August 30, 2012

What's a great volunteer manager worth?

Via Jena McGregor at the PostLeadership blog last week, a new research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research quantifies the value of a great boss. From the abstract:

"Replacing a boss who is in the lower 10% of boss quality with one who is in the upper 10% of boss quality increases a team's total output by about the same amount as would adding one worker to a nine member team. Using a normalization, this implies that the average boss is about 1.75 times as productive as the average worker."

McGregor then draws this conclusion about workforce development:

"More people need to understand that they're better off firing a poorly performing boss and replacing him or her with a better performing one, rather than adding more workers to their staffs. Once that happens, the productivity push should shift from getting more out of people on the front lines to first getting more out of the ones who lead them."

These aren't surprising conclusions, but it's interesting to see that some hard, data-based research has gone into supporting the idea of a great manager's "multiplying effect" on his or her team.

What I'd really like to see, though, is this same research applied in the context of volunteer management. I suspect that the multiplying effect of a great volunteer manager would be even more pronounced.

For paid employees, the potential influence of a great manager has a floor and ceiling, based on compensation. A worker with a bad boss still has to work to get paid, and a worker with a great boss is only going to increase productivity so far without a pay increase.

But for an association volunteer, potential productivity covers a much greater range. A volunteer with a bad volunteer manager can very easily quit, but a volunteer with a great volunteer manager could become a passionate advocate for the organization.

So go back to those quoted paragraphs and replace "boss" with "volunteer manager" and "worker" with "volunteer," and then think about how your association handles volunteer management. Perhaps, rather than fretting over getting the right volunteers lined up, you should focus more on finding staff who are great at managing volunteers, on better training the ones you already have, and on letting go of the ones who simply can't cut it. The potential upsides and downsides of the quality of your volunteer managers are too great to ignore.


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 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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May 31, 2012

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.


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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March 25, 2012

Open your beginner's mind

kao piano small.jpgHello, Acronym readers. Julie Shoop here, reporting to you from the ASAE Great Ideas Conference, now in full swing in Colorado Springs. This is my first Acronym post, so it's only fitting that I'm writing this with my beginner's mind switched on.

Let me explain: I'm a relative newbie to ASAE (having joined the staff as Associations Now editor-in-chief nine months ago), a first-timer at Great Ideas, and a complete rookie blogger. So imagine how perfectly right it felt to spend an hour this afternoon listening to self-described "innovation activist" John Kao tell attendees at the Opening General Session that one of the keys to organizational innovation is to adopt "the beginner's mind"--an attitude free of preconceptions, a mindset that says, I don't know, and that's OK.

Hey, I thought, he's talking to me. I suspect most of the 600 other folks in the room, who may have some misgivings about trying whatever scary new thing they know they really need to do back at the office, were thinking the same thing.

Tackling the new and different, Kao said, means getting comfortable with improvisation, a little dissonance, and the idea that you'll never be finished practicing.

The music metaphor wasn't accidental. Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a former professor at Harvard Business School, is also an accomplished jazz pianist, and he draws a direct parallel between the work of jazz improvisation and innovation of all kinds. In an interesting twist for a keynote address, Kao shared the stage with a grand piano, which he used to show his audience the difference between following a set of rules or instructions--the "sheet music"--and improvising to create something far more pleasing and valuable.

You had to hear it to really get it, but imagine the difference between your perfectly workmanlike rendering of a familiar old standard and, say, what Miles Davis would do with it.

"What's going on is a powerful illustration of innovation as a capability," Kao said, after using the piano keyboard to create his own version of "All The Things You Are," displayed above him in its sheet music form. "Innovation is a series of capabilities that allows the creation of a desired future. Practice builds the capability."

In organizations, as in jazz, he said, being innovative without being random or chaotic means finding the sweet spot: managing the "creative tension between risk taking and risk avoidance."

"People have the misconception about improvised music that the musician is just playing whatever they feel like," Kao said. "Jazz is not the absence of structure. It's the balance between structure and freedom, between what you have and what you're reaching for, between your expertise and your beginner's mind."

We all have organizational "sheet music"--our org charts, our standard operating procedures, our meeting agendas. We need those, but they can become straitjackets. To break free, Kao said, organizations need to create workspaces separate from their mainstream activity where innovative ideas can emerge and be explored, unencumbered by business as usual. Organizations need Charlie Parker's woodshed. (Read more of Kao's thinking on organizational structures that promote innovation in this recent interview in Associations Now.)

In other words, even though associations may become experts in doing certain things, they need to develop a culture where the beginner's is mind alive and well.

"It's important to learn the sheet music and the harmonies," Kao said, "but after you've learned them, it's equally important to throw them away."


September 30, 2011

Organization has to come from somewhere

Organization is not my strong suit. I'm not terrible at it, but I have to force myself to work at it because it doesn't come naturally to me. So that probably colors my viewpoint on the value of organization; I know it has to happen to get things done, but I sure wouldn't call it easy.

This week Tom Morrison argues on his blog that membership is still the strongest model for associations and points to the value of organization. One of the three keys to success, he writes, is "you must provide services and products that your members can't provide themselves effectively." And he tells a story of a fellow attendee at a Florida SAE event:

… an executive right next to me [said] "he didn't need FSAE to be able to pull together people and have a meeting like this. Members don't need an association for that anymore as much," he claimed. […] I immediately piped in and stated that, "You paid $50 to be at this 2-day event with 35 of the best minds in association management and you're telling me that for the $50 you paid to be at this amazing event, you could pull together this crowd for 2-days? Who's going to do your day job?"

This brought to mind an op-ed from The Washington Post (more than six weeks ago) by David S. Meyer titled "Americans are angry. Why aren't they protesting?" A couple points stuck out to me, the first about the transfer of emotion into action:

There is plenty of anger in America today […] Where are the people taking to the streets? The closest thing to a strong social movement in the United States in recent years has been the tea party, and it demands that government do less. Lately, we hear about the tea party largely from members of Congress and candidates for office, who have drowned out and replaced the activists at the grass roots. This is largely because although movements carry anger, anger doesn't make a movement — organizers do.

He later pointed out that even Rosa Parks had organizational support:

Rosa Parks wasn't just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. […] Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.

This is not the first time I've said this here, but I'll say it again: It takes a vast amount of organization to channel the energy of a large group of people into collective action. And despite all the advances in tech-enabled self-organization, I still only see these types of movements knocking off the low-hanging fruit of those organizing bodies (e.g., associations).

So count me in agreement with Tom on that first key to success being effective organizing that a market can't provide itself effectively on its own. I don't know if that means membership is the model that must support that organizing function, but the means for that organizing to occur have to come from somewhere.

Below the logo on the cover of every issue of Associations Now is a tagline: "Ideas Into Action." I've always liked it because I think it embodies what associations do in just three words. But as any association executive who has come out of a board or volunteer meeting with a brand new initiative to implement knows, getting from idea to action is never, ever as easy as it sounds.

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August 18, 2011

Us versus them

The following is a guest post from a familiar voice here at Acronym: Lisa Junker, CAE, director, publishing and custom media, at Stratton Publishing & Marketing and former editor-in-chief of Associations Now and Acronym staff blogger.

What is one thing that's holding us back as association professionals?

The 2011 Annual Meeting & Expo was a new experience for me this year, because it was my first year as an attendee rather than a staff member. I feel privileged to have been able to experience the conference on an attendee level and benefit from all the hard work that I know was going on behind the scenes!

As much as I enjoyed the conference, there was a dissonant note that stood out to me in session after session. Perhaps I was more sensitive to it because I began the conference with Shelly and Mark Alcorn's session on "Change Your Language, Change Your World"; after hearing what they had to say, I spent the next several days listening more carefully to the language around me.

What I kept hearing was language that created an "us versus them" dynamic. I noticed it with my new "consultant" name badge and the reactions association executive attendees had when they saw it. I noticed it in a session on innovation, where many questions were rooted in issues of staff versus board conflict. I noticed it in the Young Association Executive Town Hall session, where I took part in a table discussion that kept returning to management-versus-staff issues. I noticed it on Twitter and in hallway conversations that circled around staff-versus-membership concerns. I even noticed it in the fabulous closing session, where Peter Sheahan shared an anecdote about how silos held Sony back from success in the MP3 player market. What are silos but "us versus them" hardwired into an organizational structure?

Think of how much more effective we could be as association professionals if we erased those us-versus-them lines. What if staff and management worked together to build a better organization, rather than misunderstanding or judging each other? What if different departments in an organization saw each other as partners instead of competitive silos?

On my way home from the conference, I put together a to-do list of followup items from the conference. And first on the list is a challenge to myself: Whenever I hear myself creating a line between "us" and "them"—whoever the "them" may be—I'm going to try to stop, step back, and recast the issue as an "us." They aren't that different from us, after all—we just have to open our eyes to what we have in common.

(And since Shelly Alcorn's session at Annual started this line of thought for me, I should also point you to a great blog post she wrote on a related topic: "What's in it for us?")

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August 17, 2011

In times of financial distress, consider your talent

Over on David Patt's Association Executive Management blog, a recent post caught my attention: Positions not People. It's a short post, but to give the short overview anyway, he says in times of financial distress, you should rank the products and services in terms of importance to your organization and keep the people doing the most important work and lay off those doing less important work even if they may be strong employees.

It's rare that I have a completely opposite view from my association blogging brethren and sistern--usually differences are based on nuance, intensity level, or even just semantics. But I'm about 180 degrees from David on this one. Yes, use financial distress to your advantage by refocusing your organization on what really matters--but when it comes time to decide who is going to do the work that really matters, absolutely make those decisions based on the people rather than the work they are currently doing.

I think there are four kinds of employees:

1. Average or worse. Get rid of them, financial distress or not. They're not helping you. My opinion, as I've written before, is that associations do not use the hiring and firing tool to their advantage near enough. No one is striving for average; why would you tolerate average employees?

2. Good and have reached their potential. Strongly consider getting rid of them, financial distress or not. Certainly if you're laying off people, lay off these people right after the average people. In a few isolated cases, perhaps the staff person is good and has a specialized skill that would be very hard to teach or replace. Well, you have to keep that person for now, but I'd also be rethinking why I have a need for such a specialized skill and trying to develop systems, strategies, etc., to decrease my dependence on it. You know, the whole hit-by-a-bus theory and all.

3. Good and motivated to be exceptional. Keep these people.

4. Exceptional. Keep these people and, financial distress or not, push them into new areas and to try new things so they stay excited, stimulated, and motivated to continue their exceptional work for you.

Let's say you have to lay people off and you're following my advice to keep your best talent. Now let's say that some of the category 2 or 1 people are doing jobs that you've deemed essential. I say lay them off anyway. Skills can be taught. Attitude, enthusiasm, and motivation cannot be taught and in my opinion more than make up for the experience lost. The idea is take the staff in categories 3 and 4 from less essential functions and put them in more essential functions. Obviously you do this with an eye toward putting them in positions to be successful. My experience is that when you tell people with the right attitude, enthusiasm, and motivation that you need them in a certain area, that they see it as both a challenge and a vindication of the work they've previously done. It won't always work, but nothing ever does.

The way I read David's post is that he is saying don't let talent cloud your judgment about what is important to the organization. Amen. But I also think he is advocating being cavalier with that talent, maybe because of an equality ethic where all staff should be treated equally. Personally, I just think talent is too rare and I don't think the notion of equal treatment serves an organization well in this instance.

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May 26, 2011

Working virtually: A benefit or a barrier?

Small Staff Week continues on Acronym... this post is from Laurie P. Cooke, CAE, CEO of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association.

As a very small-staff organization, starting with just me in 2006, I started out in a spare office in Philadelphia offered to me by a generous board member. When I found my first employee - a perfect hire - who lived in North Carolina and considering that the organization's members were spread across the U.S., I decided to try out the growing trend of working virtually. When the second hire - again a perfect hire - lived in yet another state, I accepted that this business model was something to embrace.

We now have 10 perfect-hire employees from northern New Jersey to North Carolina and each employee is working from their home office. This has allowed me to hire the best person for the job regardless of their geographic location. Having five years of working as a virtual organization, we are now well placed to reflect on the benefits and barriers that an association faces.

We have found many benefits to this arrangement including significantly lower overhead costs for office space and equipment; employees have the ability to work from home and manage their work-life activities with more control over their time and choices on priorities; and our multiple locations gives us more access to our members and chapter leaders with ability to attend events and have deeper relationships with volunteers.

We have found many barriers including technology challenges when an employee has technical issues and has to resolve much of this themselves which as non-technology folks can be time consuming and frustrating; difficulty to manage work-life balance because your work becomes your life as your office is in your home; and the ability to bond as a team when you are not co-located so no chance to share small talk over the water cooler.

What have you found to be the case working virtually - is it a benefit or a barrier?

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May 4, 2011

A Top Ten list from MMCC/Springtime

Last week, I attended both the ASAE Membership, Marketing, & Communications conference as well as Springtime. I'd imagine most people don't go to both of these (unless they need the hours), as they're basically focused on different audiences. But as someone in a (very) small association, I do both meeting planning and marketing for my association.

So, for those who were not able to attend, I thought I'd do my top 10 takeaways -- both "formally presented" and personally realized.

In no particular order:

-Twitter is amazing. I spoke on a webinar recently in which I said I was not a fan of Twitter but did it "because I have to". MMCC changed my mind - by virtue of the #mmccon hashtag that ASAE urged us social networking types to use during the conference, I was able to not only connect with a large group of my peers at the conference, but also get the best tidbits of ALL of the concurrent sessions I was missing.

-Even content leaders can learn from their own session. I was on the panel for an Association Career Path session at MMCC and while it was "character building" to present, I was amazed at how much I learned from the other panelists, Sue Holzer and Peter O'Neil.

-Mentoring relationships should not be forced. The best mentorship relationships are the ones you "luck upon" yourselves, even if you've never formally admitted to one another that you're a mentor/mentee. Less awkward and obligation-based!

-Providing incentives to members to join/register doesn't have to mean giving the milk away for free. Incentivizing can be anything -- from priority seating to a shout out in a newsletter. And it helps fill your room blocks/meet your budgets earlier!

-The iPad? Also amazing. I was able to arrange my notes easily and quietly (no clicky keyboards on that puppy). I bought it as a toy but it truly proved itself to be a valuable business asset last week.

-Find a way to provide membership/communications values to your members' employees. Knowing someone's administrative assistant by name is a good thing. Send them a holiday card just like you would your actual members -- if they have an emotional connection to your association, the mail you send their boss is more likely to make it on their desk.

-I need to get my CAE!

-This is so simple, yet we don't do it -- segment your surveys. When we all have so many different types of members (credentialed vs. non-credentialed, executive vs. administrative, experienced vs. new to the industry, etc), why are we asking them the exact same questions and analyzing them the exact same way?

-My favorite sentence I heard at MMCC was "Failing to plan means planning to fail". Put in non-cutesy-words, make sure that you have a road map for all of your projects. Have a retention communications plan, regularly look at your strategic plan, plan your week in advance.. everything should have a plan. As long as it's attainable and realistic, it's worth the time it takes because it will save you time (and resources) later.

-Offer to help other people in your office when you need a break. Even if helping someone stuff envelopes "isn't your job", it's still a small mental break from your own task, and that person is likely to help YOU stuff envelopes later when THEY need a break. Sweet!

And perhaps a #11: Blog your takeaways so you can refer back to them later...

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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.


March 2, 2011

Latitude is Leverage: How a hands-off approach to management enables top achievement by driven young professionals

If your view of young professionals centers on the notion that they are merely collegiate graduates who exhibit know-it-all without the wherewithal behavior, keep reading. While most positions need to follow a full-year cycle in order to contribute value, harnessing the energy, exuberance, and creative ideas from young professionals who have not yet been tainted by the system or culture of your company may indeed aid in the execution of applying your experience. Wisdom could be explained as a combined balance of knowledge and experience.

Young professionals occupy a unique position in that they contribute their outsider advantage while simultaneously monitoring their adherence to new ties at your company. If you can cultivate young professionals to engage in a mutually respectful, challenging and trusting environment and the personality and required skill-set match your company's needs, you may gain insight from a different kind of wisdom.

I have a boss who is really more of a mentor than anything. He is there as a sounding board, and allows for idea generation - no matter how extreme. Sure, some ideas are admittedly "off the wall," but the initial spark and engaged follow-through on the good ideas trumps the rogue ones. We work at the speed of trust, and we embrace the philosophy of "punishing mediocre successes and celebrating epic failure," all while maintaining a good sense of humor and humility.

Kai Gansner is director of member services and vision scoping at Optimist International in St. Louis, Mo.


It's a setup...for success!

"I was waiting to see if they'd do it." "I wanted to see what they'd do." Both statements demonstrate a passive approach of observation when tasked with making sure others get something done. Both make me cringe.

Observation is valuable when the situation warrants. Boundaries are tested. Levels of gumption and competence are assessed. However, when the situation doesn't warrant (new professionals), is it waiting for failure? Put differently, is it taking the onus away from the observer to set others up for success?

For an incredibly simplistic example, let's look at my puppy, Pollock. I want Pollock to ring a bell to tell me when he wants to go outside. I put the bell on the door and tell him to "touch" it to go outside. Then, should I wait to see if he'll touch the bell when he's ready to go outside? Or, do I treat him after I coax him to touch the bell every time he whines to go outside, and then gradually stop treating when I know he's got it? For Pollock, the answer is obvious.

Maybe the answer is obvious for your new professionals, but maybe it's not. Next time you're tasked with making sure others get something done, know that if you don't set them up for success, the failure is yours too. So, set them up for success by:

  • Making sure they understand the end goal

  • Giving them the necessary tools

  • Checking in with them

  • Giving them constructive feedback when they've gone astray

Then, when you know they're ready, feel free to observe...and be ready to congratulate them when they succeed!

Jennifer Johnson works in information services for Professional Ski Instructors of America-American Association of Snowboard Instructors in Lakewood, Colo.

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The middle path

I am not only a young association professional at the age of 30 (if that's young anymore!), I am a growing association professional attempting to walk what Buddhists call the middle path between two distinct generations, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. Like many of us out there, at 30, I'm on the cusp of both Gen X and Gen Y. While I may have some Millennial traits, I'm definitely a Gen Xer through and through. So, my outlook on life and work is very different from my Baby Boomer boss and from my Millennial assistant. And yep, you guessed it...this leads to continual conflict and miscommunication in the workplace. So, I'm left trying to figure out how to make peace when it's not really in my genetic makeup to do so.

Below I describe two situations I have encountered in my professional career. In talking with my young professional colleagues, we can all relate to situations like these. There is no concrete right or wrong answer to these scenarios, but please feel free to comment on this post with your thoughts on how to handle these situations. In the comments section, I will share how I handled them and my suggestions on how to find common ground amidst these two generations. Remember, walking the middle path between two distinct generations is often a difficult journey to undertake, but it's the path we must all learn to walk as our workplaces and the world around us is always in flux.

Scenario #1
You're out of town for a work assignment for a week. Prior to leaving, you make sure to meet with your assistant to review projects so she knows she'll have plenty to do while you're out. You also make a point to note that you will be accessible by email, phone, and text and not to hesitate to contact you with questions. You do not hear much from your assistant, so you assume things are going okay. You return to the office and your boss wants to have a chat with you. While you were out, your assistant went to her and told her that she did not have anything to do and was waiting on you to complete other projects. Your boss then tells you that you need to make sure you are not the one holding up projects and that you need to delegate more. You return to your office to find things printed out and in your inbox, things that could have easily been emailed to you while you were out. Feeling at bit blindsided, what do you do to resolve this matter?

Scenario #2
This is your assistant's first job right out of college. He has a great work ethic and strong skills, but is struggling with fitting into this new world of work and starting out at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. He thinks that many of the administrative tasks are beneath him and makes that known to his colleagues, statements that you happen to overhear from time to time. On top of all this, he has taken it upon himself to delegate his work to the part-time administrative assistant and the intern. Then, one day while he's out sick, he checks his e-mail and forwards tasks to another assistant to complete since he's out. This other assistant is confused about priorities now that multiple people are sending her things and she's a bit offended. When you find out about all of this, what do you do?

Alyssa A. Pfennig, CAE, is director of membership and event services at Raybourn Group International in Indianapolis, Ind. She serves on ASAE's Young Association Executives Committee.

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February 23, 2011

Managing Court-ordered Volunteers

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 1, 2011

Prepare in advance, clean up afterwards

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

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

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

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

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January 4, 2011

Were you born to do this?

My father-in-law Gus is 100% Greek, and he is by far the master at haggling price, on anything. It is truly a national pastime, I swear. This last week he and I have been looking at a new vehicle for my wife and I to purchase...and I've had the opportunity to see a maestro at work, conducting a symphony of insults, incredulousness, straight-talk, soft talk and sweet talk, and plain old storming

He played 3 dealers off each other, literally pounding these people on price, bludgeoning them down with the sheer righteousness of a man on a holy mission. He was, I promise you, born to do this, and he pursues it with a glee that is only rivaled by hunting with his dogs. My upbringing, coupled with weak shoulders and a tendency to look at the ground, causes me to literally cringe at how he managed to work these sales people down at least 20% more than I ever could have...a master chess player, 3 moves ahead, at all times.

While I took a nice test drive and ask poignant questions about power windows and other things I know nothing about, he pulled the sales manager into her office and played good cop/bad cop (both roles simultaneously!), coaxing her down to a rock bottom price...after we walked out abruptly with little warning to this poor woman, he then phoned another dealer in the area whom he knows and pounded that port chap down another 15%, divulging just enough information to get him to bite, but holding key information in his pocket. My favorite line, which rings true with a sweet, simple truth, was 'This is what you must do for me to buy the car. I save a buck, you make a lotta bucks'. I literally was sitting next to the Buddha of haggling at that moment in time. And I realized something: You see, it's not about the end price at all, it's all about the game--and he was the star player who wanted to be there, handling a role that neither me nor my wife had any desire to fulfill, or had any true skill, experience, or knowledge to play.

All of this has made me really think about the association management world and our 'I wear many hats' dogma (which I am tired of hearing, being honest). If we are all so busy doing so many things, I wonder if we are taking the time to make sure that all of us are a good fit for the work we are doing, and that we excel at it. There has to be a better way to manage ourselves and highlight the strengths in all of us. There is nothing challenging about being too busy or wearing a bunch of silly hats. Let's stop that charade and find our core purpose, challenge ourselves, and grow.

So my question to you is; in your association, or in your life--with your employees, or with the friends and family around you--how are you empowering people to do that which they love and that which they were born to do?

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December 21, 2010

Staff change brings new opportunities

Following is a guest post from Debra S. Ben Avram, CAE, CEO of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a member of ASAE's 2010-2011 Executive Management Section Council.

It seems there's always something happening with staff. Once one issue is solved, three more pop up. The same seems to go for staff changes. It's not uncommon for staff change to happen; in fact, it's something you can put money on and expect to win. How we deal with that change—whether we create the change or it happens to us—is the real challenge.

In this month's Executive IdeaLink, the article "Managing Staff Change: Panic or Possibility" looks at some ways to embrace staff change as an opportunity to examine your organization and how its structure aligns with your strategy. Rather than finding someone right away to fill an empty slot, consider taking time to analyze how the organization's needs have changed and modify the position or your staff structure to better address those needs.

How have you done this in the past? Have you met any resistance to hitting the pause button before moving forward to hire someone new? What new areas of your strategy were you able to focus on by redesigning a position or your structure?

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December 2, 2010

A Morale Dilemma: Are We Creating Exempt Expectations for Non-Exempt Employees?

Almost a year ago, someone asked me this question seeking a young professional's perspective. It has literally been burned into my mind since, and I find myself passing it on to colleagues out of curiosity. To be honest, it's hard to articulate and frame this question succinctly for the association community.

Given the evolving workplace, changing employment models, and current pressure most organizations face, there are a few important factors to consider. The 2020 Workplace indicates this is the first time in history we've had 4-5 generations in the workplace simultaneously - so it shouldn't come as any surprise that we all bring personal expectations and assumptions for what we'd like our jobs to entail and provide. But what happens when organizations continue to face the harsh realities of shrinking budgets, in turn asking staff members to be more productive, more collaborative, and more everything, regardless of whether they are in an exempt or non-exempt position/capacity? Motivating and communicating with each individual about their unique role and responsibility is key, but is that enough to prevent possible expectations from arising? Isn't this a key area impacting overall employee morale?

To clarify, I don't mean any hierarchical implications by referencing exempt vs. non-exempt. Depending upon the nature and function of each individual position, the salary vs. hourly classification can be based upon a variety of factors and legal criteria. As part of Dan Pink's Drive philosophy, he notes that regardless of job function, we are motivated by three main factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. What we do, how we're able to do it, and why we do it. Countless case studies advocate for this philosophy, and how organizations that empower employees at all levels have reaped the benefits in areas of organizational morale, productivity, and staff retention.

Many associations have utilized this motivational model for years, and are great examples to illustrate the philosophy in action. Everyone is a vital contributor and source of knowledge. But does this lead to a new expectation from employees regarding their job classification and function?

  • Do you have non-exempt staff who contribute equally (or in some cases more) yet are frustrated without access to a more flexibile schedule or autonomy that an exempt position may afford? Frustrated with additional work without access to overtime compensation?
  • Do you have exempt staff continually frustrated or resentful towards non-exempt staff for the hourly/overtime paramaters they function within, while continually being asked to push the boundaries of work capacity because it's a required part of the job?
  • Do you find yourself identifying with one of these frustrations regularly?
  • Are these just inherent, unavoidable byproducts of any workplace that will factor into overall morale in the workplace?

Based on your experience, what do you think? Are we inadvertantly creating exempt expectations for non-exempt employees? If so, is it a result of generational implications, or just an inherent part of the workplace?

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October 20, 2010

Why you say "Thank you" to volunteers

Yes, you do it because it's polite and appropriate and we live in a world--ideally at least--where human decency matters. But that's not entirely it, either. You also do it because you want the door to be open for that person to volunteer again. We know the two are connected--showing appreciation to someone and getting them to help again--but how?

One of my favorite blogs, Psyblog, sheds a little light. The post, "Why Thank You Is More Than Just Good Manners," is based on the research of Francesca Gino and others. I point this out because it was a Gino study that led me to write what I think is one of the better articles I've written, "A Piece of Good Advice." Also because I think it's possible I have a bit of a social psychology crush on her (don't tell my wife).

This is how Psyblog author Jeremy Dean summarized the results:

"In fact the experimenters found that people weren't providing more help because they felt better or it boosted their self-esteem, but because they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they'd been thanked.

"This feeling of social worth helps people get over factors that stop us helping. We are often unsure our help is really wanted and we know that accepting help from others can feel like a failure. The act of saying thank you reassures the helper that their help is valued and motivates them to provide more."

Why is this important? When you think about how to appreciate your volunteers, think about how you can express it in ways that show the social value of their contribution rather than ways designed to make them feel good or boost their self-esteem.

(PS - The same thing works for your staff, too.)

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October 6, 2010

Fill the decision vacuum in your meetings

Do your staff meetings stink? Are they black holes that destroy all the excitement and productivity of the poor saps who dare enter?

If so, you're probably not alone. Yesterday's daily stat from Harvard Business Review says "two-thirds of meetings end before participants can make important decisions." That's just depressing.

If this is the case at your association, then perhaps it's time to institute a rule that no meeting can end without a decision being made. Just by reducing the sheer amount of wasted time (two out of every three meetings!), enforcing such a rule could have a bigger single impact on your staff's and volunteers' productivity than anything else you do. Just a thought.

If you're wondering how to make your meetings more effective so you can follow such a rule, you're in luck: offers some tips on how to run a meeting in an article just posted today.

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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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October 1, 2010

Collins' bus metaphor: greatest of all time?

As Lisa mentioned this week in her post about personnel decisions, several responses to this month's CEO to CEO question in Associations Now focused on personnel decisions. In the same issue, similar comments came up twice in the "Where Are They Now?" feature that I compiled. One interviewee mentioned the value of having a staffer eager to learn new media skills, and another mentioned the value of having board members who are comfortable with taking risks. In both cases, Jim Collins' "Get the right people on the bus" metaphor from Good to Great was used (though, I admit, one of them was my own writing in a transition sentence).

This got the bus metaphor on my mind, and I realized I see it referenced quite often. This month's magazine is no fluke. A quick search yielded all of these other instances of "right people on the bus" appearing in ASAE publications: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. In almost all of them, Collins is cited as the source, and in the two cases when Scott Briscoe mentioned it here on Acronym, he said it had "become a cliché" in one and apologized for bringing it up in another. (Again, this is just ASAE; Google "collins 'right people on the bus'" and you get 385,000 hits.)

Good to Great happens to be the first business leadership book I ever read, when a college instructor assigned it to me in an independent study. Even then, the bus metaphor struck me as the most clear and unmistakable message in the book. In my early years of working in the real world, I've heard it come up time and time again, as illustrated above, and it's certainly held true in my own work experience.

So, I've decided to make a proclamation, even though I have no authority whatsoever other than that I'm a blogger and, you know, this is what bloggers do:

I nominate Jim Collins' "Get the right people on the bus" metaphor as the greatest organizational-management maxim of all time.

And here's why:

  • It's easy to understand. There's no fancy diagram of a bus in Chapter 3 of Good to Great, because it isn't necessary. The concept of a bus with seats is universal. A kindergartner gets it.
  • Everyone works with people, so everyone can relate. With the exception of people who run one-person businesses, everyone means everyone. Whatever level you're at in an organization, you know what it's like to work with great people and what's like to work with duds.
  • For us in associations, the above point is two-fold. Not only do we work with people, but people are a product we sell when we praise the value of community, networking, and collaboration. We have to get the right people on our staffs, on our boards, at our meetings, and in our memberships.

I don't have much experience with of a lot of other classic business-leadership thought leaders like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, or Gary Hamel, so feel free to tell me I'm wrong. I'm interested to hear your choices for best business maxim, or at least your personal favorites.

(And with all of that said, you should also go back and offer your opinion on Lisa's post, too. She poses a great question: Are bad personnel decisions really the worst business decisions you can make, or do they just feel that way?)

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September 29, 2010

How important are personnel problems?

I always enjoy reading the CEO to CEO column in Associations Now, because I'm often surprised by the answers we receive. One of the questions in the latest column is a great example: "If you could take back one business decision you've made in the next five years, what would it be?"

The way this question is worded, I anticipated answers that focused on the revenue or expense side of things--new products, pricing, or discontinuing a less-than-profitable event. But instead, three out of the four CEOs quoted felt that a personnel decision was the one business decision they'd most like to take back.

It goes back to that Good to Great credo, "get the right people on the bus," doesn't it? I love Good to Great, and I've always believed that the most important thing you can do as a manager is hire the right people and create conditions where they can thrive. But I wonder: Are bad personnel decisions really the worst business decisions you can make, or do they just feel that way?


Personnel issues are in your face. If you have a festering personnel problem, you're hearing about it or seeing the evidence daily. There's a good chance you're either preparing to confront the issue or actively delaying confronting it on a regular basis. You likely find yourself having numerous conversations with other employees affected by the issue in a direct or indirect way.

Personnel problems are stressful. If you're considering dropping a poor-performing product, that product isn't a human being. You don't have to worry about whether it will have financial difficulties as a result of your decision. Not to mention that, for most of us, conversations about performance issues are stressful. Some managers handle them better than others, but I've never heard anyone say, "Wow, I'm really looking forward to sitting down and talking to Bob about his performance issues today."

Personnel problems are almost never clear-cut. People are rarely terrible performers with no upside whatsoever. So you second-guess yourself: Well, she's having problems in this area, but she's so good at other things. Maybe more training or more feedback could improve things. Maybe a little more time will help. But that second-guessing rarely leads to the issue actually being resolved--just to the problem (and the stress) continuing on.

What do you think? Is it possible we managers find ourselves spending more time worrying about personnel issues because of their nature, when we should be putting more emphasis on other business issues instead?

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September 13, 2010

Proactive accountability

I don't have any specific recent examples in mind about accountability, but it's a topic I've had in mind for a while and have wanted to get into a blog post, so here goes.

Most of the time when accountability comes up, it does so in roughly this context:

"We need to hold people accountable for their actions."

People say this about politicians a lot. It often gets tossed around regarding CEOs and boards. It comes up in relation to staff and volunteer performance, as well. In general, if you're "held accountable" for something, it's bad news. It means you're the one to blame.

This perspective seems backwards to me. It's reactive. If you're in a fuss about holding people accountable for their actions, it means you likely weren't paying any attention before and during those actions. And that's a problem for an association executive, particularly if you want your staff and volunteers to do actual work.

Instead, accountability should be built into your work from step one. Here are two examples from my experience:

  • In high school, I was a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool for three summers. Every day, the pool was packed with screaming kids and inattentive parents. But in three years, I never had to jump in the pool to save someone. Why? Because my fellow lifeguards and I blew our whistles. We blew our whistles a lot. No running. No diving in the shallow end. Et cetera. In other words, when you're proactive, you reduce the need to ever have to go into emergency mode.
  • On the Associations Now staff, we keep a running Excel file of what articles are scheduled for upcoming issues, deadlines, and who is writing or editing what. We have a weekly staff meeting in which we all have a hard copy of the lineups for the coming few months and we discuss status updates. When my name is beside an article, everyone in the department knows that article is my responsibility, and if I let the article fall through, I know that all of my fellow editors will be fully aware of that. And on the flipside, if I get something in early, everyone else knows that, too. It's all out in the open. (This system was in place before I arrived, so I can't take credit for it. Though if I ever worked on a publication without such a process, I'd install it in a second.)

Neither of these is complicated. They're just simple matters of order, organization, and transparency. They're not revolutionary systems or advanced management practices. They just have to be practiced and maintained every day, not just when things go wrong. (As a sidenote, seeking proactive accountability through transparency offers a bonus positive result: breaking down silos.)

For associations, a significant challenge is ensuring that boards and volunteers follow through on commitments. I'm curious about what proactive methods you use at your associations to build accountability into your work with volunteers or, for that matter, with staff or even with CEOs from the board's perspective. Please share in the comments.

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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 20, 2010

When members rave but staff grumble

Another post drawn from the LeBron drama. How do you like that?

To follow up: last week I shared some "what not to do" lessons association leaders could learn from LeBron James. As a closing note, I mentioned the open letter to fans that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote the night of LeBron's decision to leave.

Bruce Hammond commented and focused on Gilbert:

"… as a leader, talking about how bad or unmotivated an employee was while they were on your team doesn't make you or your organization look very good for the next potential all-star team member you want to come join you."

An excellent point. Shortly after, though, I read that numerous Cavaliers fans offered to help pay the $100,000 fine Gilbert received from the NBA for the letter and that the Cavs received "thousands of e-mails and phone calls" from supportive fans.

That kind of support from your fan base is invaluable, and given that Gilbert has now lost his biggest draw, his desire to do whatever he can to keep his customers passionate enough to fill seats is understandable, even if it means painting a former employee as a mortal enemy.

In a way, keeping sports fans happy is like keeping association members happy. They're both sets of passionate people who are often hard to please and who have a lot of ideas about how things should be run. But, for an association CEO, where's the line between keeping members happy and failing to support your staff?

I once had an association staffer tell me about her CEO's habit of throwing staff under the bus when a board member complained. In the less extreme, a vocal member can elicit a reaction or decision from a CEO that gives staff headaches later.

But, while the CEO risks upsetting staff in these cases, employees are paid. Accepting a certain amount of heat in the name of "the customer is always right" is a tacit part of the job description.

So I don't disagree with Bruce's point about the potentially negative effects of a leader rallying support from paying customers at the expense of paid employees. He's right. Failing to support your staff can hurt you in the long run. But without CEO experience myself, I can only imagine what it feels like to be a chief staff executive facing a cranky board or an aloof membership; it must be tempting to appease them somehow even with the knowledge that staff will grumble later. Dan Gilbert must have felt that way, too, assuming the impact of his message on other players even crossed his mind at all.

Any CEOs or executive directors willing to chime in on the art of keeping both members and staff happy?

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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.)


April 28, 2010

People vs. systems

On Monday, Jamie Notter wrote a post titled "Working with Other Humans Is Not Optional." He included a rather funny (in a soul crushing kind of way) comic, "The Cycle of (Time) Suck," which makes light of having to endure endless email and lengthy meetings in the workplace.

The comic raises this question in my mind: If you're buried in inefficient email and meetings, is your problem caused by email and meetings as tools or by the people using the email and running the meetings?

My answer to any question like this, about people versus systems, is always that people are the more important factor. People might not be the ones to blame, per se, but their influence is always greater, which is why I liked the title of Jamie's post. Whatever you do, however you do it, humans—with all their strengths and flaws—will be involved.

I'm not a systems guy. I might be jaded, though, by so many plans for new systems and tools that aim to solve all of our problems but somehow never take into account how normal human beings might interact with them (or that assume people will quickly change their normal behavior when they use them).

Even the best system won't work without people who are happy to work in it, but I believe competent people can still get a lot of work done without a great system in place. (Jim Collins was on to something when he said "Get the right people on the bus.") Of course, having both efficient people and efficient systems in place is ideal, but if I had to choose one over the other, I'd always go with the people.

For associations, the volume, variety, and constant churn of people in our work make this doubly important. Any problem you have is a people problem, and any system you build should be designed with real people in mind, first.

I know some of you out there are systems thinkers. Is my perspective on this missing something? Or am I just stating the obvious? Curious for your thoughts.

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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 10, 2010

Interview injustices

Okay, I'll admit it, I am not an expert. But I have to set the record straight, as I have participated in enough interviews from both sides to know that many interviewers/interviewees are spending too much time googling "interview questions" and not enough time focusing on the interview process.

Let me paint a picture; an interviewee walks into a room full of 5 people, and has to sit in the hot seat. Each one takes a pot shot, reading off of a notecard some lame-generic question they pulled from the internet 5 minutes before the interview started, something like "If you could be an animal, what would you be?" (an eagle because I want to fly) or the dreaded "What is your greatest weakness?," and the even more dreaded response "Um, I think it's that I'm a perfectionist" ... kill me now!

To me, the best interviews I've had are conversations, not inquisitions. Obviously there are things that you can't ask legally. However, through thoughtful and relaxed conversation, you can learn a great deal about a person. And I think the point is not to find the perfect candidate, but to find a creative, qualified employee who can grow into a dynamic part of the team.

A friend of mine who recently went in to interview for a sales job was given a pen at the beginning of the interview. The CEO then asked him to "sell me" on the pen. If I was in that interview I would have said "Thanks for the pen" and bolted. I don't want to work for someone who is that limited in their vision. What's next, charades?

Here are my thoughts on good interviewing. Dispute at will:

• I want to know not just what someone thinks, but what they feel too. This will tell me how they will react emotionally, and complement or aggravate the people they might work with.

• I like people to be real, and honest. I don't want them to answer the questions as best they can to increase the chances of getting the job, I want them to be honest and share their challenges, fears, and triumphs comfortably.

• I like interviews in which both parties are prepared and engaged. Every position, no matter the level or pay, deserves to be evaluated and treated as an integral part of the association.

• I would never disqualify someone for a typo or a weak hand shake; those things are small when taking into context the entire experience that is a single human being.

• Negotiating salary should not be a "whoever says the number first" event, but rather a discussion of resources and individual needs.

Let's hear some fun interview stories! Me first; once, I showed up so early for an interview, I interrupted the one before me. Another time, I was specifically told NOT to dress up, and I did so anyway ... and they never called me back ...

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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 12, 2010

Engagement tied to executive compensation

I generally loathe reality television, so I didn't watch "Undercover Boss" on CBS this past Sunday, but this week Steve Tobak at BNET's "The Corner Office" blog interviewed Larry O'Donnell, COO of Waste Management, who was the show's first subject.

The interview is generally interesting, but one comment caught my eye. O'Donnell says he was interested in participating in the show as a way to increase employee engagement at the company, which has 45,000 employees. He's a firm believer in employee engagement at all levels, and the company measures it regularly. In fact, he says:

"Not only is it a metric, it's actually in management's bonuses. Engagement is critical, and this is a whole new way to go about it." [emphasis added]

How do you like that? Tying employee engagement to compensation. Associations talk a lot about engagement, but are any of them tying it to staff compensation? If not, I think they could:

  • Member engagement. If you've figured out a reasonable way to measure member engagement over time (volunteer applications, online discussion activity, knowledge contributions, net promoter score, however you want to track it), you can pin these numbers to bonuses for volunteer or membership directors and staff.
  • Employee engagement. This might be even more abstract an intangible, but if you can gauge the mood of your staff in regard to engagment or loyalty over time, you can tie it to bonuses or compensation for the CEO, COO, or other senior staff. Waste Management does a yearly employee survey to measure employee engagement.

I've only been thinking about this as long as it's taken me to type up this post, so this is a fairly rough idea, but I wanted to make sure I passed it along, because I think it's worth considering. Engagement is a sign of a lot of other good practices, so it would be interesting to see it incentivized for staff and management at associations. And incentivizing anything with money works in two ways: it motivates people more directly (say what you will, but money talks), and it also shows your staff and membership that you're serious about engagement if you're willing put money at stake for it.

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February 2, 2010

Insiders vs. outsiders

An age-old question: is it better to hire a new CEO from inside an organization or from outside?

Today's Harvard Business Review Daily Stat points to a study that suggests that a CEO hired from within an organization is a less risky choice than one hired from the outside. The study, by Yan Zhang of Rice University and Nandini Rajagopalan of the University of Southern California, says "relative to outside CEOs, inside CEOs will tend to have a more 'even' performance across various levels of strategic change."

The exact details of the study are more nuanced, of course, and they suggest that an outside CEO's affect on an organization can be positive at low levels of change. It also suggests that the advantage of hiring an inside CEO becomes more apparent over the long term, after the first two to three years. Before then, the performance of both inside and outside CEOs is comparable.

Associations face this CEO question with an extra wrinkle: is it better to hire an experienced association executive or someone from the industry that the association represents (e.g. a banker as CEO of a bankers association)?

Nonprofit or for-profit, the most basic question is this: does good management trump experience in an industry or organization, or vice versa?

I don't have the management experience to answer that question, though I'd lean a bit in favor of inside experience. The answer may also depend on exactly how much change you're looking for in a new leader, too.

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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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December 4, 2009

Staff value: it's a big idea, even if it shouldn't be

It’s “Big Idea Month” here on Acronym, and I’m tackling one of the ideas that was submitted:

“What if associations abandoned the notion of hierarchy and every employee was valued equally?”

I’m splitting this question into two parts, because the idea of abandoning hierarchy is very different than the notion of valuing every employee equally. I’ll be tackling hierarchy on Monday, with a position that I, myself, was surprised I took.

Today, I’m going to push back on the term “equally,” which I think we should throw out for the purposes of this discussion. Workers, jobs, ideas, products—these things aren’t equally valuable and shouldn’t be treated that way. Now everything needs to be important in its own way; if it’s not important, don’t do it. The question I think we should ask is “What if… every employee was treated as valuable and with respect?”

My first question is this: is this even a big idea? Would anybody seriously challenge the notion that employees deserve to be treated as valuable and with respect?

I think the reality is that most people don’t work hard enough at being a strong manager or a strong leader, and I think it takes both to make employees feel valued and respected—so, yes, I think it is a big idea worth exploring.

Perhaps knocking down hierarchical structure is one way to make employees feel valued and respected. (Perhaps not, come back Monday for more.) I tend to think strong managers and strong leaders are more the answer. Here’s some common sense advice from Patricia Williams, SPHR, senior manager, HR outsourcing with RAFFA. It’s common sense, but all too rare.

“There are so many little ways and so many big ways to communicate to employees that they are valued,” she says. “And it’s critically important to take the time to do those things.

“By little things, I’m talking about managers giving constant feedback on performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s quote, positive or negative feedback—ongoing regular communication, even in casual conversation, will make employees feel valued.

“The larger things are things tied to compensation incentives, additional authority and responsibility, promotions. The opportunities for big things aren’t going to come around as often, that’s why the little things are so important—and they don’t happen often enough.”

When employees feel undervalued or disrespected, it’s a cultural problem, and Williams notes that culture starts at the top of the organization. If you truly value strong management and leadership skills, then you’ll continually work to instill them into the culture of your company. Things like employee surveys and focus groups—and even informal conversations—can help you determine how employees feel. But Williams cautions, “those things are great, great tools, but only if the employer uses them. Nothing is more disheartening for employees to feel like they gave earnest feedback only for it to be ignored.”

I’d add a final note: Don’t be helpless. If you feel undervalued or disrespected, it’s your duty as an employee to speak up. If you don’t you’re just contributing to the miserable culture of the organization. And I’m not saying you have to do it in an angry combative way. If there’s a history of those speaking up being smacked down, then be creative. Find new ways to raise the issues you’re having.

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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 28, 2009

Are you a Control Freak?

During a dinner conversation with my wife last week, she told me (in so many words) that I had a controlling personality. But don’t worry, this wasn’t a fight--we talk to each other like this all the time. She is a psychiatrist, and it is so refreshing to be able to talk to someone who understands behavior and personality from a medical/clinical perspective. It is much less threatening for some reason. Although sometimes it’s not easy to hear!

I am a nice guy and generally not manipulative or negative by any means, but I do think I tend toward being a control freak sometimes, as I like to influence the people around me and move them in the direction I think they/we/the association should go. I justify this to myself by telling myself "I am using my powers for good," but at the end of the day, I need to learn better how to let go.

Here are some things I’ve noticed that might make some of us "control freaks":

- Unable or unwilling to delegate important projects to others

- Micromanaging staff behavior or work

- Feelings of worth increased when people agree with you/go your way

- Volunteering/taking on many new projects or extra work. This can be a good quality, but leading a project is the ultimate way to gain more control and influence

- Constantly finding yourself in the middle of things, playing the mediator

- Being inflexible when it comes to ideas that aren’t, um, your own

- Anxiousness when things change quickly. Do you wear out pens by constantly writing/re-writing over the words on your notepad?

Please don’t judge me, and please be honest with yourself and others. Sometimes these skills above come in real handy! But I think ultimately they can be be both positive and destructive, and I’d like to hear from others on how they have proactively managed their natural tendencies. Or, if you aren’t a control freak, maybe share experiences where you worked with a freak and helped them let go a bit.

Are you a control freak?

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October 16, 2009

Quick clicks: Where's my crystal ball?

It's time for your weekly round of quick clicks from the association blogging community and elsewhere. Enjoy!

- The Signature i blog has a great post describing four ways to think about the future, and advice to help you upgrade your futures thinking. Elsewhere, Kevin Holland has some predictions for the future of associations. (And so do several commenters on Brian Birch's recent Acronym post with his predictions for 2010.)

- Jamie Notter says that the future of organizations lies in being human.

- On the SocialFish blog, Lindy Dreyer writes about the power of clarity.

- Michael LoBue at Association Voices is deleting his Twitter account, but Eric Lenke at the Hourglass Blog speaks up for texting in church (and possibly at education events, as well).

- Bob Sutton shares his top 10 flawed management assumptions.

- The Vanguard Technology blog recently interviewed Greg Hill of the Kansas Dental Association on how his association has become a "multimedia powerhouse."

- KiKi L'Italien posts 10 things she learned at her association's recent conference, while Becky Hadley at the Drake & Company blog posts about attending her association's conference for the first time.

- Jeff Hurt has some research to share pointing to the benefits of virtual education. Ellen Behrens, meanwhile, writes about the differences between training and mentoring.

- Short but sweet: Peggy Hoffman posts the 12th post in her series of truths about volunteering.


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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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."


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 13, 2009

Free Guide Available on "Making Work Work"

Despite two phone calls from newly laid off association professionals this morning, I’m encouraged to read that the nonprofit Families and Work Institute’s free, downloadable 2009 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work concludes that 81% of U.S. employers are maintaining and 13% are increasing the work flexibility they offer employees. Only 6% acknowledge reduced flexibility.

"In fact, many report they are using flexibility as a tool to manage through the recession," according to FWI.

How? You’ll find an easy-to-search summary of 260 of the creative programs and policies of 260 employers organized by geography, industry, and innovative practice—each of whom a 2008 Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.

Aside from a steady expansion of telecommuting-telework programs to help employees reduce commuting costs, other recession-friendly practices are

- Giving employees four Fridays off in the summer in lieu of raises the organization cannot afford
- Creating funds to support their own employees or others in the community who are suffering during the recession
- Giving employees the option to take unlimited, unpaid personal time off during the downturn, while keeping full medical benefits and the right to return to their jobs
- Allowing employees greater scheduling flexibility if their spouse has lost a job or seen their hours reduced and the family needs to make changes
- Creating flex year and flex career programs
- Creating workflow coordinators to monitor overwork and developing wellness scorecards to promote wellness

"The employers in Bold New Ideas present a roadmap to creating successful workplaces in a down economy," says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of FWI and lead editor of the guide. "We hope these examples will provide ideas to employers around the country for their own programs, and help employees identify progressive organizations in their region -- or become internal advocates for change."

The new guide also shares insights from the latest annual National Study of the Changing Workforce, which includes shifting attitudes toward work and lifestyle choices. Basically, we workers continue to feel "deprived," especially of time to spend with important people in our lives. Three-fourths of responding employees say they don’t have enough time for their children--a 9% increase since 1992. Spouses don’t fare much better; 61% of workers (up 11% in 15 years) complain about the lack of time for significant others.

Thus, few would be surprised to read that 39% of employees report that flexibility is extremely or very important in their decision to accept a job or not. However, even to those currently employed, 86% rank flexibility as extremely or very important.

That is overwhelming. So why then, do only half of U.S. employees "strongly agree" that they currently have the flexibility needed to manage work and personal life successfully? Read the guide for clues and to learn more about how and whether organizations are including workers in questions around flexible workplaces.

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August 7, 2009

Quick clicks, part II: Electric boogaloo

Since there were so many good posts to choose from this week, I split "Quick Clicks" into two parts. Here's a roundup of some great non-Annual-Meeting-related posts:

- David Patt of the Association Executive Management blog argues provocatively against contested board elections: "Members should care about the quality and quantity of services. If they get what they've paid for, it should make no difference who holds office."

- In other governance-related discussions, the Nonprofit University blog has seven reasons why term limits are a must for nonprofit boards. And at the Off Stage blog, Judith Lindenau discusses some reasons why nonprofit boards should have no more than three committees.

- Kevin Holland at Association Inc. says the sky is not falling--and associations have a bright future ahead.

- At the Zen of Associations, Ann Oliveri wants to know why associations use so much "generic, homogenized association speak."

- Jamie Notter asks if the staff at your association are learning as they go about their work. Are you capitalizing on informal learning opportunities?

- Have you ever considered holding a meeting or conference in partnership with a related organization? At the Drake & Company blog (which has added several new bloggers lately), Steve Drake has some tips for managing a joint conference.

- Cindy Butts at AE on the Verge shares some interesting ideas for team building activities in a tough economy.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel has some great dos and dont's for RFPs (a re-post of something she wrote a while back, but I hadn't seen it before and maybe you haven't either ...).

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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 28, 2009

One rotten apple ...

You know the saying, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” I am especially interested in the veteran managers’ opinions on this list. Is this just a quaint saying or is there any wisdom in it?

If so, if and when you do find one “bad member” (if there is such a thing) or one “bad” employee….what do you do about it?

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July 27, 2009

Reinventing management

"Management is a social technology that we use to get human beings to work together toward productive ends. And that technology is evolving at a snail's pace."

Author and management thinker Gary Hamel (who will be a general session speaker at the Annual Meeting in Toronto) has some really interesting things to say about management, what's wrong with it, and why it needs to evolve now (and not at a snail's pace) in the video below, a clip from a presentation he gave at the World Innovation Forum. Are there any associations out there implementing the new ideas Hamel speaks of?


July 14, 2009

Consulting and consultants

Remember this old joke? “We’re from the government and we’re here to help!” This assertion is usually followed by incredulous guffaws. Similarly, certain circles of association executives are amused by any assertion about the helpfulness of consultants.

The reality is that the fastest growing, most innovative, and most influential associations in the world are the most prolific users of consulting services.

Why? Consultants provide expertise at critical junctures; resources to meet needs and opportunities when internal resources are insufficient; institutional knowledge from a variety of organizations that have faced similar challenges; an outsider’s perspective, uninfluenced by the internal politics of your organization; and the stamp of third-party credibility, when needed.

Of course, not every association derives the full benefit of every consulting assignment. There are some tricks of the trade: Good managers plan for consultants, researching potential costs and including them in their annual budgets. They develop RFPs that are clear, accurate, and complete (in terms of what is trying to be achieved, the real timeframe, and the resources available). And they are prepared to give a consultant the time and information he or she needs to do the job effectively.

I’ve written at greater length about this same issue for Association Trends, but I would welcome discussion from either consultants or association executives as to whether this recession has caused them to rethink or alternatively to confirm their feelings about associations' use of consultants and consulting services?

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July 3, 2009

Quick clicks: Virtual fireworks only

For those of you in the United States, have a great holiday weekend! Here's some reading material to take with you:

Jamie Notter challenges associations to try for truth.

Bruce Hammond shares his experience on "the other side"--as a volunteer--and the lessons he sees for associations.

Tony Rossell is hosting an interesting discussion on incentives and membership recruitment. Elsewhere, Ellen Behrens at the aLearning blog is also thinking about incentives and how to make them effective.

Ann Oliveri at the Zen of Associations blog has some ideas about how to better engage association employees.

Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog asks whether trade associations can be truly global.

NTEN's blog lists 10 disruptive technologies your organization should be thinking about.

Michele Martin has a helpful post on making social media and learning more accessible to people with disabilities.

Peggy Hoffman shares an interesting picture of how a for-profit company is interacting with and engaging its customer community.

Harvard Business's Conversation Starter blog has a recent post on three ways to make conferences better. It's interesting to see what someone outside the association field sees as radical suggestions to improve conferences and meetings.

Here's an idea you can easily apply in your work: the Signal vs. Noise blog suggests that changing your writing instrument might help you focus on the big picture.


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 22, 2009

Remote Staff as an Asset

In this century, more and more individuals are moving toward working part-time or full time from a remote location. This trend will continue, as we begin to integrate personal and business lives into a more cohesive, and perhaps even healthier, lifestyle. Associations are uniquely positioned to view this trend as an asset, not a liability.

Let’s not forget that productivity has nothing to do with proximity, it’s a function of culture, good management, and personality. If you are confident that the intersection of these three items at your association is strong, then read on!

Realizing remote staff as an asset will allow you to see the following opportunities:

Communication can be maintained, and in some ways enhanced, by distance. For example, two personalities who are extremely diverse may actually work better together if they have some distance, and communicate less in person and more via email/chat, or by phone. In-person meetings are still important and can be arranged based on proximity/need.

Use the remote location to further your interests. Is the remote employee on the other side of town closer to the printer that you use? Are they in a different state that allows them to travel to other industry events for less time/money?

Less interruption can lead to increased productivity. We are all constantly interrupted, and the office atmosphere is one of the most invasive spaces to work in many places. A remote worker at home may be able to schedule more interruption-free time.

Expect extended availability. It seems like a fair exchange that if a remote individual receives some serious bennies, like working in their pajamas, having a more flexible schedule and being able to save money on gas, that you can realistically ask and expect them to be more available for phone calls and other issues during non-business hours.

Managing traditional and non-traditional employees does pose some challenges. Some tips are:

Treat them differently. It’s okay to do this, because the goal is to re-align their job descriptions and duties with their remoteness; they are satellite offices, and should have different expectations than in-house staff.

Barter. Any staff member who works remotely will not be able to, for example, answer the phones constantly or do specific admin tasks; trade these out with other tasks that they can do from anywhere, for example asking them to update the website more often, etc. Being proactive and showing the in-house staff that they aren’t expected to double their workload may help alleviate any feelings of unfairness.

Accountability knows no bounds. Proper accountability, in the form of defining the task and responsibility, setting parameters, providing a small set of boundaries, and asking staff to report back, really does not have anything to do with distance. If you really think about it, there have been remote employees in many industries for decades, in the form of outside salesman. Now we just have more tools to make it easier.


June 15, 2009

Armchair Psychiatry & Your Association

Our lives are filled with so much noise that it’s hard to filter out the important from the not-so-critical. However, as humans, our filtering process is exceptionally important. The better we understand what our personal filters are, the more we gain more insight into how we interact with (and manage) others.

My conversations with my psychiatrist wife have had a profound impact on how I think about this topic. Here are some concepts that I’ve learned from her that have helped me better understand my own filters:

Projection: In the most basic sense, this is when one person’s unwanted feelings or thoughts are projected onto someone else. For example, as a manager I may be insecure that my work isn’t as detailed and organized as it should be. Instead of realizing or addressing my own anxiety, I may focus more on the shortcomings I perceive in the work of those who report to me, micromanaging them in the process.

Personality: Some doctors say it can’t be changed after a certain age. People often say ‘that’s just the way I am, don’t try to change me’. The Buddhists say that we hold to ideas about who we are that are unrealistic, as we are made of infinitesimal pieces that are constantly changing. Others say they can measure it and tell you if you are a networker or an introvert. Who is right? The truth may be that they all are; it is extremely hard to change certain pieces of ourselves or others, but it’s also extremely possible. And isn’t that what great leaders do, change people?

How does this apply to association management? If I could practice what I preach in this blog entry, I’d have a way bigger ego than I already do—but I’ve found that if I can absorb some of these concepts into my filter, it helps me navigate a bit.

Here are some tips for rethinking how you approach people in your day-to-day relationships:

- Treat people as you’d like them to be. Note: Use this concept only with positive feedback, never criticism. Constructive criticism is a management tool, not a way we interact with those around us on a day-to-day basis.

- People behave the way they do because they are getting something out of that behavior—even negative behavior provides results. Look for the results a particular behavior is providing.

- When you interact with someone, especially someone you dislike or are having a disagreement with, picture them as they may have been as a child. Think of them when they were 10 years old and got their feelings hurt. Think of them in the sense of a composite of all of their experiences—some they could control, most they could not.

- Don’t worry so much about being taken advantage of.

- Trust people until they give you a reason not to.


May 26, 2009

Going virtual

Here is a topic that must strike fear into the hearts of commercial real estate people—virtual offices!

I’ll admit this is a difficult concept for me because I work in an office environment with colleagues with whom I can share ideas and pick brains whenever the need or whim strikes. I cannot begin to number the ideas that have sprung out of such casual conversations…which would not have occurred at all had they been planned. I also have witnessed the gradual degradation of relationships that have depended solely on emails, phone conversations and even audio-visual links—with misunderstandings and suspicions growing until that time when the individuals actually meet face-to-face and find all pent-up tensions fading away like fog exposed to a bright sun. For all these reasons I see humans as social animals that require face-to-face contact in order to communicate effectively and to realize their full potential as colleagues, partners, and friends. But I may be wrong…..

Do virtual offices work for organizations of any size? Could organizations the size of IBM abandon its buildings and have all their employees operate from home in a virtual environment? Technically of course they could, but would it be as efficient and as innovative?

Does the type of business matter? Obviously employees of manufactures need to come together to make things, but what about professional services—such as law firms and accounting firms? Does it work for any business or association that is not required to physically assemble stuff?

Organizational structures clearly have changed because of technology. We see client service teams in consulting firms whose members are located variously in Japan, the US and Europe with their team leader in South America. The possibilities of virtual business relationships are mind-staggering; but in all of this are there limits or hidden expenses related to lost efficiencies?

Here I am in my tie and professional environment writing this blog, but for all you know I could be in a swimming suit next to a pool….hmmm…. How virtually can we lead our lives and our businesses? Is there a limit at which we begin to lose something essential?

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May 22, 2009

The return of quick clicks

I have been extremely remiss lately in sharing links to some of the great discussions happening in the association blogging community (and elsewhere). Here are just a few of the interesting posts I've seen this week.

(What did I miss? Feel free to share links to other recent standout posts in comments. Note that links can occasionally trip our spam filter; if your comment goes into quarantine because of the link, I'll release it for you.)

- Totally not association related, but if you'd like to take a few minutes to change your perspective this morning, check out this set of photos on The Big Picture photoblog: Human landscapes as seen from above.

- Cindy Butts at the AE on the Verge blog asks which of your association's programs are your "biggest losers." (A follow-up post describes what you might do once those "losers" are identified.)

- NTEN has posted a roundup of materials related to the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference. I haven't had a chance to review them in detail, but if you're interested in nonprofits and technology, I'm sure there's something in there for you.

- Frank Fortin at the Guilt by Association blog says that associations can learn a lot from Staples on how to operate in a recession.

- Bruce Hammond has some thoughts on personalizing membership: "People like to be treated like they're the only member of your association."

- Lindy Dreyer at the Association Marketing Springboard blog as a provocative question to raise: If having great content on your website is no longer enough to draw people there, what should we do next?

- If you have ever sat through an unsuccessful RFP process (on either side), you may be interested in a post by Rick Johnston on a new trend called "speed sourcing."

- Is your association listening actively? Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog has some ideas on how to open your organizational ears.

- Maddie Grant at the Socialfishing blog has some thoughts on the complicated nature of our organizations' identity in a digital age. Jamie Notter has posted in response.

- A group of association Twitterers have started organizing "association chats" on Tuesday afternoons. Deirdre Reid at the Reid All About It blog has more information and a summary of the first discussion.


May 5, 2009

E-mails to Myself?

In my rapid-fire life as to owner of an association management company, just keeping track of all everything is a big deal. In fact, I think it is the “biggest deal” of all. I simply can’t let anything slip through the cracks. When dealing with multiple associations, there are deadlines set, often by others, with no regard for how these deadlines might interact. Sometimes it is a challenge.

For years I have maintained a master to-do list. “Shoe repair,” “finish book,” “develop project plan for membership drive,” and “plan Berskshires trip” all share space on a single list. There is only one me, so I figure I only need one to-do list. But I have to say it is a long list. It used to be on sheets of yellow legal paper; then it was on my desktop, and the latest version was in a spreadsheet.

The problem with maintaining any kind of to-do list is that it takes time – lots of time. I would rather be “doing” than writing lists of what I need to do.

Today, I came up with the best way yet to maintain a to-do list. It isn’t a list at all; it is my e-mail box. About 70% of what I need to do comes in the form of e-mail. Another 15% comes from my own notes from meetings and another 15% comes in the mail.

My e-mail program (I use Eudora) allows different mailboxes, so I have named one “To Do List.” I can also give each e-mail a color, though you could use whatever system your e-mail program offers for prioritization.

If an e-mail comes in that requires me to take some sort of action, and I can’t do it immediately via return e-mail, I give it a “priority.” At the end of the day, I transfer everything that is prioritized into the “To Do” Mailbox. Other items go into the 2009 Archive.

I use the following Priority categories, but you could set up something that works with your e-mail. The categories are: HOT, ACTION, LATER, PENDING, ORDERS, ATTEND. Because I am using color coding, the Priority Flag is not in use. This means I can go in each day and look at the HOT items, and actually use the real Priority Flag to note the ones I want to tackle first. When a task is accomplished, it can be moved into the Archive file.

This is great for the 70% of actions that are e-mail driven, but what about the others?
In the case of things that come up in meetings with client boards, I can just send an e-mail reminder to myself, right there on the spot at the board meeting. When things come by mail, or something pops into my head that I think I should do, I just send e-mail to myself from my desk or cell phone.

This simple technique allows all of things I need to do to come together in one place, and the system in very easy to maintain. Now I can spend more time doing and less time making lists. This will definitely save me time and help me do a better job.

What tricks do you use to keep yourself organized?

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March 26, 2009

More influence than you think

It's easy to forget how much impact you have on the people around you. After all, you're not really thinking about them; you're thinking about what's gone wrong with the project you're working on, your plans for the weekend, an argument you had with a friend over last week's American Idol elimination. (Alexis Grace was robbed, by the way.) You're focused on your own priorities and not thinking about the fact that those around you are seeing your face and body language, and wondering what's wrong.

In this economy, the sensitivity is that much greater, especially for those of you who are CEOs or managers; your bad mood can cause a wave of worry. A series of bad moods can create a negative atmosphere in your entire office.

A quote comes to mind from Gershom Gorenberg's excellent book The End of Days, which I just recently finished: "You have to think not only about what you intend to say, you have to think about what people will understand you as saying." In context, the book is talking about the power of a religious leader. But I think there's a lesson here for association leaders as well.

What I take away from that quote is that it's not enough for us to think about what we're saying, whether to staff or to members. We have to think about how our body language, voice, and overall attitude communicates as well. And we have to think about alternative interpretations of what we say; "We're going through a rough time" can be interpreted as "We're all going to lose our jobs" by a nervous employee. It can never hurt to take the time to consider potential unintended readings of your words and actions, and how they can impact those around you.

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February 27, 2009

Choose your partners wisely

It is really scary to me that the longer I am a consultant and the more involved I get with social media, the more I realize how much of what we see in our daily lives can translate into smart business practices for associations. Here is an example:

In the spirit of going green, I do as much of my banking as I can through my bank’s Online Banking System. I recently signed up for an e-bill service that would replace my paper statements with email notifications alerting me to when a bill was available so that I could review and pay it online. I thought this was a fantastic way to do things—until I didn’t receive a statement from one of my credit cards for about 3 months. Since this was a card I don’t use frequently and honestly was trying to use less, I didn’t catch the problem until I went online to check something else and saw that I was now 2 months delinquent and had late payment fees as well as interest charges piling up.

I immediately called the credit card company. They informed me that they had not made a mistake; their job was just to make sure that the e-bill partner had received the bill. If I then didn’t receive it, that wasn’t their fault. They refused to waive any fees and told me to call the e-bill company.

My next step was to call the bank where I originally signed up for the e-bill service. They told me that they understood the problem but that they needed to conference me in with their e-bill provider. Once we had the e-bill partner on the phone, they told us that they had not received a bill from the credit card company in 3 months. We then tried to conference the credit card company in as well, but they continued to be adamant that they did not do anything wrong and literally hung up on all of us.

The good news is that the bank and their e-bill provider agreed to jointly reimburse me for the charges. The bad news is that it took me almost 90 minutes and quite a bit of frustration to get there.

All this could have been prevented if my bank and their e-bill provider had predicted the credit card company’s reaction to such a problem and had more detailed procedures in place to make sure something like this did not happen. The bank and the e-bill provider handled it very well, but the situation could have been avoided if the bank had chosen their partners a little more wisely.

Partnerships are a great way for associations to extend their offerings and serve their members in a cost- and time-effective way. But we must all perform due diligence and set up as many procedures as we can so that situations like the one above do not happen to our members. Members want to know that they are getting good service and do not want, or need, to see “behind the curtain.” It is our job as association professionals to make sure they experience good (and seamless) service when working with us and with our partner organizations.

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January 6, 2009

Paper in a Virtual Organization

About ten years ago our son, then in his mid-twenties, announced that he didn’t use paper. This revelation came tumbling out when I offered to buy him a file cabinet for his new home office. I have to admit I was shocked – my son did not use paper! How on earth could he survive? But he was not only surviving, he was thriving in business and still had time to “have a life” with his young family.

Then I asked myself the next obvious question – I wonder if I should stop using paper? In those days I was still actually printing out e-mails. I resolved right then and there to try to live paperless. I cancelled my newspaper and magazine subscriptions and I stopped printing out e-mails. I would call the experiment a “mixed success.”

Ten years later, I print out few emails. I have gone back to reading a paper newspaper and some paper magazines. My association management company operates virtually using mostly Web-based applications. The number of papers I must handle daily has been greatly reduced, but STILL there is paper and I still have to deal with it.

As I see it, there are three fundamental choices in dealing with the stuff that comes across my desk and into my company.

1. Convert everything to paper.
2. Convert everything to digital images.
3. Take it as it comes.

I have decided that I am simply going to “take it as it comes.” I have parallel systems for electronic files and paper files (I use notebooks with sheet protectors.) I just don’t have time to spend converting paper to images or images to paper. The fact is, I am adept enough at handling information either way, and file conversion takes time. Sure, the occasional document gets scanned in to join its digital friends and the occasional electronic document gets printed out and put in sheet protector file with related paper documents.

And what about the boxes of paper archives in the storage unit? They aren’t hurting anything and the rental of the unit is far less than it would cost to scan them in. And, in time, they will die a natural death due through document retention policies. Meanwhile, if IRS comes to call they are there waiting patiently.

The volume of paper is gradually going down and the electronic volume is going up. Newspapers are closing down and magazines are getting interactive. Even accounting is going digital. Kindles are sold out at Whatever….it is all information and we need to handle it and process it in ways that make sense. Right now, for me, it makes sense to deal with information on its own terms!


December 8, 2008

Stopping the Silo Effect

In every association I have worked at, departmental structure determined who you met and worked with on a daily basis: for example, the marketing team held meetings together, meeting services worked on their project plans, etc. And even though departmental representatives met during Senior Team meetings, this organizational structure created silos and hindered interdepartmental collaboration. Being a member of the chapters’ team, I ran into this problem frequently since my volunteers worked with many of the departments. Currently, my team works with the Presidents while other teams work with committee chairs – my team doesn’t have communication with the chairs and vice- versa. I’ve learned that there’s nothing worse than having your volunteers know about a staff or board decision before you do.

Recently, I’ve tried to envision how the silos can be minimized so that the volunteers and chapter team works at its optimum level. I’ve met with department leads for chapters in order to obtain more information on how they do their jobs. This information will then be compared with other associations which ultimately will be included in an analysis of our association’s approach to chapter management. I will share this information with the other teams’ leads and have discussions on how our teams can work together. Afterwards, I hope to hold quarterly meetings with key staff to discuss progress made and opportunities for further engagement. I’m undecided on social activities with the group, as this may seem juvenile. I’m interested to see how well this approach works, as it has the possibility of rapidly improving our program.

How has your association dealt with silos?

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October 24, 2008

Quick clicks: Performance reviews, flex schedules, and more

I've been collecting a bunch of links to share with you:

- Did you see the very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on why you should get rid of performance reviews? I don't know if I agree (although Scott might), but it's definitely a thought-provoking read.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel started a good discussion about flexible schedules.

- Kristin Clarke's post on associations and the financial crisis sparked some good posts by other bloggers: Bruce Hammond lists some questions we should be asking right now, Caron Mason suggests ways associations can help members impacted by the economy, and Tony Rossell points out that association membership can be a form of unemployment insurance. In addition, Kerry Stackpole writes on leadership in uncertain times

- Kevin Holland and David Patt respond to Scott Oser's post on whether or not attendees at association meetings are really ready for new meeting formats. Both of them raise important points about the negatives of some more interactive education sessions.

- David Patt also points to an interesting blog post, where the blogger in question and her commenters discuss the pros and cons of joining a professional association. It's an interesting glimpse at a potential member's thought process.

- Wes Trochlil is gathering information on associations that use their AMS successfully.

- Lindy Dreyer suggests that both age and generation are less important than we often think.

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October 14, 2008

The power of the mirror

I recently attended a program titled “Unleashing the Power of Coaching.” I’ve experienced professional coaching on several different occasions and fully believe in it. Several weeks later, I participated in another program, “Motivating the Unmotivated,” led by Francie Dalton. I registered for the session with an expectation that I’d walk away with ideas on how to better motivate others. Something else happened, though.

As I sat through the session identifying colleagues based on the 7 different workplace behaviors, which include commanders, drifters, attackers, pleasers, performers, avoiders, and analyticals, I realized that I too was one of “them.” It was sobering to accept my identified behavior, because it wasn’t the one I wanted it to be, but it was one that I had to embrace. That realization took me back to the power of coaching.

The ultimate goal of coaching is to get from where you are to where you want to be. Lots of people are comfortable with where they are; I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, depending on how you look at it. Workplace dynamics and cultures vary from one organization to the next, and we contribute to those dynamics and cultures based on our behaviors. I think if we all took time to invest in ourselves and utilized a professional coach we’d be more aware of how we positively and negatively influence those that we try to motivate.

How many times have you thought “If only I didn’t have to work with so and so” or “If only my organization did more of X, It would be a better place to work”? I bet it’s a lot more often than you’ve thought “If only I did X, my organization would be a better place to work.” And in the end, you can change your own behavior much faster than you can motivate others to change. (Even better, your changed behavior can create that motivation for others.) Coaching isn’t a solution to problems, but it sure can help you look in the mirror!

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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 18, 2008

Partnering as a driver of international trade and investment

One of the more interesting facts among international business trends is that every year since the late 1980s the greatest increases in international trade and investment are to be found not among the large multi-national corporations, but among small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). The largest share of international trade and investment is still held by the largest multi-national companies, but this position is being eroded and eventually will be overtaken by the SMEs.

To borrow a line from Ernest Hemmingway, “The curious thing is that [they—the SMEs] should be here at all!” Without teams of lawyers and thousands of professionals on the payrolls in bricks and mortar structures around the world these small and medium size companies have been able to indentify and exploit opportunities in foreign markets—in many cases, even before the corporate giants know what has happened!

In the early 1990s Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu did a study that examined this phenomenon. Bear in mind that this was the time when the Soviet Union imploded, Europe’s Iron Curtain came down and serious trade for the West was opening in China. What the Deloitte study found was that the largest companies had too many investments in established markets that bogged them down and made them too slow moving to take advantage of these new opportunities as rapidly as did the SMEs. But without any international infrastructure of their own, how did the SMEs do it? The Deloitte study found that SMEs essentially formed partnerships using networks of contacts available to them through the associations and chambers of commerce to which they belonged.

“The Power of Partnership” discusses this tangentially, but I think it could be the subject of its own book ...


September 17, 2008

Quick clicks: Chapters of the future

I feel very behind on my "Quick Click" posts! Here's a roundup of some of the interesting conversations going on around the association blogging world:

- Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog has some interesting thoughts on the "chapter of the future."

- David Patt shared some interesting things he heard at an Association Forum of Chicagoland event for small-staff CEOs focused on creating employee engagement. Jamie Notter was inspired by David's post to ask some questions of his own.

- Kevin Holland at the Association Inc. blog has some really interesting quick-hit thoughts on several topics, all in one post: time shifting, leadership legacies, "we bees," staff ownership in associations, and more.

- Stuart Meyer at the Association 2020 blog talks about how associations can help innovative ideas to succeed (despite the forces that might push against them).

- Mickie Rops and some great guest bloggers captured a lot of good information during the NOCA Credentialing Leadership Forum. If you have an interest in credentialing and certification trends, definitely check it out; the first post is here and the last is here.

- Bruce Hammond has a great post about how policies can be perceived by members who run afoul of them.

- Jeffrey Cufaude has a thoughtful post on evaluating past experience, asking "What experience most matters?"

- If this election season is inspiring you to advocate, you should definitely read Stephanie Vance's series on "Forming an Advocacy Habit."

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September 10, 2008

A question of trust

I come back to the “trust” issue because it emerged as one of the common denominators of every successful partnership we studied for “The Power of Partnership,” yet it admittedly is a very “mushy” concept. What is the difference between the “trust me” uttered by a con artist and the relationship of trust that permeates every solid partnership? The book discusses two measures that managers should take.

When negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Soviet head of state Gorbachev, President Reagan was fond of quoting a Russian proverb to him: “Trust, but verify!” Certainly every successful partnership that we studied had defined goals and measurements in place to track progress against these goals so that all parties knew what they had to do and when they had to do them. So trust can be verified in a very business-like manner in this way.

But of course life doesn’t always proceed according to plan. When the unforeseen happens, as it sometimes does, solid partnerships can withstand some pretty severe shocks while the less solid ones fall apart with the slightest jolt. In this regard, the second key distinguishing characteristic of solid partnerships is found in the synergies or complementarity of their missions and strategic goals. The leaders of successful partnerships actively seek out other organizations whose core missions and strategic goals complement those of their own organization. This can lead to some interesting and unlikely combinations, not only between nonprofits and for-profits and nonprofits and governmental organizations, but also partnerships between very large and very small organizations as well as partnerships between organizations whose respective stakeholders might otherwise consider each other rivals.

Many partnerships we studied were between organizations headed by individuals who had known each other for many years; but we quickly found that partnerships that were well conceived could continue despite changes in the leadership of one or more of the partnering organizations.

However, personality is an issue in a way. Virtually everyone we interviewed agreed that successful partnering was difficult to impossible for people who insist on being the center of attention or for those who insist on personally being in control of every detail—large or small—of a project.

This concept of being comfortable in a teamwork environment is rather critical; but one of the things I would have liked to have explored more in “The Power of Partnership” was whether nonprofits that typically have “flatter” organizational structures, adapt to partnering better than for-profit organizations that typically have more pyramid-like and “command and control”-driven management structures and styles.

What do you think—is partnering an area of management science where associations have a competitive advantage over the for-profit sector?

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September 8, 2008

Partnering—a useful management tool for the association world?

Viewed in the larger perspective, it could be argued that partnering is not only a useful management tool that allows organizations to achieve more than they could on their own—it is a skill that should be part of the course requirements at all business schools, schools of diplomacy and public affairs…in fact every field of endeavor where people are required to work together efficiently and effectively. Yes? No?

As a teacher in a Masters of Business Administration program I regularly hear students complain about being forced to work in teams. It would be so much better, they say, to be able to work on their own schedule, without having to rely on “weak links”—to be responsible only for their own work. Indeed, wouldn’t this be nice? But Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business insists that we use the team approach in teaching because that is the way the “real world” works…or is it?

Over the years as a management consultant I have seen truly brilliant people in management positions going it alone, making checklists and ruthlessly driving their staff to do exactly what they should, when they should, according to their master plan. We all know this “superstar” management approach exists in the association world…in fact it might even be the way most associations are managed. But is this the best way to manage?

To a large extent partnering requires a personality that is able to “let go,” to be able to trust that others will want to do what they should because it is in their best interest as well as yours. But the fact that 50% of all partnerships fail is an indication that not everyone has the personality or skills set needed either to identify the right partners or to make their partnerships work.

So, here are two questions:

- Is partnering a necessary management tool for association managers? and
- Can anyone learn how to use it effectively, or does it require certain personality traits that you either have or you haven’t got?

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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


May 28, 2008

Quick clicks: Stand ups, co-creation

A few links and recommendations for your Wednesday morning:

- Hugh McLeod of posted a valuable thought to his blog (originally something he posted on Twitter): "Word of mouth is not created, it is co-created. People will only spread your virus if there’s something in it for them."

- Jeff Cobb of the Mission to Learn blog has launched a second blog, focusing on business and marketing strategy: Hedgehog & Fox.

- Jeffrey Cufaude talks about the value of stand-up meetings. (I remember reading somewhere that the best way to have an effective meeting is to remove all of the chairs from the room ...)

- A bunch of other association bloggers have already linked to this, but I really feel like Acronym should as well: Seth Godin tells us that the bar has been raised for meetings and conferences. "And here's what a conference organizer owes the attendees: surprise, juxtaposition, drama, engagement, souvenirs and just possibly, excitement." Do your association's meetings deliver on those expectations?

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April 17, 2008

The importance of morale

How important do you think employee morale is to your association's productivity? I've always thought it was important, but I've been doing some reading that made me bump it up significantly.

Brad Bird, the Oscar-winning director behind movies like The Incredibles, made a great point about employee morale in a recent interview in The McKinsey Quarterly [note: registration is required to view]:

"In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie's budget -- but never shows up in a budget -- is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value."

His comment brought to mind for me a May 2007 Harvard Business Review article that made a similar point: "Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance." Psychologists Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer asked the subjects of their study on employees' inner life at work to send them daily diary entries about an event that stood out to them during each working day.

In the article, Amabile and Kramer say that "Having taken a microscope to this question, we believe strongly that performance is linked to inner work life and that the link is a positive one. People perform better when their workday experiences include more positive emotions, stronger intrinsic motivation (passion for the work), and more favorable perceptions of their work, their team, their leaders, and their organization. Moreover, these effects cannot be explained by people’s different personalities or backgrounds—which we did account for in our analyses."

What do you do at your association to raise morale and keep it high?

(Thanks to Susan Fox, whose listserver post about the Brad Bird article inspired me to take the time to read it ...)

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April 5, 2008

Bonus! Uncommon sensical HR #6: Dress codes

I’m sneaking this bonus uncommon sensical HR policy in on a Saturday to see who’s really paying attention.

As I was coming up with a list of post ideas, I wasn’t sure how the whole review/raise/salary thing was going to work out, so I needed another idea or two. Dress code was the next on the list.

Hold on to your hats (bad dress code pun intended), because I’m not advocating a nonpolicy here. My policy is, well, more simplistic maybe than what people might like. Here goes:

Dress Code Policy

Don’t embarrass the organization.

That’s it. All day, every day—yes, including days when the board is at headquarters.

Just as before, there are perhaps caveats to various associations that may represent especially business-attired members, but for the most part, I just think people should dress how they feel most productive (as long as it doesn’t embarrass the organization). When the VIPs come in, tell them you think it's in their best interest to have free, open, motivated office, which means it's casual. The VIPs can feel free to wear whatever they're comfortable wearing.

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April 4, 2008

Uncommon sensical HR #5: Salary policy

You know the annual issue of Parade magazine that lists the salaries of 50 or 70 people or so? Most of them are man/woman on the street types of things, with a few celebs and others thrown in. I always wonder about how they get people to give their income. And I wonder what, if any, angst it causes the organizations that employ those people.

So here’s my nuttiest HR policy of all: publish everybody’s salary. Let everybody know what everybody else makes.

What would the ramifications of such a policy be?

In the case of for-profit CEOs, it turned out to be a big mistake. The SEC thought it abominable that CEO compensation had skyrocketed from 5 times the average salary of the firm to 10 times. Over mighty howls from executives, the SEC began requiring public disclosures of CEO compensation. Major backfire! Since disclosures, CEO salaries have jumped: 364 times the average worker according to a CNN report last summer.

I realize this is an argument against my policy. But just looking at CEOs makes it different; I’m not convinced the same thing would happen (skyrocketing salaries) with my policy.

Chances are you’ll get a lot of griping and moaning, some jealousy, and other nasty emotions. But I contend that that stuff is just under the surface anyway, and it bubbles up from time to time in ways that are detrimental to your organization. Once it’s out there for a while, there’s no need for the griping and jealousy. If an employee is discontent with what they make, they are free to try to go elsewhere, inside or outside the organization. It could also be motivational to people just starting out in the lower salary ranges, if a message of work hard you will be rewarded is part of the culture of the organization. Plus, I just like the ultimate in transparency that such a policy demonstrates.

One major caveat is the specialized element of association work. There are many organizations where you not only have to worry about other staff griping and jealousy, but also members if the profession is less compensated than association management (stop laughing, there are some). To be honest, I’m not sure I can resolve this argument. I’d admire an organization that did it anyway and told/convinced any complaining members that this is what it costs to provide the level of service the profession deserves.

A final thought. If outright salaries are too sensitive, then I’d advocate a pretty strict graded salary structure—and let everyone in the organization what each job is graded at and give them access to the entire salary scale for the organization. Maybe have a $10,000 or $15,000 range makes salary disclosure more palatable.

So that’s it. Feel free to rip apart this or any other post in my uncommon sensical HR policy thread. I hope you’ve enjoyed it… as with so many of my posts, I have this sneaking suspicion that these posts will contribute to the fact that no other association is ever likely to hire me again based on my Acronym writings. Oh well, I’ll always have my shepherding to fall back on.

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April 3, 2008

Uncommon sensical HR #4: Reviews and raises

Try doing this. Try saying the following sentence emphasizing the word “performance:”

It’s PERFORMANCE review time!

Now try it emphasizing “review:”

It’s performance REVIEW time!

See? No matter how you say it, you won’t be convinced that the exclamation point should be there. So why have a process that is universally hated? Yesterday’s uncommon sensical HR practice was to scrap the leave policy; today’s is scrap the review process.

This seems so straightforward to me, I don’t know why the relic of performance reviews is still around. Even if an employee works with very little oversight, there is no excuse for her not to know exactly where she stands with her supervisor. And it’s not all the supervisor’s responsibility; there needs to be a culture where employees can freely talk about their work and the organization with their supervisors.

Having a sitdown every year just seems pretty arbitrary to me. What’s so special about 365 days (366 this year)? There should be sitdowns whenever a sitdown is needed: new projects, you’ve noticed your staff is stressed, you’ve noticed your boss is stressed, or even just because. An ongoing series of these is easily more beneficial than a four-page form with a bunch of meaningless ratings on it filled out once a year.

Raises are often tied to reviews. I’m not sure if I’m reading things right, but it seems to me that HR types have tried to distance themselves from COLAs (cost of living adjustments). I think most people know that’s a load of… of… stuff. There is a COLA component to raises whether the organization is willing to admit it or not. I say, just be upfront about it. Tell people, for example, that there’s going to be a 2 percent COLA for everybody, and each supervisor/manager/director will add merit increases as they see fit in accordance with the an overall plan for the organization.

And that leads to tomorrow’s topic: policies around salary.

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April 2, 2008

Uncommon sensical HR #3: The leave nonpolicy

Tying together a few threads in the third day of uncommon sensical HR practices: The first post is really the thread that makes all HR policies and practices work. If you’ve used the hiring and firing decisions to build a staff that is motivated to do good work, then you trust them to do it.

So here’s my leave policy: don’t have one.

Ok, ok, not exactly no policy, but do away with vacation time and sick leave as you know it. I’ll admit to being a little out of my area of expertise here (I’m sure some of you are thinking, “yeah, WAY out”), and I admit to not having a great grasp of short-term and long-term disability policies. Seems to me most places have some such coverage. So let’s say that your short-term kicks in after two weeks. Then your policy should be that everybody always has a two-week bank of sick leave. No need to track it. So if one of your valued staff (and remember, they’re all valued now) unfortunately comes down with pneumonia, he uses his 10-day bank of sick leave then moves to short-term disability. Now let’s say that employee was well enough to return to work after eight days out. After his first day back, he’s back to having a 10-day sick leave bank.

As for vacation, my policy would be as a general guideline assume you have three weeks or so of vacation each year. Take off when you need to to get the car inspected or watch your son’s recital, and take a week or two or long weekends to do fun things. My policy would be that you have to use at least two weeks time off for reasons other than you or your family being sick. You have to be able to document it. I’m not sure what the ramifications are if you don’t. Maybe everybody on staff gets a $100 bonus every year for using at least two weeks. Maybe offenders who don’t use the leave are publicly excoriated at the next staff meeting. Whatever makes people take time off.

And here’s something to please the accountants: rather than have a huge liability with a bunch of staff who have hundreds of hours of vacation saved, have a policy that for employees that have been there at least a year, pay them two weeks of vacation if they leave.

I know, it sounds like I’m an idealist. Maybe I’m gullible. I just think if you actually have a staff you trust, then you trust them not to abuse this nonpolicy. Maybe if I were actually in charge, I’d hate the day I ever thought of this idea. But maybe it’s the type of flexibility that employees would truly value.

On tomorrow’s docket: Performance reviews and raises. It’s probably not too difficult to guess where I come down on performance reviews, is it?

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April 1, 2008

Uncommon sensical HR #2: Workday hours

The topic for uncommon sensical HR post number two on the surface is scheduled work hours. Below the surface, though, this is the first of two posts where the real issue is trust and flexibility.

There are some job duties in the association world that correlate to established starting or ending times. In member service, for example, you may want your phones covered from 9 am in the east to 4 pm in the west. But for most jobs, an official starting or ending time is artificial, meaning there’s no good reason for it. So don’t make people follow a rule when there’s no reason for it.

I realize people don’t work in a vacuum, they must work with each other to get things done. So maybe you establish a guideline where everybody is expected to generally be available from 10:30 to 3:30. All group meetings should respect the guidelines.

Of course I know that’s a rule that’s made to be broken, and it would be fine to break it from time to time and with good reason. But on the flip side, I’ve never heard anybody complain about not having spent enough time in meetings that day. Imagine if you could regularly count on a good chunk of either your morning or your afternoon being meeting free. Now that’s freedom!

To pull this off, you need trust in your employees. You have to trust that doing their job well is important to them. And when it comes right down to it, if you don’t trust your employees, why are they on your staff? (See yesterday’s post on hiring and firing.)

After all, everybody has job expectations. Isn’t the extent to which they are able to perform up to or beyond those expectations more important than whether they like to stay up late and get in a little late (or vice versa)?

I know that brings up the specter of performance reviews—but you’ll have to wait. That’s my topic for Thursday. Tomorrow, I’ll be making a lot of these same arguments in favor of redoing leave policies.

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March 31, 2008

Uncommon sensical HR #1: Firing people

In a post to his blog last week, David Gammel wrote about firing people through email. I think most people will universally support the notion that such a practice is repugnant. What I want to comment on his is third reason why it’s repugnant:

“It is too easy for the firer. Firing should be a last resort outside of extreme cases. Sending an e-mail allows the executive to terminate someone in the abstract rather than facing them personally. You are more likely to make the right decision if you are willing to deliver the message to their face.”

Each day this week, I’m unfurling an uncommon sensical HR policy. So my first uncommon sensical HR policy is to challenge the notion that firing be considered “a last resort.” I think firing someone is too hard in most organizations, and, as a result, managers keep employees that they think do the job adequately while secretly thinking the organization might be better off with someone different.

I think maybe there was a time when people showed real loyalty to their employer and maybe it was too much loyalty as companies can and did lay people off when under real or perceived financial distress . Now I wonder if the power dynamic has tilted too far in the other direction. People change jobs and employers much quicker and with more regularity than they used to, yet as long someone isn’t significantly underperforming, companies don’t seek to make a personnel change.

Now I’m not Attila the Hun or anything like that. I realize these are real people we're talking about. I also believe that most people with a passion and motivation for doing good work would never experience a non-"last resort" release. Could be that these people just don't have passion for what they do at their organization. Or it could be that they will never have passion about what they do—either way, I think your organization will be better off without them.

I think it would have to be done right. For example, a hypothetical employment policy might explain up front that the organization is always assessing the strengths of its employees and will not hesitate to make changes if it thinks it is in the best interest of the organization. To compensate for the lack of security, the company could have a relatively generous severance package for anyone released other than for gross negligence. Maybe any employee that has been there at least six months gets two months’ salary as severance. For each year of service, another month is added on up to a maximum of seven months. Of course there’s drawbacks, such as cash flow considerations. But I also think such a policy would be fair to the employee and is fair to the organization. Sorry to bust out the Jim Collins metaphor, but you have to use the hiring and firing decisions to get the right—not ok or satisfactory—but the right people on the bus.

Tomorrow: Scheduled work hours.

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March 13, 2008

Optimize for less stress

Michele Martin’s comment on the “Interesting juxtaposition” post addresses the need for a shift in the way U.S. organizations think about their employees. The field of association management has a unique opportunity to compete for today’s most valuable human resources by taking the discussion about compensation to another level. Associations can build on their appeal to talented, socially-conscious workers by creating satisfying job environments where all factors affecting an employee’s well being are taken into consideration.

Fritjof Capra, a brilliant scientist and major voice in the discussion on sustainability, applies the principles of ecological systems to human communities. His emphasis on dynamic balance seems particularly significant for managing teams: a healthy system is flexible and has the ability to right itself after facing stress, but “trying to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing it will invariably lead to the destruction of the system as a whole.”

Creating the right mix of employee takeaways—both tangible and intangible—may be an answer for recruiting and retaining talented staffers. Beginning to understand our teams, organizations, and the broader industry as part of interconnected networks will provide a leg up in the increasingly complex work world.

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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 6, 2008

That Jamie Notter's always thinking

I liked the post today on the Get Me Jamie Notter blog. It's on rewarding teams as opposed to individuals.

I would add the idea that team goals should be pliable, changing and updating as the team assesses and incorporates the changing outside environment into its work. Any rewards (monetary or otherwise) should take that into account.

As an additional resource, I'd recommend the book x-teams by Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman. Here's a word doc (sorry, this one didn't get posted online) of an interview of Ancona that appeared in the June 2007 issue of Associations Now.

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February 1, 2008

Q&A from the Friday general session

To me, I think Technology Conference general session speaker Erica Driver, principal analyst with Forrester Research, was speaking about the workplace and what it will look like tomorrow. Not "tomorrow" as in a year or years away, but the tomorrow that has already begun to emerge.

There was a lot to consider in the session about not just what association staffs will be like, but also what the workspace of association members will be like, and what role associations should play in those spaces.

I thought the Q&A at the end of the session was especially useful, so here it is, with apologies for capturing the gist rather than a word-for-word transcript.

What applications does she use for her individual workplace?

She said high bandwidth connections was a must. She also noted her and her group used instant messaging, shared calendars, web conferencing tools, and each had their own conference bridge to conduct conference calls. They have laptops with webcams (though she notes she’s still not comfortable with the webcams). Finally, she said that it’s becoming a kind of service that companies are offering where they’re developing kits and offering packages of products and services based on the needs of the workers who will use them.

An association had started implementing Microsoft’s SharePoint and wanted to know how to go about getting staff adoption of the tool.

Driver said the question was one of the top questions IT managers are facing today. She said she thinks having a governance model—meaning a model of what is supposed to be done on SharePoint and how—and sticking to it. It’s tricky, she said. Your staff is probably used to emailing a Microsoft Office document to several others, asking for feedback, and then compiling the changes. It’s not going to be an easy switch for people to all of sudden abandon that model and use a shared workspace. The keys are the managers and team leaders. For it to happen, these people have to force it, to not accept the old model.

Noting that work flows to the most competent person until it overwhelms them – IT folks are imposed upon, but you are advocating getting outside the line of management. How do you ensure that slackers won’t delegate all the necessary or least savory tasks and spend their time chatting or making new networking connections when other work needs to be done?

What we need is a shift in the way people are valued, answered Driver. She said she thinks the people who participate, the ones who answer other people’s questions and participate in helpful ways on other people’s projects will rise to the top and the deadweight will be noticed.

What are the one or two things that absolutely have to be in place for an individualized information workplace to be possible?

The single most critical success factor is buy-in from the top. IT may be able to see that a helter skelter approach to web 2.0 technologies and collaboration tools and projects is the wrong road, but if there’s no executive at the top to quell the political issues, IT won’t be heard.

She said a second critical success factor, particularly attributable to associations, is that the initiatives tie back to the highest level mission and objectives the organization is focusing on.


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.


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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August 21, 2007

When To Exit and Let Go

The August McKinsey Quarterlly newsletter has a very interesting article focused on when to exit a failing venture. While based on the perspective of the for-profit world, there is much that is applicable to our non-profits, where we seldom sunset, retire or exit from anything, whether it is failing or not, and regardless of life-cycle viability. Even programs and products that aren't failing deserve considertation for retirement, if there are other higher priority opportunities or threats that must receive attention and resources.

Did I mention that we often wonder why our associations don't have consistent new product development, aren't agile organizations and don't model innovative and entreprenurial business processes?

Readers can access the full premium article, free of charge through Aug 28. It may help in future conversations with volunteers and staff. Carter's Mantra No. 1: You can't add something new to the wagon, if you don't take something old off first.

URL is:


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 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 11, 2007

Aligning Mission and Money?

ASME Program Annual Evaluation Matrix


• Model based on Boston Consulting Group’s “Growth-Share Matrix”
• To use the model, analysts plot a scatter graph using net annual margin (green) or subsidy (red) to scale diameter of each program, product or service
• Programs illustrated are for example only & do not represent actual margin or performance
• 1=Stars (High investment brand leaders-surplus capital); 2=Questionable (requires major investment-low results); 3=Cash Cows (Low investments-surplus capital); 4=Retire (limited investment-limited results-beware expensive/risky turnarounds)

Some of you share my long-term interest in annual evaluation of association programs, products and services (PPS). The reason for an annual evaluation is simple: evaluation looks at PPS performance and life-cycles, and provides the basis for rational decision-making about which PPS should continue and which should be retired.

Annual evaluation is also important because it is one method to release precious resources and capabilities to support innovation and consistent annual new PPS development. The old association adage is true for many of our associations, “If something new is to be added to the wagon, then something old must be removed.” The adage is true because it’s not often that our associations have on hand substantial unused capacity that can be devoted to new PPS development. And our ability to simply go out and increase our capacity to meet new opportunities is generally limited. There’s little venture capital available for non-profits.

Now, one could argue that innovation will let an association do more and better. But there is a finite limit as to how much one can and should try to stuff into a 5-pound bag, if you get my point. Many of us are past our organizational bag limit, and innovation just to add more to an overloaded bag is not the answer.

Thus, annual evaluation is important. But it’s hardly simple. The challenge is that associations generally provide PPS in two very different categories: 1) Mission-focused activities which are often subsidized in whole or part; 2) Business operations that provide the net margin necessary to subsidize the mission-focused activities. Both categories of activities support the organization’s overall mission and both categories reinforce and strengthen one another. And as many of us have learned the hard way, there is no mission without a margin. Evaluation of these two different categories of activities, however, can be challenging, since they are often so different. Targets and measures used to measure subsidized activities, for example, often are not the same targets and measures used for margin-producing activities.

Mark Golden and I had an interesting discussion of PPS evaluation of these two categories of activities in the “Driven by Mission Not Money” thread on the ASAE & the Center iCohere Measures of Success Strategy Lab web site, in which we both concluded that annual evaluation should be based on how the PPS is actually performing. Mark rightly commented, “It isn’t good enough to have good, mission related intentions, (evaluation should be based on) how well it (PPS) achieves mission related ends.” Said differently, evaluation of all activities should be based on results.

This has led me to develop the chart above for comment and trampling action. It uses some typical ASME programs and hypothesized data to illustrate how the approach might (or might not) work. Would such an evaluation process work in your organization? Could it be refined and made more useful? Inquiring minds want to know…I look forward to your comments.

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May 9, 2007

Shackleton vs. Buckingham & Coffman

I recently had the opportunity to read Shackleton’s Way (thank you, Ann!), an excellent and engaging study of leadership lessons gleaned from the experience of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. There’s a ton to learn in this book—and a lot more drama than you’ll see in most business books.

At the end of each chapter, the authors summarize lessons for leaders and managers based on Shackleton’s successful methods. I was struck by one in particular: “Keep your malcontents close to you. Resist your instinct to avoid them and instead try to win them over and gain their support.”

In contrast, one of my favorite management books, First, Break All the Rules, says, “Investing in your strugglers appears shrewd, yet the most effective managers do the opposite. … They spend the most time with their most proactive employees. They invest in their best.”

I’m not arguing that one of these is right and the other is wrong—I don’t think it’s that black and white. But I’m curious to hear what Acronym readers think. Should leaders and managers focus their time on bringing “malcontents” around, or should they be focused on investing in their best employees? Which approach makes the most sense to you, and why?

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April 16, 2007

Idea power vs. financial power

Our newest guest blogger, Virgil Carter, is off to a prolific start. I wanted to call attention to a comment he made to a post of mine from a few days back ("A major pet peeve and gross sign of silos").

Virgil asks four excellent questions that associations should ask themselves about any new product or service ideas -- or existing ones, too, for that matter.

I also liked his point about not knowing many people losing their jobs for lack of ideas, but plenty of people fired for not meeting bottom line results. That's quite a commentary. Tells me that too much reward is given for meeting the status quo and not enough emphasis is being placed on finding creative or innovative solutions to the many needs that are constantly evolving around us.


March 9, 2007

The manager's apprentice

Continuing the topic I discussed last week: So many of us have had anti-mentors in our past lives. And in my experience, many of the anti-mentors I hear about have been managers and supervisors. It's even been demonstrated that most people who leave a job leave because of poor experiences with their direct supervisor.

So why aren’t there more good supervisors? Why don’t companies (and associations) put everything they have into making sure that the managers supervising their staff are the best they can find?

I’ve often wondered about these questions, so when I came across a post today from the Three-Star Leadership Blog on “Why So Many Managers Do an Awful Job of Management,” I was immediately interested.

The whole post is worth a read, but I’d like to call out two quotes I think are particularly compelling:

“… managers get little to no training in how to be good managers. In most companies it’s sink or swim, figure it out for yourself. Actually it’s worse than that. It’s sink and take your whole team down with you, or swim.”

This just underscores the importance of making sure that no one is put in charge of other employees unless they have the capacity and commitment to be a good manager. It’s not just themselves they’ll impact negatively—it’s every single person that reports to them. And, if any of those people leave, it’s their replacements as well.

“… we think you learn leadership and supervisory skills from a book or a class. Wrong. Very, perniciously wrong. Leadership is an apprentice trade. A manager learns 80 to 90 percent of it on the job. He or she learns by talking with peers and mentors, trying things out, and getting feedback.”

If management is an apprentice trade, let’s find ways to connect new managers with great, experienced managers for one-on-one mentoring. Both within our own organizations—but also within the ASAE & The Center community (especially for small-staff associations that might not have a lot of apprenticing options internally).

And, for even greater impact, we should make those connections in our associations as well. If your members manage people, you could connect newer managers with more experienced managers among your membership to create those mentor/apprentice relationships. How many associations are doing this right now?

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February 26, 2007


The March 2007 Harvard Business Review has an interview with Howard Gardner, author of the forthcoming book Five Minds for the Future. I was drawn to the article because Associations Now is also publishing an interview with Dr. Gardner this month, and I was curious to compare and contrast the two articles. (If you have any interest in leadership, I’d recommend reading both—Gardner gets at very different points in the two articles.)

In the HBR piece, Gardner discusses the importance of mentoring in helping younger workers develop a strong sense of the ethics of their chosen fields. He notes that, in speaking with young professionals, “The influence of anti-mentors—potential role models who had been unkind to their employees or who had shown behavior that others would not want to emulate—and a lack of mentors is something that we underestimated in our studies. Negative role models may be more powerful than is usually acknowledged.”

This struck a chord with me, and as I consider the idea, I’m surprised to realize how much of my personal management style has been shaped not by the good examples but by the bad ones. Many things I strive to do as a manager—like moving heaven and earth to do a review on time, or providing constructive feedback immediately when needed (in a private setting) instead of letting issues fester, to give just two examples—came about because I’ve seen the atmosphere that can be created when these basic things don’t happen.

What lessons can you thank your anti-mentors for?

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January 29, 2007

Don't be a chicken

People are basically chicken. Chicken to speak up. Chicken to say what’s on their mind. Chicken to make their feelings known. Chicken… until they’ve let anger and resentment build up and the predictable volcano buries themselves and everyone around them.

So says David Maxfield led a presentation entitled Crucial Conversations: How to Get the Best Ideas When the Stakes Are High.

The highlight of his presentation, in my opinion, was the sixth grade science experiment. I was a few minutes late – I think it was Maxfield’s son, but I’m not sure.

The experiment, which illustrates just how chicken-like people are, has a sixth grader butting in long, holiday-season lines. Complete with video, Maxfield showed that almost no one said anything. Just to test if the effect was a result of a child doing the cutting, the sixth graders mom (Maxfield’s wife?) got in the act, but with the same result.

The important thing to realize here is that while YOU may not be chicken (and you should ask yourself just how true that is) the people around are. So what can you do about it. I’m not sure this will blow your socks off, but think about it. Do you really actively try to do these things, because if you don’t think about them, chances are, you’re not really practicing them:

Make it safe – people need to feel like they can speak their mind without reprisal. If you manage people, remember that relationship gives you power that you may not expect.

Candor – Realize it’s not the honesty in the speaker that is the problem. It’s the assumptions you are making about why they are saying what they are saying.

Mutual purpose and respect – Again, it sounds simple, but do you really have the level of empathy that those around you know this exists.

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January 28, 2007

The curse of knowledge

My wife hates it when I try to teach her how to do something on the computer. I never considered myself a bad teacher -- I have a lot of what I think are necessary ingredients: I enjoy it, I'm patient, I'm knowledgeable (about some things). But boy does she get frustrated. Like any good spouse in such situations, I blame her. I'm trying, but she gets feelings of inadequacy and the frustration follows.

Dan Heath set me straight in today's Great Ideas Conference general session. Heath wrote Making It Stick with his brother Chip. They talk about the stickiness of ideas -- everything from putting a man on the moon "not because it is easy, but because it is hard," to urban legends like organ thieves. One of his many points:

"The archvillian of stickiness is the curse of knowledge," he said. He cited a study by researchers at Stanford where the subjects were paired up with one being the "tapper" the other the "listener." Tappers tapped out a well-known tune ("Happy Birthday" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" for example) and listeners tried to guess the song. Tappers figured it would be a cinch for the listeners. It turned out, listeners only got it right 1 in 40 times on average.

The reason is, the tappers hear the song in their heads when they're tapping it. That's the curse of knowledge. And that's why it's hard for me to teach my wife anything about the computer. (Those of you who know me can quit laughing at the notion of me having a curse of technology knowledge -- I'm the family IT guy, at least until my son turns, oh, probably 10.) When I try to show her how to do something, I hear the song in my head -- as Heath put, "the more expertise you have, the harder it is to communicate." I use jargon; I make assumptions; what's easy for me isn't so easy for her.

The solution is simple and hard. It's hard because it really is a gift. Sure there are skills you can emulate, but some people just have it. For those without the gift, you have to try to remember what it's like to be a beginner. Heath says you have to force yourself to think in new ways and be able to explain yourself in relevant ways. Will that help me? I'm not sure, but I'll think about it the next time our laptop loses the signal from the wireless router.


January 8, 2007

Associations Now Article Hits the Spot

Dusting my brain off from an extended vacation, I read with great interest the article by Robyn Waters in the January issue of Associations Now entitled “The Power of Paradox.” We have been struggling at AIHA over the past four years in particular with this notion of finding new and significant revenue streams to compliment (and maybe ultimately replace) the traditional revenue streams that have been so very successful in the past. This has been made especially difficult in that our membership/profession-base has become more and more niche-oriented over the years.

One point that Ms. Waters made really hit home. She said “Bottom line: Paradoxes abound, and I believe that they should be explored and embraced, not ignored.” Given the demands on association volunteer and staff time and resources, it is sometimes easy to ignore the very paradoxes that Waters describes in her article. How many of us have (or still do) run around developing new products and services without taking a wholesale look at those in our current arsenal? Retooling or repurposing current products into new products is sometimes more lucrative than concentrating solely on new product development. I am not saying that one should be done at the expense of the other, rather, that we should look at both aspects of product and service delivery.

Waters will be speaking at The Great Ideas Conference later this month (January 27-30, Marriott Marco Island, Florida). I am eager to hear her talk more about that which she touches upon in her article. I hope to see you all there.


November 4, 2006

Truth to Power

Unable to disguise what I think--my face gives me away even across a room--I avoid playing poker and have carved out a role telling truth to power. After all, if you can't fix it, feature it.

To improve our game, we all need honest feedback, me included. Yet how often do we invite it or seek it out?

One method to guarantee that those of us in management don't take ourselves too seriously is to visit, the specialists in demotivation. The posters and calendars are classic satire, poking fun at those motivational tools you see in airline magazines and skewering B-School pretensions.

I dare you not to see yourself in one of the Self-Narrative video podcasts , such as Principles of Organizational Storytelling. Like the Emmy Awarding winning show, "The Office," it will make you squirm.

Don't write this off as simple-minded office humor. It might just be what your team thinks you need .


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.


September 26, 2006

Managers Give Themselves Rave Reviews; Workers Beg to Differ

Image courtesy of

Nearly all managers (92 percent) consider themselves to be an excellent or good boss. However, the latest Hudson survey found that employees do not necessarily agree, as only 67 percent rate their managers favorably. In fact, ten percent of workers say their boss does a poor job, according to a survey of 1,854 U.S. workers by Rasmussen Reports LLC for Hudson, a staffing and outsourcing firm.

Robert Morgan, chief operating officer of Hudson Talent Management, a unit of Hudson Highland Group Inc., told Andrea Coombes of The Wall Street Journal that about 1/3 of managers are shocked by how employees rate them. Another 1/3 are pleasantly surprised. Only about 1/3 know what their scores will be. Morgan points out that this disconnect poses quite a threat to any company considering the known correlation of manager performance and overall performance.

Other interesting findings from the survey include:

  • One quarter (26 percent) of managers say they do not receive adequate training to handle their managerial responsibilities.
  • Of the 41 percent of employees who believe it is very or somewhat likely they would be offered their manager's job if he or she left the company, only half (54 percent) actually want it. That figure jumps to 65 percent for those making more than $75k annually.
  • Managers are less critical of their bosses' performance, with 73 percent indicating they do an excellent or good job compared to 63 percent of non-managers.

The Hudson managerial survey is based on a national poll of 1,854 U.S. workers conducted September 7-10, 2006. The margin of sampling error for a survey based on this number of interviews is approximately +/-2 percent with a 95 percent level of confidence. A more detailed data report is available at

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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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June 27, 2006

Water Cooler Confabs: Productive or Not?

OfficeTeam is a staffing agency that frequently issues press releases on surveys it has conducted on workplace or career issues. While statistically not exactly rigorous—the one I'm referencing has a sample size in one group of just 100—these surveys are often interesting.

The latest is on how employees and management differ in their views of water cooler conversations. Here's the breakdown:

office team survey.jpg

Yes, it's predictable: employees say those conversations make them more productive while managers are more skeptical. By itself, the survey is a minor blip, something I wouldn't have taken a second note of. But when I saw it, I was reminded of a comment that Margaret Wheatley made at a small group meeting about the future of associations. She said that she's seeing a return to more command-and-control leadership in business.

I blew it off at the time because I didn't see it happening—I still can't say I see any evidence of it within the association community. But managers who don't see the value of casual conversation, as in the OfficeTeam study, make me wonder. I'm curious what people out there think: Is there too much idle chatter in your office? And perhaps an important follow-up question: How do you know it's idle? I don't learn something useful in every conversation, but I am often surprised that chit chat leads to something that is useful to me personally or professionally (and really, what helps one helps the other). Idle? Put me solidly in the camp that sees value in the water cooler gang.

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