Monday, November 19, 2018

Member Visits Are the Way

Two unconnected things got connected this week in a fun and interesting way.

First, at the beginning of the week I was in Texas for another one of the conferences I've been talking about. And as I often do when I travel, I built some extra time into my schedule so that I could go visit one of the members of my association that was in the same general vicinity.

It was great. It always is. This particular member has been in and out of our association over the years, is currently in, and is deeply involved in only one of our four main program areas.

The visit was a great opportunity for me to introduce them to the other three, but more importantly, it was an opportunity for me to learn more about them. Learn about their business, their people, their products, and their challenges. When I do these member visits, I'm certainly there to talk, but I am also very much there to listen. To listen and learn. And I learned a lot.

Second, at the end of the week I interviewed another candidate for an open position at my association. This candidate asked a lot of good questions, one of them being: "How does a new employee coming into your association best go about learning more about the members and their businesses?"

I kid you not. "By visiting them," I happily answered. "By sitting across the table from them and asking them about their business and the challenges they are facing. By touring their production facilities and trying to understand how the products they make are created and how they make their way into the marketplace. I have been leading this association for more than eleven years now, and to this day, every time I visit a member I learn something new about them and our industry that helps me do my job better."

Member visits are the way. I couldn't have scripted it any better if I had been given the chance.

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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, November 12, 2018

The Importance of Interviewing for Values

I interviewed a candidate for a position my association is looking to fill this week. I think I've written before about how interviews are one of those places where the values of an organization need to come into play, and my experience this week was a great illustration of why.

First a little background. My hiring process has evolved over the past several years -- in part to make sure an assessment of cultural fit became an important part of the process. When someone looks good on paper, and after confirming that their salary expectations are in line with what we plan to pay for the position, I'll first conduct a phone interview. The focus on this screening interview is almost entirely on career history and skills.

Where did you go to school? What did you study and why? Tell me a little about each position you've held. What did you do at each? What major things did you accomplish? Why did you move from place to place? What do you think your strengths are? What are you looking to do next?

Almost all of this is usually on a candidate's resume, but the point is to get the person talking about themselves, their skills, and their decisions. And all the time I'm listening. Does this person have the skills and experiences they need for success in this position?

If a candidate passes the phone interview, I'll ask them to come in for a face-to-face meeting. I've already decided that their skills are a fit, so in this second interview I turn my focus almost entirely to the culture and values of our organization, and whether or not the candidate is a fit there as well. And this is where I was with the candidate I interviewed this week.

After some ice breaking conversation, the questions in this second interview begin. Sometimes I go over the same ground as the phone interview, but now I'm listening for something entirely different. As the person begins to answer my questions, I try to turn the back and forth into a casual conversation. I'm less interested in the concrete answers to whatever questions I'm asking. I am much more interested in seeing if I can relate to the candidate, if I can envision interacting with them in a staff meeting, on an airplane traveling out to a conference, over a coaching lunch, or in a disciplinary discussion. How would this person, I mentally ask myself, conduct themselves as a member of my staff team, or in front of my board?

One way to turn the interview into a conversation is to invite the candidate to ask questions of their own. Most times, in fact, I find myself encouraging the candidate to ask as many questions as I am. I want dialogue, not just responses to questions. And it was one of the questions that the candidate asked me this week that practically stopped me in my tracks.

"Are there any aspects of my skills or experiences that you think are lacking?"

I quickly recognized it as one of those savvy questions that coaches tell candidates to ask of their interviewers. I'm supposed to answer it in one of two ways. I can either tell the candidate where their skills are lacking (which gives them crucial information about how to position the rest of the conversation) or I can admit that the candidate has no skills gaps relative to the position (which is supposed to implant the suggestion in my mind that I should really be hiring this person).

But, as with many things in life, there is a third path.

"No," I told the candidate flatly. "Your skills are a great match for the position. We wouldn't be having this second conversation if they weren't. But I'm no longer interviewing you for skills. I'm trying to figure out if your a good cultural fit for our organization."

In other words, you've passed the skills test, but there more to this process than just skills. And what was amazing to me was how much this admission threw the candidate off their game. I think the candidate thought they had the position locked up, and only suddenly realized that there was another series of tests that they needed to pass.

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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, November 10, 2018

Yankee from Olympus by Catherine Drinker Bowen

In Bowen’s introduction to this volume she says:

The story of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is the story of his country. The narrative cannot begin with the flat date of his birth -- 1841. This was a man whose presence carried tradition. Everyone who met him felt it, and it was not oppressive but inspiring. Over his shoulder one glimpsed somehow his ancestors. His roots reached deep into American earth; it was the strength of these roots that permitted so splendid a flowering.

And Bowen evidently means it, because this is not just a biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also a biography of his father and his grandfather. His father was a doctor and his grandfather was a reverend, and together the lives of these three men described in this book begin in 1800 and end in 1935.

Personal and Social History

As such, Bowen is writing a kind of social as well as a personal history. The story, not just of three men, but of the society in which they lived, and the transitions -- sometimes painful ones -- that it went through.

Holmes’s grandfather was named Abiel, and, like any true reverend, early on he is worried about the very soul of the American nation. Here is he, shortly after the death of his own father, encasing that national worry in concern for his son, also named Oliver.

Oliver missed his grandfather. Abiel Holmes, observing his son, whose customary chatter was stilled, wondered if he had been seeing too little of the boy. He began inviting Oliver to drive with him to Dorchester or Lexington to hear him preach; the two would jog off together in the two-wheeled chaise behind a quiet horse, and the boy loved it. They would leave on Saturday and come home on Monday. Abiel, on these trips, talked religion to his son. Oliver listened vaguely. By the time he was ten the Westminster Catechism had lost its bite not only for Oliver Holmes but for most of New England. Oliver was still afraid of the Devil, but the doctrine of transmitted sinfulness, justification, sanctification, meant no more to him than the mystic syllables by which his friends counted each other out in their games.

But to Abiel Holmes the old doctrines had become more important than ever. It seemed to him that New England was rushing toward Unitarianism like the Gadarene swine to destruction. Theologically, Unitarianism meant God as One, rather than God as Three in One. As long as the movement had been confined to theology, Abiel had paid little heed. Any good historian knew such quarrels were forgotten in a generation and the true doctrine prevailed. But Unitarianism had obviously gone far beyond doctrinal matters. The old morality was disappearing with the old religion. Abiel, who had cautioned his congregation against singing Watts’s hymns with levity, saw crowds go to church gayly, in their best bonnets, as if they were going to a show. Pipe organs and mummery took the place of solemnity and the Long Prayer; if men still loved God they most certainly did not fear Him. And fear of the Lord, Abiel told himself passionately, was the beginning of wisdom.

Were drifting away from personal and towards social history -- something Bowen does regularly with grace and skill.

The truth was that the Unitarian movement was a natural concomitant to events that were not churchly but sociological, not local but nation-wide. The Jeffersonian ideal of individualism, opportunity for all, refused to jibe with the notion that man was born wicked, doomed forever. Federal or Democratic-Republican -- no matter what one’s politics, the ideas of Jefferson and of Rousseau before him had penetrated too far to be revoked. The Rights of Man -- was this consistent with a doctrine of total depravity and everlasting damnation? If you could get ahead on earth, said Yankee common sense, you could get ahead in heaven. And to this notion the new applied science was a potent ally. A man who had seen his mother die of the smallpox and who now saw his son saved by vaccination could no longer believe that prayer was the only salvation against present danger. Lavoisier had said that matter was indestructible; even smoke was but another form of the wood it rose from. John Dalton advanced his atomic theory. Down in Monticello, Thomas Jefferson was experimenting with the rotation of crops, using calculus as well as common sense on his farm, and at the same time planning a university that was to embrace all creeds.

And now, back to the personal -- connecting and encompassing the social in the lives of her subjects.

With every step that science took, Abiel was in keen accord, setting it down in the Annals whether it was a mere tally of the number of spindles in Baltimore’s cotton factories or the founding, in 1818, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But to the new spirit that went along with science, the new agnosticism, Unitarianism -- whatever name man called it -- Abiel was deeply opposed. When a man invented a cotton loom, a water-driven spindle, let him dedicate it to the glory of God! Let him go down on his knees and thank the Father who had put this invention into the mind of His humble servant. Life was becoming easy, conditions of daily living much softer. And man, Abiel Holmes observed, no longer feared his Maker. His house warmed by stoves, man looked out at the raging blizzard and smiled, forgetting to propitiate his God.

Generational Divides

In part because Bowen is telling the story of three lives -- a man, his son, and his grandson -- and in part because of her helpful bent towards social history, generational differences grow into a major theme in her overall work. The defining generational event for the grandson was clearly the American Civil War -- in which he fought and was wounded several times. Bowen expertly uses those experiences to illuminate the generational divides that were already then beginning to shape changes in the American experiment.

In the excerpt below, the grandson, the future Supreme Court justice, is called Wendell to distinguish him from his father of the same name.

To Wendell it seemed incredible that people would ask for stories of the battlefield as for tales of a circus, or of a boat race on the river Charles. He had forgotten his own eager garrulousness after Ball’s Bluff -- a battle in which he had not seen ten minutes of fighting before being carried unconscious from the field. What he knew now of battlefield was better forgotten, but Wendell could not forget. Dead men sprawled among the corn, naked, stripped of trousers and boots, eyes staring, limbs flung out in awful abandon. For those boots and trousers the Rebels had fought like tigers. If the North fought for “victory,” for “Union,” “freedom,” the South fought for shoes to put on its bleeding feet, pants for its legs, and fought no less bravely. Here on the streets they called the Rebels cowards. They were not cowards.

Cowardice, gallantry, chivalry -- how wearily a soldier, returned from the field, met such words! At home they thought of battle as if it were fought on Boston Common. As if a man came down the steps of his house pulling on his gloves, smoking a cigar -- then got on his horse and charged a battery up Beacon Street while the ladies waved handkerchiefs from a balcony. What really happened was that you spent the night on the wet ground with your bowels open and fought on a breakfast of salt meat and dirty water.

There is much of the weary soldier in this, the clash between the swelling patriotism of the homefront and bitter vigilance and desperation of the front lines. But there is also something generational going on here.

Wendell had heard his father talk of Antietam battlefield; apparently he had gone out there while waiting for the evening train from Frederick. He had brought home souvenirs -- a Rebel canteen, a note that said, “tell John that nancy’s folks are all well and has a verry good Little Crop of corn a growing.” Half a dozen times, Wendell had heard his father tell the story; he strongly suspected it had been written down in some kind of memoir his father made of the trip.

The visitors who came to Charles Street to pay their respects to the wounded hero were charmed with this story. But when they turned to the hero himself they were offended by what he said. “War?” Captain Holmes repeated coldly, his gray eyes remote. “War is an organized bore.”

The visitors went down the steps shaking their heads. “Captain Holmes used to be so agreeable. How changed he is! Is it possible,” they asked one another doubtfully, “that he is going over to the radicals? How hard for his dear father and mother!”

How changed he is, indeed. And not just him, but an entire generation. And the worry over “the radicals” is also telling, conjuring, as it does, the great and unremitting battle of ideology that is the very essence of the American experiment. More on that in a minute. For now let’s dwell a little longer on the generational divide that the Civil War so clearly illuminates, with Captain Wendell Holmes as far from his father and the world he would make for his son as the non-intersecting orbits of two planets going around the same sun.

The most disagreeable episode of his stay at home had not been a national matter at all, but something highly personal. Proof sheets of the Atlantic had arrived; Wendell’s father with a pleased smile had turned them over to his son. Carrying the story upstairs to his room after the family was in bed, Wendell read them, his flesh crawling. He tried to skip, tried to stop reading, but continued in horrid fascination to the end … “for this our son and brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found … Lay him in his own bed, and let him sleep off his aches and weariness …”

Oh my God! thought Captain Holmes, blushing to the roots of his hair. What if Company A should get hold of this?

“In the first car, on the fourth seat to the right, I saw my Captain; there I saw him, even my first-born, whom I had sought through many cities.

“‘How are you, Boy?’

“‘How are you, Dad?’”

Boy? … His father had never called him “Boy” in his life. What would the Twentieth Regiment think of that for a salutation? And the details of the battlefield. That gimlet eye had missed nothing. How could a man be so infernally curious about every stick and stone, every sound and sight? … “tell John that nancy’s folks has a verry good Little Crop of corn a growing.” Those notes his father made on the train must have been calculated straight to this article. As far as description went it was all true, too. Those army wagons, bearing down the road, changing their course for no man. …

It was extraordinary how fast the Atlantic Monthly traveled. From Sharpsburg, Virginia, with the Forty-first Massachusetts, John Gray wrote home to his mother: --

“I was much obliged for the Atlantic Monthly. The little doctor’s conceit and pertness appears more fully than in anything else of his I ever read (though I should make such a statement with hesitation) and I should think his “Hunt” would be considered too long by those who take no personal interest in the persons and things described, and he certainly talks more freely about the appearance and character of those he meets than he had any right to do; but I was very much interested in it and his description of the people and country is wonderfully correct and graphic, considering what a cursory view of them he must have had.”

Captain Holmes is referring here to a piece his father had written for the Atlantic Monthly, “My Hunt After the Captain,” in which the elder Holmes describes his frantic search through Civil War-torn landscapes for his wounded son. It was wildly popular, but it embarrassed the Captain, illustrating like little else the generational divides that existed even then.

But if the young disapproved the “Hunt,” the old loved it. New England read it aloud to the family, read it from the school desk and the lecture platform. It told people what they wanted to know about Antietam battlefield and told them in a tone they were familiar with -- a kindly tone, filled with sentiment. A father’s tone, with none of the nonchalance of youth, so baffling to middle age in the face of danger and horror. There was no need for Wendell Holmes to tell his father what he thought of this latest performance of the literary mind. Dr. Holmes knew what his son thought -- and ignored it cheerfully. If Wendell did not like the Atlantic he could read Hobbes’s Leviathan. The young were ridiculously sensitive; why should not a man desire to share his experiences with a waiting world?

It is very much like Roth’s American Pastoral -- with Dr. Holmes as Swede Levov and the Captain as Merry -- two people and two generations that love but do not understand each other.

The Great and Unremitting Battle of Ideology

Although three generations of the Holmes family come on and off the stage in Bowen’s work, the bulk of the spotlight is reserved for the grandson in this story -- the Civil War Captain who would one day be a United States Supreme Court Justice. And just as it seems that the Captain’s service in the War Between the States exemplified a period of great generational transformation for the still young nation, his service on the bench would come to exemplify another of the great class struggles in our history -- the never ending fight between collectivism and individualism.

When Holmes came to the Bench, the burning issues of the day were labor’s grievance against the employer, and the people’s grievance against the corporations: two manifestations of the individual’s battle for survival in a collectivist world. The battle was just beginning; it would rage all during Holmes’s lifetime and beyond. And in court the fight hinged always around two clauses of the Constitution: the Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment that declared “no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” There was no way for the lawmakers of 1866 to foresee this, to foresee the emergence of a huge corporate ownership that would seek to construe “due process of law” to its own ends.

Things get pretty dense in this section, but I think Bowen does an excellent job keeping the currents of thought and perspective separate from one another, much the way she claims Justice Holmes was able to do. It takes some explaining, but it’s worth it.

After the Civil War, America found a new symbol. Once she had looked to the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration was a trifle vague -- to a Massachusetts businessman, almost transcendental. By 1880, there was more than a suspicion that in spite of the hopes of the Fathers, political liberty would never result in economic equality. Men became less interested in being born free and equal, more interested in regulating commerce. If the Declaration had been a profession of faith, the Constitution was its working instrument, and America looked now to the Constitution.

The trouble was that the courts gave this working instrument no elasticity; they regarded it as immutable, written in stone on Sinai. Desperately, the people needed judges who possessed historical as well as judicial awareness, judges whose social prejudices were levelled by the long view of the scholar. Only such men, fearing neither socialism, capitalism, nor any other ism, could construe the Constitution according to the needs of the times.

Holmes was such a man. “A constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory,” he said, “whether of paternalism … or of laissez faire. It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States. … Constitutional law, like other mortal contrivances, has to take some chances. … The Constitution is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

It’s a refreshing perspective, this idea that the Constitution is neither a socialist nor a capitalist manifesto, that neither of those economic theories should find a natural home within its articles and sections. The Constitution, in other words, is a document that can be used to govern a nation comprised of those and many other economic theories.

It is a perspective that not everyone holds -- indeed, today, as well as in Justice Holmes’s time. And in the great battle between capital and labor, many a demagogue on both sides of the fight have tried to bend Holmes’s neutral Constitution to their own partisan ends.

One such demagogue, the trustbuster himself, Theodore Roosevelt, did not understand where Justice Holmes was coming from, even after appointing him to the Supreme Court. The case in point was Northern Securities Company v. the United States, in which Roosevelt’s government accused James J. Hill’s railroad company of growing too large and violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. After the case was heard and before a decision came down, the President thought he had it in the bag.

Theodore Roosevelt himself, counting over his nine Justices, was well satisfied. He would win by a seven-two decision, or at worst a six-three. A righteously aroused public opinion would surely react upon what T. R. might have called the conscience of the Court. Let the Justices look to their conscience and settle this case as it should be settled! The atmosphere was auspicious for victory. Concerning his new judicial appointee from Massachusetts, the President had no doubts. Holmes’s labor decisions in Boston, notably Vegelahn v. Guntner and the later case of Plant v. Woods, showed clearly where his sympathies lay.

The President could not have been more mistaken. To Holmes, the Supreme Court existed for the purpose of interpreting the statutes according to the Constitution of the United States -- not as a whipping post for malefactors of great or little wealth. If the Northern Securities Company was proved, under the Sherman Act, to be in restraint of trade, it should be dissolved. If not, it should stand. All this pressure of public opinion served merely to cloud the issue.

Holmes, it was true, had said again and again that judges must bear in mind the economic changes in society, the “felt necessities of the time.” But that was a very different matter from being stampeded by a public opinion which the exigencies of the moment dubbed “righteous.” If the public would come out frankly and say it desired to sock the rich, it would be, Holmes thought, far more admirable than this pretense of using the courts to call the rich illegal simply because they were rich. As for the conscience of the Court, a court that ruled according to its “conscience” would be no court at all. Law was neither morality nor politics nor expediency nor art. Theodore Roosevelt, obviously, chose whichever definition suited the moment.

Justice Holmes, in other words, thought it was his job to be a referee, not on the team of the President that appointed him.

This perspective often got him in trouble.

Theodore Roosevelt heard the decision of the Court and was jubilant. The suit, he said, was one of the greatest achievements of his administration. The Knight case had been overruled, the Northern Securities Company was dissolved, the power of the government against the monopolies was established. The government -- Roosevelt called it “we” -- had gained the power.

But it was a crime that the decision had not been more nearly unanimous. Justice Holmes’s dissent in particular was outrageous. What did the man mean, turning against him that way? Obviously, Holmes had simply lost his nerve. “I could carve out of a banana,” shouted T. R., “a judge with more backbone than that!”

It’s no surprise to this reader that Theodore Roosevelt saw Holmes’s decision as a “turn against him.” Indeed, from that titan’s point of view, what else could it have been?

But Holmes would have none of it.

Holmes himself cared nothing whatever about the Presidential reactions. He was, in fact, as angry as the President. Years later, he wrote to Pollock about it. “[The affair] broke up our incipient friendship, however, as [Roosevelt] looked on my dissent … as a political departure (or, I suspect, more truly, couldn’t forgive anyone who stood in his way). We talked freely later but it was never the same after that, and if he had not been restrained by his friends, I am told that he would have made a fool of himself and would have excluded me from the White House. … I never cared a damn whether I went there or not. He was very likable, a big figure, a rather ordinary intellect, with extraordinary gifts, a shrewd and I think pretty unscrupulous politician. He played all his cards -- if not more.”

It’s fascinating. A struggle between two men and two philosophies -- one focused on calling balls and strikes, the other on swinging for the fences. When Holmes “opposed” Roosevelt, the political animal could interpret no other way. So how confused must he have been when Holmes swung the other way in the next major case to come before the Court?

In Lochner v. New York, the Court ruled that a state placing legal limits on the amount of time a company could ask its employees to work was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time, it was a landmark case in the battle between capital and labor. And Justice Holmes, like in the Northern Securities case, was in the dissent.

To Justice Holmes, combination on the one side was as lawful, within limits, as on the other. In the Northern Securities dissent he had upheld the side of capital -- although he would have disliked to hear it called a “side.” Now, a year later, he was to uphold the other -- the right of a state to regulate the hours of labor. Holmes’s dissent in the Lochner case was among his most significant utterances in Court. It heralded a long a noble list of such dissents, opinions which were to prove him, old though he was, far younger in spirit than his brethren, at once prophetic in vision and tough-minded in the law.

It is all evidence that Holmes did the best he could to rule in the absence of political or economic philosophy -- and in an age when the foundations of collectivism and labor were being laid. Many viewed collectivism as the fundamental right of the underclass, while others viewed individualism (and its close cousin the ownership of property) as just a fundamental right guaranteed by the republic. Each side had its political champions who sought to bend the Court to its perspective, believing that stakes high enough to warrant the meddling. Holmes disagreed.

Whether these theories, these economic experiments, resulted in disaster was not, Holmes thought, a judge’s business. Just now, in 1905, the experiments tended all towards combination, collectivism. And whether the combination was of capital, as in the Northern Securities case, or of labor wishing to protect itself by state laws, as in the Lochner case -- at all events let the experiments be made. Those men who, fearing experiment, desire to preserve the status quo, let those men -- be they judges, capitalists, or laboring men -- not hide behind the Sherman Act or the vague phrases of the due process clause.

To the partisan, Holmes was trying to have it both ways. He “lacked a backbone.” But Holmes was trying to avoid partisanship and focus solely on what he believed was required in his role as judge. The question was never what do we wish the law said? It was always what does the law actually say?

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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, November 5, 2018

We're Number Two!

Something interesting happened this week. The office building where our association is located had a Halloween door decorating contest. For some of my staff people, Halloween is their favorite holiday so, with my full blessing and support, a small group came together and decorated our office door, intent on bringing home the prize.

And they did a great job. I should've taken a picture of it, but it showed a lot of creativity and fun. A giant grim reaper stood menacingly next to our office door, a zombie badged as our HR Director sat in a chair opposite, while plenty of signs, dripping with fake blood, were attached to the door, advertising available positions and proudly proclaiming our "death" benefits and the number of days since our last fatal accident (zero, in case you're wondering).

They had fun putting it together and we all had fun answering the door whenever the guy from UPS or Aramark Refreshment Services came calling.

Shortly after the decorations were in place, the building announced what the prizes would be for first, second, and third place, and, universally among our staff, it was decided that the prize for second place -- free bagels for the office -- was the most desirable. It was better than the third place prize, of course, but, strangely, it was also better than the first place prize -- at least in the eyes of my staff.

What happened next was predictable. Everyone started rooting for second place. They started checking out the competition, not hoping that none were better, but hoping, strangely, that one and only one was better. After putting out all that energy and creativity, people began hedging their expectations. Our office door looked great, but perhaps, and hopefully, it wasn't that good. Surely that one down the hall is better than ours. Don't you think?

From my point of view, these hedged expectations told an interesting story. My team came together with a shared purpose, they brainstormed and executed a coherent and creative plan, and knocked-it out of the park with the finished product. They had every right to expect to take home the top prize, yet, when informed what the prizes would be, and deciding that they'd rather have second place, they began to talk as if they had tried too hard. No one said these words out loud, but the feeling in the office was very much in line with regret that they had tried so hard in the first place.

That really hit home for me. When trying to incentivize behaviors, you need to make sure that the prizes offered match the effort folks are putting in. Offer a lackluster prize for coming out on top and you risk people calibrated their efforts for second place.

The story, however, has a happy ending. When the prizes were announced, we learned that our office had, in fact, come in second place. When this news broke, the sense of elation and joy was palpable within the office. We did it! We came in second! We're going to get the FREE BAGELS!!!

There's a lesson in there as well.

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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, October 29, 2018

The Facilitator's Job

I was asked to facilitate one of the breakouts at the last conference I attended. (If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that last week I said I had six more conferences and workshops to attend before the end of the year.)

The conference organizer reached out to me, I assume primarily because of my position as the President/CEO of the trade association that represents the technology that would be the focus of the breakout, and asked me to take on this role. Even though I knew the discussion in the breakout was likely to get technical, and that my long-ago Bachelor's degree is English Literature was not likely to help me, I never hesitated. Yes, of course I'll facilitate the breakout.

Here's what the conference organizer said would be my job: "Your breakout session will be an open mic format for participants to talk about their perspective on the technical challenges, market barriers, and future direction for [subject of breakout session]. Please be flexible and ask people if they would like to speak. Please remember to take good notes (ask someone to help you if you need help). You will need to write up the findings and present them in the main room following the session. Thank you and good luck!"

It wasn't much to go on, but it was enough. I did just a little homework before the session, familiarizing myself with some of the latest information I had on the breakout's subject. I even put some of that information together in a few slides, but I wasn't sure I was going to use them. I figured I would have them as a backup in case participation fizzled or started to wane.

Turns out I didn't need them. There were plenty of people who wanted to talk in my session and I quickly saw that the real challenge was not going to be getting people to contribute, but identifying a list of summarized comments that everyone in the session would agree fairly represented the group's thoughts and opinions.

That, you see, is really the job of a facilitator. It is not just making sure everyone has a chance to speak, and it is not just transcribing everything that everybody says. Facilitators often do those things, but the real job of a facilitator is to listen carefully to all of those ideas, identify the common ideas and concepts, and then repeat them back to the participants to ensure they are being fairly recorded.

And that's pretty much what I did. Like I've done a dozen or more times before, I live-edited a document that was projected up on a screen for the whole audience to see. To keep some order, people who wanted to speak were given no more than five minutes to make their case. I let that go on for the first half of our session time, listening the whole time for common ideas and concepts and populating my document with them. Then, with apologies to anyone who had not yet had the chance to speak, I revealed the list I had been working on to the room and asked for everyone to react to it. Was it accurate? Did it fairly summarize the major themes that we had all just heard emerge over the last hour?

That created a lot of back and forth, and that was exactly what I expected and wanted. One person wanted one of the bullet points changed. Another person wanted to add another bullet point. A third person thought the third bullet point should be nested under the fifth, but a fourth person disagreed, explaining how he saw the two bullet points as discrete concepts.

For much of this discussion I was simply the scribe, editing the document in accordance with each person's suggestion, but each time checking with the room to see if anyone disagreed. Wearing my facilitator's hat, I then made sure that disagreements turned into discussions, and discussions turned into compromises that both parties -- and the room -- could live with.

In the end we had about four slides of content, summarizing the discussion of the group. When I presented the slides in general session a few minutes later, I observed breakout participants in the audience nodding their heads in approval. I had accomplished what I had sought out to do -- fairly capturing the general themes and recommendations inherent in the group's discussion.

I didn't write this post to pat myself on the back. I wrote it to make the point I've made once or twice before on this blog. Some people are impressed with my ability to do what I've just described -- to listen to a group's discussion and to work collaboratively with them to distill it down to its basic elements. This was not the first time that I've received accolades from participants and observers on my ability to do exactly that. And although perhaps I may have some natural talent for parsing ideas into words (English major, anyone?), I firmly believe that not only can this skill can be learned -- it has to be learned by anyone who wants to call themselves and association professional.

The facilitator's job? From where I sit, it's just another word for association management.

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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, October 27, 2018

The Ring of Ikribu by David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney

There’s a complex and somewhat awkward story behind this one. Not long ago I sampled a podcast about the works for H. P. Lovecraft and the many authors who write in the “cosmic horror” genre he almost created. I stopped listening after a handful of episodes, but my interest was piqued by a few discussions I heard about stories that attempted to blend the “sword and sorcery” tropes of fantasy fiction with those of the ancient and inhuman gods of Lovecraftian horror. Among that group were supposedly a series of novels written around the character of Red Sonja.

Now, I vaguely knew who Red Sonja was. She was a kind of a female version of the character of Conan the Barbarian. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was cutting his teeth as Conan in 1980s cinema, they even made a movie about her, with Brigitte Nielsen cast in the title role.

A few minutes on the Internet, however, showed me that I knew a lot less about Red Sonja that I thought I did. My copy of The Ring of Ikribu contains an introduction that describes the birth a Red Sonja as a character and the genesis of the series of paperbacks that begin with The Ring of Ikribu. Perhaps you already know it. First there were the Conan stories, a creation of Robert E. Howard. Then there were the Conan comic books, an adapted creation of some people at Marvel Comics. Then there was Red Sonja as a recurring character in the Conan comic books. And now, writing in 1981, there are Red Sonja stories -- the demands of a fan base driving the change from fiction to comics and back to fiction again.

So these were the expectations that I brought to The Ring of Ikribu and how it came into my possession. I wanted to see Lovecraftian horror in a fantasy context. And although there is certainly a cosmic horror subtext to the novel, the bulk of it more properly viewed as Red Sonja’s origin story.

On the Lovecraftian side, there is Ikribu and his ring.

“This god, Ikribu -- he was said to be a god of blood and battle. The black armies of ancient Kheba and Ishdaris worshipped him as a war god and sacrificed thousands to him in sacrificial battles, and even before then he was said to be one of the Elder Ones -- those beings who created man and all other life forms in order to feed on the energies generated by suffering and death. Some of their artifacts were especially created to draw men into paths of madness and doom -- to channel these energies the Elder Ones crave -- the Ring is said to be one of these. A Ring of power, a Ring of madness!”

It is an interesting idea, and the novel certainly does contain men struggling to possess the ring, men who come to and cause enough suffering and death to temporarily satisfy the cravings of the Elder Ones. But that story is the novel’s B plot. The A plot clearly goes to Red Sonja and her odd and somewhat anachronistic devotion to sexual purity.

She was tall and fair-skinned with a head of long, tousled, flame-red hair -- and she was armored. A long-sword swung in the scabbard at her side, a knife at her hip. She wore a brief vest and skirt of silvery scale-mail that covered her breasts and hung from her waist, but left her limbs and midriff bare -- good armor, but too little of it for practicality and evidently worn less for protection than as a symbol of her untamed spirit.

This is Sonja’s first introduction to the reader, as yet unnamed, a stranger happened across in a tavern, about to defend herself and her “spirit” from the predations of raucous men. What follows aligns with many of the tropes we are all familiar with. Good has pure motives. Evil is a slave to violent passions. A hero only kills when threatened by the treachery of a villain.

Eventually, however, we are allowed to learn Sonja’s full story.

“Olin, I suffer from a destiny.”

“Tell me your destiny, Sonja.”

She looked him in the eyes, read concern and love and torment there. She told him: “When I was a woman-child -- when my family was destroyed by mercenary bandits -- I wished that I could wield a sword and thereby equal my father and younger brothers.”

“I know that.”

“When they were destroyed, only I was left alive. The brigands forced me to endure their pleasure, and then left me to die in our house. They set it afire, but I escaped.”

“How does this--”

“I wandered into the forest, Olin, sobbing and broken and bleeding, thinking I would soon die -- wanting to die one moment, the next wanting fiercely to live for vengeance.”

Olin said no more.

“I was visited by a Vision -- a spirit or a god, perhaps. I do not know. It filled up my soul and gave me the strength to become what I yearned for in my heart. With my father’s sword I slew one of the brigands, and in the following years tracked down the others. But within that instant of the Vision, Olin, I was transformed from a whimpering, broken young girl into a woman whose sword skill could equal any man’s in the world.”

Olin was silent, trying to imagine such a thing.

“I took up the wandering way. In my years of travels since then I have seen much, suffered much, been to hell many times, followed roads mired with gore and others paved with gold and splendor -- but never, Olin, never in all that time have I given myself to any man. Were I to do so, I feel I would damn myself, sever myself from my destiny and my past. In return for my skill with the sword, Olin, I swore a vow of chastity to that Vision in the night. And no man has ever touched me since that night when I was defiled while my parents and brothers were slain and burnt.”

Her quest is therefore one of vengeance -- another overused trope -- fueled by an artificial shroud of purity that her vow of chastity bestows. And it is, I am somewhat sad to realize, yet another man attempting to control the sexuality of yet another woman. In the story, Sonja is independent, free and in open conflict with the oppressive characterizations of men. But it doesn’t take much critical analysis to realize that it is the form of the story itself that provides Sonja’s tiresome and anachronistic subjugation. The story, after all, is written by men, and features a woman bound by the sexual ethics of their own making.

And Sonja’s full vow -- going beyond the simplicity of chastity -- doesn’t much help.

“Sonja,” said Olin gently. “Sonja. Can no love ever win to you?”

She looked him straight in the eyes, with an honesty that went beyond mere truth. “Should I be meant to love a man, Olin, then that will be proved by his besting my in swordplay.”

Ugh. Exactly how is this a “woman worthy of Conan,” as the paperback epigraph proclaims?

In a world where other woman accept what they are given, Red Sonja gets what she wants. And woe to the man who thinks that her sleek body and mane of flame-red hair could be his for the taking -- for her sword-arm is as strong as her will, and Red Sonja belongs to no man.

Clearly, she belongs to no man. But neither do any men belong to her. But you’re not fooling me. Neither situation is an expression of her will or untamed spirit. They are the exact corners of the sexual prison that the authors have penned her in.

There are five more books in this series. Perhaps I will give one or two more a try, looking for more of that Lovecraftian horror than any kind of release of Sonja from her jail cell. There is some hope of that. At the end of this chapter, after the battle against Ikribu and his slavish thralls has been won, Sonja confronts the very idea that brought about so much suffering and death.

“You presume to despise us,” said the Stygian, “yet you and all other humans enjoy life to the extent that you do because of Orders like ours dedicated to appeasing the Elder Ones. Be thankful that our burden rests not on your shoulders.”

“Perhaps someday,” said Sonja, her eyes blazing, “we may find the strength and knowledge to oppose and destroy these monstrous beings, rather than ‘appease’ them. Would that my sword might be employed in that conflict!”

Indeed. Now that would be a novel worth reading.

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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, October 22, 2018

Other People See Connections You Don't

I attend a lot of conferences and workshops. I attended one last week and I'm attending another one this week. In fact, looking ahead on my calendar, I've got six more conferences or workshops to attend before the end of the year.

Obviously, it's a big part of my job. And, as was brought home to me at the conference I just attended, one of the big advantages to all this time out of the office is getting a chance to hear what other people think. Because, frequently, what other people think is not what I think. We're at the same conference for the same reasons, but they are coming from a different place and have a different take on it than I do.

That can sometimes get uncomfortable. Association members -- or at least members of my association -- can be painfully direct and honest. If they don't see the value in what your association is offering, they have no compunction about telling you. And their advice for improvement is also as freely given. Divorced as their comments may be from the resource realities of your organization, they're going to let you know what you should do.

It's always best, in my opinion, to accept this kind of feedback with respect and graciousness, and then use the opportunity to engage the member in some open brainstorming. You say you want X, but the association can't afford X. What is it about X that makes you want it? What is the need you have that X would help fill? Are there other ways to meet that need? To deliver the value you seek?

Getting a member into this headspace can be extremely beneficial. Because they are different from you, because they have different perceptions, and see different connections, there's no telling what kind of elegant solution is going to arise from these open and honest discussions.

It happened this past week and, if I'm lucky, it'll happen at each of the six conferences and workshops I have between now and the end of there. Six new solutions to six old problems? That's something that's worth getting on all those airplanes.

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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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