Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get It in Writing

"Get it in writing." 

It sounds so cold and mistrusting.  It's the sort of thing I would expect to hear after telling a skeptical friend about a great offer I got from a notoriously shady car dealer.

But it's not just a cynic's suggestion about dealing with an untrustworthy world. 

Everyone seems to be so very busy today that it's hard to imagine everyone "getting it all done."  There's just too much.  We need reminders.  We need to remind ourselves what we've committed to do.   I'm not suggesting that every agreement, every commitment, every transaction must be reduced to a cold, calculated, contractual arrangement.  Rather, I'm saying it's helpful to document the commitments we make, and the commitments others make to us. 

Here are some tips on how to "get it in writing" without being viewed as a hard-nosed, regimented, contract-driven beast:
  • Send a message (e.g., confirming email) to the person with whom you have reached an agreement: I just want to make sure I correctly understood our phone conversation this morning.  Here's what I noted: 1)...2)...3)... Did I get that right?  Please confirm or correct my understanding.
  • Send a message to others involved, along with the person with whom you have reached an agreement: All, I want to be sure everyone is in the loop, so I want to review what Bob and I agreed to this morning: 1).... 2)...3)...Bob, can you please confirm or correct my understanding?
  • Memorialize the agreement in a newsletter/message to the board/staff memo/etc. and ask parties to the agreement to proof it before pubication: Here is an article for the newsletter/board update/etc.; would you please proof it for content for me? " XYZ Association Treasurer Joe Jones has instructed staff to sell all remaining shares of Microsoft owned by XYZ Association.  The reason for the sale is to generate funds to purchase a new state-of-the-art membership management system for the Association."
  • Prepare a "to-do" list that includes items agreed and ask affected parties to review it: I want to make sure I know who is responsible for the XYZ project.  Please look at this list and let me know if you believe I failed to accurately record who's doing what; if I don't hear from each of you, I'll assume this list is correct: 1) Joe does Z; 2) Ben does Y; 3) I will contact Suzie; 4) Suzie does Q.
  • Add the "to-do" list to a calendar and, like the list itself (above), ask others to review the calendar for accuracy.
I know how valuable it can be to "get it in writing."  Just this morning, I learned quite by accident that someone who had agreed to a specific date for a specific action was telling others something that was at odds with our agreement.  Fortunately, I was able to direct the person to an email that documented what we had agreed and asked for any corrections to my notes.  I'm sure it was an honest mistake on his part; my "in writing" confirmation provided what he needed to correct his message before the process went haywire.

Get it in writing. It minimizes confusion and allows you to catch misunderstandings early.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Everybody Knows

Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everbody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody know the fight was fixed,
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows.*

It makes for good music, but poor policy.  When I hear a board member say "everybody knows the biggest threat to our industry is the current legislation that could effectively put us out of business," I cringe.  Everybody knows?

I don't think so. But when I hear such statements in meetings of boards of directors, I know that someone on the board doesn't understand the need to ask members their opinions, nor tell members what the board thinks. Why should members be told? After all, they already know, don't they? It's as clear as soot in a chimney.

Regardless of how well members of the board know the issues, and regardless of whether their approaches to confronting the issues are right, they must communicate with the remainder of the membership. Explain the issues. Explain the deliberations that have taken place. Explain the decisions made and why. Ask for support. And DON'T offend the members by suggesting that they are stupid if they don't already know what you're telling them...if you say "as everyone knows," that's the message you're sending.

Some of the brightest board members and association executives I've ever worked with make it a point to keep members thoroughly "in the loop," even risking telling them more than they wanted to know...just to be sure members have every opportunity to know what's being talked about, what's being decided, and how to make their views known if they disagree with decisions being made on their behalf.

It's far more comfortable to apologize for being "too" transparent than secretive. 

* With deep appreciation and humble apologies to Leonard Cohen.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Anger: It's No Way Out

The following post is published with permission. It originally appeared at The Buddha Diaries on March 1, 2010. I was moved by it and believe it holds a lesson for all of us...including association staff and volunteers. I am grateful to Peter Clothier, the author, for his generosity in giving me permission to republish it here. Peter Clothier is the author, most recently of "Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce" (Parami Press, 2010), available at


How often have you heard recently, if you’re a part of the great American electorate like myself, that you are angry? Often enough, I suspect, to make you even angrier.

We are an angry people at this moment in history, we hear constantly. We are angry about “Washington.” We are angry about our government, about our leadership and about our representation in both houses of Congress. We are angry about health care, no matter which side of the issue we are on. We are angry about the taxes we are required to pay, and angry about the way in which they’re used; and at the same time we’re angry about the poor quality of such social services as education, and about our deteriorating infrastructure. We are angry about the economy, angry at Wall Street, angry at the bankers. We are angry about the wars in which we are engaged and angry at those we blame for them. We are angry at each other: I’m angry at you and you’re angry at me.

I’m no psychologist, and I’m no expert on anger or its management, but I do know that anger is nothing more than a feeling, and that feelings by definition are fickle things. They change from moment to moment. I share the anger that so many of us are experiencing and yet, if I watch myself with a measure of awareness, I know that the anger comes and goes, to be replaced by other feelings as they come along. By nature, as a feeling, it’s ephemeral. It only seems like a permanent condition when I get hung up on it and refuse to let it pass. And when that happens, it profits no one, certainly not those around me, who feel its heat; and certainly not myself. It eats at my gut, serving only to increase my level of stress and make me sick. And still angrier.

Like most of us again, I suspect, I’m pretty good at blaming others for my anger. My observation is that I get angry when I don’t get what I want. It’s the reaction of the child, who screams and stamps his feet in fury when his immediate need is not immediately satisfied. When that happens, when rage floods in to overwhelm the rational mind, the easiest—perhaps the most natural—thing to do is to project it out and find someone else to blame. I get mad at mom, for depriving me of my rightful due.

But we’re supposed to be adults. We’re supposed to understand that anger doesn’t get us what we want. Nor are we entitled to “what we want” just because we happen to want it. We’re supposed to be able to recognize the difference between the passing feelings that “move” us this way and that, and the rational thought we use to free us from the reactive patterns they dictate. If insulted, my natural reaction might be to strike out in anger; a moment’s thought, however, brings me back to the reality that this response would result in a still more grievous outcome. What seems to be missing in our culture is the ability to watch our feelings without being controlled by them, the understanding that, while they are an inevitable and necessary part of the way in which we experience the world, they are not the most useful tool in making decisions about actions.

I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but I have learned enough from the Buddhist teachings to recognize their wisdom and their relevance to the way in which we live our lives today. When we allow ourselves to be governed by reactive patterns, they tell us, our actions lead more often than not to unintended, undesirable consequences. The trick is to be able to recognize my anger for what it is at the moment is arises, and to avoid giving it the power to lead me into actions that will help no one, least of all myself, and will more likely cause harm.

Instead, we are all now celebrating anger, as though it were some kind of worthy badge of honor. I am angry, therefore I am. The result of our indulgence in this feeling—our “clinging” to it, in the Buddhist sense—is the hostility and stagnation we are experiencing as a nation. We will not emerge from our current collective snit until we learn to acknowledge our anger—and let it go.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Forecasts: Brave the Worst of them and Work to Shape the Outcome

Association executives, and the boards of directors to which they report, would do well to regularly read and consider the predictions offered by rational, intelligent people who either: 1) carefully watch their businesses or professions or 2) make it their business to pay excruciatingly close attention to economic, social, political, scientific, and technological trends.

Listening to the right consultants, market watchers, and others who pay deep attention to the things that drive business and social trends can pay dividends ranging from getting a head-start on the competition to dodging the cataclysmic bullet.

One of the most fascinating things I have encountered while "watching the watchers" is the degree to which there seems to be exceptional agreement among many futurists that "we'll find a way." That is, even in the face of frequently compelling evidence that humankind is on a collision course with catastrophe, many futurists suggest that the human spirit is too strong and too deeply ensconced in our biosphere to allow itself to go beyond the tipping point. While I sincerely hope that is true, I believe it is dangerous and irrational to take it as truth. I think all of us should assume the worst as a very real possibility and act accordingly so that, no matter how wrong or right those who forecast doom might be, we'll be giving our best shot at turning things around.

That's how I look at association boards, too. Let's not assume that the market will correct itself. Let's not assume that legislators will "smarten up" and recognize the idiocy of their policy predelections. Let's not assume that scientists will succeed in finding the perfect replacement for fossil fuels before the last barrel of oil is pumped from the earth.

So, what's my point? First, listen to the deeply worried forecasters who believe your industry or our economy or our sphere of political dominance are on the brink of ruin. Listen to what they say and listen to their reasons for believing what they predict is coming our way. Think about how you, your family, your organization, or your board will react and what they will do if these troubling predictions come to pass. Think even more about what you, all of you, can do to put the brakes on.

Then, listen to their more hopeful brethren, the ones who acknowledge the same or similar trends but who foresee a happier outcome. Consider what these forecasters say will "save the day" and avert disaster. Consider what you and your organization need to be doing to prepare for the onslaught but, at the same time, what you will need to do to participate in the recovery.

By preparing for the worst, yet taking into account the possibility that the worst won't happen, individuals and organizations tend to change their behaviors in ways that might lessen the likelihood that the more fearsome predictions will come to pass. There are no guarantees; there never are. But preparing for the worst while simultaneously getting prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they emerge, individuals and organizations, including associations, will be far more likely to survive the "worst of times."

Here's a link to a prediction (it includes a very large graphic; give it time to load) that will give the "worst case" end of things if you need help getting to that point.  While this is admittedly one off the most troubling and dreary predictions I've seen, I will not write it off; it is too rationally laid out to be utter claptrap.  It warrants serious thought.

Now, I leave it in your hands to find the more upbeat version and to decide what you, personally, are going to do to respond to the world around you in such a way as to actually shape the outcome.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dropping the Ball...on Your Foot

There are untold numbers of reasons I could give, but the core, truth-be-told, horribly embarrassing reason for my failure to post here lately is that I have allowed myself to believe my own lies.

"I've been too busy." "Client conferences took all my time." "I needed more time to flesh out my ideas."

Lies. Bloody, bald-faced lies. I believed them, though. I permitted myself to indulge in the sort of indolent luxury that I find so abhorrent. And in so doing, I temporarily set an unacceptably low standard of performance.

Like many who don't see immediate results from our labors, I allowed myself to think a little respite from writing wouldn't matter and wouldn't be missed. It's the same sort of thinking that might lead someone, whose required submissions of monthly reports seemingly do not get read, to rationalize skipping a month or two. That habit is uncomfortably brought to the writer's attention by an unknown reader who happens to be the one who demanded the reports in the first place. And the writer is embarrassed to know that his failure to write has put a very big project in jeopardy.

The moral of this little tale is this: regardless of your opinion on the matter, the project or task you were assigned is almost certainly important and meaningful to someone. That's true of volunteers and of staff.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Creativity in Volunteers and Staff

From time to time I encounter volunteers who really give association management professionals a run for their money, in terms of creativity and what they can get done with limited resources.

Recently, I marveled at the accomplishments of some small groups of volunteers who had essentially no financial resources at their disposal. The problems they had to solve would have been easily solved if they had access to ready-money. But they didn't. All they had were problems and some creative volunteers to solve them.

Instead of throwing money they didn't have at a problem they had to solve, they tapped the creativity of the group to unleash exciting, fresh, innovative ideas. They searched for and implemented free technology tools that enabled them to harness the power of other members to "spread the word." They worked "deals" with other organizations to get products to sell to supplement event revenue. They took advantage of low-cost and free online services to get printing and promotion done.

In short, they did what we always expect association staff to do. But too much time in an office, watching deadlines approach, can stifle the recognition that being creative is more valuable than rotely turning to "the way we've always done it." It's certainly easier to just do what you've always done, but it makes one worth less and less as time goes by. That's why it's important for association staff to get out from under the routine on a regular basis...try something new and different! And it's important for staff to tap into the creativity of volunteers.

The reason volunteers can sometimes seem so much more creative than the staff they work with is that the tasks at hand are NEW to the volunteers, but they may be viewed as "old hat" to the staff, who tend to think they have all the answers. When a volunteer comes up with a brilliant idea, sometimes a staff member feels slighted or threatened or just annoyed that it was not HIS idea! Staff members need to recognize this, but so do volunteers. The volunteers who work with staff can spark creativity in the staff, just as the staff member sparks creativity in the volunteer when she says, "we didn't budget for that."

Volunteers who are alive with creativity can put staff members on their toes by challenging them to respond to creativity with creativity. Staff members who truly understand their roles respond to that challenge with creativity of their own.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Thinking Across Time in Foreign Languages

Let me explain the title. Or maybe I won't. Maybe we'll see whether—after you read what I have to say—it's as obvious to you as it is to me.

Experienced association executives, as well as less-experienced but no less committed people who are relatively new to the field, frequently talk about what it takes to be "successful" in association management. My first reaction to the question usually is that the success of an individual generally depends on the collective intelligence of the boards with which they work...the smarter the board, the more likely the association executive will be successful.

Obviously, it's not quite that simple, but there is, in my experience, a very direct correlation. Lest you think that I place all the responsibility, and lay all the blame, on boards, let me clarify by saying this:
Assuming an individual is relatively intelligent and can adapt to a diverse set of personal styles among board members, he or she is very likely to be at least moderately successful, provided he or she is dealing with board members who are intelligent enough to leave the bulk of their personal agendas and biases outside the board room. And, of course, provided he or she has sufficient personal integrity to focus on what is best for the association and its members. No matter how committed, though, someone of average or below average intelligence generally is not suited to association management; the likelihood of encountering board members who demand quick wits and intellectual capacity in their executives is simply too great.
In case you wonder what the underlying message is here, let me be clear: to be successful in association management does not require dazzling brilliance. Success can be had by anyone who is intelligent, well-informed, well-read, and tolerant of different personality styles. Of course, those people who enjoy success must also make it his or her business to learn and fully absorb a vast amount on information and knowledge relating to association management. This information and knowledge ranges from leadership theory to antitrust law to financial management to risk management to strategic deployment of technology...and on and one. And, of course, the successful association executive must maneuver around or re-educate the occasional board member who is politically or morally corrupt.

Before going any further, it's important to understand what I'm referring to when I say "successful association executive." What I'm referring to is someone who is recognized as a leader by the board members and association members with whom he or she works and who helps lead the association to accomplish its objectives. Beyond that, a successful association executive helps boards articulate direction for the association and brings disparate groups of members and staff together so that they understand and embrace the "cause" for which the association works.

Thus far, when I have spoken of success, I have referred to success with a little "s." When we start talking about Success with a capital "S," we begin talking about characteristics that go beyond above average intelligence and integrity.

The world of the Successful Association Executive is experienced only by those association executives who possess personality and intellectual traits that place them in the rarified atmosphere of homo universalis. These are people who think deeply and who refuse to allow their ideas to be bound by commonly-held or conventional beliefs. They tend to acknowledge and value the contributions to mankind of all cultures, recoiling at what they perceive to be the rabid ignorance of provincialists, hyperpatriots, anarchists, and others who are nothing if not certain that their points of view are right.

What is the definition of "capital S" success? In my view, it is what makes an association stand out as a beacon or role model for others. And what "it" is is a recognized sense of moral authority and leadership that comes not from blind adherence to dogma but from careful assertions of principle based on a comprehensive understanding of facts.

An association that wields tremendous power without capturing a sense of true leadership is not successful. I could name plenty of examples, but that would do no good. Examples of organizations that do exemplify the exhibition of moral authority and leadership (though not without their own share of stumbles) include the American Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). While it's rare for the "average" association to have sufficient power in its mission to justify a sense of morality, it's not impossible. Associations that have contributed to standards that benefit the public at large in some way (e.g., standardized sizes of canned foods, standard sizes of tires, standard sizes and nomenclature for screws and nails, standard ways of planting crops, etc.) may also claim a sense of service that translates quite well into the larger "morality" that I speak of here. But the local real estate association also can be a moral leader by helping its members collaborate on ways to help first-time homebuyers achieve homeownership and the business association can become that leader by helping struggling businesses obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to survive and prosper.

The people who lead those associations (or who led them through periods of growth or significant influence) are among those who probably fall into the category of Successful Association Executives. Successful Association Executives are much more than technicians who know the nuts and bolts of operating the small businesses they run (for that's what most associations are).

Instead, they are people who share a vision with the volunteer leaders of the organization. They are people who challenge common wisdom, ask tough questions, set aggressive and challenging goals, and embrace disparate factions within and without the association.

They are the Muslims and Christians and Jews who would read books by Richard Dawkins; the atheists who would read 90 Minutes in Heaven; the liberals who would listen intently to Rush Limbaugh's radio programs; or the hard-core right-wingers who would read Greg Palast's Armed Madhouse.

Successful Association Executives tend to be "middle-of-the-roaders" in many facets of their lives because they can understand and appreciate so many points of view. They recognize the seeds of truth that often are hidden in the emotions that inform the opinions on all sides of particularly contentious issues. For that reason, among others, they tend to be excellent arbiters in difficult circumstances.

So, here we are at the end of this diatribe and I wonder: does the title make sense now?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Customer Service Matters

One of our client associations is very deeply involved in measuring customer experience and its role in companies' profitability or lack thereof. From my perspective, then, it's very easy to see how the treatment of customers (or members) can have an enormous impact on the success or failure of companies large and small. But the importance of good customer service comes into even sharper focus when one is dealing with a customer service process that seems like it was designed to alienate and upset customers.

This little experience that I'm about to describe has convinced me that AT&T is striving to achieve the same infamy as has found companies like Comcast, Sprint Nextel, and, AOL, which have been rated by customers as abject failures in customer service.


I almost never make international calls from my home. There's just no need. But on May 27, I had to participate in a very long telephone call with a group of people who were meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. Because their meeting began at 9:00 am local time, I had to call in at 3:00 am local time. I was not interested in going to my office to make the call, of course. I didn't think anything of it; I just dialed in on my home phone and got on the call.

The next day, or the day after, I arrived home from the office to a voice message from AT&T's fraud department, asking me to call right away. When I called, I learned they wanted to verify that I made the call. I said I had and expressed appreciation that they would double check to make sure my phone service was not being abused. Toward the end of the conversation, though, I got a shock. The representative to whom I was speaking said, "You should get an international rate plan. That was a very expensive call." I asked how much; "about a grand," he responded.

I gasped and said that was preposterous. He agreed and suggested I call another department to get an international plan. I made the call as he suggested.

After a lengthy call that made me feel for all the world that I was being extorted into paying a monthly fee to avoid such absurd charges, I finally felt that the problem had been resolved. (The actual charge was $1,013.20; I was told the call would be about $35 under the international calling plan.)

The woman with whom I had spoken had assured me that the international calling plan would be instituted and would be made effective May 26, one day before the call. She transferred me to a third-party "verifier" who confirmed that I wanted the service, that I wanted AT&T to be my domestic and international long distance provider, etc. I obediently said "yes" to every question, as the woman had instructed.

About ten days later I received a letter from AT&T saying my attempt to get a new service had failed. The letter, dated June 9, said, "On June 9, you called us to request a change in your AT&T telephone service." It went on to say they could not verify the order and further claimed to have tried to contact me by telephone "today" but could not reach me. (Apparently they don't leave voice messages...I had received none.) Because I could not be contacted, the letter said, the order was cancelled.

So, I got back on the phone and started the entire process over. I gave the representative my confirmed order number, but they could not find any record of it. The only choice was to go through the entire process again. This time, I made a record of exactly what was said, what questions I was asked, etc., etc. The person I spoke to said I should call AT&T as soon as I received the phone bill that included the expensive call to Lisbon and that they would take it right off and replace it with the newly-rated call.

A few days later, toward the end of the week, the bill came. I waited until early the following week to call about the adjustment. Both calls from my office to AT&T that day were unsatisfactory; the customer service representatives could not find any records; I was told the "system is down" and they could find nothing. They asked me to call back; I responded by asking if they could call me back, instead, since I had made a number of calls already. No, I was told, we cannot. Period.

A later call reached a young woman who finally agreed to mark the amount of the Lisbon call as "in dispute." But the "systems" would not allow her to find anything of use, either. She advised me to try back later that evening and talk to the long distance unit. That evening, I called and spoke first to "Jude," who could find absolutely no record of any international calling plan on my account, any record of me calling, etc., etc. Then, he put his supervisor, "Tash," on the phone.

Tash said that what I had described (all of my calls heretofore) was impossible and, moreover, than there is "no way" that any AT&T representative would have ever told me an international calling plan could have been backdated to May 26. He then tried to explain that there are multiple AT&Ts and that what someone from another of the AT&Ts may have told me was not valid for his AT&T.

I was getting nowhere with him, so I asked to speak with his supervisor. He claimed he does not have a supervisor; he insisted that he reports to no one that I could speak to. He finally relented and said he did have someone who conducts his performance appraisals, but that he was under no obligation to give me that person's name.

After quite a lot more back and forth with him, he said the best he could do would be to cut 50% off the bill. I said "fine," fully intending to dispute any bill they sent my way. And we said our goodbyes. By this time, I though I had reached the peak of anger at the organization's customer abuse.

And then he called back and said his offer of 50% off was good only if I agreed to the international calling plan. I screamed into the receiver that I had ALREADY ORDERED THAT SERVICE TWICE! He said he just wanted to be clear about that.

I have not received a follow-up bill yet. But I have no doubt I will. And I have no doubt that, the moment this quagmire of customer abuse and torture is finally over, I will completely and irrevocably cut my ties with AT&T and will heartily recommend the same to anyone who will listen. Or who will read this blog.

My experience with AT&T in this incident demonstrates, I think, why customer service matters. Wouldn't it have been more to the company's benefit to make it easy for me to be rid of what I think any right-thinking person would agree is an indefensibly high telephone bill than to repeatedly go to the mat with me? Incidentally, that same call for which AT&T decided to charge $1,013.20 would have cost me $26.82 plus tax with the carrier I use in my office.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Contemplative Sciences

Association management is, in and of itself, an odd profession (if, indeed, it is a profession, which I question). When one is employed as a direct staff member of an association, one becomes engaged in a business in which financial profit takes a back seat to many other objectives.

Instead of focusing one's energy on that one bright's objectives in an association management environment are spread over several targets. Profit is but one rather weak commandment. Member service and satisfaction also become key measures of success in the association world. While customer service is a tool for achieving profit in the for-profit world, it is an objective unto itself in associations. Oftentimes, member service is of such overarching importance that it takes precedence over profit and, not infequently, becomes antithetical to profit. These are hard concepts to grasp, much less to implement successfully in ways that serve the association and its members well. The association executive cannot allow member service to decimate the organization's financial well-being, but frequently he or she must fight to acheive an uncomfortable balance between them.

If association management is, in and of itself, an odd profession, owning or working in an association management company adds complexity and angst to the mix, because no longer is the primary objective either profit or member service, it's both. The intrinsic competition between between money and service is exacerbated in an association management company environment because not only do employees have to balance sometimes competing objectives in a single organization, they must balance those objectives between multiple organization clients and even between clients and their employer!

Given these rivalries, you'd expect it to be very tough to find staff who can operate effectively in those types of environments. You might think so, but it's not really so tough to identify the characteristics you're looking for...but it IS hard to find people who possess the requisite characteristics.

So, the association management company executive is constantly on the lookout for bright, perceptive, hard-charging, self-motivated, entrepreneurial souls who care as much about friendship and comaraderie as they do about money. And they must be able to shine the spotlight on others and shade themselves from it. And, speaking from experience, these people are hard to find.

I have always wanted to find someone to join my staff who not only wants the clients to excel operationally and financially but also wants to own a piece of the business so that, one day, he or she can prove that they can run the business better than I have or better than I can.

There is no better reason for writing these words today than my interest in the contemplative sciences at the moment. That is, I enjoy marrying hard sciences with soft, fluffy mind-wandering. And this little bit about life in an association management bubble is the result. More later. Maybe.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I had lunch with a colleague recently, a woman who I've known for several years. She has been active with one of our client associations and was president of that association a few years back. In addition to her service as president of that association, she was the driving force for forming another organization, an organization dedicated to fostering mentoring among women to help members find their strengths and empowering them to use those strengths.

Occasionally, we meet for lunch so she can ask me questions about "nuts & bolts" issues facing the women's association. The organization is not able, yet, to afford an executive director, but the vision of its founders continues to burn and propel it forward.

Yesterday, as I listened to her discuss the organization's mission, it occurred to me that she was describing the fundamental purpose of ALL associations: encouraging connections between people with common concerns or challenges. It doesn't matter if an organization is a trade association whose members join together to promote their industry or a professional society whose members come together to enhance their stations in their professional lives, they're all about helping people make connections.

Now, that wasn't a revelation. I've been in association management for long enough to know that's what it's all about. But even seasoned pros can forget to focus on the basics, sometimes. So, I'm reminding myself, and anyone else who reads this message, that successful associations give sufficient attention and adequate resources to their fundamental reason for being: connecting people.

That having been said, connecting people need not be exclusively through a "personal" connection. A Twitter tweet, a Facebook post, an electronic newsletter, and a blast voicemessage can all contribute to connections. I suggest those should not replace person-to-person connections, but they should augment one another. And a true "personal" connection is always the clearest and most direct way to establish my opinion.

It occurs to me, too, that organizations that owe their very existence to connections between people with common bonds should be able to easily address disagreements between members. After all, members' commonality should always trump their differences. Well, that may be a topic for another post.

As you go about your business of planning events, formulating policies, beating revenue goals, and building websites, remember that they should all be powered with the fuel of connections.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Scenario Planning: Interesting but Impractical

Virtually everyone involved in association management probably has been involved in strategic planning exercises. A major component of such exercises is the discussion of likely and not-so-likely social, political, and economic events that might influence our lives and the ways in which our associations will operate. These tips-of-the-hat to the future are among the most intriguing to me, probably because I find it interesting to try to analyze the chain reactions that might come as a result of a significant change in just one element of our business lives. Invariably, though, I come to the conclusion that the complexity of our world, and the relationships within it, is too great for anyone among us to ever get the predictions right. While scenario planning is interesting, it is probably most useful as a tool to improve our analytical skills, rather than as a tool that can truly help guide our associations through uncharted waters.

Recently, I listened to part of an interview on our local PBS station with George Friedman, president and CEO of a company called STRATFOR, a private intelligence company. Friedman also is author of a just-released book entitled, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.

Friedman posits that the changing demographics of our society* will have a radical effect on the United States as a society. Those demographic adjustments, coupled with geopolitical transformations (that, he argues, are underway and easily can be seen) will bring about massive change. He suggests that China is destined to split apart and to watch its communist philosophy and means of control diminish to the point of disappearing. He says the current battles to keep Mexican and Central/South American immigrants at bay will cease. Instead, he says it is an "arithmetic certainty" that in 30 years labor will be scarce and we will have to incent people to come to the U.S.

*a birthrate that is dropping dramatically, an aging workforce that requires replacements to perform the jobs from which it is retiring and to perform additional services it wants, etc.

I found myself being drawn in by his predictions and allowing myself to think "big thoughts" about almost incomprehensible changes that will take place in the next hundred years. I began to wish that I would be around to witness these massive shifts in global society.

But then I started questioning how realistic, how plausible, how likely Friedman's predictions really are. I concluded that virtually all of them are possible, virtually all of them are plausible, but that virtually all of the predictions further out than 5-10 years are pure conjecture and not worthy of serious discussion. My reason for coming to the conclusion that his predictions are pure conjecture? Back to my original point: the world we live in is far too complex and we are insufficiently capable of understanding the reality of "cause and effect" to have more than a minor statistical chance of being right in trying to predict the future. In fact, our capabilties have not yet evolved to the point to which we are particularly good even at predicting the past.

Let me hasten to add that I have not read Mr. Friedman's book. I might yet do so and I may very well be highly entertained by it, but I don't anticpate that I will be persuaded by it.

The lesson here is not to abandon scenario planning, but to recognize it for what it is and to avoid putting too much stock in our ability to see the future in our imperfect crystal balls.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Training for Performance

Occasionally, I will use this blog to admit guilt. This is one of those occasions. And my admission today is this: I am guilty of saying one thing and doing quite another. I am a hypocrite, a dissembler, a sophist, a charlatan, a poser, an impostor and a phony. Alright, that's off my chest. Now, here's what I really need to get off my chest:

I preach about the necessity of training and the value that training brings to business, but I do not practice what I preach with the degree of consistency or depth that I believe are appropriate.

Oh, I don't utterly abandon my staff without any instruction (well, not all that frequently), but I do not sufficiently engage in training the way I think it ought to be done: deliberately, repeatedly, and with a clear expectation of the outcome, both about "what" and "when." One of my resolutions this year, which I intend to keep, is to ensure that I clearly articulate to my staff what I expect them to know and to do and when. Beyond that, I intend to provide them with the tools they will need to meet my expectations.

Now, lest you think this post is not a serious one, let me clearly say that training is vitally, critically important. Were it not for superb training, Sully Sullenberger almost certainly would not have successfully ditched US Air Flight 1549 in the Hudson. Had Captain Sullenberger simply been told, "Fly the airplance safely and be sure to respond well in emergencies," the outcome of his well-publicized emergency would have been catastrophic.

A staff member failing to understand what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and under what conditions can be catastrophic for any business. An untrained staff member can deliver a ruinous member service experience or can destroy an important document without knowing what he or she is doing. Failing to file governmentally-required reports can be financially devastating. Misunderstanding the amount of time it will take for a shipment of boxes to arrive at a conference site can ruin the conference experience. Ignoring the need to renew property and casualty insurance in a timely manner could be utterly devastating in certain circumstances. Suffice it to say that a lack of adequate training can be cataclysmic to an association.

Now, the concept of "training" is a rather broad one; it includes on-the-job training, classroom training, hand-on-workshops, participation in webinars, information about where specific procedures can be found, online education and testing, and many, many other forms of teaching or otherwise ensuring that a person knows what to do in a given set of circumstances.

Fortunately for me, I have staff who know when they don't know enough to do the job...and they ask. And that's part of training...teaching staff that it's expected that they will know when to ask for help. But what I need to do on a more regular basis (and what I preach to others) is this:
  1. Clearly articulate to staff their duties and responsibilities;
  2. Quantify, and share that measure with staff, the way in which the success of training programs (whatever form they take) will be measured;
  3. Provide time for staff to participate in training, and make sure training takes multiple forms (because different people tend to learn in different ways);
  4. Take advantage of the fact that some staff have, or appear to have, inborn talents at teaching and training others;
  5. Develop and implement procedures and processes so that there is a consistent "way we do this" for staff to latch on to;
  6. Recognize and reward exceptional performance compared to the standards you have set for "acceptable" performance;
  7. Talk about training and what training is needed...not from your own perspective, but from your staff's perspective;

When your staff performs during your organization's own emergencies as capably and as flawlessly as Sully Sullenberger performed, you will see the value of training as clearly as you possibly can. And your staff will appreciate your recognition that they have achieved a level of performance that is far more than just "acceptable."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dealing with the Recession

More. Bad. News. Every. Day.

The economy is tanking. Automobile manufacturers are on the verge of bankruptcy. We're looking at the prospect of at least a 1$ TRILLION stimulous package that could re-start the economy, but could leave our great, great, great grandchildren in debt until their dying days. Ugliness on the economic front prevails in almost every headline. Well, on the positive side, gas is cheaper. OH, GREAT! We're being encouraged to drive more to hasten the arrival of the time the tanks go dry!

I have believed from the earliest days of what is now agreed to be a deep recession that now is NOT the time to pull in our horns and bury our heads. I believe now is the time to invest, take risks, and grow one’s business. While there can be no mistaking that tight credit, etc. can hamper one’s ability to grow, my approach has always been to depend more on cash than credit. And if you're not in a position to be so sanguine about the scarcity of credit, there's always barter.

Our company is trying to take advantage of a battered marketplace by growing our business. The death spiral to any business begins when it stops investing in its own growth; the businesses that continue to invest and grow in this economy will be much stronger when the economy emerges from this temporary time “in the ditch.”

I acknowledge that my approach carries with it huge risks. Investing money that might be needed later to pay the rent or pay salaries is an enormous risk and it could be a crushing mistake. But I'd rather try and fail than whimper my way to poverty.

That philosophy (perhaps without the whimpering poverty) is just as applicable to associations as it is to for-profit businesses. It is precisely at times like these that associations should take measured, well-conceived risks to help lead their members out of the weeds. Now is the time when associations should look carefully at how the association can help the member bridge the gap between panic and prosperity. Examples abound of panic-induced business decisions that should cause us to question the competence of executives.

For example, despite the unmistakable importance that the sales force is to the success of any large business, sales departments seem to be among the first to be trimmed or to "get the axe" altogether when costs are cut. That's brilliant! Stop investing in selling your products and services. Now, let's see how far that takes you. Or, do what some big businesses do and cut your training departments; that's another example of panic-induced wrong-headedness.

Back to the point at hand. Association can invest in training programs to replace internal capabilities...helping the association weather the equally catastrophic (and remarkably ill-advised) decision to stop spending on association membership. And associations can gently but persuasively remind their members that cutting the sales force is akin to severing the spinal cord.

One thing associations should NOT do is take a leadership role in spreading a message of scarcity and fear. Cancelling or postponing meetings should not be considered unless there is absolutely no alternative. If there are concerns about attendance due to financial constraints, plan for a smaller meeting; take advantage of the situation by videocasting and/or podcasting conference events. The point is this: the association should LEAD the membership and provide guideance and support; running scared and sealing the hatches sends exactly the WRONG message.

Times of economically-induced business panic provide perfect opportunities for associations to experiment, doing things they otherwise might not do. Obviously, all of this is easier said than done. Cutbacks may, indeed, be necessary. Frugality most certainly IS necessary. But neither should be pursued at the expense of leadership and risk-taking and trying to show members a positive direction.

Associations can shine in bad times. Perhaps that's when they can shine brightest.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Diversity: Not Just An Economic Imperative

I spent the early part of this week with a group of other association executives. We're all members of a board of directors of a professional association of association executives, so the information and ideas we shared were especially relevant to our day-to-day work lives.

While we discussed many issues of substance, the one that I found particularly appealing was one that has been challenging associations for years: diversity. How do we, as association executives, encourage diversification within the ranks of our own staff and within the ranks of the associations we manage? How do we encourage our members to recognize and appreciate and truly value diversity in their own organizations? And why should we?

First and foremost, it became apparent that we must all understand just what we mean when we say "diversity." We mean, of course, diversity of race and ethnicity. We mean diversity of gender. But we should mean much more when discussing and planning for diversity: foundation of religious belief or nonbelief; sexual orientation; language; culture; experience.

Certain aspects of diversity in one association can be meaningless in another. For example, an interest in geographic diversity among the members of a statewide association might be irrelevant to a local association in a big city; diversity of organizational size may be important in a trade association representing an entire industry, but irrelevant to a national professional association representing individual practitioners of a specific discipline.

Back to the reasons for promoting diversity. The primary reason I have for appreciating diversity is the simple fact that, in my view, diversity opens our eyes to many different perspectives. Aside from being fundamentally the right thing to do in terms of encouraging minorities and women to have full and complete access to social structures that have long held them at bay, encouraging diversity enriches our own experience. While the economic value of reaching a diverse audience certainly has its place among the reasons to value diversity, it is by no means the most important one (in my view). Frankly, an organization that promotes racial and ethnic and gender and other forms of diversity as engines of economic advancement is unlikely to get much support from the groups it ostensibly hopes to encourage to participate.

Encouraging diversity along the lines of economic and social and geographic and ethnic and many other attributes helps open our minds to looking at the world through multiple lenses. It makes us all better people. And in my opinion, it makes associations better organizations.

The question many association executives have, of course, is "how do I get more diversity?" That is not a rhetorical question; it can be tough to attract a diverse audience to a specific discipline or a specific workplace. Many of today's largest and most successful businesses have long used an aggressive strategy, for example, of actively recruiting the "best and the brightest" minority students from colleges and universities. Associations are rarely able to compete economically with large companies, so they find themselves wanting for suitable candidates for jobs.

One of the solutions that was suggested during my meetings earlier this week was a simple one: identify one or more individuals from various diverse populations and ask them for help in identifying sources of talent or sources of members. Another solution was just a simple: tell the world that you value and seek diversity. People tend to gravitate to places they know they will be welcome. And, finally, make sure your environment truly does value diversity. If your association says it seeks diversity, on the one hand, but doesn't behave in ways that support that position, you will do your organization more harm that good.

I think it's best to think about diversity from an individual perspective...and for me, that's MY individual perspective. I enjoy all sorts of ethnic foods and appreciate learning about them from people who grew up eating them. I prefer to have discussions about the differences between Guatemalan culture and Mexican culture with people who have lived in those cultures. I prefer spirited arguments about Islam and atheism and Christianity among people who live in and understand those belief systems. The same is true across all the "diversities" with which I deal. Some people don't have quite that level of inquisitiveness, so for them a more measured and slower approach might be best.

My bottom line is this: diversity is good. It enriches us. It makes us understand more about our world. And associations do those things, too. So associations should recognize and encourage diversity for their own selfish reasons, as well as the broader social reasons. We all benefit.

Friday, November 7, 2008

After the Election

The election of Senator Barack Obama as President-Elect of the United States will result in a massive amount of gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair in associations across the land. The same would have happened had Senator John McCain won the election. Association executives and the boards of directors to which they report reacted in elation or horror at the results.

I'll readily admit that there will be significant changes in our lives as a result of Senator Obama's election. There would have been changes had Senator McClain been elected. But I caution all associations against behaving as if the sky is falling, on the one hand, or that manna from heaven is raining down, on the other.

Regardless of whether the results of the election make you happy or unhappy, understand that the election was not all about you and your association. As tough as it might be to imagine, there are things more important than your association. The country's future takes precedence.

In my view, the best way to deal with a new administration, whether it's your party or the opposition, is to embrace it. That having been said, I fully understand how hard it was for many people to embrace the Bush administration, especially in the second term. This just goes to show there are exceptions to any rule. But back to less extreme circumstances...

If it's not your party in the White House, take advantage of the opportunity to learn a little humility and try gentle persuasion and education to accomplish your objectives. If it is your party, remember that it won't always be so; remember the phrase, "what goes around, comes around." In either case, the exercise of civility and respect serve one's purposes rather well and they're among the best of human traits.

If association executives don't know the importance of compromise, I don't know who does. I suppose we'll see how well they translate that understanding into practice after the new administration takes office.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lessons from an Economic Crisis

It has been three weeks since the Dow sharply reminded us of the severity of the financial crisis in which the U.S. is embroiled. Unfortunately, we did not respond as a nation with the collective determination that this, too, shall pass and that, together, we will weather the storm. Instead, we responded with panic, rage, distrust, fingerpointing and outright terror that the Second Great Depression was upon us. Moreover, some of us responded with greed and scrambling to protect our share of the spoils of the war against an economy gone sour.

There is plenty of room for fingerpointing. There's more than enough opportunity for expressing concern and outright fear that, if our response is not appropriate, our economy could tank. There's ample reason for distrust of many of the players who contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves. Even the mirror can take some of the blame.

We can reasonably lay blame on the people who took out mortgages they could never hope to repay, as well as on the financial institutions that irresponsibily lent them the money. It is not inappropriate to blame previous Democratic administrations for relaxing lending guidelines under Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. It is reasonable to hold the current administration and the Republican majority in recent years accountable for allowing the problems to fester and grow.

It is not wrong, it is reasonable, but it is useless. Blame is about the past. What we need to do is focus on the future.

The reason I write about all of this in a blog intended to address association management topics is the fact that many associations have jumped on the bandwagon of blame, while simultaneously doing all they can to look out after their members' self-interests, even while ignoring broader national interests. This is an embarrassment to the profession and a disservice to the nation. I won't name names because it won't do any good, but if you look around carefully (or not so carefully), you can find examples of the behaviors to which I am referring.

Let me reiterate a point. We, as a nation, did not put our collective wills behind finding a solution. We allowed a small group of men and women to decide that in our checkbooks and in the checkbooks of our children and their children stood a ready reserve of money to help address the underlying problems that "caused" our current economic maelstrom. We did not offer up our checkbooks, but we allowed them to be emptied. We allowed them to be emptied because we were worried that, if we didn't, we'd have to empty our bank accounts, too.

I'm not suggesting that the "bailout" was not right; I don't know whether it was or not. But many people did not and do not agree with it. Yet we abdicated our own responsibilities and let our elected representatives assume them on our behalf. We were too concerned, as a people, about avoiding a depression to get involved in conversations about what might be right.

The reason I'm so alarmed at associations that jumped into the fray to look out after their self-interest is this: associations should operate on the premise that they exist to look out after the self-interests of their members but that, and this is a given, anything that hurt society at large cannot take precedence. Associations should hold to an ethic that does not allow them to blatantly serve their members' self-interests at the expense of the common good. Nor should associations ever adopt positions that accept that the end justifies the means. Robin Hood was not an association executive.

All the bad "stuff" that is going on in our economy today gives us ample opportunity to learn how important it is for associations to inculcate ethics into their vision and mission statements and, then, into their operating principles. I intend to share that lesson with our client associations and I hope other association executives will do the same.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Seizing Opportunities vs. Embracing Burdens

The difference between success and failure sometimes can be the simple difference between seizing an opportunity and embracing a burden.

My association management company is almost always actively seeking new clients, both associations seeking full-service management and organizations looking for help managing or executing programs. The opportunities in both areas are almost boundless. I use the term opportunity loosely, though, because as often as not they would simply be burdens to our company if we chose to pursue them. So we don't.

Let me explain.

A car dealership and a shoe store both sell products, but they won't interchange their products for a very simple reason: their business models are very different. What is an opportunity for one is a burden for the other.

In the case of my company, our business model is to make the best strategic use of our staff's talents in furthering the objectives of our client associations. Many associations are not looking for the kinds of talents we bring to the table. They are not necessarily looking for strategic thinkers to form alliances with their leadership. Many associations, at some point in their evolution, are simply looking for solid clerical support. While we have solid clerical and administrative support, we're much more interested in providing those skills as a byproduct of our core service, management.

If we simply pursued any association that came along looking for help, we'd be drowning in administrative overload. Our staff, who enjoy being involved in every aspect of our client associations' deliberations and decision-making, would be bored to tears with full-time clerical tasks. We might be paid for the time and talent we bring to the table, but almost all of us would quickly tire of the routine. It just wouldn't fit our model. Don't get me wrong, we're as dedicated to good clerical and administrative support as any other company, we're just not interested in focusing solely on those areas.

We want to work with associations that offer challenges, that have significant potential for either growth or reinvigoration, and that want and need our brand of unbridled enthusiasm and broad, deep pool of talent.

When presented with opportunities that don't fit that model, we opt to decline. It's better for both of us; the association wouldn't be any happier with us than we would be with the association.

All of this is simply a prelude to my main point: it is my strong contention that associations are no different than the car dealership and the shoe store or my own company. They must be clear about what they want to be; if they try to be all things to all people, they instead become nothing to anyone. Associations should carefully determine who or what sort of businesses they want as members, what programs and projects they want to pursue, and then stay the course.

If your association is looking too much like the car dealership trying to sell shoes, neither your members nor your board will be fulfilled. Make time to articulate, clearly, your association's perfect opportunities and leave the burdens to another association to which they are better suited.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Socio-Political Economic Rant

Before you read this, please understand: while my post may seem unrelated to associations, from the outset, it is definitely related to associations and their ability to change the world..

I find it simultaneously interesting and deeply depressing to hear both Democrats and Republicans try to blame one another for the rising prices of energy. What's even more depressing is the parties' lack of leadership in addressing the fundamental problems that have led to our current dilemma. Even worse, neither party has the backbone to acknowledge the realities of what must ultimately be done if we are ever to find a way out of this wilderness of energy dependence.

Let's go back in time just a little. When I was in high school and college, in the early 1970s, students were exposed to stark realities, realities that were presented to us as warnings and directives:

  • oil won't last forever;
  • conservation is both wise and required;
  • alternative sources for fuels [and products that are oil-dependent (e.g., plastics)] must be sought after and perfected; and
  • failure to curb humankind's materialism-gone-awry is the recipe for disaster.

Neither our politicians nor, from the looks of our society today, the rest of us "got" the message. Had we been as intelligent as we wanted to believe we were, we would have directed our energies not toward delaying the inevitable, but toward harnessing the possible...creating a new future with new sources of energy, replacements for oil-based products, and a social consciousness that did not worship at the altar of economic superiority and materialistic gain. We would have insisted on very high gas mileage standards years ago; we would have demanded a Manhattan-style project, with renewal sources of energy as its raison d'être; we would have changed our own lifestyles; and we would have begun teaching our children what we had learned.

But we did not do what was intelligent. Instead, we ignored the gas lines of the early 1970s and paid no heed to the warnings that our lifestyles of excessive consumption and environmental disdain would come back to haunt us.

The chickens inhabiting the lavish coops we built with our own arrogance have now come home to roost.

And what do our politicians say? The Republicans' new mantra on energy, is "Find more. Use Less." When I read such nonsense, I simply sigh and hope for an insurrection. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics understands that such drivel is not an energy "policy," it's a bad and dangerous slogan.

But Democrats must have the correct solution then, right? Would that it were...but, no, they are equally made of nothing but self-puffery. While the Democrats rightly oppose opening up irresponsible drilling in environmentally precarious places, they do not have the courage to complete the thought. No, they want the government to step in and cut prices, while punishing the bad energy giants. Like the Republicans, they are unwilling to acknowledge the laws of supply and demand. They, too, will not accept the reality that we're using too much energy and destroying our environment in the process. They huff and puff and demand that the poor, overburdened middle class be dragged out of the pit it helped create through its conspicuous consumption. Rather than calling on us all to accept the fact that oil will, indeed, run out, they want to delay the economic pain of change to a future generation. If future generations could come back to exact their revenge, today's generations would be rightfully trembling in fear.

What does all of this have to do with associations, you might wonder? Associations have the capacity to bring about change in this political stalemate borne of fear.

They don't have to be energy-related organizations. They don't have to focus on engineering solutions to energy generation. They don't have to have an obvious connection to the environment or politics or policy. All they need to do is to educate their members and encourage their members to, in turn, educate their politicians. If just ten percent of the members of associations in the United States would send a message to their political leaders that they demand real solutions and that they are willing to be led by real leaders who have real answers, things would change, quickly and for the better.

If associations would simply give their members some "talking points," that could go a long way. Here are a few:

  • The supply of oil is dwindling quickly and we must find, with a great sense of urgency, alternatives;
  • Conservation is required and it will require sacrifices by all of us;
  • Priorities for availability of oil-based products must be assigned so that transportation of critical products (e.g., food, medicines, and the like) can be protected;
  • As painful as high prices can be, we must make energy use a conscious and uncomfortable choice in order to protect what is now a limited supply;
  • Give entrepreneurs, including major energy companies, who seek solutions, incentives to take risks; and
  • Once people understand the true, critical nature of energy availability, they will be willing to sacrifice and, in the meantime, they must be made to sacrifice.

Associations, which helped build this country, can help save it. They have power, influence, and the unique capacity to help their members who share common traits, needs, and wants achieve important objectives.

There are associations, of course, whose own survival is at odds with what I have said here. Their own members are potential victims of new energy sources and conservation measures. You can be absolutely sure that those associations will do all they can to preserve the status quo, minimize the impression that an urgent need for alternative sources exists, and derail any efforts to redirect their own economic engines. To my way of thinking, a company or an association that would put its own short-term profits or even its own survival above the survival of our economy and our way of life is an organization that deserves neither our help nor our sympathy.

Finally, I hope this diversion into political and economic and social minefields will be appreciated or, at least, forgiven. For my next post, I will return to a strictly "association management" topic.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Networking...Social and Otherwise...Associations Need to Catch On

Associations once had an almost ironclad lock on opportunities to meet and communicate with like-minded professionals or with business associates from one's industry. Whether those opportunities were considered professional networking or social networking, they were the primary occasions most people could count on to find others with professional and business commonalities and to establish ties with them.

Association conventions or conferences were gold-mines for networking and they were milked for all they were worth by people who understood the value of community. Many of today's association leaders risk losing those gold-mines to other associations or even to companies and invididuals who recognize that "networking" is undergoing an enormous transition. They are risking this loss because they are either ignoring innovations or they simply do not comprehend the depth and breadth of the changes taking place before them.

It is no longer necessary to initiate networking at an association function. Instead, one may network by using Plaxo, LinkedIn, Ning or any number of other social or professional networking sites and services that are readily available on the Internet. The two former services have pre-existing platforms that enable one to easily link to others with shared personal or business interests. The latter, and many more like it, enables individuals or groups (or associations) to create their own social networking services. Now, networking can start well in advance of a live event. The live event is simply the natural extension of the network's reach. Other social networking sites have morphed from having primary objectives involving personal networking to some business-oriented sites (e.g., Facebook, MySpace).

The problem, as I see it, is that associations tend to be very slow to adopt alternatives to their traditional networking opportunities. They tend to want "tried and true" solutions to their problems, so by the time they are ready to give in to the trends that surround them, it may be too late. I'm not advocating the abandonment of traditional meetings for education, information, and networking. But I suggest that meetings should be viewed not as the beginning of the networking process as has traditionally been the case but, rather, as the culmination of the first phases of the process and the launchpad of new, more vibrant, and much more valuable networking processes. I view these more valuable networking processes as enablers all manner of transactions between participants, from information exchange to personal friendships.

While I think associations, in general, are far too rich in value to be replaced (at least not yet) by a social networking service, they are at risk unless association leaders insist on augmenting their traditional means of helping people establish connections by taking advantage of social networking opportunities.

I see signs that associations are opening up to using technologies to enable and to support social and professional networking. In fact, at least one such social network is geared toward educating association staff about the value of these technologies. But unless more associations follow the lead of forward-thinkers who recognize the need to adapt and adopt, associations at large risk becoming less relevant. And that would be a shame, because associations offer so much more than networking opportunities. Unless they offer networking opportunities in the very best and most useful ways possible, though, they do risk becoming dinosaurs. And we have a general idea about what happened to them.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Impact of Gas Prices on Associations and Their Members

Associations, like every other type of business, are feeling the impact of rising petroleum prices. The effect of high gas prices will be felt for the forseeable future. Associations must, therefore, decide how they will deal with the inevitable impact on their members, their employees, and their vendors and business partners. Unfortunately, none of us have the luxury of time to consider how to cope. That luxury has been available to us since the oil embargo of 1973, but few of us possessed the wisdom or the will to put that time to good use. Now, it's time to react quickly to what amounts to an emergency.

What effects are we going to have to face? I suspect no one is absolutely certain, but here are just a few that I believe are very likely:

  • Travel to Meetings: Members will be unwilling or unable to justify the frequency of travel we have heretofore enjoyed, thanks in part to high petroleum prices;
  • Airline Travel: Airline travel fares, which have already begun a rapid ascent, will spiral ever higher, making flying a business luxury rather than a business byproduct;
  • Close-in Renaissance: The exodus from cities to suburbs and exurbs will reverse course, making "close in" living a very highly sought after lifestyle for association staff (except in associations which have already fled to the suburbs) [while gentrification has already started this trend, it will accelerate];
  • Adaptive Zoning: Zoning laws will have to re-adapt to neighborhood-based businesses, as people are apt to insist on staying closer to home.
  • Telecommuting: Associations and their member businesses will have to institute widespread telecommuting in order to attract high quality workers.
  • Hyper-Local Employment Markets: The advent of more neighborhood-based small businesses will make associations and their member companies face a much more highly competitive and highly localized market for employees;
  • Long-Distance and Virtual Events: As face-to-face meetings become more and more difficult to orchestrate, thanks to high costs of travel, associations will have to invest resources toward creating educational "events" that take place long-distance, usings webinars, video conferences, social networking sites and processes, and other technological options; events may begin to take place over longer periods of time, with event components pulled together technologically as "virtual events;"
  • Hotel Transformations: Meeting-supported hotels will be forced to transform into localized technological resources for associations that cannot, or do not want to, invest heavily in long-distance meeting technologies;
  • Transportation Infrastructure: Public transportation systems will be much more likely to win competitions for transportation infrastructure dollars;
  • Potential Preeminence of Associations: Despite the challenges, the financial and environmental pressures to keep people apart (at least long-distance) are apt to have a highly positive effect on associations that are able to understand and take advantage of their unique capacities to be the "binding for the social fabric" of their industries or profession;
  • Ruinous Results of the Failure to Act: And, in spite of the potential for associations, their failure to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them could be ruinous. The ease with which social networking sites can be established by one person, by himself or herself, offers evidence of what can happen if associations fail to react quickly to the challenges facing their members and their employees (and, of course, I'm referring as well to AMCs as well as associations). The failure to act quickly could easily give other organizations or individuals the opportunity to act earlier and take advantage of the opportunities to lure away association members (and staff members).

As frightening as the rapidly-escalating price of energy is, it provides us with an opportunity to think about new ways to do business. We can work to be more resourceful and more attuned to financial and environmental realities. We can be more conscious of the fact that our business practices and personal choices as association members and association executives can affect the world around us.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We're All Human, Don't You Think?

Recently, almost all of the financial news that has come across my desk, television, or computer screen has been bleak. The dollar is weak almost to the point of collapse. The U.S. mortgage debacle continues to reverberate throughout the world's economy, wreaking havoc in industry after industry. Households are awash in debt. Businesses are cutting back. Food prices are skyrocketing worldwide and food riots are taking place all over the globe. In some places people are starving. In others they are battling one another over political issues that, in reality, can almost always be traced back to economics in one way or another. People with obscene wealth are fighting to keep what they believe is their birthright. People living in abject poverty are fighting to escape what has become punishment for being born to the wrong parents in the wrong society in the wrong era. It's a mess. It's almost enough to bring crusty old men to tears.

The way businesses and individuals and families are reacting to what has yet to be "officially" labeled a recession perplexes and concerns me, one of those crusty old men (well, 54 is not so crusty, I suppose).

Businesses are cutting back on their own engines of survival. Their marketing and advertising dollars are being dramatically restricted and their customer service measurements and expenditures for tracking brand compliance are being slashed.

Individual consumers are complaining about the cost of gasoline and food, while simultaneously griping that they can't afford the gas guzzling SUVs they so desperately want to complement their desired image.

Famlies are cutting back on food in order to pay for gas. Many are struggling to find ways to keep their children clothed in the latest fashion trends, allowing expenses for daycare and medicines to go unpaid.

These things are troublesome to many on many levels, both personally and professionally. But this blog is about associations and I'll turn my attention back to them.

What I find most troubling, professionally, is the lack of a sense of urgency among associations in general. With few exceptions, I see associations reacting, if they react at all, from a dangerously provincial and highly selfish perspective.

Too many associations are forgetting what they are good at: unifying people with common interests to pursue the common good. Rather than rallying around a need, whether that need involves the profession they serve or the industry they represent, associations today too often are either ignoring their potential role in finding broad solutions or are focused on their own survival, ignoring their own important constituents.

I do not suggest that all associations should always focus on their own social consciousnesses. Rather, I suggest that there are times when associations should understand that they are social institutions with social responsibilities.

Despite the fact that an association of flashlight manufacturers has no ongoing and fundamental obligation to provide light to those who find themselves in the dark, it does have an obligation to respond to certain crises. When the association is the only organization that has the structural capacity to provide relief to tornado victims who have lost their homes and have no power, responding to that need is, in my view, a moral imperative. Never mind that responding will be good PR. Responding will be good, period.

What I'm getting at, albeit slowly, is that I'm disappointed to see that some associations are responding badly to their own plights in this economy. Some of the same associations that would chastise businesses for cutting advertising budgets in hard times because advertising is precisely what they need are cutting expenditures for staff when what they need more than anything else is a staff that is hard at work guiding the association through the dangerous and potentially deadly thickets of economic malaise. Rather than pulling everyone together to fight a common threat, they are circling the wagons and sending the weakest out into the firestorm to fend for themselves.

Associations, like the people who belong to them, should be ashamed of themselves if they don't recognize and exercise their abilities to intervene when crises become so fierce as to endanger lives and cultures. Believe me, I'm generally not one to support associations raising funds to support the "cause" of Crohn's disease because the organization's president's son-in-law has the disease. If the president wants to support that cause, fine. If she wants to ask her friends to do the same, more power to her. But one individual's bad fortune isn't sufficient to justify an association of chemists to give one medical condition its undivided attention. But if the society in which that association of chemists finds itself is at a breaking point because of disease or hunger or some other catastrophic social ill, I'm in favor of the organization parlaying its capacity to fight that social ill into a solution. That association of chemists should not insist that it has no business solving a social ill simply because it wasn't formed to do that. That would be rather like a football player refusing to apply a tourniquet to an accident victim's wound because that's not his job.

OK, I'm temporarily off my soapbox. But I hope your association will respond to social needs when they are severe, regardless of the association's mission. We're all human, after all, or at least we should be.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Association Meetings: Dinosaurs?

We've heard it all before. The advent of video conferencing was going to be the downfall of association meetings. But it didn't happen. Then, webinars were going to cause the demise of association meetings. But that didn't happen, either. So, when someone suggests that technological advances that take advantage of the Internet are going to put a crimp on association meetings, we tend to dismiss it as another bad prediction.

But this time, we may be watching the development of the perfect storm. Airlines are hurting, with some going out of business and others stretched so thin there's concern about whether they are spending enough on maintenance. Fuel prices are climbing sky-high, making it exceptionally expensive to travel, whether by plane, car, boat, or train. The populace of the world, and especially the U.S., is finally becoming conscious of our carbon footprints...and we're rightfully embarrassed at our abuse of the environment. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration makes life unnecessarily miserable for travelers, but virtually no one feels any safer as a result of TSA efforts. And, technology is going beyond "hey, this is neat," to "hey, this is phenomenol!"

I do not think travel is a thing of the past. But I do think association meetings are going to undergo some exceptional changes in the very near future. And association executives, meeting planners, and volunteer leaders better be ready to adapt quickly or they will find that they, like the meetings they are so used to, are dinosaurs.

Here's what I think lies ahead...and not far ahead:

  1. Technology companies will push, hard, to make "remote meeting technology" pervasive in every office.
  2. If you don't have a video camera mounted on your computer, you will very, very soon. And there will be video cameras throughout your offices and even on the trade show floors of the hotels and convention centers where your meetings are held today.
  3. Internet-enabled networkable sensors will become cheap enough that they will be almost it will be easy to control all sorts of devices remotely. Those cameras I mentioned...they, too, will be controllable by internet-enabled networkable sensors.
  4. What once was, at best, clunky and unsatisfyingly jerky video and sound, will become "almost live" so that viewers with an Internet connection will be able to see and hear what's going on in a room 2,000 miles away as clearly...or more clearly...than the people in that room.
  5. Meeting planners, association executives, and the people who have been attending their events will find themselves in a whole new world. Knowing how to negotiate for sleeping rooms and how to select food and beverage packages that will satisfy will no longer be so important.
  6. Skills in successfully integrating multiple technologies so that event participants from around the globe can have an "almost live" experience will be required.
  7. Physical meetings will become much smaller and much, much more expensive per "live" participant...but meetings will become far greater in their reach by drawing in participants from a huge pool that has never been terribly active in "live" meetings before.
  8. The team that executes a meeting will no longer have to be in the same place. Ten presenters might be in ten locations...the registration group may be in another location...the trade show managers may be in four buildings on three continents.
  9. For "live" meetings, the audience might be fifteen people sitting in front of a speaker, but the speaker might be communicating with ten thousand people who are listening and watching from afar.
  10. The fundamental skills required of association executives and meeting planners will evolve and will involve identifying and executing the best and most appropriate teaching methods for a disparate audience.

Now is the time for those of us who plan to stay in this discipline to "re-tool" ourselves so that we remain relevant in what promises to be a completely different world than the one we've known. Time will tell whether I'm right about this...but if I were a betting man, I'd say my chances of winning some serious money are very, very good!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mission Critical

Associations that do not pay attention to their mission statements risk losing the support that led to the drafting of those mission statements. It's important for an association to regularly remind its members about what the organization's mission is.

The energy and enthusiasm and vocal support of the association that resulted in the mission statement tends to drift and fade unless it is regularly highlighted.

Here are some samples of the mission statements of some of our client associations. They are simple, straightforward, and easy to understand.

ETA's mission is to strengthen the commercial embroidery business through member education, business support, representation, networking, research, and consumer outreach.

The leadership goal of MSPA is to increase the value, acceptance, and use of mystery shopping, as well as to enhance overall professionalism in the industry.

Leading the Future of Dietetics

The mission of TSMSS is to promote certification and professional growth through networking, within the healthcare industry.

Members of these associations do not have to wonder what the organizations are all about. The mission statements are clear and concise. If your association's mission statement is weak, hidden, or confusing, the time to adjust it is now, before the energy that helped build the organization dissipates.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hotel F&B Costs...Trust, but Verify and Watch Your Back

You've negotiated a good sleeping room rate on a very nice property for your annual meeting. Members will be delighted at the place! Everything is looking terrific and your board of directors is pleased.

They are pleased, that is, until you present a food and beverage (F&B) budget for the event that looks for all the world like you've decided on a menu of Russian Beluga caviar, top shelf vodka, and truffles laced with shards of pure gold.

Then, they begin to wonder about your sanity and your negotiating skills. All you did, though, was get a good room rate and assume the hotel would be fair to you when it comes to F&B costs. But your assumption of fairness on the hotel's part, not to mention your failure to control your expense liabilities, has put you in a very, very disturbing situation.

That's the scenario you could face if you fail to include in your contract negotiations with the hotel some very specific parameters about the costs of F&B. Without caps in cost escalation from existing menus, maximum contractual per-person stipulations, or some other means of controlling F&B costs, you are at the mercy of the property. You don't have to serve Beluga caviar and top shelf vodka; you simply have to order a sandwich and a glass of iced tea and you could find yourself in very hot water if the hotel decides it's reasonable to charge $45 for the sandwich and $7 for the tea. Without contractual limits, you have no recourse; you're stuck.

So, how does one avoid the embarrassing and potentially career-altering scenario presented above? Here are some tips that will help:
  • Insist that the hotel make written commitments (written because hotel staff are notorious for disappearing before your event and their replacements cannot rely on your "word" that their predessors made them) to you that will limit your F&B outlay;
  • Incorporate into your contract some very specific numbers that restrict outrageous escalations in prices, such as: Per-person prices for base-level full breakfast shall not exceed $14, inclusive; per-person prices for base-level plated luncheon shall not exceed $21, inclusive; per-person prices for base-level plated dinner shall not exceed $31, inclusive (where inclusive means inclusive of tax, service charge, and gratuity) [of course, you must define "base level"];
  • Limit liability by incorporating an F&B commitment, in dollars, that you must meet, while simultaneously controlling per-meal costs, such as: group's F&B minimum commitment to the hotel shall be $17,500 (based on the aggregate expenditures on meals whose costs shall be based on an average cost per person of $13 for breakfast, $19 for lunch, and $29 for dinner) and, once achieved, group shall have no further commitment to hotel for F&B costs; and/or
  • Include a contractual provision that gives you the latitude to order "off menu" so that you can present a meal and ask for an item-by-item cost (so you can adjust the per-person cost to adapt to your financial capacities).

There are many, many ways to ensure that you and your board are not unpleasantly surprised at the cost of an event. You should know, before the contract is signed, what your F&B costs (and other hotel-related costs) will be, based on your estimated attendance. It's good professional practice to develop an event budget (whether "official" or not) before beginning the process of looking for venues for meetings. Your meeting specs should, ideally, indicate an expected price range for each meal, so that hotels know what's expected of them...and to give them fair warning that you'll expect their contracts to be adjusted accordingly.

You should have a spreadsheet that presents your final expected numbers before you start selecting menus. If not, you've not finished your preparatory work.

Finally, don't expect the hotel staff to look out after your best interests. That's not their job. Their job is to look out after the hotel owners' best interests. Your job is to look out after your association's best interests. A food and beverage budget that suggests you're planning to order Beluga caviar and top shelf vodka looks like you're looking out after the wrong interests.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Micromanaging Board and the Consolidator of Executive Power

Almost nothing is more annoying to the association executive responsible for managing the day-to-day affairs of an association than a volunteer who believes it is the volunteer's role to manage the association. And nothing is more annoying to that volunteer than for the association executive to fail to understand that the volunteer was elected for just that purpose!

When those two perspectives emerge in an association environment, it's time for everyone to step back and reflect on why they are in their roles and what those roles truly mean. More importantly, it's important for the executive and the volunteer to listen to the try to learn something.

The confusion and perturbation that arises when staff and volunteer see one another as belonging to "the opposition" are destructive and disquieting. They get in the way of getting the organization's work done. They make working and volunteering for the association unhappy and distressing. When egos and misunderstandings get out of the way, though, everyone can be happier and more productive. But it takes effort.

One of the easiest ways to understand the roles of association executives and elected volunteers is to compare them to their "equivalents" in the corporate world.

The chief staff executive of an association is equivalent to the CEO of a corporation. In both cases, the board of directors hires the individual (or, quite wisely, the management firm) who, then, is given boundaries of authority and objectives to reach. The differences in the manner in which board members are compensated are where the comparisons begin to break down...but they shouldn't. Nonprofit board members are "paid" primarily in recognition and a sense of contribution to the "cause." In addition, they may have a few perquisites, but generally speaking they simply get acknowledgement and the appreciation of their peers. Corporate board members generally get paid in hard cash. They, too, may get a sense of accomplishment, but there's no question that money speaks on corporate boards.

If members of association boards were satisfied with their "pay," there might be fewer instances of micromanagement. Many association board members, though, seem to believe that the differences between them and corporate board members are monumental. They sometimes seem to believe they should be more involved in the day-to-day operation of the association than the corporate board member should be in the day-to-day operation of the corporation. That may be understandable, considering the fact that for-profit boards tend to pay rather enormous salaries to their chief executives, while association boards tend to want their executives to get the bulk of their compensation in intellectual fulfillment. (That last comment was made simply to prove that I am human.)

"If only they understood," complain association executives about their boards, "they'd realize that their micromanagement is doing more harm than good!" Association board members tend to have a counter view, saying "I was elected to oversee the operation of this organization and I must be involved to fulfill my responsibility!"

Both perspectives are flawed. The association executive fails to fully grasp the legitimacy, in concept, of the volunteer leader's attitude. From the association executive's point of view, the volunteer should simply chart the course and get out of the way. That's not true of an association environment any more than it is of a corporate environment. In fact, recent high-profile cases of boards failing to fulfill their fiduciary duties to shareholders point to the need for more oversight by corporate boards.

The volunteer does not quite understand the difference between governance and management and the distinction between oversight and meddling. From the volunteer's perspective, fiduciary duties require the volunteer's authorization for actions by staff and they require the volunteer to make the decisions which staff is then to implement. Again, that's not true in either a corporate or an association environment.

The association executive who is frustrated by someone he or she sees as an intrusive volunteer is missing something. The volunteer who is frustrated by an executive who the volunteer sees as uncooperative and unwilling to acknowledge the volunteer's primacy is missing something, too.

They are missing a complete understanding of their roles and the motives of the other person involved in the situation. An association executive's role is to implement board policy, but it is also to provide advice and counsel to the board. The executive director of an association is also required to share information with the board, to ensure that the board is fully informed. The volunteer's role is to develop policy, but also to monitor the executive's performance to ensure that the policy is being implemented. The volunteer is required to give feedback to the executive, to ensure that the executive knows how he or she is perceived. Sometimes the "issues" are simply matters of trust. Open discussions about what the issues are can go a long way toward resolving the problem.
  1. The key in both corporate and association environments is that both require:
    clear definitions of boundaries within which the executive has latitude to act;
  2. clear definitions of the types of actions/decisions that must have board review and approval;
  3. clear understanding by the board and the executive of what reporting is needed, how frequently, and to whom; and
  4. regular performance assessments, in both directions, discussed openly between the board and the executive.

Whenever there are concerns about micromanagement by the board or unnecessary consolidation of power by the executive, the time is immediately right for a candid conversation. Both groups must make it a point to try to learn what is bothering the other and both must make a commitment to correct the problem.

Finally, such situations are never comfortable, but there's no reason to hide them under the rug, either. It happens in the best of associations. In the really good associations, these situations get resolved quickly and completely.