True North

The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the National Society of Professional Engineer’s House of Delegates General Assembly, July 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.

round_compass_logo_400x400As NSPE ends one fiscal/program year and starts a new one, it would be typical to talk about the past year’s activity. That is worth doing:  we have a good story to tell, and NSPE’s accomplishments of 2016-17 are something we can all take pride in.  But that would be repeating a story that you have already been told, as it was happening.

Besides, it has all been neatly summarized the NSPE Year in Review: 2016-17, which is available online at:

www.nspe.org/review16-17

So I thought I would focus my remarks at a higher level.

Culture is defined by values: foundational, unchanging principles that define what we believe and that determine the choices we make in the face of an ever-changing day-to-day reality. It is our compass, if you will.

The actual course we chart may need to change in the face of external realities beyond our control, just as a storm may require a ship to take a different route than the one originally planned. Technological advancement allows us to abandon sailing ships as our mode of forward progress when better means (such as steam ships, airplanes, rocket ships) become available.

But true north remains a constant.

Culture trumps politics, rules, legislation, structure, even strategy. No amount of tinkering with a law, procedure, or regulation is sufficient if a culture has been abandoned, forgotten, or has become unhealthy. Progress and improvement are possible and absolutely necessary, but only if grounded in a culture that remains relevant and is informed by our shared, timeless and unchanging values.

NSPE’s founders understood this.

It has become a commonplace to observe that NSPE was originally founded to unite a community in order to establish PE licensure laws in all 50 of the United States and its territories. But this mistakes means for an end.  Licensure is merely the outward form that makes our core values and beliefs tangible in our world.

Those values are summed up nicely in NSPE’s Statement of Principles: Being a licensed professional engineer means more than just holding a certificate and possessing technical competence; it is a commitment to hold the public health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations.

That is not to say that we don’t need to continue to exert activist and diligent effort to define, promote and protect licensure rules and regulations. With the very concept of licensure under increased attack, those rules and procedures, tactics and strategies, legislation and regulation demand our vigilance and constant effort.

But I think it is instructive and useful from time to time to take our eyes off the licensure tree and remind ourselves of the forest we seek to nurture, grow and preserve: the professional community that is NSPE.

The new membership business model overwhelmingly approved by the NSPE House of Delegates at its General Assembly in Atlanta in July is another one of those means that should never be mistaken for an end. But the means are important.  Decisions on policy, strategy, and yes, even on the mundane details of the organization’s administrative and financial structure, have consequences.

For NSPE’s elected leadership, at the national and state levels, crafting this new approach to doing business required balancing the needs of a diverse membership and each member society in a manner that best serves the community as a whole.  All the internal operational matters that national and state leaders worked so hard to resolve were the necessary, if sometimes tedious obligation of leadership, but an administrative effort tied to a higher purpose and intention.

The new membership business model is a new vehicle, intended to re-energize, re-invigorate and restore a culture and ensure its viability and efficacy in a world that has changed much since the Society was established in 1934. But it is a vehicle that remains aligned to true north. It remains directed toward the same timeless truths that motivated the founders: that NSPE exists:

  • To protect engineers (and the public) from unqualified practitioners,
  • To build public recognition for the profession, and
  • To stand against unethical practices.

It recognizes that although the technical problems of each engineering specialty are divergent, the professional problems faced by engineers are alike. And that, while the technical societies, for the best fulfillment of their essential purpose, are divided on lines of differentiation, this division into separate organizations prevents effective united effort for the interests of the profession as a whole. Those aren’t my thoughts, or the current board’s. They are the principles articulated by NSPE’s founder, David Steinman, in 1934.

He went on to conclude that a “single national professional society, with solidarity of purpose and concentration of strength, is needed to provide effectively for the professional interests of the engineering profession” and that, to be successful, “unity and geographical organization are the essentials. The national society, the state societies, and the county chapters are closely and reciprocally integrated, and all are regarded of equal importance, with membership in one meaning membership in all.”

The new membership business model marks an evolution that revitalizes NSPE as a system of partners that are neither national-centric nor state-centric, but PE-centric.

The new membership model is not perfect – no product of fallible humans could be.  But it is the product of a serious and careful effort over the past year and a half to make the best decisions possible. And to the army of state leaders (staff and volunteer) for the hundreds of hours they have invested in designing the model, my sincere thank you.

And to all licensed professional engineers, whether members of NSPE or not, we’re just getting started. We’ve re-tooled our craft. We remain resolutely aimed at true north.  And we intend to blow you away with what we accomplish next.

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CEO effectiveness & volunteer boards

I was recently invited to share one piece of advice from what I have learned in my years as an association chief staff officer on effective partnership with volunteer leaders, for a book soon to be published by ASAE.  After giving  some thought to the matter, for me it came down to what JimiStock_puzzel Collins calls Level 5 leadership: “the paradoxical blend of personal humility and [fierce] professional will.” You need to be able to take your own ego-gratification out of the equation when assessing the association’s strategic needs, but also refuse to make allowances for any limitations that might be present on your board by compromising on the level of leadership their role demands from them. You need to be authentic in giving the board credit for association success and in truly owning any board failure as your own. And never, never, never, letting a setback cause you to doubt yourself or become tentative and risk averse. Take the hit, learn what you can from it, turn the page, and move on. In doing so, you become not only something of a safety net for the board, making it less risky for them to take bold action. You also model the behavior that will enable them to be effective in their own leadership roles.

Why change is hard and so often goes wrong

imagesA member shared this video with me recently, which demonstrates that knowledge does not equal understanding and that it is very difficult to change biases.

http://viewpure.com/MFzDaBzBlL0?ref=bkmk

Watch the whole 8 minutes if you can … there is more here than the initial “hook” of the video: how changing one thing makes even a simple, customary task more difficult.

The video triggered (unpleasant) memories for me of every strategic planning initiative I have ever been involved in, as a staff leader, a volunteer or a consultant.  It makes understandable how quickly and easily a new paradigm, once mastered, can be abandoned … particularly by those who have lived longest in the old paradigm and who are generally the ones in positions with the most organizational influence.

It is very relevant to where my own organization, is right now.  We did things right: engaging members (not just active volunteers) in collecting data on their needs, expectations and aspirations.  We listened with open minds, willfully rejected pre-conceptions, and applied what we learned in an open-minded fashion. We took the time to build broad consensus on future direction and focus long before we tried to reduce it all to words in a strategic plan. We have the knowledge, and understanding, and even buy-in to that new vision and its goals, clearly articulated in a new strategic plan, and being applied with discipline to our actions, programs, and branding messages. But agreement, will, and intention are not enough to keep the new bicycle on course.  And this little video demonstrates why, so often, the final result of even big change often ends up looking a whole lot like what it was supposed to replace.

So take this as a cautionary tale.

Context, continuity, and generations

long view 2A lot of self-help books and personal development coaches advise taking a break from your area of professional focus every now and then to read things entirely outside your field.  In today’s world of mass media, information overload, and 24-hour-a-day, day jobs, that is increasingly hard to do.  But I have found this to be a valuable piece of advice throughout my career, as was brought home by two separate instances in the past week, neither of which had any connection to the field I represent at my association.

First it was my privilege to be included in a small dinner, hosted by Mark French of Leading Authorities, to hear John Pistole, the former deputy director of the FBI and, until this January, head of the TSA.  He offered up a piece of advice from his long career in intelligence and law enforcement that struck me as equally applicable to associations and other mission-driven organizations:  Text without context is merely pretext.  A piece of data, no matter how intrinsically significant, can be manipulated or inferred to support any conclusion you want it to, until you place it meaningful context.

Twitter feeds remind me of this every day: highly distilled nuggets of what looks like wisdom that only rise above being empty, if clever slogans if I happen to be in-the-know with the community, situation or events that provide a context for understanding it.

Later in the same week, I was reading a literary and theological journal devoted to the thought of writer/philosopher G. K. Chesterton.  One excellent article1 caught my particular attention. Its author, David Fagerberg, a university professor, observed that it was his impression that generational variations (in attitudes, preferences, styles of behavior and communication) occur much faster than do the changes in sociological cohorts (millennials, baby boomers, et. al.), which are measured in decades.  Generational changes manifest themselves closer to every four years than every 40.

He went on to observe that with each new generation, our communities experience a form of amnesia, similar to the short-term memory loss suffered by the protagonist in the film Momento2. We like to talk about changes our organizations are making in society, but every day, a new generation is becoming a part of it, without any memory of the history behind any group, cause, fashion or fad they encounter.

To them, everything is new.  But, in one sense, there is nothing new under the sun. As Fargerberg pointed out and Chesterton wrote nearly a 100 years ago, today’s revolution, is really just a reaction or counter revolution to yesterday’s new perspective, which was in turn a reaction to the day before. Wait long enough, and you see rebellions repeating themselves and matters of fundamental truth, justice, ethics, whatever you want to call it, ultimately prevailing (albeit, often clothed in newer, contemporary costume).

That is why storytelling — creating a context — is so important for any mission-driven enterprise.

Core mission, our purpose and reason for being, if it is authentic, remains unchanged and unchanging. Reminding people of history, of what got us here, is so important to triggering a recognition of why what we are doing today is important and relevant. But understanding how to communicate that core mission in terms that are relevant to today’s frames of reference requires dexterity. Today’s frame of reference will be different tomorrow.

Taking the long view, fads come and fads go.  “[T]he great danger of the moment,” Chesterton wrote, “is that young men will become content with these revolts against revolt, these reactions against reaction; so that we have nothing but an everlasting seesaw of the Old Young and the New Young; the last always content with its fleeting triumph over the last but one. And the only way to avoid that result is to teach men to stretch their minds and inhabit a larger period of time.”  Over time, if the mission remains valid, history will show how it “has one by one outdistanced all the runners who prided themselves on their youth and advanced positions … By that time, it will be more apparent than ever that these jerks of novelty do not create either progress or an equilibrium3.”

That is not an invitation to complacency.  Waiting for each new generation to gain the perspective of the long view is fatal. We might eventually be recognized as having been right, but only posthumously.

Another all too understandable trap is equally fatal.  When enlivening the old mission with new energy seems impossible, it is tempting to focus on form over substance, trying to impose past structures, hierarchies, and processes, in an authoritarian, fundamentalist fashion, as if going through the motions all over again will recreate the sense of purpose that originally sparked them.

Becoming prisoners of our history is another danger: the feeling that we can not make progress today without first going back in time (as if that were possible) to correct the problems and mistakes we made then.

So I hope I am not coming across as a worshiper of a dead past or a cheerleader for the status quo.  Far from it.  Change or die?  True enough.

But as Chesterton reminded me, not all change constitutes progress.  Equilibrium is necessary for progress: the clarity and stability to not become distracted from the core, unchanging thing and seeing how best to serve it in the world today.  Otherwise we will constantly be dashing off in new directions and losing the line.

The challenge lies in simultaneously: 

  • Acting in the present, in a manner that is immediate and responsive to today’s passing perspectives; and
  • Staying connected to the roots and in continuity with the history that got us here, inviting those for whom everything is new to see their place in it.

In short, providing context.


1 “On Generations,” David W. Fagerberg, Gilbert Magazine, Volume 18, No. 2-3, November-December 2014.

2 And how many of us, even with birth dates separated by only a few years, actually remember Momento?

3 The Well and the Shallows, G. K. Chesterton, 1935.

The Future of Membership?

future of membershipOn November 6th, I was invited to present a TED-style talk on the “Future of Membership” at the first Association Chief Executives (ACE) Symposium.  My thesis:  volunteerism not membership is what makes our organizations unique; membership is a means to an end; the metrics we use to judge membership success are all wrong; and the bottom line: get clarity around your mission (your purpose) first, then worry about what form of membership (if any) serves that purpose best.

Read the presentation here.

What the world needs is more association executives

Closing the ASAE annual meeting in Dallas, author Dan Pink argued that, regardless of profession, we are all in sales. But the characteristics, skills and traits he described as essential for success sounded to my ears like precisely the attributes that distinguish effective association leaders, and differentiate us as a profession.

Read more in my latest commentary in Association Trends: What the world needs is more association executives | Association TRENDS

What’s in a word?

Association Trends data indicates a majority of associations do not include bonuses in staff compensation structures.  Perhaps part of the resistance is simply a matter of language.  “Bonus” sounds gratuitous and unearned.  But performance based compensation can be a critical element in achieving high staff performance.  Read more in my commentary in the July 19th Trends.

What’s in a word? | Association TRENDS

The extent (and limits) of a board’s authority

The rich “are different than you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed.  (“Yes, they have more money,” Ernest Hemingway is apocryphally reported to have cynically added.)

In the same vein, non-profit boards are different from corporate boards.  They have less latitude to lead.  Even when they have the clear legal authority and are acting entirely consistently with their duties and obligations, they sometimes lack the power to actually execute their decisions.

These thoughts have run through my mind these past days, as I followed the drama over the firing and re-hiring of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. As an alum of the University, I care about what occurred, but I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge or unique insight into the Board of Visitor’s actions. But observing the process I couldn’t help but recognize something that is a fact of everyday life for every association executive working with his or her volunteer board.

I don’t know, but it is very possible that the UVa Board of Visitors was objectively correct and perhaps even obligated by their duty to serve the best interests of The University to take the action they did in forcing Sullivan’s resignation.  Perhaps she was failing to perform her duties in a satisfactory fashion, or failing to act in a manner consistent with the direction set by the duly authorized board.  If that were the case, the board’s action was not only legally correct, but the only responsible one for them to take.  On the other hand, perhaps it was a political or personality thing, which would make the decision more questionable.

But it really doesn’t matter.  Where a for-profit corporation’s board can take an action and implement it with little need to explain or justify itself, a non-profit board faces thousands of stakeholders who feel they have a right to be fully informed if not directly involved in every decision “their” association/institution’s leaders take, and who are not slow to exert what they perceive to be their right of veto.

Like I said, I don’t know how valid or justified the UVa Board of Visitor’s initial action dismissing their “CEO” was.  But thirty-plus years in the association business has taught me that a board needs more than just the legal authority to take action … it needs to get buy-in from enough of its constituency to make the decision stick, and the UVa Board of Visitors clearly failed in this regard.

Having led trade associations, whose boards are made up of individuals accustomed to serving on corporate boards, this can be a particularly hard lesson for association board members to learn.  They sometimes fail to appreciate the difference in governance realities between their own company’s board and the association’s.  I can easily imagine the surprise and genuine confusion of members of the UVa board (from such companies as Morgan Stanley and Google) to the reaction of faculty and students.  “They don’t have all the information we do … why do they think they know better than those of us with all the facts and data in front of us?” Or more angrily, “What gives them the right to usurp the authority we were elected/appointed to exercise as a board?”

The lesson to be learned, is that in the not-for-profit world, position power, legal authority, even being right are insufficient.  Leaders and boards need credibility and stature and trust sufficient to bring those they lead along with them.  Or they face embarrassing failures.

Just ask UVa’s Board of Visitors.

Review Gate

Give the Metropolitan Opera credit. When its leadership screws up, they do it on a truly operatic scale.

The Met is a nonprofit, structured in a manner not unlike many associations. There is the parent organization, the opera company, that delivers the core value to its membership (audience).  And there is its educational foundation, the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The Guild engages in a number of activities in support of the parent, not the least of which is to publish the magazine with the widest circulation in the opera field, Opera News. A substantial part of each issue of the magazine is made up of reviews of opera productions from around the world.

On Monday, May 21st, in response to the sometimes negative reviews of the company’s own productions in the pages of the magazine, the Met announced that Opera News would stop reviewing the Met.  In an interview with the New York Times, Met general manager Peter Gelb indicated that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication “passing judgment” on the institution with its negative critiques of the house’s productions.

The reaction was immediate and predictable.  Some of the reaction was overwrought. Charges of censorship were made, which is hyperbole. The Met management, as the owner and publisher, has every right to decide what it will and will not publish in its own magazine. No one has a constitutional right to have what they want published in “their” association’s magazine.

But the censorship accusation also misses the point. The Met had every right to do what they did. It was just monumentally stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Forget whether you agree or disagree with the assessments of the artistic merits of the Met productions that appeared in the pages of Opera News: Does a gag order on any content independent of the management’s preferred narrative increase or decrease the credibility of the journal?

Does making the house organ nothing more than an outlet for sales hype and self-promotion make it more or less likely that the journal will actually be read?

And the irony of the Met’s action was that it was a huge overreaction, too. The criticism of Met productions in the pages of Opera News was far milder than the criticism carried elsewhere.

Transparency isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) an imposed obligation.  It is the organization’s best defense against mischaracterizations of its actions and intentions. Transparency does expose you to criticism. But it also creates an environment where the facts are allowed to speak for themselves and there is an opportunity for open discussion.  Both your supporters and your detractors can weigh in and the lurkers following but not participating in the debate can decide for themselves. There is no guarantee that judgment will be reasonable or fair, but it maximizes the potential that the verdict will be informed.

Some in the opera world have serious doubts about Gelb’s capabilities as an operatic producer, but he is an undisputed master of marketing and PR. Which makes this monumental act of hubris all the more surprising. How could he miss the atrocious optics created by the action?  Could there be a clearer way to send the message that the organization feels it knows better than its audience (membership) what is good for them?  And that it doesn’t care what its audience (membership) wants from an organization that exists to serve its needs and is dependent upon its support for that very existence?

To the Met’s credit, its response to this gaffe was equally swift and bold. Within less than 24 hours, the Met voided its ill-considered move. (Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall for that board meeting?) And they did so in a clear and unequivocal manner.

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/news/press/detail.aspx?id=22660

No attempt to rationalize or justify or downplay the mistake. They just fixed it.

Every association has to struggle with the balance between credibility and leveraging the advocacy potential of the communications outlets it controls (its journals, publications and website).

Every association would do well to go to school on the case study provided by the Met.

Making innovation a habit

To be real, innovation needs to be a habit, not a standalone project. And habits are learned through constant practice – doing something consistently and constantly until it becomes an ingrained feature of everyday activity. Something that is constantly happening, almost without conscious effort or thought.

Part of that is systems and environment. Apple is often and rightly cited as a model innovative organization. A major element in their success as innovators is that every aspect of operations, from the design of work spaces to management and reward systems, is calibrated to create an environment and culture that maximizes the potential for innovation to occur.

But perhaps a bigger element is the established habit of trial and error: Try things, even if they don’t pan out. Constantly.  And learn from both what worked and what didn’t.

The first woman to make the top tier of Forbe’s gallery of the richest people on the planet list is Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx.  In the inevitable round of interviews that followed being named to this list last month, she frequently related the following item from her personal history. As a child, the conversations around the family dinner table were a little different than most.  Her father didn’t ask “What did you learn in school today?” Instead he asked “What did you fail at this week?” It instilled in her, from an early age, that constant habit of trying new and different things.  Just to see what works.  And what didn’t.

Of course there is a balance that needs to be struck. As our associations strive to reinvent and re-engineer core products and services to keep them relevant and effective  in a rapidly changing world, we have to risk trying and failing. But we dare not risk a total and catastrophic failure when this year’s annual meeting or this month’s certification and testing dates come round. There are too many members whose personal and professional success, as the world is now,  today, are dependent upon those services.  The association’s long-term need to innovate, evolve and grow cannot come at their expense.

But establishing a culture of innovation begins by establishing a habit of trial.  And a tolerance for failure.