Monday, May 22, 2017

Chose Your Dimensions of Diversity and Get Started

Spark Consulting is out with another white paper -- this one on the sometimes challenging topic of diversity and inclusion -- and it's another thought-provoking read for association CEOs. If you're interested, you can download "Include Is A Verb: Moving From Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion" here. It's free and you don't even have to register for it.

For me, there were several key concepts. Here's one.

Research demonstrates that millennials think about and define diversity in significantly different ways than members of previous generations. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers tend to think of diversity in terms of protected classes. Millennials are more focused on "cognitive diversity, or diversity of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies."

In either worldview, as Joe Gerstandt points out: "We can be different from each other in many ways, but the key words here are 'from each other.'" This is leading many organizations to try to think about diversity more broadly than protected class. Gerstandt emphasizes that diversity is not -- or not just -- race or gender relations, affirmative action, compliance, or sensitivity. Diversity is contextual. For instance, in a teaching association, diversity in volunteer leadership could mean recruiting K-12 teachers into leadership roles traditionally held by college professors.

First, it's good to see Joe Gerstandt getting some love in the association community. I've been reading his blog for years and, even though he doesn't post as often as I would like, you should too. We've never met, but his 2011 video on flying your freak flag should be required viewing in order to call yourself a member of the human race.

Second, when I was chair of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE), that Board was wrestling with its own diversity initiative. After a lot of discussion, one of the first things we decided was that we needed to define what diversity meant for WSAE.

There was universal agreement on the returned value of embracing diversity and inclusion in our association and in our association's leadership. What there was less agreement on was what the categories -- or what we would come to call the dimensions -- of diversity should be. If my memory serves, the lines of disagreement that rose to the surface were consistently drawn between camps representing the generational viewpoints described in the above excerpt for the Spark white paper. Some could only view diversity through the lens of protected classes, and others -- not necessarily those of younger generations -- saw added value in viewing diversity through a cognitive lens.

As the discussion progressed, we also recognized that not all the protected and cognitive classes that could be enumerated were necessarily relevant in our association's environment. And, even if they were relevant, there was no way that we could focus on improvements on any more than a handful of dimensions. We needed to be selective -- both about which dimensions of diversity mattered most, and of those, which would be choose to focus on in the short and long term.

One dimension of diversity we selected was gender. Our view was that association management was a profession dominated by women at the manager level, and dominated by men at the executive level. After surveying our membership rolls, we discovered that WSAE clearly reflected that trend. Its membership was 70% female, but the Board, which was dominated by association CEOs, was only 25% female. Getting more women onto the leadership track became a compelling priority for our Nominating Committee, work that clearly continues to this day. The current elected WSAE Board is 55% female.

Gender is one of the protected classes, but many, if not most of our dimensions of diversity fit more squarely in the cognitive class. One unique to our association was the career aspirations of our members. What was the split, essentially, between those who viewed themselves as an association professional, on a career track towards the association executive, and those who viewed themselves as a specialist (a marketing or information technology or accounting professional) who happened to work for an association, on a career track towards a directorship within an association or perhaps another organization? Knowing that (and according to one survey that latter category represented as much as 20% of our members who worked for an association) would, should and did have a consequential impact on the kind of education we offered in our programs.

In summary, while a commitment to diversity and inclusion should be universal among associations as organizations dedicated to representing a specific profession or industry, the dimensions of diversity that define that commitment can and should be as numerous as the number of organizations pursuing them.

One final word. As WSAE chair, I frankly chose to focus less on which dimensions of diversity were chosen and more on the culture and structures that needed to be built in order to understand and embrace them. I suspected that an organization built to on-board diverse populations into its leadership and its activities -- however it defined those diverse populations -- would have the tools necessary to on-board newly identified categories when they inevitably arose in the future. That ability is hopefully one of the legacies I was able to leave behind.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Let's Stay the Course

I continue to put the necessary pieces into place for our annual strategic Board retreat. This week it was a discussion with our outgoing and incoming Board chairs about the strategic conversations we want to build an agenda around.

In our annual cadence, this is traditionally the meeting where one Board chair passes the gavel to the next, and as a result, we typically ask the outgoing and incoming chairs to tag-team on the agenda. The outgoing chair leads the business aspects of the meeting (call to order, approval of minutes, review and discussion on progress made to date), while the incoming chair leads the strategic aspects of the meeting (how will we define success in the coming year and how should our resources be allocated). It has worked well for us.

Something that has worked less well, but which is also traditional for us, is some sort of environmental scanning exercise. Our Board meets only three times a year, including this retreat, and the other two meetings are typically of shorter duration, so the retreat is often the only time when we have the freedom and flexibility to pull our heads up out of the business of the organization and take a deliberate look around. And that's how I usually describe it to the Board chairs when we come to this planning discussion. It's an opportunity to momentarily put our association's strategy aside, examine and discuss the external forces that are shaping our industry and our world, and then use the insight gained to return to and, if necessary, reshape our strategy.

And frankly, that's hard. Around the Board table, it requires a shift in thinking. For a moment, we have to stop thinking about steering the ship and we have to start thinking about the winds that are blowing. Over the years we have tried a number of different structured exercises in order to make the need for these mental transitions more apparent. Most recently we have relied on a kind of SWOT survey. Prior to coming to the meeting we ask all the participants to respond to a few short questions about the organization's internal strengths and weaknesses and the environment's external opportunities and threats, and then we comb through the results to identify areas of common response. At the Board table we spend time going through those common responses, discussing if any warrant actions different from the ones we are already taking.

It works, but it is always clunky. I tend to think that the clunkiness is just the nature of the beast. Any environmental scan always reveals things that are difficult to deal with, and there tends to be an unwillingness to admit defeat on any front. If we took the time to bring these things up to the surface, ignoring them or deciding to do nothing with them feels like losing, or worse, like we're wasting time.

Maybe that's why this year, in consultation with my outgoing and incoming Board chairs, we have decided not to formalize any such environmental scanning exercise at all. We've been doing a good job over the last several years, I was told, building a clear and coherent strategy for addressing the issues that matter most to our members, that opening the door to wholesale change would be counterproductive. If there are environmental factors that need to be considered, we'll consider them in the context of implementing the strategy we have already determined.

It was a refreshing perspective to hear from my Board leaders, this acknowledgement that the association is doing the right things, and that rather than contemplating another change in direction, they would prefer to stay the course and give us the time we need to reach our destination.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Riven Rock by T. C. Boyle

Soundlessly, the shabby orange creature unfolded itself from the cage, crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

Do I need to tell you that Boyle is describing an orangutan here? I don’t, do I? You can just see it, can’t you? Crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

O’Kane took another step back and the two keepers exchanged a nervous glance -- the thing was nearly as big as they were, and it certainly outweighed them. And, of course, like all the rest of the hominoids, it stank like a boatload of drowned men.

And now you can smell it. A boatload of drowned men. Boyle never forgets to include the other senses in his descriptions of things.

Julius didn’t seem much interested in the oranges, but he folded them into the slot in the middle of his plastic face as if they were horse pills and shambled through the dust to where the monkeys and baboons were affixed to the doors of the cages and shrieking themselves breathless. He exchanged various fluids with them, his face drooping and impassive even as they clawed at the mesh and bared their teeth, then sat in the dirt sniffing luxuriously at his fingers and toes before lazily hoisting himself into the nearest tree like a big dangling bug, where he promptly fell asleep. Or died. It was hard to tell which -- he was so utterly inanimate and featureless, it was as if someone had tossed a wad of wet carpeting up into the crotch of the tree.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The number one reason to read and keep reading Boyle is for prose like this. Each and everyone of his books has been an absolute joy to read for this reason alone.

This one, Riven Rock, is about madness -- and a particular kind of madness at that. There are three main characters (a kind of Boyle novelty in and of itself, who seems more frequently to focus on the juxtaposition of two, not three characters). There are two people evidently taken from the pages of history…

Boyle anchors his unforgettable table with the remarkable and courageous Katherine Dexter. Her husband, Stanley McCormick, thirty-one-year-old son of the millionaire inventor of the Reaper, has become schizophrenic and a sexual maniac. Stanley is locked up in his Santa Barbara mansion and forbidden the mere sight of women -- above all, his wife. Throughout her career as a scientist and suffragette, Katherine’s faith never wavers: that, one day, one of the many psychiatrists she hires to try to cure her husband will free him of his demons.

...but there is also Eddie O’Kane, mentioned in the orangutan excerpt above, and frankly far more Katherine’s antagonist, but evidently not fit to be mentioned on the backflap of my paperback. Stanley McCormick is the madman, suffering from a sexual psychosis so extreme that he can’t be in the presence of women without attacking them…

“Mr. McCormick!” O’Kane heard himself cry out like some schoolyard monitor, and then he was on him, grabbing the taller man’s pumping shoulders, trying to peel him away from his victim like a strip of masking tape and make everything right again, and all the while the lady gasping and fighting under all the inexplicable weight and Mr. McCormick tearing at her clothes. He’d managed to partially expose himself, rip the bodice of her dress and crumple her hat like a wad of furniture stuffing by the time O’Kane was able to force his right arm up behind his back and apply some persuasive pressure to it. “This isn’t right, Mr. McCormick,” he kept saying, “you know it isn’t,” and he kept saying it, over and over, as if it were a prayer, but it had no effect. One-armed, thrashing to and fro like something hauled up out of the sea in a dripping net, Mr. McCormick kept at it, working his left hand into the lady’s most vulnerable spot, and -- this was what mortified O’Kane the most -- taking advantage of the proximity to extend the pale tether of his tongue and lick the base of her throat as if it were an ice in a cone. “Stop it!” O’Kane boomed, tightening his grip and jerking back with everything he had, and still it wasn’t enough.

...and Katherine is his adoring and faithful wife, determined with a progressive and clinical interest far ahead of her time and her gender to heal his affliction, to shape him into the thing she needs him to be…

He was inexperienced, like her, she was sure of it. And that was the beauty of the whole thing. Here he was, a big towering specimen of a male, and yet so docile and sweet, hers to lead and shape and build into something extraordinary, a father like her father. And there was no chance of that with Butler Ames [another potential suitor of Katherine’s] and the rest -- they were smirking and wise, overgrown fraternity boys who tried women on for size, like hats, and went to prostitutes with no more thought or concern than they went to the barber or the tailor. But Stanley, Stanley was malleable, unformed, innocent still -- and that was why everything depended on getting him away from his mother, that crippling combative stultifying monster of a woman who’d made him into a pet and all but emasculated him in the process. He needed to get free, that was all, and then he could grow.

...and Eddie O’Kane is Stanley’s head nurse, a man with motives other than the care and well-being of his wealthy employer, motives driven by a sexual psychosis all his own, one much more in alignment with the repressive conventions of the age.

...and he couldn’t help seeing her as she was half an hour earlier, bleeding and impotent, Mr. McCormick on top of her and her face twisted with fear, and that gave him a strange sensation. He’d rescued her and should have felt charitable and pure, should have remembered Arabella Doane [a female nurse Stanley had previously attacked], but he didn’t -- he wanted to see her nude, nude and spread out like dessert on the thin rolling mat of his berth. There was a thread of crusted blood just under the slash of her cheekbone and a blemish at the corner of her mouth, the flawless bone-white complexion tarnished and discolored, and he looked at that blemish and felt lewd and wanton, felt that way he did when Rosaleen [his wife] rolled over in bed and put her face in his beneath the curtain of her hair and just breathed on him till he awoke in the dark with a jolt of excitement. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t admirable, but there it was.

Fact is, Stanley McCormick and Edward O’Kane are two men with the same obsession, with one socialized to keep it in check on one not. What separates them, what makes Stanley and lunatic, utterly incapable of caring for himself or loving others, and O’Kane caged beast, capable of self-interest, subterfuge and empathy, is a mystery to everyone in the novel, and indeed, I believe the Boyle himself.

It was eerie. Unsettling. No matter how often O’Kane experienced it or how many patients he’d seen like this -- and he’d bathed them one after another at the Boston Lunatic Asylum, twenty at a time, hosing them down afterward like hogs in a pen -- it still affected him. How could anybody live like that? Be like that? And what did it take for the mechanism to break down, for the normal to become abnormal, for a man like Mr. McCormick, who had everything and more, to lose even the faculty of knowing it?

If I have one complaint about Boyle’s work, in fact, it’s that he often doesn’t answer the perplexing questions his fiction is structured to explore. The exploration is entertaining -- thrillingly so, as both a philosophical and rhetorical exercise -- but too often it simply fizzles at the end instead crashing in a satisfying climax.

In Riven Rock, for example, Boyle creates an elaborate and sustaining metaphor around Riven Rock itself, the California house and estate that Stanley first helps construct for Mary Virginia, a mentally-disturbed older sister, and which becomes the prison for his psychosis as well.

Stanley took up the blueprints like a man snatching a life jacket off the rail of a sinking ship. He spread them out on the table and studied them for hours, oblivious to everything, his mother, the servants, the yellow plains of Texas and the distant dusty cowboys on their distant dusty mounts. With a T square and a handful of freshly sharpened pencils, he began a detailed series of modifications, moving walls, drawing elevations where none had been provided, even sketching in shrubbery and the odd shadowy figure of Mary Virginia seated at the piano or strolling across the patio.

What did he think of the plans? That they were all wrong, that they were an insult, a product of nescient minds and ill-conceived motions. What did he think? That Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge should be dismissed for incompetence, that any fool off the street could have come up with a more practical and pleasing design and that the architects’ man in Santa Barbara had damned well better bring his drawing board along. But all he said was to his mother was, “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to suggest some changes…”

Unwittingly, it seems, Stanley is obsessed with designing and building the cloistered estate that will house his sister’s madness -- and by Boyle’s literary extension, the prison that he will come to make of his own madness.

They wound up staying nearly four months, taking rooms at the Arlington (the Potter, with its sea views, six hundred rooms and twenty-one thousand dollars’ worth of custom-made china plate, wouldn’t be completed until 1903), and in that time Stanley altered every least detail of the original plans, from the height of the doorways to the type of molding to be used in the servants’ quarters. And he altered them daily, sometimes hourly, obsessed, fixated, stuck in a perfect groove of concentration.

And it is even Stanley who comes to christen the place Riven Rock.

And then, one afternoon in the final week of their California sojourn, it came to him. He was walking over the grounds with his mother and Dr. Franceschi, the landscape expert, elaborating his feelings regarding caryatids, statuary in general and the function of fountains in a coordinated environment of the artificial and the natural, when they emerged from a rough path into a meadow strewn with oaks all canted in one direction. The trees stood silhouetted against the mountains, heavy with sun, their branches thrust out like the arms of a party of skaters simultaneously losing their balance. It was October, the season of evaporative clarity, the sky receding all the way back to the hinges of the darkness beyond. Butterflies hung palely over the tall yellow grass. Birds called from the branches.

The trees, it is explained, are a product of the region’s prevailing winds.

“What about that one over there?” Stanley said, pointing to a tree that defied the pattern, its trunk vertical and its branches as evenly spaced as the tines of a fork. It was a hundred yards off, but he could see that there was a band of rock round the base of it, a petrified collar that seemed to hold it rigid.

Dr. Franceschi wants to show him that one. It’s a local curiosity.

As they drew closer, Stanley saw that the massive slab of sandstone girding the tree was split in two, and that the tree seemed to be growing up out of the cleft. “Very curious,” Dr. Franceschi was saying, “one of those anomalies of nature -- you see, there was a time some years ago when an acorn fell from that tree there” -- pointing -- “or that one maybe, who knows, and found a pocket of sustenance atop this blasted lump of stone, and you couldn’t find a less promising environment, believe me --”

But they were there now and Stanley had his amazed hands on the rock itself, a massive thing, chest-high, big as a hearse, rough to the touch and lingeringly warm with the radiation of the sun. It was the very stuff of the earth’s bones, solid rock, impenetrable, impermeable, the symbol of everything that endures, and here it was split in two, riven like a yard of cheap cloth and by a thing so small and insidious as an acorn. …

It is Riven Rock, and it is the metaphor for Stanley’s madness that endures throughout the novel. Something small, defying identification, that, given sustenance and time, can split the solidness of the world in two. Immediately following these words in the novel is a two-page, stream-of-consciousness italicized tirade produced by Stanley’s tortured mind, not from when he was healthy, building and naming Riven Rock for his “crazy bughouse sister,” but in the relative future, when he himself has become its inmate.

I am therefore left with the impression that Stanley has built and named his own madness the same way he built and named his own madhouse. And, that once having completed it, moved into it, and lived within it for years, he eventually loses his way within its familiar walls, no longer knowing where he is or how he came to be there.

Maybe it was his domineering mother that set him on his original course, and maybe it was Katherine’s desire to shape him that affected his trajectory, attempting to re-arrange him just a sure as she took control and re-arranged things at Riven Rock.

In the past months she’s redecorated the house, removing the gloomy Spanish paintings, heavy black furniture and pottery to the attic above the garage and replacing it with seascapes and western scenes, modern chairs and sofas with square edges and low backs, draperies that gave back the light and made the place look less like a West Coast version of McLean and more like the home of an important and consummately sane man with just the slightest, most temporary indisposition. She’s hired a new head gardener, a landscape architect and half a dozen new wops and Mexicans. And though the McCormicks still owned the house and Mr. McCormick paid a monthly rental back to his mother, all decisions, no matter how trivial, went through Katherine. She was in charge. There was no doubt about it.

But, regardless, at the end of the novel, when asked about it, we find that Stanley himself has very little to say.

There was only one point at which he rose to something like coherence, and that was right at the end, when the distinguished doctors had filled their notebooks and begun to shoot glances at one another out of the corners of their eyes. The Lean Doctor said “Riven Rock” and Mr. McCormick looked up alertly.

The Lean Doctor: “Tell us about your home, if you would, Mr. McCormick, about Riven Rock -- how did it get its name?”

Mr. McCormick (sunshine at first, and then increasing clouds): “I -- well -- it’s because of a rock, you see, and I -- well, my mother, she -- and then I came and saw it and it was, well, it was --”

There was a long hiatus, all three doctors leaning forward, the day drawing down, Mart snoring lightly from the vicinity of the couch, Nurse Gleason silently dusting the plants, and then Mr. McCormick, his face finally settling on a broad winning ear-to-ear grin, at last spoke up. “It beats me,” he said.

In the end, Stanley McCormick loses himself in his madness, no longer understanding the construction that he himself oversaw. And, as much as I enjoy Boyle’s fiction, I have to also say that I felt much the same way. At the end of this entertaining story, I’m left with a similar sense of befuddlement. It all seemed important, but what did it all mean, again?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 8, 2017

Goals Lead to Tactics

I recently had an interesting conversation with my staff that helped reinforce the importance of choosing the right goals.

We were talking about the best ways to measure the success of our association's trade show. Among the many possibilities was the number of potential customers our members could engage with by exhibiting at the show.

For a long time, our way of tracking this was based on counting the number of attendees who registered for the show. Sorting all those registrants by the customer markets and job titles they self-selected on their registration forms gave us the ability to count how many potential buyers we had attending the show.

But we realized something important. Setting a goal associated with increasing the number of buyers attending the show would lead to a set of strategies and tactics focused on pre-show promotions. Given that our show is co-located with another, larger show means that promoting the show to attendees during the show is also important. But a goal focused only on growing pre-show registrations would bias resources against that second objective.

So we needed a second goal. Not only do we want to grow the number of buyers who attend the show, we also want to increase the number of those attendees who spend time in our hall visiting with our exhibitors. Only by adding this second goal would we be likely to focus the time and resources needed to create the necessary promotions during the show.

It was a great example of how important choosing the right goal is. Choose wrong and you may inadvertently focus your tactics in the wrong areas.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 1, 2017

When Goals Seem Impossible

Kudos to Amanda Kaiser at the Smooth the Path blog for recently voicing typically heretical thoughts in the association community. In a post titled Commonly Used Association Goals Doomed to Failure, she says:

Often we set goals for ourselves that are likely to fail. Failing demoralizes the team and makes us more risk adverse. Over time we become caught in a downward spiral.

What kind of common organizational goals are doomed to failure? Growing revenues in a consolidating industry. Increasing membership when the pool of professionals is decreasing. Or improving member engagement with no strategy for innovation or change.

Instead, she says, we should be developing goals that are achievable while also being helpful to our members and our association. Goals like maintaining the percentage of members from the pool of desirable members. Or goals that employ strategies that involve existing members more. Or goals that increase staff or board engagement.

Let’s dump the goals that are setting us up to fail and instead adopt goals we feel good about that help our members, and ones we can achieve.

As I said, to anyone who has labored for several unproductive years under impossible goals, Kaiser's words might be viewed as a welcome relief. An injection of sanity into an increasingly insane situation.


How does one know that the goals Kaiser describes -- growing revenues, increasing membership, improving member engagement -- are doomed to failure unless one has tried both conventional and unconventional strategies to achieve them?

In my own experience, the perception that these goals are impossible is just that. A perception based on years of trying and failing at the same old strategies and tactics.

Before giving up on these goals, associations would be well served by trying the unconventional, by chucking out the old playbook and finding new frames of reference for examining and tackling them. After all, consolidating industries and decreasing pools of professionals can sometimes better be viewed as stimuli towards organizational re-purposing.

Too often, the well-worn currents of activity and thinking within an organization doom it to believing that difficult goals are doomed to failure. More often, we should be re-framing them to find unconventional methods for success.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

I was 128 pages into this one when I realized something horrible, and 183 pages in when I decided to do something about it.

What was the horrible thing? It was that this book, billed to me on NPR and in its jacket copy as “an exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya,” was, in fact, not very much about baboons at all.

And what did I decide to do about it? I decided to go back and count the pages that actually talk about the behavior of baboons. There are 61 out of 304, or 20%. That’s not very much information about baboons in a book that is supposed to be about baboons.

So what else is here? What fills the 243 pages or 80% of the book that is not about baboons? The most prevalent subject, it turns out, is not Sapolsky’s baboons, but Sapolsky himself. Sapolsky and his supposedly wacky adventures in Africa. Evidently the titular primate is not a papio cynocephalus but a homo sapien.

Except his wacky adventures don’t seem exactly wacky to me.

One child does not accompany him, however, as that one got some sort of fever and encephalitis during his first rainy season, so far as I can reconstruct, and was left a hydrocephalic monster with the neurological reflexes of a newborn. Rhoda and her husband spent god knows how many months’ salary to buy an absurd, poignant British perambulator, circa 1940, that now sits in the mud and cow-dung house, the swaddled bug-eyed head of the kid peering out from it, moaning chronically.

Rhoda and her husband are people, and evidently so is their “hydrocephalic monster” child, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Sapolsky’s account of them. He seems so intent on presenting himself as an aloof observer, dispensing snark in equal portion to all comers, that he manages to dehumanize everyone he comes into contact with and himself in the bargain.

Here, he talks about the sights one is likely to see on the streets of war-torn Nairobi.

Around noon, I discovered the current disadvantages of being a naked man in Nairobi. The place had always had a disproportionate share of naked people in the streets--it had always struck me that when people in Nairobi who were not that many generations (or even years) removed from the bush had their occasional psychotic breaks, the first addled thing they would do was toss off all their Western clothes. (Years later, my clinical psychologist wife, in her conversations with Kenyan colleagues, would confirm my impression that this was indeed a common event.) So Nairobi had always had more than its share of ranting and raving naked men and had treated them with a certain aplomb. Now it meant trouble. Many of the air force rebels had taken refuge in Nairobi buildings and alleyways, when their triumph had come up short. The lucky ones would find someone to waylay--kill the guy, steal his civilian clothes, and slip into the crowd with his identity card in their teeth. Those not so fortunate were all independently reaching the same odd conclusion--dump the air force clothes and make a run for it naked. Every few hours an air force desperado would make his nude run and be gunned down by an army unit, and it was around noon that I got to see my first street execution. Army flatbed trucks intermittently rumbled through with naked corpses. They stopped for traffic lights in a way that was both incongruous and calming, leading to an odd air of normalcy.

I really struggled with his tone. I couldn’t figure it out, and eventually came to resent it and him. Does nothing rattle this guy? Did it bother him to see these horrific things? If not in the affected now of his writing desk, then at least at the time when the raw and ruthlessness of it all rubbed up against him? It was impossible to tell, so intent as he seemed to be in maintaining his pose of the smart-aleck American, of Bill Murray playing John Winger in Stripes.

Every once in a great while, the feeling human being that Sapolsky must have been comes peeking through, like in this paragraph at the end of a particularly harrowing experience when he is more or less kidnapped and starved by a group of Somali truckers, and then rescued by a Ugandan with fresh fruit tucked under his seat.

I may live to be a very old man someday, a lifetime filled with thoughts and emotions and sensations. But no matter how many of those experiences pile up, I will always look back with incredible pleasure and gratitude for the next instant. I bit into the mango, tasted the juice, and my eyes filled with tears, as I felt safe for the first time in many days.

But these tastes of humanity are “not earned,” as my college Creative Writing professor would have explained. Sprinkled like fresh ground pepper on the salad of condescension and forced witticism he is otherwise serving, they don’t make a lasting impression on one’s literary palate.

Finally, after a while, it seemed like Sapolsky was deliberately tormenting me.

I was in a real crappy mood. It had started off as a fabulous morning with the baboons. Young Daniel [Sapolsky has given most of the baboons he studied biblical names], prematurely in the alpha position because of the ongoing instability in the troop’s hierarchy, was being pushed around badly by huge Nathanial, and I thought this was the morning that their ranks were going to switch, that Nathanial would finally make his decisive move. This is a big deal to a primatologist, actually seeing the transition from one alpha male to another--witness to history. Daniel had spent the morning ostentatiously repositioning himself each time Nathanial came near, so as not to have to see him, presumably trying to will him out of existence. Nat, meanwhile, was inching in closer and closer, threat-yawning all over the place. Showdown was in the air, and I was avidly waiting to see if Daniel was going to fold and simply give a subordinate gesture, signaling the transition, or if it was going to take a decisive fight in which he’d be trashed.

Right when things were getting pretty exciting I had to leave. It was time to drive to the tourist lodge, to meet the supply lorry from Nairobi, as it was carrying an essential shipment of the dry ice that I needed to keep my blood samples frozen. So I had to miss all the fun.

Sapolsky’s disappointment here had truly become mine. I was much more interested in the baboons than in his endlessly sardonic stories about all the nutjobs that he was meeting in Africa.

Driving out of the lodge through thorn bushes, I get my third puncture of the week. This is always a misery. First you go to the guy who repairs punctures. Instead of being on the job at the lodge’s gas station, he is back in the staff quarters somewhere, sleeping. Head back there, go through the same interchange with the twenty different people you run into, namely first exchanging news with each about the health of their parents and my then reiterating that, no, actually I can’t give you my hiking shoes, as I need them. Tire repair guy is located, and after ninety minutes of easily distracted labor, he has fixed the puncture. He gives me a stub, which I take to the cashier at the other end of the lodge, who fills out a note saying “1 puncture, 40 shillings,” which the other man signs, which allows me to pay the cashier--all a procedure to keep the mechanic from repairing things under the table and pocketing the money. The cashier goes on a search for scrap paper to calculate that I get 10 shillings back from my 50 shilling note, and I’m ready for the next step: taking the tire to the other end of camp, to find the man who operates the air hose. He, naturally, is drunk in the bar at 11:00 A.M. and, with some effort, explains that he would be happy to fill the tire, but his brother has the key to the shed in which the hose is kept, and he is on leave this week. Bad luck. I express profound regret at the apparent need for me to now live in the lodge’s gas station for the next week, and the man, seeing his cue, says maybe, just maybe, he could find another key, but why don’t I sell him my watch at the good American price? We settle for his receiving a button that says “Hollywood Bowl,” and, satisfied, he turns his prodigious energies toward filling my tire, completing the task in a mere half hour. The man with the pressure gauge to determine whether the tire is filled properly is found easily, and quickly does the job, making me feel as if there might be some hope. The tire is underfilled, however. Fed up, I decide to go with that, rather than track down Bwana Airhose again, he no doubt back at the bar trying to flog his Hollywood Bowl button for a drink.

But no, they’re not really nutjobs, are they? They are, I realize at about this point in Sapolsky’s narrative, products of a culture foreign to our author, judged and marginalized by his overtly American and privileged lens, and twisted into stereotypes perpetuated by colonialists since the beginning of time. They are shiftless and lazy, aren’t they, Sapolsky?

Our author comes across as a jerk, and might very well be racist. Frankly, I liked the baboons better.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, April 24, 2017

Prioritizing Sends a Message

We're beginning to rev up for our annual strategic board retreat. In our process, this is a major pivot point for the organization, when we bring one operational plan to a close, and revise or refresh the strategy agenda around which the next operational plan will be built.

Not sure what I mean by those terms? Check out these previous posts on our Strategy Agenda and our Operational Plan. As a quick summary, the Strategy Agenda is how the board defines the expected outcomes of the organization, and the Operational Plan is how the staff defines the activities we will pursue in order to achieve them.

Anyway, as part of this "revving up" process, I and my senior staff are looking at the sucess of this year's goals and discussing a proposed set of goals for next year. It's opening up a number of great conversations about what we're here to do and how we should and should not go about accomplishing it.

Here's one.

Choosing where to set stretch goals and where to set maintenance goals can communicate a set of priorities throughout the organization.

Ours is an organization with a large number of goals, existing at multiple strategic and programmatic levels of the organization. There are goals aligned with our high-level success indicators, and goals associated with our tactical program objectives. They all need to be defined at the start of each year, because the rest of the operational plan depends on them.

So, deciding which goals are going to be stretch goals (that is, difficult to achieve) and which goals are going to be maintenance goals (that is, in comparison to the stretch goals, relatively easy to achieve), can actually communicate quite a bit about the priorities of the organization in the year ahead.

It's important to keep that in mind. In an environment like ours, where numerous initiatives have to keep steadily advancing for the year to be considered a success, making a handful of goals much more difficult than the others will help give those few areas the special emphasis you may think they deserve.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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