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.

ASAE Key Award

I am thrilled and humbled to learn of my selection to receive the American Society of Association Executive’s 2011 Key Award, the highest honor ASAE offers.  “The Key Award honors the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

Words cannot adequately express how much this recognition means to me.   Of course, any CEO’s achievements are a function of their entire staff team’s collective performance and reflect the contributions of countless mentors, colleagues and associates.  So my heartfelt thanks to the village it took to earn this honor.

See ASAE’s press release here.  Additional press coverage of this award can be found in the “Press Clippings” section of this website.

What opera has taught me about association management …

Conflict!  Treachery! Betrayal!  Passion!  No, I am not talking about your last board of directors meeting.  I am talking about opera.

And before you start rolling your eyes and dismissing opera based on the parodies or send ups you’ve seen (Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera,” anyone?), allow me to provide a short, painless and mostly lighthearted introduction to my number two passion in life (after association work, of course!).

I was recently invited by the Fellows of the American Society of Association Executives to do a presentation on “What Opera has Taught Me About Association Management.”  In response to many requests, I am happy to make it available here.

To view the presentation click here.

To read the text of the presentation click Script – What Opera ….