways to better connect strategy with operations.

“Successful strategy execution has two basic rules: understand the management cycle that links strategy and operations, and know what tools to apply at each stage of the cycle”, say the authors, Norton and Kaplan They go on to present thoughts on how closed loop management systems link strategy and operations, a management system tool kit, mapping strategic themes, and an example of how to organize your management meetings to be effective. Want to think about improving your operations this year? After reading Associations Now, check out the January HBR issue.

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January 11, 2008

Getting less specialized

Another post inspired from reading Roger Martin's Opposable Mind.

In the book, Martin describes specialization as an evil that gets in the way of considering alternatives when making decisions. Bear with me, this is a pretty dense quotation:opposable%20mind2.JPG

Functional specialization is especially inimical to integrative thinking because it undermines productive architecture—the keeping in mind of the whole while working on the individual parts. Functional specialization encourages the sequential or parallel resolution of discrete parts of a business problem. The result is that what is optimal from the perspective of one function will take precedence over what is optimal for the firm as a whole.

Translation: specialization leads to turf battles.

Senior staffs (and entire staffs for small associations) need to check their specialization at the door when thinking about strategy for the organization. I think this is an especially hard skill, so if turf battles are endemic to your organization, or if the old "because that's the way we do things" excuse is customary, one way to attack the problem is to think of it as a problem of competing specializations.

For a more in-depth look at how to get senior staffs functioning well as a unit, check out the article in the January Associations Now by the authors of Senior Leadership Teams: How to Make Them Great.

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Linking Technology & Business Operations

Last week I posted about a recent McKinsey article focusing on the importance of linking technology and an organization’s business operations in order to create “real wealth”. McKinsey authors Manyika, Roberts and Sprague discussed eight trends that they say will help shape businesses and the economy in coming years. Here are a couple of the trends that seem to have implications for many of our associations:

1. Using consumers as innovators: Consumers can co-create with organizations and with your association. The Internet has evolved into a global platform supporting communications, interactions and advocacy. The authors suggest that organizations can tap into this new mood of customer engagement.

One example noted is Threadless, an online clothing store that asks customers to submit new designs for T-shirts and the community at large votes for their favorites. The top 4-6 designs are manufactured and the winners receive prizes. The authors note that companies that involve customers get better insights into customer needs and behavior and may even be able to reduce the expense of acquiring and retaining customers.

At the same time the authors caution that companies open to allowing customers to help it innovate must ensure that the companies aren’t unduly influenced by information from a vocal minority. Companies must also be wary of focusing on the immediate rather than longer-range customer needs, as well as care to avoid raising and then failing to meet customer expectations.

2. Putting more science into management: the authors point out that technology helps managers use ever-greater amounts of data to make smarter decisions and to create new competitive advantage and business models. Examples include “ideagoras” (eBay-like marketplaces for ideas), predictive markets, and performance-management approaches. is an example of advanced customer segmentation, using its recommendation engine correlated to purchase histories.

The authors suggest that leaders should recognize and capitalize on the power that information provides for their organizations. At the same time the authors caution that information is power; broadening access and increasing transparency may influence organizational politics and power structures. The authors also caution about the analysis paralysis that often accompanies data-driven decision making.

How are you and your organization thinking about technology and business operations in new ways?

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January 8, 2008

Control, trust, and power

I sometimes get behind on reading the listserver digests, so I'm just now getting to the Executive Management Sections discussion from last week about intrusive, micromanaging board members, who cite their fiduciary responsibility as they delve into every detail of the financial reports.

I liked Michael Gallery's reply: the issues are more primal than the finances of the organization. Fundamentally, the issues are trust and control. As he notes, explaining what fiduciary responsibility really means and what directors' and officers liability insurance is for aren't going to solve this problem.

I'd add a third issue to Gallery's two: power. I think control, trust, and power are going to be at the heart of many, many conflicts--not just on boards, but on senior staff, in partnerships, and in many other settings.

I wish I had a silver bullet that would enable execs to manage control, trust, and power. No one does, however. I guess those are recurring themes in loads of the articles I've been a part of in Associations Now and, before that, Executive Update. Some quick thoughts on each of the three:

Control: A clear purpose and a clear set of norms and expectations together with how progress will be measured are essential. Just because everybody starts at the same place doesn't mean they will all see circumstances the same. They won't. But if the begin point is clear, I think it's easier for everyone to accept the majority position, even if as individuals, a few disagree.

Trust: To me, this is a little easier to explain, though it may be just as hard to put into practice. You build trust with transparency and honesty. I think most folks would agree that they try to live by those two words. I also think most of us fail miserably upon close examination. This is especially important in the association context: the membership deserves to know what data and deliberations are behind the decisions that staff and boards make.

Power: I'm a believer that the more power you seek, the less power you will have. Perhaps that's just wishful thinking. To understand the power issue, I think you have to examine the motivations of those involved. Why is it important to them to have power? I think compared to the other two, power is the hardest to manage.


January 4, 2008

Eight Business Technology Trends to Watch for 2008

This article in the January 2008 McKinsey Quarterly by James M. Manyika, Roger P. Roberts, and Kara L. Sprague, notes that “Technology alone is rarely the key to unlocking economic value: companies create real wealth when they combine technology with new ways of doing business. Through our work and research, we have identified eight technology-enabled trends that will help shape businesses and the economy in coming years. These trends fall within three broad areas of business activity: managing relationships, managing capital and assets, and leveraging information in new ways”.

See for the full article.


January 2, 2008

Right break at the right time

Got started on Opposable Mind by Roger Martin over the break, one of the books that's been neglected on my "to read" pile for too long.

The one sentence premise: When making major decisions, the best leaders create a new, better solution from the obvious options being contemplated.

It's an interesting idea, and I may have more on that later as I read more of the book and let my thoughts crystallize about it. But one passage in the book reinforces a notion on leadership that has been percolating with me recently. Here's what he wrote:

"I am certain that a variety of capabilities contribute to business success. Intelligence, drive, and good health all play a part. So does getting the right break at the right time."

It's that last part—the right break at the right time—that I think is the single most important determinant of successful leadership. I don't think it's total randomness or just luck. There's something more to it, but it's not anything that can be neatly studied or written about. It's what bothers me about lesson-based business books. When you look at people who can be described as achieving success, it's because of the way they acted (the decisions they made) given the circumstances they were in.

I'm not saying there's nothing to gain from Drucker or Peters or Collins or Roger Martin. I think they each make important observations that probably do help describe the successful decisions given a circumstance. It's just critical to understand that it's entirely possible to make the same observations about decisions that are not as successful given a different set of circumstances.

To me it's an iterative process and everyone is going to have ups and downs—sometimes huge ups, and sometimes huge downs. The important part is for leaders to see the impact their decisions are having and to adjust them or even scrap them entirely if that's what's needed. That's why these days I'm leaning more toward thinking of much less concrete ideas of leadership: what does it mean to act with courage? What does this decision say about you and are you being authentic? Are you transparent? What is trust? Why is it relevant?

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December 17, 2007

When a bad idea gets going

Early this year, I wrote a post on the notion that there absolutely are dumb ideas. The gist of the post was: get over it. If you don't have a bunch of bad ideas to sift through, then you haven't given yourself permission to actually try to think creatively about how you or your organization can innovate. I was saying bad ideas or ok, as long as you find some good ones to work on.

Now Shankar Vedatam from the Washington Post hits again on an insightful idea in his "Department of Human Behavior" column. He explores how bad ideas get rolling and develop lives of their own. His quote from Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale University and the author of the book Irrational Exuberance, really made me think (sorry, don't know if the quote is from an interview or from the book):

"I am talking of views that seem intuitively right," Shiller said. "One hears other people saying things and confirming ideas you have. When things are commonly accepted, you file it in your brain as something that is true."

So here's the can of worms I'm opening today... I read this and I think about 7 Measures.

Now, assuming I still have a job after others in the organization read that, let me explain.

At one of the Great Ideas sessions I was at, the presenter made a point from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I have no problem quoting from the lessons in that book. But the presenter praised the meticulous research of Collins for the purpose of underscoring how unapproachable and irrefutable the lesson is.

I encourage anybody who has ever read Built to Last, Good to Great, In Search of Excellence, 7 Measures of Success, or any of those books that study what really successful companies do right to read Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.

Rosenzweig’s argument in a nutshell—the research, while time-consuming, isn’t objective. Yes, it uses objective data to determine if an organization is successful, but when it comes to picking out the qualities of why they are successful, the research is much more subjective, relying in large part on interviews and press accounts. This may come as a huge shock, but people tend to talk favorably about successful companies, workers tend to be happier, and executives win awards and give well-thought-of speeches.

As Rosenzweig says, this doesn’t disprove the points that Collins makes or the measures uncovered in 7 Measures. It does, however, take them off the “indisputable” shelf. As a general rule, whenever anything is indisputable, I’d say be skeptical. It could very well be that following the tenants in Good to Great or 7 Measures or whatever management consultant/guru of the week espouses would be disastrous for your organization. Remember, Taylor’s scientific management was once common sense, too. I think a lot of good can be derived from Collins and 7 Measures, but success will always be more art than science. No step-by-step prescription or program will get you where you want to go. Try, feel, react, try, feel, react… that’s how to move forward.

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December 13, 2007

The Power of a Dog-gone Good Story

Wells Jones, CEO of the much-lauded Guide Dog Foundation, is a great storyteller. That's not a label many nonprofit leaders work hard for, but Wells has found that stories can get you places that appeals letters and political allies cannot: into people's wallet, mind and heart.

I was interviewing him recently after our Key Philanthropic Organizations Committee (KPOC) meeting, having already talked to him once before about his foundation's successful revision of its governance practices. We had spent a good chunk of the KPOC meeting talking about leadership, organizational excellence and the differences and synergies between our Seven Measures of Success book and a new publication, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant.

We were all intrigued by the differences in data about leadership between these two books and even Good to Great's Jim Collins, who had been involved with both publications. One thing none of these books did, though, was explore in any real depth the types of communication techniques that great organizatonal leaders routinely find most effective: compelling storytelling.

So I asked Wells how he created the storytelling culture that is so apparent on his Web site and how his staff and volunteers collect and use those powerful anecdotes to show the real impact of the organization. You can read his responses in the profile department of ASAE & The Center's new philanthropic Web section, but in the meantime I wanted to share what he said was his favorite program-related story.

"This story relates to a Marine who lost both of his arms in Iraq above the elbow, so he wears two prosthetic arms," Wells said. "And he also has some balance issues. We trained one of our dogs to work with him to help provide balance, fetch items and do various tasks that the Marine needs to get done.

"So he’s outdoors with his dog one day, and they are having down time--he’s playing Frisbee with his dog--and when he throws the Frisbee, the dog brings it back, like all of our dogs do. But then one time when he throws the Frisbee, one of his arms goes with it. The dog goes over and looks at the Frisbee and then looks at the arm, looks at the Frisbee and looks at the arm. Finally, he makes up his mind and grabs the arm, which he takes back to the Marine. And the Marine is laughing really hard about this, thinking, 'What fun!' but then he realizes what the dog just did: The dog made a decision that his owner had to have the arm first before he could bring the Frisbee back. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story."

Now ask him to tell you the one about the two old-time war vets who have raised half a million bucks in just a few months....


November 29, 2007

“The Membership” Doesn’t Exist and Other Thoughts

Recently, Scott Briscoe wrote a thought-provoking membership article “Should you be serving or leading your members?” As we think about the future of associations, the wants and needs of membership deserve critical consideration. Hopefully some of our respected marketing and membership folks will weigh in, since they have important insights. Here are some thoughts which I hope will further discussion:

Thought 1: “The membership” is a myth. We can’t generalize about membership. If “the membership” means a homogenous, unified, like-minded body, then it doesn’t exist anymore than “the electorate” or “the consumer” exists. What exist are various member, electorate and consumer segments. Each segment has its own common or shared interests or aspirations. For example, there are association members whose primary interest is expanded knowledge. Among the electorate are red-dog Republicans. And there are consumers for whom “green” is more than a color. Point is, while these are important segments, they hardly represent the entire spectrum. Success in membership and marketing depends on identifying and understanding your markets and the voices of the customer. Membership success, like the success in any market, is seldom achieved by thinking and treating everyone like they are a size 6.

Thought 2: Volunteer vision frequently is a 12-month window. Our active volunteer members often see things in short term, annual perspectives, particularly if they have a one year leadership position. Governing boards, even with 3-year terms, often have difficulty focusing attention beyond one year at a time. The “project oriented” Millennials may have an even shorter attention span. So this leaves the staff to see and deal with the longer term strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the association—if is to be done at all. Since volunteers often define success as 12 months of smooth sailing (no problems please), is it any wonder that the natural tendency is for volunteers to focus on (this year’s) wants rather than (longer term) needs? Beyond membership, how do you suppose the 12-month window influences successful strategy, operational execution over time and other cross-enterprise and intra-enterprise performance?

Thought 3: Traditional models may not match emerging membership challenge. My association model will hardly surprise long-time observers of associations. Many older associations, like mine, were founded for “higher purposes” (ASME was founded in 1880 for public safety, property protection and growth/access to the engineering body of knowledge). We tend to be about engineering, not engineers. Our thinking for 127 years has generally been that what is good for engineering is good for engineers and others with technology interests.

We have a culture where volunteers “mature” their leadership by volunteering for increasingly more responsible roles, over extended time periods. Our members self organize into common interest groups, often working together for many years, to build and share knowledge, community and advocacy. I regularly give out 15, 20 and 30 year pins to staff. We are a fine organization with great traditions.

As a global association, in a rapidly changing world, we are increasingly required to be an agile, innovative and performance-oriented enterprise. Here’s the emerging challenge: Members and volunteers who may: 1) be primarily motivated by their individual, personal interests; 2) have less disposable time, resources and patience for “leadership ladders” and extended, time-consuming volunteer commitments; and 3) identify with their peer interest group rather than the enterprise. Can the challenge be successfully resolved in the old, traditional membership models? What’s the definition of insanity: doing what you’ve always done, the way you always have, and thinking you’ll get new and different results?

Where are the new membership markets, voices and models? How do we reconcile wants and needs?

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November 14, 2007

Contrary viewpoints

Maddie Grant of diary of a reluctant blogger fame (and also a regular commenter on Acronym) wrote about the latest issue of Associations Now on her blog—thank you for the compliments and the criticisms.

More importantly, her post outlines a philosophy she has, and I was struck by how different she and I are. I never would have guessed, because I think anybody reading her blog and my posts here on Acronym would think we have pretty similar outlooks, definitely on associations and more generally about good leadership and management.

Her philosophy?

I will admit I could not bring myself to read the anti-Web 2.0 article by Andrew Keen. I like to tell people that I don't want to be a critic - critics criticise. That's not my job - I'm the anti-critic, the enthusiast, the evangelist. If I don't really think much of something, I prefer to say nothing about it. And usually, others will also say nothing about it, and better stuff will rise to the top. But regardless, I'm not in a place where I can read the negativity in Keen's article and pull anything meaningful out of it. Instead, it will just piss me off.

I love reading and hearing commentary that is contrary to what I believe. There's a catch—it has to be thoughtful and respectful, not angry or sensational. The thought of a philosophy that squashes ideological debate is completely foreign to me. Far from "better stuff" rising "to the top," I think it would crush creativity. Decisions made in such an environment would be sheltered decisions. So, apologies to Maddie, but I have to advocate the opposite of what she says in her post--find the smartest people you can who disagree with you and engage them in debate. Your convictions will be stronger and you will be better equipped to make and explain your decisions as a result. And if it gets you a little pissed off, well, passion is good.

Obviously my philosophy is demonstrated in Associations Now with the decision to put Keen's "beware of social media" article on the cover of the issue that has an entire supplement devoted to social media.

I take heart that Maddie did end that part of the post with "So I'll wait to read that later." I think you may be surprised if you do. Dana Theus on the blog wrote about Keen's piece:

"I was definitely impressed with his thesis and argument in the Association Now article..."

So, Maddie, a few lines from the article itself as an attempt to prod you to read it sooner rather than later...

"If Web 2.0 technologies enable anyone to publish anything on the internet, then the very raison-d'etre of associations is undermined; after all, once anyone can join an association, then it no longer is one."

"So, yes, association leaders, defend your lonely forts! ...Don't be ashamed by the educational accomplishments, the meritocratic exclusivity, the hard-earned authority of your associations. Don't lower your drawbridge to the undercredentialed and overopinionated masses." And then later...

"I'm not convinced that defending one's lonely fort against technological progress is the most sensible advice.... Like it or not, social media is a reality—probably the reality in today's increasingly techno-saturated culture."

"Blogs don't kill culture. Bloggers kill culture."

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November 13, 2007

Should you be serving or leading your members?

We interrupt this social media month with an off-topic post...

Should your association provide what your members want or what they need? Others may disagree, but I think this is essentially the same question as does your association serve its members or lead them?

The copout answer to both questions is that associations need to do both. It’s a copout because I believe an organization can only be focused on one or the other (or, I guess neither, but that’s a different matter). There’s obviously some gray area and one side likely always spills into the other, but I think if an organization doesn’t focus on one or the other then the best it can hope for is mediocrity at both.

I’m pretty passionate about where I think associations should be: They should be on the lead/need side, not the want/serve side. To oversimplify why I think that way, I’m going to pull from my communications experience. An article that finishes a sentence that starts with “How to…” is the want/serve side, whereas an article that finishes a question that starts “What if…” is the lead/need side.

I’m not belittling the how-to articles. I just think that in the past associations were absolutely necessary to answer the how-to questions. I think it’s less important now because the online universe will almost always have more information and be a more efficient source either to find or, in the case of social media and online collaboration, to create the how-to answers.


Boards, committees, task forces, ad hoc groups, special industry group leaders—collectively all the leaders of an organization should be asking “what if” questions and working on “what if” answers.

An organization’s paid staff should be more than administrators; they should be participants in these discussions. Too many associations build a wall between the thinking and the doing.

Guess what paid staff? This is no cakewalk. You become obligated to develop more than passing interest in or marginal knowledge of what your members do. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t really break down so neatly into how tos and what ifs. As staff, you need to have some kind of radar that will help you distinguish between the two and push volunteers to work on the latter.

You know one of the seven measures (similar to one of the ways Collins says “great” companies distinguish themselves from “good” ones) is to be data driven. I love the principle but I hate how it’s described in 7 Measures and what it means to most people. Don’t use data to figure out what members want or how to serve them; use it as part of the discussion about what they need and how the organization can lead the profession/industry/interest forward.

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November 7, 2007

Quick click: Defining leadership

This post has nothing to do with social media month, but I wanted to make sure Acronym readers saw a wonderful post by Rosetta Thurman at the Perspectives From the Pipeline blog. Rosetta shares a definition of leadership that I had never seen before: “The capacity of a system to sense and shape its future.”

I really like that this definition emphasizes that leadership is part of a system—a greater whole—and not just invested in one person. Sometimes we get so caught up in building our own abilities as individual leaders that we forget to think of leadership as something created by the whole organization. And if you think of leadership in that way, it opens up a new way of looking at your association—especially in terms of member involvement and contribution to the strategy of the organization. Members can help to sense and shape the future just as much as staff (and vice versa). How can we facilitate a process of sensing and shaping that all of those involved in the organization can contribute to?

So maybe this post does have something to do with social media month after all …

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October 24, 2007

Associations Pitch in to Help Southern California Fire Victims

We have learned of many associations that have stepped up to offer expertise, volunteers, donations and even temporary housing to the hundreds of thousands of displaced wildlife victims in Southern California. As in past catastrophes, associations are finding creative ways to apply their skills, imagination and members to addressing this crisis. You’ll find a growing list of examples on the ASAE & The Center site, and we encourage you to let us know of others. Thank you all!

Let me mention two partnering associations in particular: the San Diego Education Association (SDEA) and California Teachers Association (CTA). Despite limited operations, SDEA staff and members has "overwhelmed" the group with offers of help when it called for volunteer tutors, donations, childcare and coordination help for families sheltering at Qualcomm Stadium and a local high school. The association also is housing numerous displaced educators at its offices, auditorium and meeting spaces.

CTA, meanwhile, is helping coordinate and is urging displaced members to tap into its “CTA Disaster Fund." Established years ago, the fund offers emergency grants of up to $1,500, with an additional $1,500 grant possible. Monies come from voluntary contributions by CTA members and periodic fundraising drives. The FACT Foundation provides administrative services.

For a model disaster assistance resource for members, visit CTA’s disaster resources page


October 18, 2007

Quick click: Why we don't practice good leadership

Michael Wade at Execupundit asks, "Why don't we practice good leadership?" and lists 21 possible answers. There's a lot of good food for thought.

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October 16, 2007

Non-Profit Leadership: A Maturity Model?

Whether one is in the non-profit or for-profit world, effective and successful leadership is an important capability—so much so that it is the subject of frequent discussion, workshops and publications. Non-profit leadership involves volunteers, staff and a host of external stakeholders, including customers, business partners and leaders of alliances/affiliations. Within each of these constituencies, and certainly across them, leadership is critical for organizational success, as well as for a rewarding and enjoyable personal association experience.

Are there levels of learning, experience and capability that characterize the levels of maturity of successful non-profit leadership? Can we identify a reasonable non-profit leadership maturity model? For example, are there identifiable distinguishing performance characteristics representing an emerging volunteer leader and a mature one? What about the important performance characteristics of staff at entry level, mid-level management and senior executive management? Would a maturity model help communicate and improve leadership performance in non-profit organizations?

Maturity Models

Maturity models are generally credited to the early work of Richard L. Nolan in 1973. The Capability Maturity Model (CMM) was subsequently funded by military research. The United States Air Force funded a study at the Carnegie-Mellon Software Engineering Institute to create an abstract model for the military to use as an objective evaluation of the rapidly expanding software industry. Today, there has been further development and expansion of the use of maturity models to develop and refine an organization's processes. The maturity model may also have some other useful application to individuals, such as leadership capabilities.

CMM uses a scale of five levels of maturity for an organization that may also be applicable to individual leadership. The levels are 1) Initial (chaotic, ad hoc, heroic), 2) Repeatable (project management, process discipline), 3) Defined (institutionalized), 4) Managed ((quantified) and Optimized (process improvement).

An Initial Non-Profit Leadership Maturity Model

How could we formulate a non-profit leadership maturity model using the scale of five levels? Here’s a hypothetical example using Super Woman/Man. How does it relate to your experience with mere mortals such as you and me?

For the table and hypothetical data, go to: Download file

Your comments are invited.

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October 12, 2007

Fatty diets aren't so bad and the reputational cascade

New York Times science writer John Tierney wrote a column and a couple of interesting blog posts (here and here) on a sociological phenomenon known as a "cascade." In the column, he uses the evil of the fatty diet as the example, saying a few highly regarded scientists first made the argument that fatty diets led to shorter lives. Turns out just about all rigorously researched studies since the initial claims could find no correlation, yet the myth that a connection between an early demise and a fatty diet is scientifically accepted persists today.

The reason, Tierney says, is a cascade. (Disclosure in case you don't go to my source material: Tierney's column is about a book, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.)

The connection I want to make is how Tierney dumbed down the explanation of a cascade. He used the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, noting that when asked, the audience usually arrived at the correct answer. The reason is because they are all voting essentially in isolation. If instead each audience member was asked one after another, the answer would likely be vastly different as those who were unsure or mostly unsure would choose who everyone else was choosing. Everyone will recognize this a classic groupthink behavior.

Groupthink itself generally leads to poorer decisions than a situation in which there is no groupthink. Where this gets even more dangerous is when the groupthink leads to, for example, an entire association putting its reputation behind faulty conclusions. Now we have the beginnings of a reputational cascade. A scientist in high regard publishes a finding that is then endorsed by an organization, which leads to more endorsements and so on. In Tierney's example, it's the Surgeon General who promulgates the myth, making it seem almost unimpeachable. Politicians and organizations don't like going back on their decisions, but I think organizations have to be more open to skepticism without summarily dismissing it. It's ok to be wrong, as long your intentions are good and you continually try to be as correct as you can.


October 11, 2007


I just finished reading a shattering novel for young adults called Sold (Hyperion, 2006) about a Nepalese girl who is sold into prostitution. While attending the recent National Book Festival in Washington, DC, I was compelled to buy the story after hearing its best-selling author--investigative journalist Patricia McCormick--share her emotional experiences from a month spent researching the child sex trade in Nepal and India. Bear with me while I explain the relevance to associations and their business partners.

During the Q&A, I asked McCormick both if she still communicated with the girls and women who described their horrific existences to her, and if she had been moved to activism by her findings. She affirmed both, noting that part of her earnings go to nonprofits that fight child trafficking.

More important than money, though, has been the simple fact that, despite post-trip trauma, she managed to write the book at all. Further, it just won the prestigious Quill Award for Best Teen/Young Adult Book, which will raise the visibility of this under-publicized social atrocity even more.

Association executives may not feel particularly connected to child trafficking as a business issue. But some of our sector’s largest industries—such as tourism organizations concerned that this crime is often conducted in hotels--are among the leaders working to stop the abuse. In addition, since associations hold events in many cities and nations that have become major centers for child trafficking—India, Korea, Thailand, San Diego, London, Sydney and New York, for instance—the problem has grown more relevant.

McCormick’s story of Lakshmi, the 13-year-old main character from an impoverished family, depicts a tale similar to that of millions of children ages 10-18 who are trafficked for sex annually in what has become a multi-billion-dollar business. Brazil alone is home to 500,000 child prostitutes ages 10-17, with some as young as six, according to UNICEF.

The author’s Web site links to some association efforts, including an international Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism” project by the World Tourism Organization and nonprofit End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT).

Created in 1998, the code outlines six conduct criteria based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. It also helpfully includes model language that associations can add to contracts with global suppliers of everything from accommodations to tours.

Members of the Code Steering Committee include the International Hotel and Restaurant Association, Federation of International Youth Travel Organizations and Tour Operators’ Initiative for Sustainable Tourism Development, among others. In August 2007, the group helped gather support for 21 congressional leaders who sent letters to CEOs of the four largest U.S. hotel chains, urging them to sign the code. To date, two of them—Choice Hotels and Starwood—have responded with interest in the code, and Hilton Hotels noted that its soon-to-be-issued Global Code of Conduct “will specifically address issues of child exploitation.” Regent International Hotels and Radisson are among the 50 companies that have already signed.

Here’s hoping that other associations and industry partners “get” Sold.

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August 8, 2007

Working with true believers

In a guest post on the “How to Change the World” blog, Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, talks about the difficult aspects of establishing a successful startup company. One of his points struck me as equally applicable to the association sector:

True believers go nuts at the slightest provocation. The best people at a start-up care too much. They stay up late writing Jerry Maguire memos, eavesdropping on support calls, snapping at bureaucracy, citing Joel Spolsky on Aerons, and Paul Graham on cubes. They are your heart and bones, so you have to give them what they need, which is a lot. The only way to get them on your side is to put them in charge.

In the associations where I’ve worked, not all members have been true believers—but those that were were either our biggest asset or our biggest headache (or both simultaneously).

I wonder if association professionals sometimes have a disconnect with true believers among the membership, because we can move from association to association without necessarily being true believers about any. It’s not that we don’t think that our members are doing great and important things; but we don’t always have the same personal connection that a true believer would have.

I also wonder if using this idea as a lens can help us better understand and work with those true believers among our members. If you find yourself working with folks who are “writing Jerry Maguire memos” and “snapping at bureaucracy,” remember that you’re dealing with true believers. Emphasize your understanding of the importance of the association’s mission and the profession/industry it represents. Look at how you can reduce that red tape that’s frustrating them (always a good idea, in any event). Remember that they are the heart of your association. And give them an opportunity to be in charge of something so they can run with that passion and channel it.

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August 6, 2007

Double standard

I am sorry to be going back to the same well, but...

I wrote about The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam last week, and this week he has another interesting, meaningful column. The quote to think about comes at the end. He's quoting George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

"Most people have their own vices," he said. "When we are dealing with our vices, we are shortsighted, impulsive and make ridiculous sacrifices to satisfy our vices. But when we see other people succumbing to their vices, we think, 'How pathetic.' "

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July 31, 2007

Counterfactual analysis

I'm hoping you'll forgive the political underpinnings of this story, but I found it too fascinating to pass up. Shankar Vedantam is an excellent writer at The Washington Post, and he writes about the mind—how it works and why it works the way it does.

Yesterday, his story "Bush and Counterfactual Confidence" has insights that reach far beyond his narrow subject of political decision making. Counterfactual thinking is something that probably everybody does at least a little bit. You make a decision to change something, and as you look back at that decision later, you tell yourself it was a good decision because the world would most assuredly be worse if you had done nothing. The thing is, that's the mind rationalizing the decision, you don't—you can't, actually—know if the alternate future you imagine would have come to pass as exactly as you imagined it.

Vedantam uses Bush as the example, but it's easy to leave the hot potato world of politics out of it. Let's look at an example closer to home. Three years ago ASAE and its related organizations and The Center for Association Leadership and its related organizations merged. Playing the part of the optimist, I could use counterfactual thinking to imagine a world where ASAE and The Center continued on a competitive path until they bludgeoned each other so completely that neither was successful and the association sector as a whole suffered. I would then say that the decision to merge was obviously good.

Here's the thing that Vedantam points out about counterfactuals—while they sound nice and logical in our heads, all they really do is confirm our preconceived notions. I could just as easily take the pessimistic view and say ASAE and The Center competition would have led to the creative, forward-thinking programming as each side tried to one-up the other, and the sector as a whole would have been much better off without the merger.

Why is this interesting at all? For one thing, I think it's important to realize why we're dreaming up the alternative universes that we do—we're doing it because we want to validate or invalidate a point we already want to make. In addition, there is some research on tendencies that Vedantam reports. One finding is that people who tend to engage in counterfactual thinking are actually worse at predicting future events than people who resist counterfactual thinking. Another is that people who use counterfactual thinking when analyzing decisions tend to make decisions that take them to the extreme—either extremely good or extremely bad—while others tend to make decisions where the rewards aren't as great, but the risks aren't as high either.

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July 12, 2007

Posts you shouldn’t miss

The association/nonprofit blog community has been posting some great stuff lately—perhaps summer is recharging our batteries! I thought I’d pass along a few links to posts I found particularly interesting.

• Jamie Notter argues for the importance of healthy conflict on a senior staff team and, as a bonus, gives five tips on how to handle it productively.
• Ben Martin provides some analysis the current status of online social networking and why associations should be getting on board this train now.
• For the membership folks out there, two complimentary posts: Joe Grant discusses some important steps to take to determine if you’re solving your members’ problems, and Tony Rossell provides a helpful template for a dashboard to capture key information about your membership program.
• On the Bamboo Project blog, Michele Martin has some great ideas on how to build a better conference.

What good stuff have you been reading lately? Feel free to add your two cents in comments!

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June 21, 2007

Turnaround tips

Marc Andreesen, cofounder of Netscape and more recently cofounder of Ning, has launched a blog. Given his experience, his posts on startups and business in general are quite interesting.

Today, he provides "nine easy steps" for a new CEO working to turn around a company in distress. While some of his points are not going to be relevant to every association, it's worth checking out if you ever have been or think you ever will be working to right an association in trouble.

For those of you out there who have been in such a situation--what do you think of Andreesen's advice? What else did you learn from your turnaround experiences that he doesn't mention?


June 8, 2007

Step away from the Blackberry

We kicked off the morning at the Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management with Lieutenant General James Campbell, director of the Army staff. He was an amazingly compelling speaker—seriously, nobody in the audience so much as reached across the table for water for the duration of his speech.

One comment he made that hit home with me: Some of the best opportunities for on the job leadership training, he said, come when a superior is called away and a young leader has to make decisions on his/her own. But nowadays, many of those opportunities are lost, because superiors are never truly away—they’re always on their Blackberries, available to make decisions at all times. The junior staff become conduits instead of decision makers.

I’ll admit that when I’ve been out of the office in the past, I’ve usually left contact information and checked e-mail if possible. (I just checked e-mail before starting this post, in fact.) My thought was always that I didn’t want to burden others with my work while I was away. But maybe what I’ve been doing has been taking opportunities away from others, which of course is the last thing I want to be doing.

Would you consider leaving your Blackberry at home the next time you travel? How would you feel about giving your junior staff an opportunity to develop as decision makers in your absence?

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June 7, 2007

The importance of a posse

Rita Bailey of QVF Partners, co-author of Destination Profit: Creating People-Profit Opportunities in Your Organization, was one of our content leaders this afternoon at the Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management. She told an interesting story:

One of the groups she works with hired a younger woman as a graphics designer. She had some piercings and tattoos, which concerned the hiring manager somewhat, but her work was great and she came highly recommended. The hiring manager watched her at work during her first days on the job, and he noticed that she often had her iPod on; he also noticed that she typically had multiple instant message windows open on her screen as she worked.

He stopped by one day to ask her how she was doing. “Oh, I love this job!” she said enthusiastically. He asked her about the instant message windows; she said, “Oh, that’s my posse. I take them with me wherever I go.” She said that these colleagues, physically located all over the world, were her resources and sounding board; when she had a question or needed ideas, she turned to them. They, in turn, had their own posses to draw from.

Bailey noted that this woman typically completed projects in half the time it would have taken the organization’s previous graphic designer. It probably didn’t hurt that she had the initiative to develop her own learning opportunities and resources—completely independent of any one organization where she worked.

Do you have a posse?

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Other insights from Bill George

Bill George, author of True North, kicked off the Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management with a great first session. Here’s a sampling of what he had to say:

- “Our job as leaders is to empower, to align, and to serve.” He went on to say that those kinds of skills are often called the “soft” side of leadership, but in his opinion, they are really the hard side. “Making the numbers is easy. Getting alignment is hard.”

- None of us has all of the skills of the ideal leader. But you’ll become the best leader you can be by being yourself, being authentic—not by trying to emulate someone else.

- George said that he knew it was time to leave his position at Honeywell when he realized that “[Honeywell] was changing me more than I was changing it.” What a great way to measure whether you’re productively seeking change at your organization—or beating your head against a wall.

- He related a story about Andrea Jung, the CEO of Avon, who was originally passed over for the CEO position and considering leaving the company. A board member told her, “Andrea, follow your compass, not your clock.” In other words, focus on being true to what’s most important to you, and not on an arbitrary timetable.

- George was impassioned about the importance of going out to see members and customers in the field, in their workplaces, to really understand their needs and concerns. When he was CEO of Medtronic, he required his staff to visit their doctor customers and observe a medical procedure every month. How many associations have their staff visiting members on their home turf once a month?

- He spoke about the importance of transparency; associations, he said, can sometimes hide behind processes and paperwork instead of offering true engagement. Processes are needed but should be invisible; engagement should be the visible side.

- A member of the audience commented on the importance of offering members meaningful opportunities to volunteer—not just busywork. George agreed, and said that those meaningful opportunities will come through bold goals, clarity of vision, and tackling of tough, contentious issues.

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Report from the Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management

I’m blogging from beautiful Toronto, where I’m taking part in the ASAE & The Center Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management. It’s the first time I’ve attended, and so far, it’s definitely exceeding my expectations.

Our first speaker this morning was Bill George, author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. He had so much to say that resonated with me that I’m splitting it into more than one post. Here’s the first one:

“My academic colleagues who think leadership is about people at the top are just wrong,” George said. Leadership, in his mind, occurs at all levels, and if your organization isn’t offering leadership opportunities for everyone, regardless of title, you’ve got a serious problem. He argued that we should all measure ourselves on whether we have built up the human capital of our organizations, through development and growth opportunities for all staff; in fact, he said, “if you want the best people, that’s the only way you’re going to get them.”

So: If you were to measure yourself on whether you have built up the human capital in your association, where would you fall on the yardstick?


April 16, 2007

Don’t let the fossils hold you back

I recently came across a quote from Richard Danzig, former U.S. secretary of the Navy, that struck me as very insightful: “Organizations,” Danzig says, “are a kind of fossil record of what bothered their predecessors.”

Think about standard procedures and processes in your office. How many of them began because a staff director wanted to see documents presented in a certain way, or a volunteer president got upset about a particular article in the association magazine?

The quote particularly resonated with me because I had just read an article that will appear in the May issue of Associations Now (coming soon to a mailbox near you). In our May cover story, psychiatrist Keith Ablow talks about the importance of confronting your past and acknowledging and understanding the impact those experiences have had on you—either as a person or as an organization.

Now, your association can’t collectively seek therapy. But you could take the time to sit down and say, “What fossils are there in our structure and processes that we can dig up and evolve beyond?” I bet you’ll be surprised at where they’re buried.

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April 11, 2007

Big Ideas vs. Big Stars!

Wow! It’s great to be a new contributor for Acronym. I’ve been thinking and reading recently about leadership—something I know is of interest here.

The April 9, 2007 Wall Street Journal had an interesting article by Carol Hymowitz entitled “CEO Reading Lists Have Fewer Celebrities And More Big Ideas”. Ms. Hymowitz commented, “…management reading lists this year don’t include tomes by celebrity executives. Instead, readers are seeking advice on the nitty-gritty tasks of running companies, analyzing complex data to make smart decisions and expanding undervalued assets.”

A rather similar assessment appeared recently in the online McKinsey Quarterly under the title “The Halo Effect, and Other Managerial Delusions”, McKinsey opined, in an adaptation of material from the book The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, that the advice in business books, articles and business school cases, “is often deeply flawed and, worse, obscures the basic truth that success in the business world is based on decisions made under uncertainty and in the face of factors executives cannot control”. The author of the article went on to say, “this article…explores some of the misconceptions and delusions found in the business world, particularly those concerning the ability of executives to achieve durable superior performance. These include the idea that variables such as leadership and corporate culture have a causal relationship to financial performance.”

In other words, be cautious about commonly accepted business leadership folk-lore, and more cautious about whether it will fit and work in your organization.

So, bloggers, what are you reading, and what do you consider as credible advice? What strikes you as either a misconception or an outright delusion? How much of what you are reading do you think can actually fit and be successful in your organization? Curious minds want to know…

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March 20, 2007

Smart posts from smart people

I wanted to point you to a couple of great blog posts that I've read recently:

- Ann Oliveri’s blog has a wonderful post on leadership, inspired by Ernest Shackleton and Abraham Lincoln. I’ve been meaning to read The Endurance; now that I’ve read Oliveri’s post, I think I’m going to have to move it up on my to-be-read list!

- Jeff Cufaude has some thoughts that everyone with concerns about getting younger members (and younger leaders) involved in their associations should read.


March 15, 2007

A major pet peeve and gross sign of silos

There is one thing that people just absolutely need to give up. And that is thinking of how ideas or opportunities or issues will affect their budgets.

I'm not saying don't think about finances at all. Far from it. But as a senior member of staff, it is too common to think of budgets under your control first. "Will it make my department's bottom line better or worse?" I've seen people whose judgment I value a lot fall into this trap. If we are to truly move our organizations forward, this hard evidence of the silo mentality must be cast aside. When assessing anything — idea, problem, anything — use your mission first. A close second consideration is financial, but the only financial assessment that matters is the impact on the organization's overall bottom line.

Many times I've seen and heard of good ideas being beaten down, because the expense may come out of one side of the budget and any expected revenue comes out of another. When I've experienced these conversations, I've always thought they were so petty. But I've come to see them for what they really are: highly destructive to the health of the organization.

And CEOs—you're not off this hook. True, I'd hope that any CEO would look at the organization bottom line rather than how individual programs are affected. But if your senior people are going to overlook the affects on their budgets, your culture and practice must be that senior management is not held accountable for the financial performance of individual programs. Instead, senior management should be held accountable for the whole organization's bottom line. It seems to me that's the only way to have a healthy, functioning senior team.

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January 15, 2007

Day 5 of idea a day: Dreams and action

It's Martin Luther King Day. Every time I think of Martin Luther King, I am reminded of a short passage in Coming of Age in Mississippi, the autobiography of Anne Moody. Before I get to the passage, though, I have to admit I'm flirting with disaster here. Anne Moody was an active participant as America's black people struggled, fought, and suffered their way to the freedom that was promised 100 years earlier. The disaster I'm flirting with is that Moody's words don't shine the brightest light on King's "I Have a Dream" address. Here they are:

By the time we got to Lincoln Memorial, there were already thousands of people there. I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had "dreamers" instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream.

Those words were published in 1968. I do not know if it was before or after King was murdered. Nor do I know if Moody has written or said anything about King since. To say King was not a person of action would be an ignorant statement. Perhaps Moody was simply one of the few who was not moved by that speech.

I'm not old enough to have seen the South that King and Moody knew. Through the lens of 40 years, it is hard for me to imagine what I have read and heard. And at the same time, I see that there is much work still to be done. I am inspired by King's speech. I have an audio file of it that I play on occasion. But I am more inspired by Moody's book.

The idea today is this: It is important to dream, but it is just as important to act on the things that give us purpose and passion. Do whatever it is you have to do so that you can dream, and empower yourself to act on the things that are going to make a difference. Avoid the beat down where petty and unimportant things cloud your day, taking all time away from both dreaming and acting. I don't want to sound preachy, but your members deserve it. And so do you, your staff, and, for that matter everyone else.


November 8, 2006

7 Measures and small associations

I have been traveling across the country recently presenting the results of ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s recently completed major research project: 7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t. It was my honor to chair that project.

One of the questions I continue to receive from audiences is “How do the findings of the study apply to small associations? All the associations in the study were large organizations.”

We note in the book that our findings are very consistent with the literature on systems and learning organizations. Most of the organizations with which I work in my consulting practice have budgets of $3,000,000 or less. My experience with such associations and my understanding of systems research tells me that the principles that make large organizations remarkable holds true for smaller organizations.

Why didn’t we include smaller organizations in our study? The reasons relate to practical considerations. First, we used a jurying process to identify remarkable associations. Larger associations are more likely to be widely known than smaller ones. It would be very difficult for most association CEOs to identify five outstanding small associations–not because such organizations are non-existent–but because they are not widely known.

The other challenge in including smaller associations involves time. We asked each participating organization to provide us with 15 years of data on a whole host of issues including finances, strategic plans, products and serves, board minutes, etc. The process generated over 100 boxes of materials from 18 organizations. Few small associations could afford the staff time to generate such a large amount of data.

As I discuss the question further with those who raise it, I find that they agree that the principles we uncovered apply to their situation as well. What they really are seeking are examples of how associations with their staff size and budget can put these principles into practice.

I welcome – in fact – I encourage all of you to share your experiences with assessing and implementing the 7 principles. All of us would benefit greatly.

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November 7, 2006

The failure challenge

On the Association Renewal blog, Jamie Notter pulls Peter O'Neil's recent Acronym post into an ongoing minidiscussion from several different bloggers on taking action and taking risks.

A short history of the discussion follows: Jeff De Cagna questions the language used in an Associations Now article. Ben Martin and I clarify/defend the language that Jeff questions. Jamie weighs in (and again), and I leave a comment on his blog.

Finally, Jamie nicely pulls in Peter's post on lessons he saw in a Cirque du Soleil show, specifically latching on to "risky moves, when flubbed, were always celebrated," boiling it down to "celebrating failure."

Let me give a brief scenario: An organization plans an education session and budgets for 150 to participate. A grand total of 15 sign up. The organization had planned to make $5,000 and instead loses $10,000. Why in the world would you celebrate that failure?

I think most organizations would do one of two things. The dysfunctional organization is immediately going to start pointing fingers. "Marketing didn't reach the right people," or "The program topic wasn't worth marketing," or "The meetings folks booked a terrible venue." I call it the blame game, and it's a culture I've been in before and let me tell you, everybody gets bloody.

Most associations would probably call the failed education session a "learning opportunity." They learned something about the market, the place, the marketing tactics, the topic, etc. That's probably true, but I'd label this the approach of the mediocre organization.

I like Jamie's post a lot. Celebrating wrong is very difficult, but exceptional organizations will do it anyway. What is there to celebrate about the failed education session? Maybe the 15 members who came left with a new outlook that makes them and their organizations stronger. Maybe it was an edgy topic that was just a little bit too edgy, but it was worth a shot. Maybe it was a new format or approach that was worth a shot. The chances are, if you can't come up with reason to celebrate the failure, then you probably do work for a mediocre organization—or at least it had a very mediocre moment.

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Inspirational quotes?

On the spine of Associations Now, we print a sentence or phrase from inside the issue. The quote is not intended to portend the contents of the issue so much as stand on its own as thought provoker. Here's a list of the first year's quotes... how are we doing? Do you have a favorite?

"Outstanding product and service development is nothing less than survival training."
Michael Basch, cofounder of FedEx
October 2005

"Trust is crucial. I don't think you can lead smart, talented, rich, and powerful people unless they trust you."
Jeswald Salacuse, author of Leading Leaders
November 2005

"Marketing is not a department nor a person but a mindset."
Philip Kotler, Northwestern professor and author of many books
December 2005

"Forget realistic goals. Overachievers focus on what's possible, not what's probable."
John Eliot, author of Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance
January 2006

"Everyone in your organization has unique experiences that may contribute to developing your next great idea."
David Silverstein, author of Insourcing Innovation
February 2006

"Be bold. ... You want people to get in there and get their hands dirty."
Jimbo Wales, founder Wikipedia
March 2006

"During a crisis, my third command was always to put on the kettle. If the skipper wants a cup of tea, it can't be that bad."
Simon Walker, yachting captain
April 2006

"People are not stupid ... so if the frame is not seen as valid in the eyes of the electorate or consumers, it's going to be rejected."
Paul Begala, political consultant
May 2006

"When working with the board, what's said is important, but what's left unsaid is critical."
Peter Wacht, senior director of National Court Reporters Association quoting Sue Wolk, former CEO of AIIM
June 2006

"One of the most successful marketing campaigns ever, Got Milk?, was born of desperation."
Jeff Manning, former executive director of California Milk Processor Board
July 2006

"You don't shy or runaway from chaos. You actually revel in it."
Kevin Carroll. author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball
August 2006

"Stop being nice."
Dick Grote, author of Discipline Without Punishment
September 2006

"I don't do maintenance. By definition, maintenance is the status quo."
Cynthia Mills, CAE, president and CEO of Tree Care Industry Association
October 2006

"Good leaders have a nuanced insight about how to assemble power and use it."
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great
November 2006

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November 6, 2006

Lessons From Cirque du Soleil

I had the opportunity to see Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo performance in Washington, DC this week. As always, Cirque’s creative team has put together an incredible event that combines art, artistry, physical acts that look humanly impossible to pull off, and so much more. As I watched the performance I recalled Lyn Heward's, former president of creative content for Cirque, comments during the Monday opening session at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting in Boston. In short, Lyn said that Cirque hires with the idea of total team in mind, not just the individual talents of the person or troupe auditioning.

With Lyn’s words in mind, here is what I saw during Corteo:

- everyone, and no one, was the star – simultaneously

- no job was too big or too small for anyone on the stage

- body language was the primary means of communication for each troupe, with eyes set firmly upon one another – yet, at the same time, their feet and hands were constantly moving, readjusting to ensure they were prepared for the next move

- small wins were celebrated by everyone

- risky moves, when flubbed, were always celebrated

How many of us work in – or work to create – an environment every day wherein we encourage everyone to fail –and celebrate the failure? Or where the staff and volunteers act in such outstanding concert with one another that only eye contact and subtle moves of the hands and feet are needed to perform amazing “acts?” How many of encourage others – or even ourselves – to take great risks, fail, celebrate, and try again? Imagine if we all worked in – or worked to create – just such organizations.

Something to think about.


October 19, 2006

A couple of good reads this morning

Here are a couple of interesting things I ran across this morning:

U. of Penn's Wharton School talks to some of its professors about how they use blogs (or why they hate blogs) in "To Blog or Not to Blog: Report From the Front" (registration required). It essentially interviews several of the faculty asking them how they use blogs or why the don't. One takeaway nugget: one professor uses a blog as a live, interactive syllabus—posting homework, reading assignments, and the like.

The Washington Post of all places tackles an emerging trend that journalist Alan Sipress calls "the wisdom of the few" in his article "The Top Pickers vs. the Pack" (registration required, I think). It's a riff from James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, which proposes that a group of people—particularly a large group of people—can make better decisions than any single member in the group. Sipress explains the trend of taking the wisdom of crowds approach, then finding the best performers within a given crowd and using their judgment to make decisions. The power of web collaboration, and no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit, fuel the trend. What does this have to do with associations? See the article from the Winter 2005 issue of Journal of Association Leadership on Surowiecki's book.

And a final link for those truly into the whole wisdom thing, while researching this post I ran across this gem of a dialog between Surowiecki and Malcolm Gladwell on the Slate site.


October 13, 2006

My interview with Jim Collins

I pick up my phone and Jim Collins is on the other end, waiting to be interviewed. Yes, that Jim Collins of Built to Last and Good to Great fame.

The interview had been in the works for a looong time, maybe eight or nine months since he was confirmed as a speaker at the last annual meeting. We decided to try to schedule it for after the meeting. Busy schedules collide and I was under the impression that he needed to do it through email. Not ideal, but he's Jim Collins, so I understand.

I'm trying to get it into the November issue of Associations Now, so I'm interacting with his organization there in Colorado to try to make it happen. On the last possible day to get it into the issue, I get the surprise phone call. No pressure or anything.

One of the things that struck me in his Good to Great and the Social Sectors monograph and then in his address at the annual meeting and again in this interview is his description of legislative leadership (listen to his 60-second audio explanation). As I begin to grasp this concept better, I plan to make it part of my pitch to authors who have important ideas that need to be shared but who know little about associations. When I ask them to write for Associations Now in the future, I want to succinctly use this description to help explain how the association audience is different than others.

What he means by legislative leadership is that leaders in social sectors, including the association sector, rarely if ever have the absolute power to make a big strategic decision on their own. In practice, they must cobble together enough support to make such a decision. As you’ll see in the November issue, Collins visualizes this as a power map where each individual is a bubble representing the percent of power they have. He didn’t say it expressly, but I got the impression from Collins that 51 percent was a key number, that when you got to that point, you then had the power to make your big strategic decision.

By definition, I suppose that’s true, but in an association setting, I think acting with 51 percent has the potential to blow the whole organization apart. I am an enemy of the word “consensus,” which in this scenario represents 100 percent. I think there are a lot of reasons why consensus is no way to make decisions, but I think a lot of associations feel it necessary to get there or to get close. The problem is, it takes a lot of time and a lot of will to add to your power points. You could also dilute the decision as you modify your position to increase support. Not to mention, almost all of the time, consensus is illusion.

The reality—at least as I define it—is that most association leaders would say consensus is ideal but they at least want to get well past 51 percent. Where’s the imaginary line in your organization? Is it 75 percent? 80? Sure, it changes with the magnitude of the decision, but we’re only talking about major, course-changing decisions here. Does it go to 90 then?

Here’s my controversial call—maybe 51 percent isn’t so bad. Associations spend a lot of time being politically careful. There are times when you’re looking at the big, big, major decisions that the organization may just need to be blown apart. It seems to me if you’re going to be a great association leader, you need to know when is the right time to charge forward with your 51 percent and when you should lay low and build support higher.

Collins has a way of making those who interview him feel very secure and smart, and he does it by being genuine, not slick. He closed the interview by asking me what I thought needed further study in the social sector. I stuttered and stammered an answer and said I’d email him. I have more of an answer now. I think he’s hit on something important with this legislative leadership idea, so I think the next step is there.


August 13, 2006

The No Fly Annual Meeting

The news this past week has me thinking about what the association world would be like if business travel as we know it ends.

Seems far fetched, and I hope it is, but the UK has begun to ban electronics from carry-on luggage on their flights. How many of you are confident that a checked laptop will make it to your destination unscathed? Or even arrive? I know of people who are contemplating going to London via Paris and the Chunnel in order to avoid UK flight restrictions. Such draconian measures seem likely to depress business and other travel.

If these trends continue and spread, I can see business travel by air drying up significantly. The first things to be cut in that kind of travel-unfriendly environment are often non-essential meetings, which basically defines the association event.

How could you hold an annual meeting or convention in that environment? One though I've had is that you could convene simultaneous local meetings within drive distance of a majority of your membership. Each locality would recruit their own concurrent speakers. The national organization could provide keynotes via satellite, a common web site, virtual exhibit hall and supplemental online community space for attendees around the country to interact and network. It would have to be a different economic model, of course, but the current one would not survive the death of air travel.

I am interested in what you think about this idea or other options under the assumption that business air travel might be severely restricted for an extended period of time. How might associations innovate around this kind of challenge?

(Update: News this morning says that laptops are being allowed back onto UK flights.)

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July 24, 2006

Beltway bias

Those of you who know me know that I started my career in the association mecca of the world: Alexandria, Virginia. I cut my teeth in a couple of international associations – one trade association, and one professional society. Like many association executives in the DC marketplace, I developed an inside the beltway bias about the face of the association industry. One of the ways this manifested itself was in my opinions about components. For me and many of my colleagues in the DC area, state affiliates, chapters or allied organizations were disrespectfully viewed as nuisances and distractions.

A little over three years ago, looking for a change of scenery and relief from the traffic, I left DC to work for a statewide association in Richmond, just 100 miles south of Alexandria. In the time that I’ve been here, this association has grown to be the biggest I’ve ever worked for both in terms of staff and budget. I’ve also gotten to know association executives at other state associations around the country and have been consistently impressed with their capabilities. Furthermore, I’ve come across some local associations with programs that absolutely knock my socks off.

My colleagues at national and international associations are always shocked when I tell them the size of our membership. Still, I’m continually asked by my peers when will I be moving back to DC, or when will I be getting back to a national or international association. No time in the immediate future, I tell them; I’m very happy where I am.

In the years since I left DC, I’ve noticed that the savviest association executives are the ones that treat their affiliates and chapters with the utmost respect. They acknowledge that they’re partners in some ways and competitors in others. But there’s a genuine modesty and conscientious decorum in their relationships with chapters and affiliates. Although we’re not connected in any official way, I’ve always been pleased by the way I’ve been treated by the national association with whom my employers is aligned. Because of this positive relationship, I’m happy to carry the national association’s message to our membership and prospects. The results of this respect are played out in other areas as well.

Truly respecting your components may require giving up some control over programs. Opening yourself up to competition from chapters in some program areas may be necessary, too. Completely turning some things over entirely to components might be a demonstration of good faith.

Do you respect your components? Or do you overtly block them in some areas? Would they be offended if they overheard your staff’s indiscriminate comments about them?

As someone who has worked on both sides of the fence, I have learned: The beltway bias is unfounded and counterproductive.

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July 18, 2006

Planning to fail

I’m just finishing a book that’s a couple years old now, but still worth a look: Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction & Economics by UK economist Paul Ormerod. Think of Omerod as the precursor to Stephen Levitt of wildly successful Freakonomics fame; he's as accessible if not quite as colorful.

Why Things Fail goes on at some length on game theory as a learning experience and draws perhaps my favorite conclusion in the book: “Plan, predict, and control fails as a strategy, even [when] we have full and complete information.”

I draw a link from this conclusion to Tom Peters’ classic description of how to lead a business: “Ready. Fire! Aim.” The linkage is a little ironic because Ormerod cites Peters’ In Search of Excellence as an example of how people get things wrong, noting that several of the companies Peters holds up as “excellent” have since fallen from grace (a common, but unfair, criticism in my estimation, as Peters’ Excellence logic remains sage, but companies that hit it previously can also stray from it).

Organizations will never have “full and complete information,” but that doesn’t stop us from trying to get as full and as complete as we can. And plan, predict, and control sounds an awful lot like much of the strategic planning I’ve been a part of and heard about. The same conclusion leads Peters to scream “ACT!” Do something, then adjust if necessary or do something else entirely, but don’t plan perfectly because you won’t ever get there. In fact, to draw another link, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink tells us that not only are we unlikely to get to the perfect plan, we are likely to foul things up even worse in our search to become “as full and as complete” as we can be.

I don’t hate plans and planning, but there comes a time when the planning gets in the way, keeping us from the much more important work of doing.

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June 27, 2006

Attention Economy Unsession Reports

Ben Martin and I facilitated an unsession today on attention economics at the Marketing & Membership conference in Bethesda, MD. We had about 25 people in the room after lunch, yet it was a lively group! We have created this post as a place for attendees to add their notes and comments on what they took away from the session. Ben and I will also add our thoughts as the comment thread grows.

If you would like to learn more about unconferences (the model we used for the session) or attention economics (what we talked about), follow the links.

Update: Ben has posted some pics from the unsession on Flickr. Also, Jeff De Cagna has added some links in the comments to his notes from the discussion we had. Keep 'em coming folks!

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June 20, 2006

Little pieces

I almost hesitate to base my first post on an education event delivered by ASAE & The Center, but the opportunity is too good to pass up. My pledge to readers is to write about ideas and experiences that I think are interesting, no matter the source or timing.

With that disclaimer, I want to talk about The Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management, held in lovely Halifax, Nova Scotia last week. The annual forum features several world-class speakers and thought leaders in an intimate setting of less than 200 attendees. The intimacy lends itself to nice interaction between leaders and participants—and several of the leaders stayed for other sessions.

I’ll provide a synopsis of each session in an upcoming Associations Now magazine article (probably the September issue), but for my first post to this blog, I’ll give you some short fragments that, even taken out of context, stimulate my brain, and, I hope, yours, too.

On being profitable: “It’s not about making money. Money is fungible. It’s about ideas, diligence, and hard work. It’s about pleasing a customer.” Peter Georgescu, chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam.

On spreading your message: “If it’s not on the 5 o’clock news, it didn’t happen.” —Carol Bellamy, longtime executive director of UNICEF.

On management: “When you reject an idea, don’t do it harshly. Do it inclusively so that they feel encouraged to continue making a contribution.” Victoria Brown, noted facilitator using improv techniques.

On strategic motivation: “Ask yourself: ‘How can we double our effectiveness in the next year?’” Frances Hesselbein, longtime CEO of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., currently chairman of the board of the Leader to Leader Institute.

On management: “When one of your staff comes to you with an idea that they are really excited about, take it. Don’t offer any ideas or suggestions to improve it… If you do, you’ll improve the idea by five percent, but you’ll lose 50 percent of their commitment.” Marshall Goldsmith, extraordinarily successful executive coach.