Dark Days Shine New Light on Profession and Community

The National Society of Professional Engineers vision is “a world where the public can be confident that the engineering decisions affecting their lives are made by qualified and ethically accountable professionals. Professional Engineers (PEs) are involved in everything. They may not be the people the public sees on the front line, but they are always there, supporting and contributing to the quality of life of every person, every day, in important ways. Often, however, these contributions can only be fully appreciated after the fact.

At the time this is being written, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. By the time you read this, things will hopefully look much brighter and more hopeful.

Nonetheless, right now is a true test of the professional engineer’s commitment to health, safety, and welfare. PEs are uniquely qualified to address many of the problems faced by society in the wake of the coronavirus breakout. This is especially true as we move forward to a time of rebuilding to recover from the crisis. (And we will recover.) More importantly, it is true as professional engineers work to prevent something like this from ever happening again. It is important, now more than ever before, that we band together and use all the resources provided to us through our community.

This crisis has forced PEs to learn to carry on in new ways, when the traditional work environment has been taken away. And the professional engineering community has responded heroically. Every day they are continuing to do what they can, overcoming challenges and disruptions—and what they can do is proving to be a lot.

On the most basic, operational level, the staff and volunteers of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) are now routinely using technology and communications tools that have probably been on our devices for years, but we never used before. We’re learning how to use them effectively.

What we have learned about being more effective and productive under duress are skills we need to preserve and carry forward once life returns to normal, even as we reintroduce the vital element of direct human interaction.

NSPE itself is not immune from the impacts that have rocked the general economy and commerce in our country. Virtually overnight, streams of revenue have slowed or been cut off entirely; invested financial reserves have dropped precipitately in value; and there is no way to predict how long these conditions will prevail, or whether the worst might be yet to come. This event is bigger than NSPE: Each and every one of you is facing equally existential challenges to your families, your employers, your homes, your neighborhoods, your livelihoods.

But the organization has responded quickly, made difficult and often painful decisions, and implemented aggressive cost-saving measures across the board to ensure sustainability of operations in the face of these challenges. Those necessary steps are usually measured in dollars, but there is a human cost as well. We have made reductions in staff both in areas where the volume of activity is down and in areas where some level of value creation and delivery can be sustained, but at a reduced level. Remaining staff has made sacrifices, too, accepting reductions in salary, even as they are called upon to do more to make up for their colleagues who are no longer here.

But we remain focused on what this is all for: The mission of NSPE is too important to put on hold for a virus. Even as we all deal with difficult and disruptive times, NSPE leadership, volunteers, and staff are resolute and firmly committed to doing the very best we can to be there for our members and customers, delivering relevant and important benefits in this time of need.

All of it—the painful cuts as well as the adaptation to keep vital services flowing and to create new ways to support our members—are aimed at sustaining operations in the short-term, continuing to deliver maximum value wherever we can, and staying strong in order to seize the opportunities for rapid and vigorous recovery when this crisis is passed.

But at times like this, we are reminded that the national society alone isn’t enough; a state society alone isn’t enough. You need that entire network that includes all these elements. I have come to understand with new immediacy how right the NSPE strategic plan was to ground itself upon the concept of a single, integrated membership, supported by seamless services provided through state and national societies and local chapters in concert and collaboration—even when external circumstances make that unbelievably difficult.

But “network” is really just another word for community. Community is just an abstract word for a group of individuals. Interdependent and interconnected. Where benefit created anywhere benefits everyone, and harm suffered by anyone, anywhere, diminishes each of us.

Or, as John Donne put it nearly four centuries ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, [the whole] is the less.”

A plug for Beethoven and company in times of stress …

I was always someone who recognized the critical value of diligently providing for personal solitude as an element of leadership effectiveness. (There is a pretty good book on this subject if you are unconvinced: Lead Yourself First, by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin).

The coronavirus pandemic would seem to have made solitude the new norm. But this enforced solitude is no guarantee of productive solitude.

Yes, we find ourselves in isolation, but the very technology that is the basis for sustaining some semblance of business continuity during this period of social distancing and stay-at-home orders (in my experience, at least) is actually increasing the noise and distraction. (How many hours did you spend on Zoom today?)

This 24/7 connectivity coupled with the natural yearning for human engagement is making it harder to do precisely what is demanded of us now as leaders in the face of such massive external disruption and existential personal and professional jeopardy. In crisis, our responsibility as leaders demands that we make space and step back to ensure that we are not merely reacting in the moment. Reflection is necessary to making difficult decisions wisely, with analytical clarity, creativity, emotional balance and moral courage.  

Exercise, meditation, prayer, and music are the frequent escape routes to such deep reflection.  

Many people who don’t normally listen to “classical” music may already be listening to it more in these stressful times. Its meditative qualities are obvious even if you know nothing about its nature, historical context, style or structure (as endlessly fascinating and absorbing as those things are to some people, myself included). 

If this is unfamiliar territory for you, a few words of advice to help you find your way.

First and most important: don’t buy into the big lie: that you need to study, learn and become an expert before you can enjoy or benefit from this music.  That is a fallacy promoted by cultural elitists to feed their need to feel superior. Music (all music) speaks directly to the soul and speaks in something other than words. Its power and content are accessible to anyone who is open to it.

True, the words used to describe the different forms and elements of classical music can be a little intimidating, like the unfamiliar language used to describe the offerings on a menu when you try a new style of restaurant for the first time.  But it need not frighten you. 

A symphony is just a single work for orchestra. It is made up of separate movements (often, but not always, four in number). Movements are just like chapters in a book.  

A concerto is really just a symphony with a featured solo instrument. Again, it is generally made up of multiple movements (often, but not always three in number), organized like chapters in a book.

A sonata is a single work for a specific instrument (without orchestral accompaniment) consisting of multiple movements. (The same term is also used to describe the internal structure of some musical forms, but you need not bother yourself with that.)

Nothing to be afraid of there. And nothing you really needed to know before tapping into the restorative potential of the music.

But I point it out only to make you aware that there is a reason the composer combined those separate “tracks” into a multi-part work. You can choose to read a single chapter in a book and find it edifying. Same with a single movement from a symphony, concerto or sonata. But realize that you are sampling just an excerpt of something larger.  The composer didn’t just throw random pieces of music together in random order and call it a symphony, any more than an author threw together random chapters in random order and called it a book. I’ll come back to this, but sometimes just an excerpt is like small plates in a restaurant – tasty, but you are missing the satisfaction of a planned, full menu, where carefully chosen appetizer is paired with salad, followed by a main course, and topped with dessert.  

Next, you are faced with the (very often Italian) words used as titles for individual movements within a larger work.  These are merely descriptions of the musical content of that “chapter.” Words like adagio, allegro, scherzo, etc. do have specific meanings related to the technical nature of the music. (Grossly oversimplifying: adagio means played slowly, allegro means played fast, scherzo means light and playful, and so on.) But again, you don’t need to know why its tagged that way to respond to the music itself. I only point it out because, it might be helpful in identifying more music from the vast classical catalog that you would like. (To use yet another food analogy, you don’t need to know that a specific seasoning or ingredient is what makes you like a particular dish so much. But knowing you like that ingredient could help you find new dishes you will probably also like.)

So here are my suggestion:

  • Look at the late 18th through the 19th century (generally labelled the classical and romantic periods). There are exceptions, of course, but the music of these periods is characterized by its accessibility. It has heavily influenced the music written for many movie soundtracks and if you loved Game of Thrones or Star Wars or Schindler’s List or The Godfather much of it will have a familiar feel.
  • Some people find earlier music of the 17th and early 18th centuries (the baroque period) more abstract, and some of it can be austere. But don’t hesitate to sample it. There is music of deep profundity to be found here too, as well as music of exquisite exuberance, if you need a pick me up.  (Again, the determining factor is what you respond to, not what some “expert” suggests you “need” to appreciate.) 
  • Go ahead and start with the big names (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc.) and the popular hits so often packaged in those “100 Masterpiece” collections that used to be advertised on late night TV. There are reasons people who may have heard nothing else by Beethoven immediately recognize the opening of the fifth symphony. This is not a time for cultural snobbery – just because its popular doesn’t mean you lack musical refinement. It’s still great music.
  • Look for the adagios.  These aren’t the big, dramatic, heroic movements from longer works that you are most likely to have heard before. They are generally the gentlest, calmest and most soothing movement within multi-movement compositions.  Try, for example, the third movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony (the “Choral” symphony) or the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor” concerto). Both are adagios.
  • If you find something that speaks to you, look for more by the same composer, or movements that are similarly labeled, or works in the same musical format. For example, if you find solo piano speaks to you more than orchestral works, stick with piano in your search. If vocal music sends you shrieking for the door, skip opera and stick with the orchestral stuff. If the adagio from one Mozart piano concerto appealed to you, most of his other 22 concertos also have an adagio movement you could check out.

These are useful signposts, not absolutes. Just because Mahler (who falls outside any of the historical periods of music cited above) wrote incredibly moving adagios doesn’t mean you’ll respond equally to anything else he wrote. Maybe Bach leaves you cold. That’s OK, too. Personally, I would feel impoverished without either of them. But that’s just me. You’re exploring what works for you, not seeking a degree in musical appreciation.

  • Finally, if you want to engage in the music as something more than a pleasant background soundtrack, once you have found your way into a larger, multi-movement work that speaks to you, continue on into the next chapter. That is, keep listening to the next track – the movement or section that follows your excerpt.  In the case of both the Beethoven adagios cited above, these serene movements lead naturally, organically and convincingly into the next movements, which are of considerable vigor and dramatic effect.  

That is instructive too, because we can’t just retreat and remain in solitude: having regained our equilibrium, these spiritual sabbaticals need to feed energy, focus and clarity into action, just as, in Beethoven, the dreamy adagio sets up the stormy and triumphant finale. 

[And a note begging forbearance from any reader knowledgeable about music. Every categorical statement above can be picked apart. Music is immensely vaster and more complex than these generalizations suggest. There are 20th century compositions as accessible as anything from the classical or romantic periods. There are obscure composers whose music is as accessible as anything Beethoven or Mozart ever wrote. There are scherzos that are anything but light and playful and adagios that are positively nightmarish. These are matters for connoisseurs to delight in; they need not create a barrier to those new to this music.]

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.


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.

Radical orthodoxy

It is something of a commonplace to refer to associations as a kind of family or even to think of our mission-driven efforts as in some ways similar to a religion: an effort to organize like-minded individuals who share a common cause … a cause that is integral to both who they are as individuals (in our case, generally, members of the same industry or profession) and as part of something larger than individual self-interest.  We want our members to be passionately engaged, not mere consumers of products and services.  We want to make a difference and change the world in some way, hopefully for the better.  We even sometimes talk about being “evangelists” for our profession, industry or cause.

That thought came home hard with me while recently reading something about my own church.  Which church is irrelevant and naming it would only serve to derail the discussion in unrelated directions.  It isn’t about what one church believes or how you feel about it.  It isn’t meant to suggest that any of our organizations are as profoundly important as any church is.  Just go along with me for the moment, accepting that a church — any church — is a non-profit, voluntary organization with a mission.  What this commentator said about this church struck me as relevant for associations, too.  Paraphrasing to the point of plagiarism, that commentary ran along the following lines:

Association membership or engagement maintained merely out of cultural habit or legal/governmental establishment “has no future because it does not merit a future.”  A mission-driven organization that does not get out into the world and act upon what it believes sooner or later gets sick “in the hothouse atmosphere of its own self-absorption.”

When any organization gets too concerned about itself — its structure, hierarchy, governance, internal politics, culture — rather than its mission, the purpose it exists to serve, it “falls victim to a kind of narcissism.”  That narcissism leads to an irrelevant and self-referential focus on its own sophistication in form and operation.  This is where organizations get sidetracked by hugely contentious internal matters that, if we allow them to (and how often we do allow them to), become all-consuming efforts around matters that don’t actually matter.

We rationalize it, of course, and make it sound reasonable.  We tell ourselves that it would be foolish to take external actions until we get our own houses in order … until we get the membership model exactly right.  Or governance perfected.  Or whatever.

But where does that leave us vis-à-vis our mission?  Bold action, it is true, means that you risk something.  “Just as things can happen to someone who leaves the safety of home: accidents can happen.”  But isn’t “risking an injured organization far preferable to a sick organization, palsied by self-absorption?”

Such radicalism is “going to take some getting used to. Expect serious disorientation in those ideological redoubts where old battles over now-superceded [self-referential institutional constructs] … remain all-consuming.”

“Some may find it hard to reconcile … radicalism with orthodoxy. But that’s precisely what orthodoxy is: the adventure of radical conversion ordered to mission.”

I realize that these ramblings run the risk of fueling the fires of another pitfall we face:  an overinflated sense of our own importance.  After all, we aren’t responsible for men’s souls or eternity.  Hubris is as catastrophic as self-absorbed complacency.  Maybe even more so.  Associations are important … but we are not that important.

Still … we are organizations defined by mission.  We should be organizations driven by mission.  Keeping our houses in order is important, but only in so far as being better organized and structured, operationally efficient, and philosophically consistent makes us better at achieving our mission.

Start with the end in mind, build capacity, achieve results, as Stephen Covey put it.

But never forget the core purpose, the mission, along the way.  That never changes, and shouldn’t as long as the mission itself remains relevant.  Being radical and orthodox means taking chances with everything else, risking everything else, in a ceaseless effort to be true to the reason the organization was created in the first place: its mission.

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

Everybody lies

The series had its ups and downs and wild swings in quality, but there is no question that Fox Television’s “House M.D.,” which came to an end after eight seasons this week, was consistently ambitious and compelling TV.  Held together at its center by the bravura performance of Hugh Laurie in the title role, the irascible, sometimes despicable, but clearly brilliant diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House, the series still managed to sustain an ensemble nature that is rare in dramatic series these days.

House’s catch phrase, “everybody lies,” was so memorable because it was so true.  The lies were (usually) not malicious, perhaps even unrecognized as lies by the patients and family members who uttered them.  But successfully diagnosing the bizarre and hidden ailment always rested on going past what the patient claimed and uncovering the actual facts behind the case — a task House and his team pursued with an astonishing disregard for privacy or simple human decency.

Now I am not suggesting associations should adopt a similarly sociopathic approach to analyzing members’ expressed needs and desires.  But a healthy skepticism that insists on validating what the members say they want with some objective and independent data before committing to a course of action can help the organization avoid sometimes costly strategic, marketing or policy mistakes.

My members (who create the official record of court and deposition proceedings) are engaged daily in capturing eyewitness testimony, most of it delivered with intense sincerity and conviction.  But any judge, lawyer or law enforcement officer will tell you that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.  Everybody lies, House would say.  And the fact that the witness is convinced to their very core that they saw exactly what they say they saw doesn’t change the fact that the reality is often very different. You need to look harder and go further.

Who among us hasn’t been there?  Whenever asked, members at my association consistently say that the kind of programming they would most like to see more of are sessions on ethics.  Yet when offered, those sessions are equally consistent in being the most under-attended.

Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum “trust, but verify,” is a perhaps a kinder and gentler statement of the same principle.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to members or that we should stop asking for their input.  But in our market research and strategic analysis, we would all do well to look further and to demand some additional,  reliable and verifiable data before building our grand plans.

Professionalism, resilience and teamwork

Commonplace words … but recent events have added a depth of meaning to each of them.

Midafternoon on August 23rd, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck Virginia. Earthquakes in this region are rare. Earthquakes of that size are unheard of. Much of the Washington DC area was able to shake it off and move on.  The little end of Courthouse Road in Vienna, where the National Court Reporters Association is located, was hit harder than most.

Despite being such a new and utterly unexpected experience, NCRA staff reacted with professionalism and calm, evacuating the building and there were no injuries.

But NCRA’s headquarter building took heavy damage: ceiling and light fixtures fell, windows shattered, book cases and cabinets were toppled, there were visible and alarming cracks to interior walls and exterior masonry. For a few, nail-biting days, it appeared the property would need to be condemned.

Then the amazing part begins. For the next week, staff worked round the clock on two fronts: working to restore the building to conditions that would allow for re-occupancy; and maintaining membership services and operations remotely.

Everyone chipped in and contributed above and beyond any reasonable expectations. 18 hour plus days were the norm. They did such a good job sustaining operations, I would bet that none of our members were even aware at the time of the difficult circumstances staff faced and didn’t notice any interruption in member service.

And I am not sure what was more impressive: the staff’s diligence, professionalism and dedication. Or their inexhaustible good humor, optimism and positive outlook. G. K. Chesterton once said that “an inconvenience is an adventure misperceived.” That week, the NCRA staff made me understand the meaning of real teamwork and the truth in Chesterton’s observation.

On receiving the Key Award

I am often asked why I have spent my entire career, and how I have maintained my calm demeanor, in a profession where success requires making people you can’t directly control work effectively together. “People are irrational, self-centered and unreasonable – why would you put yourself through it?” My answer is simple: because when people form associations – the improbable, even the impossible is made possible. It is a blessing and a privilege to be allowed to be part of that.

I am humbled by this recognition, and have too many mentors and colleagues to even begin to thank. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my current association, NCRA, represented here today by its President, R. Douglas Friend. And my wife, Annette, who doesn’t travel, but is always very much present to me.

Thank you.

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7 August 2011
St. Louis, Missouri

Have we lost the ability to argue?

“It is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. That is why there are so many quarrels breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end.”  How true.  Just switch on any cable TV “news” show or go to any online forum.  Or visit an association board meeting.

Unfortunately, the quoted obsertvation is not new.  It was made almost a century ago (1929 to be exact), by British author G. K. Chesterton.

“Today, we tend to think of arguing as synonymous with quarreling, with anger as the chief ingredient,” a January-February 2008 editorial in the Gilbert Magazine noted.  But true argument has nothing to do with anger.  Unless you are in a debating contest, the purpose of argument isn’t to beat your opponent; it is to get to the truth.

There is the tricky part!  If argument is in service of the truth, not personal victory, that demands being open to the possibility that the opposition might be right. Which requires also being open to the possibility that one’s own sincere and intensely held beliefs might be wrong.  Or at least incomplete.

“Participants in a discussion who are unwilling to listen are not having an argument.  They are having a fruitless exchange of assertions.”

As Chesterton himself liked to point out, true argument is only possible when the participants share more in common than they differ over.  That is, as he often observed, we have to agree about something before we can argue about anything.  Otherwise, we are just disagreeing for the purpose of being disagreeable.  Or merely to appear clever.

We’ve all seen (or perhaps been in) arguments where the protagonists seem to be talking past each other.  Think of the current political debates on the debt ceiling.  The opposing sides agree it is important, even vital that something be done. But somehow, they end up arguing about whether taxes are too high or government spending too wasteful.  It becomes more important to be viewed as right about taxes or right about spending.  They forget that the energy behind the argument had it roots in something important that they both agree about: the need to avoid default.

So maybe the real reason we tend to argue is because we care so deeply and the subject matters are of such importance.  That’s a good reason to argue, Chesterton would assert.  But it doesn’t excuse you of the obligation to argue fairly and argue well, argue with respect for your opponent, and argue in service of the truth.