Why these things matter

Get involvedChances are that if you are reading this, you consider yourself an association professional and you appreciate the tremendous good that associations do for society. You are probably also concerned about some of the issues impacting associations, and maybe even support advocacy by groups like ASAE to address them.

But do you ever involve the boards and membership of your own association in these matters?  Probably you consider these issues too much “inside association baseball” for that.

But wait a minute.  If your association’s ability to interact with the agency that regulates your members were curtailed, wouldn’t that have an impact on your association’s ability to meet your members’ needs? If the net dollars your association has to spend on association programs were reduced by taxation, wouldn’t that impact the level of service you deliver to your members?

Recognition of the positive impact that associations have upon society and what constitutes the appropriate level of taxation and regulation upon their activities matters to more than just association professionals.  They matter — or at least they should — to your association’s membership, too.

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary, here.

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The myth about ‘special interests’

Much of the public thinks of associations as “special interests” who do nothing but lobby the system to game advantage (even though U. S. government data shows that associations spend many times more on educational activities than on lobbying).

In my opinion, “special interest” is a pejorative only when applied to a group whose interests we don’t share. No. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we are, each of us, members of dozens of special interests, based on our jobs, the communities we live in, the needs of our families, our beliefs and our passions.

And when individuals with a shared interest come together to advance their own cause in a way that also serves society, it is a thing of beauty.  It is perhaps ironic that a quintessentially Washington evening in celebration of “special interests” did such a powerful job reminding us of that fact.

Read my latest commentary in AssociationTRENDS to learn why I think it so important for events like ASAE’s 13th annual Summit Awards Dinner last week to showcase how much good associations do.

The myth about ‘special interests’

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

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.

ISO consumate association professional … plumbers only need apply.

Suppose you were an association executive with a medical need. You have identified the leading doctors who specialize in the field. The decision is important. Your health is at stake. So you take very seriously the process of deciding which doctor is the best fit to work with you to diagnose your problem and prescribe treatment. You prepare a list of questions to ask each potential care giver about their qualifications.  

I guarantee those questions would not include asking these doctors whether they understood the difference between a 501(c)3 or 501(c)6 tax exempt organization. You wouldn’t exclude a doctor from consideration because he or she didn’t have the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential. You’re looking for a medical professional, after all, not an association professional.

And yet how many times do associations demand that their chief staff executive hold a degree or even a license in the field the organization represents? This legacy attitude of the association as a guild, best run by a master of the craft, is generally an issue more for professional societies, than for trade associations, but the trades are not immune. I understand it, but it just doesn’t make sense.

A few months ago I had the privilege of moderating a seminar on a new book on association governance called Race for Relevance. One of the key issues the book raised was the need for a competency-based board, selected on the basis of who possesses the specific skills and expertise to make the association a successful enterprise for its members. But I ask you: how can an organization aspire to create a competency-based board when so many associations haven’t even grasped the concept of a competency-based selection of their chief staff executive?

I could provide a large collection of real-world position descriptions, painstakingly composed by CEO search committees, with much input from professional search agents, which provide page upon page of descriptions of the leadership, financial, managerial, organizational and governance competencies required to do the job. But then end with a requirement for a degree or even a license in the trade or profession represented.

I know a lot about the court reporting profession, about the wireless industry, about telephone messaging services, having successfuly served  those fields in a professional staff capacity at their respective associations. Any of my association peers could claim the same about their employment histories. Arguably, there are some aspects of the industry or profession that each of us represents that we actually know better than the average practitioner in the field. But none of us would ever claim to be remotely competent to step in and perform the professional roles or functions that our members perform with distinction every day. That’s not the job we were hired to do. That’s not what we are educated to do. That’s not what the association needs us to do.

Why then, does it seem so logical, so natural, and so “just the way things are” to start an executive search with a statement to the effect: “In search of consummate association professional; plumbers only need apply.”