GSA, optics, over reactions and glass houses

I didn’t exactly go through the five stages of grief when the public furor over the GSA Las Vegas retreat first erupted in the media. But I did go through something like that process.

Stage one is denial: I am a “benefit of the doubt” kind of guy. If there is an innocent interpretation, I will go there first, rather than buy in to the most damning explanation.

I don’t know all the details, and I am sure at least some of the outrage was justified. But I am equally sure some of it was unfair. A friend of mine in the association field, who ought to know better, was offended that “tax dollars went to putting up GSA staff in a luxury suite.” Now, I don’t know for sure, but it is a safe bet the GSA didn’t actually pay anything like the retail rate for that suite. It was certainly deeply discounted, if not actually comped as part of the total meeting package. And just possibly the group actually saved money by hosting social activities in that space rather than renting a separate venue.

Then came stage two, anger, as it became clear that even if things weren’t as utterly reprehensible as the press coverage and righteous indignation wanted to paint them, this was bad. In this sound bite and visual image driven world, the facts don’t matter. The GSA’s choices couldn’t be explained away, even if all the facts were on their side (and I seriously doubt that is the case). The whole thing just looked bad, and once you are forced to explain yourself, you’ve already lost the battle[1].

The congressional overreaction was equally predictable and anger inducing Over broad “solutions” (which no one on the Hill is willing to take credit for authoring and which were unanimously approved by legislators who didn’t even bother to read them) will create problems where none existed before and won’t fix the problem that stirred a thoroughly gridlocked Congress to actually take action in the first place.

Bargaining is stage three. The formal legislative response being spearheaded by ASAE is appropriate, sound and absolutely vital to the association community. It deserves all of our support. We need to defend our meetings from being unfairly painted with the broad brush of scarlet that the mainstream media and Congress are applying to all meeting events. We need to roll back the asinine restrictions that will hamstring even the purest of pure, publicly beneficial educational, development, networking and information exchange events.

Stage four, depression, follows. The occasional bad actor’s black eye is a cross we all are going to have to bear. For a long time. And it is going to be hard to defend the defensible without sounding like we are making excuses for the indefensible.

Where I part with the classical Kübler-Ross model is stage five: acceptance. I am not prepared to do that.

But now that the initial furor has begun to die down, I feel safe offering a word of warning.

Don’t let your justifiable outrage over how unfair and misguided the press coverage and legislative response to “GSA-Gate” was lull you into a false sense of complacency or moral superiority. Let’s be honest: this wound was self-inflicted. Albeit, inflicted by one organization’s meeting, But nonetheless self-inflicted. And all of us who do meetings take a hit when one meeting’s atrocious optics capture headlines.

And as long as we’re being honest, let’s take a good hard look at our own meetings.

Sometimes what looks like a boondoggle is just that. A boondoggle.

We need to be absolutely above reproach in how we structure and promote our meetings. That means living up in full to the claims we make about them. Do they truly match the brochure’s promise to deliver real value, regardless of who is footing the bill? Do they actually serve our particular, parochial interests in a manner that also advances the public interest?

And how would they look if they showed up on YouTube?


[1] In my more than thirty-years in the profession I have never spent a dime of my association’s money for first class travel. But I travel enough that I occasionally score a free upgrade. Ever try to explain that when the chairman of the board trudges past you in first on his way to a middle seat in coach?

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.

The Generation Gap in Lobbying

There is a generation gap between lobbyists and the lobbied that requires rethinking established GR tactics.  Read my commentary from this week’s Association Trends.


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.

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.

Context, confidence and authority

The problem I have with most social networking is that you can’t ask follow up questions.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, it took me a while to warm to Twitter and Facebook. I was initially put off by the sheer triviality of an overwhelming majority of the traffic. I mean really: I don’t care to take time out of my day to help Eleanor “reach a new high on Gingerbread Porch.” I have no interest in opening the fortune cookie sent to me by Rick. And my son probably didn’t need me to be instantly alerted with the news that he is now the mayor of a local microbrewery.

There is clearly a lot of chaff to sift through to get to the wheat. At times, so much chaff in proportion to wheat that it hardly seems worth the effort to do the sifting.

But if you stifle that initial impatience and annoyance, get a little bit ruthless about who you “de-friend” and block1, and use some of the filtering tools available, it can at least be made more manageable.

And well worth the effort. I am often struck by both the incisiveness and precision of thought and by the profound insight and wisdom coming from entirely unexpected sources via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Nothing, it seems, so focuses the mind as the need to get it all reduced to 140 characters. Nothing so challenges your established assumptions, bias and prejudices than a well-worded observation from a perspective you otherwise never would have considered.

But the exchange of information is (by design) asynchronous and non-linear. The platforms frustrate my desire to follow up or probe deeper. The flow of information remains largely (in some platforms, entirely) fragmented. As public as these engagements are, the context is inherently personal and unique to each of the disparate players in the dialogue. That is empowering, but it also creates an elevated need to take personal responsibility for exercising discipline and integrity in drawing your conclusions.

To be sure, there were loads of problems and limitations with such quaintly old fashion media as listservs and online forums: they were closed, insular and not conducive to diversity of views or breakthrough dialogue. But they did at least create a single, fixed thread for each conversation, which allowed you to follow ideas-reactions-elaborations as they developed. With the current platforms for social networking, too often the kernel of an absolutely brilliant idea remains just that: no more than the potential for future growth. And the very ubiquity and ease of individual access to mass communication obscures the fact that when I engage in a discussion with my community, I can’t be sure everyone I am talking to is seeing the same overall picture or collection of individual posts that I am. (Very often I find myself wanting to object on the basis of facts being argued that have not yet been introduced in evidence … only to discover that precisely that point has been previously made and discussed somewhere else on a wall or in a group I am not part of.)

Let me be clear: the problem didn’t start with social networking. In 1980, you couldn’t just assume a statement was true because you read it in the newspaper. Politicians have always used sound bites taken out of any context to imply a broader point, unsupported by any facts.

But as the speed and ease of mass distribution have increased, as the value placed on brevity has risen, and as the sourcing of information has grown more opaque, the issues of context, confidence level and authority have become even more the individual information consumer’s responsibility. Just because @twbmstr stated it cleverly and stated it as fact, 50 people retweeted it, and 5,000 people indicated they liked it, you have little basis to judge whether @twbmstr knew what he (or is it she?) was talking about in the first place. It is still up to each reader to provide whatever level of validation satisfies his or her standards of reliability. And I may or may not be privy to counterpoints and discussion on the very same tweet going on somewhere else.

Now before the social media cheerleaders get all in an uproar, I am absolutely NOT, NOT, NOT saying these are fatal flaws or that they invalidate social networking. The advances in community, collaboration and dialogue that social media have enabled are very real and not to be ignored. I am just saying that like any medium of communications, the now prevailing modes have limitations and flaws. Sometimes different limitations and flaws than the media they replaced. Sometimes differently, exaggerated flaws. But limitations and flaws nonetheless.

Which means they still need to be used wisely.

1 Sorry, Eleanor. In order to avoid the 30+ totally useless messages you put out each day, I am willing to risk missing the one substantive communication you share each month.

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.

Bringing the next generation into governance

When I ask association leaders (both volunteers and staff professionals) what their biggest long-term governance challenge is, the most frequent answer I hear back is the challenge of bringing the next generation of leaders on board.

“Young people don’t volunteer the way we used to.”

“They don’t have the time to devote to volunteering that we did.”

“Their needs and expectations are different than ours were when we came up through the ranks.”.

Each of those statements is probably true enough, although every one of them would do better for some deeper inquiry. When discussing generational issues, oversimplifications and broad generalizations  appear to be the norm, and can do more damage than good.

But the underlying concern of current leaders about future leaders is real, serious and important:

“Who will come after us and ensure the association continues to fulfill its mission?”

And, “How can we engage the younger generation, particularly in the area of governance?”

Serious, selfless and leaderly intentions.  I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity.

But as I listen to the discussion that follows, there is one question that persistently occurs to me:  exactly who or what are we trying to reform?  

When current boards discuss this issue, do we actually focus on changing the governance system and culture to make them more likely to interest, engage, excite and be rewarding for the next generation of leaders?

More often, it seems to me, what actually happens is the established board, made up of more seasoned and experienced individuals,  is looking for ways to get the next generation to change, not the system.  They struggle to find ways to make the youngsters  more fully understand and appreciate the current governance system just the way it is.  In short, it’s all about trying to make the next generation leader more like we are ourselves, so that they will want to step into the leadership system and culture just as they are.

Are we trying to remake the next generation of leaders in our own image or are we trying to establish a governance model that will be sustainable and serve the membership into the future?  Are we willing to design a governance  model and culture to suit the needs and preferences of the next generation, even if the result is a system we would find uncomfortable ourselves?

Consensus is not a dirty word

At a GWSAE Speakers Series event a number of years ago, Margaret Thatcher described consensus as the opposite of leadership.  She used words to the effect that consensus is an abdication of leadership obligations; true leaders take you somewhere the group otherwise would never go.

Recently, on ASAE’s CEO network listserv, a rather energetic discussion on consensus also emerged.   One of that dialogue’s most forceful and articulate participants took an equally hardline against consensus, dismissing it as just a synonym for unanimity.  Of course it’s nice when a decision is unanimous, but how often does that happen? In the real world, the majority rules and once a decision is made it is the board’s duty to support the outcome and the staff’s duty to do their jobs and make it so.

Both Lady Thatcher and that association CEO were right, to a point.  The need to “build consensus” can be a too convenient excuse to avoid making hard but necessary decisions.  Or a tactic used by the minority to mire the association down in an endless process of unproductive delay.  Or the well-intentioned but nonetheless unrealistic and naïve effort to achieve an impossible unanimity.  Regardless of the cause, it can leave the association locked in inactivity.

But I felt the need to defend the concept of consensus, and I hope not just because “consensus-builder” is a personal leadership characteristic mentioned frequently in my performance reviews over the years!

Yes, consensus can be used as an excuse for not meeting the unpleasant duties of personal and organizational leadership, and yes it can become the perfect (but impossible) ideal that is the enemy of the good (but achievable) outcome and lead an organization into a paralysis of irrelevance.

But I have too often observed boards where, although every action is unanimous (or nearly unanimous), the absence of underlying consensus reveals an organization in a state of total dysfunction and locked in constant and unproductive conflict.

Conversely, I have viewed boards where the debate over every agenda item is vigorous (sometimes even heated), and the decisive votes are often close, but the underlying consensus on the governing values, principles and direction of the association is so strong that it results in a prevailing organizational and leadership culture that is robust, positive and healthy.

So my bottom line is that consensus is different from vote count.  Voting is just the raw application of numerical power.  Of course votes are binding, but ignore consensus at your peril.  And don’t make the mistake of assuming you have consensus just because you have the votes.

That would be like the politician who assumes and starts acting like the election results have given him or her a mandate for action (particularly for change) that goes much further than it actually does.  The minute they get to Congress and start “doing what the people sent me here to do,” the rug gets yanked out from underneath them.  That landslide vote in the last election does not make what awaits them at the end of their equally sudden fall any less shattering an experience.

The real world of politics (whether in government or associations) is a world where divisions will persist.  Differences that are often deep and irreconcilable.  They cannot be eliminated; they can only be bridged. The leader who understands the extent, and even more importantly, the limits of the existing consensus is in a position to take the association where it needs to go but otherwise would never get to, and equips him or her with the insight needed to take it there.

The leader who knows how to maximize or even expand the scope of consensus is in a position to take the association to new heights.  Consensus isn’t reductive.  It is the key to unlocking the organization’s full potential.