Monday, July 21, 2014

Going on Vacation

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What do you do when you go on vacation? No, not where do you go and what do you do there, but what do you do about all the people who may want to get a hold of you while you're gone?

In my association I try to make it as clear as possible. Vacation is for vacation. When you're on vacation there is no expectation that you can be reached. Go ahead, change your voicemail greeting and set up those automatic replies in your email. You're on vacation, and someone else can tend whatever fires need to be kept burning while you're gone.

Except I don't do that. I haven't changed my voicemail greeting or set up auto email replies for years. There is nothing to signal callers and senders that I'm on vacation (as I am this week) and that it may be a little while before they hear back from me. My vacation mode is to scan through my messages once a day and respond to anything that is either simple or urgent--often revealing in the reply that I am on vacation and setting up a time after my return to deal with a serious issue in more depth.

From my perspective, it goes with the job of being the CEO. A lot of rules are different at that level, and this is just one of them. Too often, CEOs are bottlenecks in their organizations anyway, decision-makers on whose word lots of other staff activity depends. If a quick response from me can keep a project moving--or give a volunteer the information he needs--I'd rather make myself available for it than have people sitting on their hands until I get back.

But what about disconnecting? Isn't it important, especially for CEOs, to give their minds a rest and experience something else that life has to offer? It is, and I do, albeit not for weeks at a time, but more frequently for an afternoon or an entire day between my message check-ins. And even if I keep a slow fire burning in the back of my mind on some work-related issue, I've discovered that I'm better able to think creatively about it because of the vacation experiences I'm having. The solutions to some challenges, after all, will never be found in the corner office.

So I'm okay with it. Some may call it working while on vacation, but I see it more as taking a vacation from my day-to-day routine. The one thing I worry about is whether my staff understands my perspective on this. As I said earlier, I do not expect them to take the same approach I do, but I can't help but realize that a leader leads more by his actions than by the words coming out of his mouth. If I truly want people to disconnect, wouldn't they be more likely to do that if they saw me doing it myself?

Or maybe I secretly don't want them disconnecting completely. Maybe they and the organization would be better off if they took the same approach I do--getting away and seeking out new experiences, but keeping enough of a connection to the affairs of the office to see perplexing problems in a new light and to find creative ways forward.

It's an interesting thought. Perhaps it's the thing I'll let percolate while on this vacation.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, July 14, 2014

Decision Making for Number Ones and Number Twos

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Recently I had reason to reflect on the differences between being CEO and COO--often referred to as the "Number One" and "Number Two" executives in an association. I've been in both positions over the course of my career, and thinking about the kinds of decisions that get made in each position helps illuminate some of the misunderstood differences between them.

A Number Two is generally focused on operations. His decisions impact the organization in the near-term. We're going with this vendor. We're hiring this speaker for the conference. We're selling these products from our online store. The results of these decisions manifest in relatively short periods of time, and when they do, it's generally easy to see if they were successes or failures. And the only person he has to convince he is right is his boss.

A Number One, in contrast, is usually focused on strategy. Her decisions impact the organization in the long-term. We're moving into this new service area. We're bringing this kind of person into our leadership. We're branding the organization around this theme. The results of these decisions manifest in relatively long periods of time, and when they do, not everyone will agree if they were successes or failures. And there is no end to the number of people she has to convince she is right--her Board, her members, her staff.

Two different jobs; two different realms of decision-making.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

There was a time in my life where in my spare time I wrote novels. Lately, it seems, I have much less spare time than I had before, and during what little spare time I have my mind is too tired to appropriately engage in the heady work of novel writing. Now, I watch a lot of old science fiction TV shows on Netflix. But back when I was working diligently on my last unfinished work, I joined a writers workshop and took my ten-page chapters there every other week to read them aloud and get some critical feedback from the dozen or so other unpublished novelists in the room.

It was a useful experience, and there are parts of it that I still miss. But I’m really only bringing it up here because one of the participants told me that the book I was writing reminded him of Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. I didn’t need any other prompting. I think I bought the book the following week, but only now got around to reading it.

It was enjoyable--and, yes, similar to the book I was writing but only in its setting and general themes. Like my work, Ferris’s setting is the workplace and his themes include the institutionalized logic and loneliness that subsumes so much of our professional lives. From the back cover:

No one knows us in quite the same way as the men and women who sit beside us in department meetings and crowd the office refrigerator with their labeled yogurts. Every office is a family of sorts, and the Chicago ad agency Joshua Ferris depicts in his exuberantly acclaimed first novel is family at its best and worst, coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: though gossip, elaborate pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks. With a demon’s eye for the details that make life worth noticing, Joshua Ferris tells an emotionally true and funny story about survival in life’s strangest environment--the one we pretend is normal five days a week.

But unlike my work, it is told in an odd yet engaging third person plural. The narrator, it seems, is the group--the group of people who work at this agency and who both drive and observe the events that are depicted. From the novel’s opening sentences…

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.

...the unique voice of this condescending chorus pulls you in and somewhat effortlessly makes you feel like you are part of the action. It’s partly the voice, but it is also partly the universality of the subject matter. All of us, on one level or another, have had work experiences like the ones described in this novel.

For me, there’s a particularly poignant scene where the group is trying to come up with some stories about a coworker who has passed away--stories that will reveal the uniqueness of his humanity. Like so many of us would in similar circumstances, they struggle.

“What should I have told the man?” Benny asked us, long after his uploading was complete, and all we could agree on was the sight of Brizz smoking outside the building in winter in nothing to keep him warm but his sweater vest. That was a story Brizz owned, but was it a story? Or we might have told him about the talk with the building guy, but that wasn’t much of a story either. To be honest, what we remembered most about Brizz was his participation, along with the rest of us, in the mundane protocols of making a deadline--Brizz’s nicotine stink on a conference call listening to a client’s change in directions, Brizz sitting behind his desk with his reading glasses, carefully and methodically proofreading copy before an ad went to print. Hard to build an anecdote out of that.

And with this realization, suddenly piercing through their well-worn veil of protective aloofness, comes real outrage.

Good god, why had nobody stopped him? Why had we never, not one of us, stopped, turned around, and said, Knock knock. Sorry to interrupt you when you’re proofreading, Brizz. Why had we not gone in, sat down? Yeah, you smoke Old Golds, you keep a messy car--but what else, Brizz, what else? Would closing the door help? What fucked you up as a kid and what woman changed your life and what is the thing you will never forgive yourself for? What, man, what? Please! We walked past. Brizz never looked up. How many times did we end up down at our own offices, doing pretty much the same things, preparing for some deadline now come and gone, while Brizz lived and breathed with all the answers a hundred feet down the hall?

Their struggle and their outrage is a result of the fact that none of them really ever knew their co-worker Brizz, even though they all worked with him every single day. This tension between togetherness and loneliness, between the members of a team who don’t really know each other, is something Ferris uses throughout the novel.

One of the characters in the group is (of course) an aspiring novelist, and he is working on a novel loosely based on their situation and the people in their office. Here, he talks to another group member about how he tried to depict their boss, a woman named Lynn Mason.

“In the first book I tried to write,” he explained, “the book I put down, I based a character on Lynn, and I made that character into a tyrant. I did it on principle, because anyone who was a boss in that book had to be a tyrant. Anyone who believed in the merits of capitalism, and soul-destroying corporations, and work work work--all that--naturally that person wasn’t deserving of any sympathy. But when I decided to retire that book, thank god, and write something different, I knew she was sick, so I went to see her. Just on a lark. Because what did I know about her? Nothing, really. I didn’t know her--not in any meaningful way. And it turned out she was very open to talking to me, not only about her sickness, but also her personal life, a lot of other things.

Ferris makes this point exceedingly well--that people who work together often know next-to-nothing about each other, and never to such an outrageous degree as between a supervisor and those supervised. Indeed, Lynn herself at one point muses…

When she left, no doubt she realized how little she knew about the individual lives of the people who worked for her, how impossible it was to get to know them despite little efforts here and there…

But Lynn is actually someone Ferris allows the reader to know exceedingly well, as he devotes a long, straight third-person interlude in the middle of the novel--a kind of short story--entirely to Lynn, her life outside the office, and the ovarian cancer that she is beginning to privately battle. In this interlude, we see Lynn as the frail human being she is, not the somewhat monstrous monolith those who report to her think she must be.

In fact, the only thing that distracts me from seeing Lynn as a whole person is the author’s sometimes heavy-handed use of iconic Chicago locations. In the span of two pages, Lynn and her erstwhile boyfriend visit both Gino’s East for some deep dish pizza, and then go to the Art Institute, where it must be mentioned that they find themselves standing in front of Georges Seurat’s giant painting. Honestly, I found myself wondering if they were going to get stuck in a parade with Ferris Bueller next.

But that might be nitpicking. The larger point is that in coming to know Lynn Mason as the person she is, the reader comes to understand how unconscious, out-of-touch, and just plain wrong the collective chorus storyteller that dominates the rest of the novel actually is.

Indeed, as the chorus itself says when it finds itself stuck up against a deadline...

Simultaneously we all fell to the hard carpet and began to pray. We prostrated ourselves before her, our pathetic and undeserving selves, and pleaded for mercy. More time--please give us more time! It must be said: we were small, scared, spineless people.

They are that. And shockingly, perhaps, so are we.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, July 7, 2014

Does Your Board Act as Your Innovation Committee?

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I found this post of the Harvard Business Review blog thought-provoking. It advocates for corporate boards to serve as a kind of innovation committee for the corporations they are put in place to safeguard. In one example, the post talks about the movement as it is afoot at Diebold, a manufacturer of ATMs and security systems. conducting its annual self-evaluation, the board found that a number of its directors had recommended that a board committee be created to work explicitly with the new CEO on technology and innovation — not to manage it, but to partner with management on it. With the concurrence of the new CEO, the directors created a Technology Strategy and Innovation committee with a full-blown charter requiring its directors to “provide management with a sounding-board,” serve as a “source of external perspective,” evaluate “management proposals for strategic technology investments,” and work with management on its “overall technology and innovation strategy.”

It seems like a good idea to me, assuming the members of the board committee remember to stay out of the weeds and embrace their roles as strategic advisors. In the world of associations, it may make even more sense, since the members of the board are almost always members of the association itself--a subset of the very stakeholder group the association has been organized to serve.

At my own association, we do something similar. Each of our board members serve on something we call strategic task forces--volunteer bodies formed around our areas of core strategic priority with the stated purpose of defining what success looks like and monitoring the organization's progress towards those goals. Ideas for innovative programs and activities are often first launched there, either from the brainstorming the board members do themselves or in their assessment of new ideas I and my staff bring to the table.

As the HBR post suggests, one of the things that makes this work is that the task forces have no decision-making authority. By splitting the board into three such groups, no one task force represents a quorum of the board. Whatever decisions they make must be either offered as advisory to the CEO if they are in the management realm, or brought as a recommendation for action to the full board if they are in the realm of governance.

It's taken a few years to establish this process and for everyone to understand their role, but now that is in place we find it very useful and effective.

Do you do anything like this with your board? Do you ever engage with its members in ways that take them out of their formal role as fiduciary stewards of the organization? It can be sometimes be challenging to change the rules of engagement, but if your board is anything like mine, you will want to engage their intellects and passions in ways that help your association innovate.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, June 30, 2014

Leadership and U-Shaped Tables

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I'm just returned from what was a very successful strategic retreat with the Board of Directors of my association. Like many of the Board meetings we've done before, we used a U-shaped table for several of the sessions. With the open end of the U facing a projection screen, we've found that it gives the Board members an equal opportunity to see and interact with each other and to view the many presentations we use to report progress and explore strategic concepts.

But something different happened at this Board meeting--something that is a great reminder of how something as ostensibly simple as your room set can affect the the outcome of your meeting.

In order to help focus discussion, we usually break our Board up into a handful of smaller groups. Each can tackle a particular issue, and report recommended actions back to the full Board. We've found it to be helpful in increasing participation and efficiency. Fewer people dominate the conversation and more work can get done.

At this meeting, when the breakout groups came back into general session, they found that the hotel had put us into a cavernous room. Much too large for our group, and rather than put a tight U-shaped table in the middle of its footprint, it had built a giant one for us, stretching to fill the entire space, and putting people on opposite side of the U more than thirty feet away from each other.

It could have been a disaster. But when it came time for the first breakout group to report, the chair did something important--something that no breakout chair had ever done before. Rather than stay in his seat, he got up, and moved to the middle of the U to give his report. With the words on the screen behind him, and moving around to speak directly to all three sides of the U, it was almost as if he was giving a mini TED talk.

And it completely changed the dynamic. I've seen these reports go bad before. A quiet voice from one corner of the table, easily dismissed as partially heard and dimly understood. This was anything but. The chair made the information compelling--if for no other reason than he seemed to lay the recommendations directly in front of each and every Board member. The discussion that followed was robust and additive, and the breakout chair was in the best possible position to moderate it. His physical movements helped integrate ideas from all around the U, and he got the Board to a even better decision point than the one he had initially framed for them.

It was one of the best displays of leadership I have seen, especially when you consider that the breakout chairs who followed him wisely choose to emulate his style. Makes me wonder if I'm going to purposely set my U-shaped tables too wide in the future.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This is a book about many different things, ostensibly tied together into a treatise about what it takes to be happy in our modern (or any other) era. That prescription, as such prescriptions often are, is reduced by the author down to a few simple concepts:

Know yourself.
Control your desires.
Take what’s yours.
Remember death.

But she uses these more as launching pads for a number of entertaining (and sometimes not) digressions than as elements of a cohesive happiness philosophy.

If the latter is what you’re looking for, I far prefer another schematic the author offers, one based on the (perhaps impossible) harmony one should seek among three distinct kinds of happiness:

A Good Day. A good day can be filled with many mild pleasures, repeatable and forgettable, and some rewarding efforts.

Euphoria. Euphoria is intense, lasts powerfully in memory, and often involves some risk or vulnerability.

A Happy Life. A happy life requires a lot of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning, and birthing), sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or for euphoria.

More challenging than the first, but more squarely focused on the point of the whole exercise, if you ask me.

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Among the other entertaining bits in the book, one I really enjoyed was the following thesis, which the author returned to again and again throughout the text.

Often, the modern point of view reveals itself to consist of bossy, shaming, controlling nonsense. This realization alone can give us a bit of freedom from the mental costs of our day. Most of the strictures we live under are just cultural stories, no more inherently true than the cultural stories of any other period in history.

And one of her favorite examples is the way we currently think about body image and health.

On some subjects, I fear I will sound like an apologist for indulgence, but I do not think it is morally justifiable for an able-bodied man or woman to devote huge amounts of time and energy to worrying about things that do not really matter much. Don’t you know people who are very proud, for instance, of their “healthy” diet, and other people who are very ashamed of their “unhealthy” diet? Shouldn’t these people be proud and ashamed of something of more substance? I am embarrassed by how pathetic some of our priorities will look to the future. I think it will be clear to future historians that these mythic obsessions with the body are responsible not only for the bony fashion model, but also for the extra-large average person, for whom eating becomes an expression of rejecting these shaming forces of control.

In fact, Hecht’s advice for people saddled with this shame is at the same time refreshing as it is heretical.

I think we would all be better off if we did unproductive exercise only for pleasure. If we want to do exercise, we should walk somewhere we have to go anyway, do a chore you usually get someone else to do, take the stairs, carry the baby, or chop some wood. Forget the gym unless you love it, or perhaps need a change of habit. These exhortations to be a certain type of body are the nonsense jabberings of history. Anyone above the lowest quintile of activity is not going to get happy as a direct result of exercising. If you are exercising and do not enjoy it, or are not exercising and spend time feeling guilty about it, I recommend that you find something to occupy yourself that you do enjoy, whether or not it gets your heartbeat up.

But that’s just one example, and in concept the author is making a larger point.

And it will be clear that our myths about drugs are responsible for a lot of unhappy drug taking and a lot of unhappy drug abstaining. I believe that a moral imperative to be of use begins with a moral imperative to get one’s mind right, to be able to see nonsensical cultural assumptions--trances of value--for what they are, to develop oneself as a truth detector. There is no reason to think that we can each individually do this crucial work on our own, without scholarship, and without carefully sketching out just what it is we think we mean--and what it is we want.

The challenge, of course, is determining what it is that matters most, especially if we agree that it is not necessarily what I think it is, or what you think it is. This is Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape on steroids. Somehow, scholarship will help us determine what matters most to us and our happiness.

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She also deals with the topsy-turvy, the compelling need throughout all human history to periodically turn the social order upside down in order to keep oneself from destroying civilization entirely. Its essence is being euphoric, not privately, but in public.

I think we need this, we do not get enough of it, and what we get is in the form of absurdity in art. Complaining about culture having random, intense rules of conduct is like complaining about the inconveniences of gravity. All we can do is try to find a way to alleviate the pressure now and again. That is what topsy-turvy does. Our arts reflect our hunger for it. Often they do a great job of providing it for us, singly and in communion with others: we share our love for the topsy-turvy by citing our love for artistic expressions of it. Think of the special kind of allegiance people have to films that are absurd: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, or Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Pink Flamingos, Being John Malkovich, or Donnie Darko. We need play, and the play has to be daring; it need not scatter all meaning, but it does have to turn things upside-down.

I sometimes feel this need intensely as, evidently, do most of the other humans on the planet.

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And there is her mind-stretching idea that, in our modern culture, the nightly news plays a role that may seem odd when described to us, but would not be at all unfamiliar to our ancestors.

Ours is a world keenly shaped by Enlightenment science, democracy, and decorum, but even in the world of the rational, scientific, and objective, we have found a way to tell ourselves the old stories.

Where, today, is the image of a crying woman searching for her abducted daughter, or the unexpectedly pregnant girl searching for a place to have her child? Where is the image of a sad young mother holding her son’s lifeless body? Where are the images of relief when the sobering mother is reunited with her child, who shows up shockingly alive? The answer is the news. We let the news anchors tell us stories of rape, murder, fire, insane mothers, cruel nannies, sly seducers, and violent fathers. This litany sounds different every year, but it is also very much the same, told in a style particular enough to constitute a genre, or a suite of myths.

...the news is our myth, helping us do our psychological work the way Demeter and Mother Mary did.

Maybe this is why I mostly shake my head at what passes for news these days--befuddled and confused at what is more traditionally offered up. But it is evidently my mistake, expecting to hear about the events and forces that have a tangible impact on my life and our society, rather than the archetypal stories of sin and redemption through which cultures throughout history have tried to understand themselves.

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There are also a number of brief passages that, when stumbled upon, helped me reflect on my own ideas of happiness and how to achieve it.

First, from the poem “Happiness,” by Jane Kenyon:

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

More and more often, it seems, this is how happiness finds me. Not planned or pursued, but unsuspecting, perhaps not in my hour of despair, but certainly on what is otherwise an ordinary day.

And second, from a section on Adam Smith:

...when a poor man’s son has ambition, it is a curse. The condition of the rich “appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings,” and to reach it, the young man “sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power.” If he attains wealth, “he will find [it] to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.” Power and riches are high-maintenance machines “contrived to produce a few trifling coveniences to the body.” The machines “must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and … in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor … They leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.”

This is about as true as anything you will ever find. Beyond a certain level of health and security, wealth does not add to happiness in any appreciable way. In fact, other than readier access to mechanisms that can provide euphoria, wealth, and the process of gaining and maintaining it, more frequently detracts from the happiness that any ordinary and comfortable life can provide.

In fact, a few pages later, Hecht offers this little tidbit, which can fairly be viewed as a prescription for attaining the balance between “a good day,” “euphoria,” and “a happy life” presented as well-nigh impossible in the opening chapter.

Happiness maintenance work is creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.

I think that is really all you need to do.

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But all in all, the book is a bit of a jumble--the connections of a genius intellect on full display, but few of them corralled and ordered by the efforts of a competent editor. If a dreamy thought journey is your cup of tea, by all means take a swim in this ocean.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, June 23, 2014

On Transparency

We recently moved our association offices. The lease was up at our old place and we needed a change of pace, so we went on the market to see what was available.

It was an exciting and sometimes difficult process. Plenty of compromises had to be made between what we wanted, what was available, and what we could afford, but in the end we found and secured some fantastic space that is already changing the tone of the organization in some very positive ways.

The photo I included with this post is a shot of our new conference room. Look closely and you'll see one wall is comprised of floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the office building's atrium. It's a busy place, and throughout every day hundreds of people ride up and down the escalator and walk around on the exposed hallways of the opposite floors--all treated to a direct and unobstructed view into our conference room.

Shortly after we moved in one of our volunteer Board members was in town and he paid us a visit. Looking at this space, his immediate question was: "Are you going to put up some drapes?"

"Drapes?" I said, not understanding where he was coming from. "Why would I want to put up some drapes?"

"Well," he said, looking at the SmartBoard projector we have hanging on one of the walls. "What are you going to do when you present confidential information?"

His perspective literally stopped me in my tracks. As a trade association, we do have some information we consider private and confidential. The contact information of the people working for our member companies. The amount of money each individual company pays in membership dues (which is indexed to their annual sales volume). Data each individual company submits about their monthly production and sales volumes that we aggregate into confidential reports about the size and direction of our industry. But none of this would ever find its way into a presentation that we would project on a wall, regardless of whether or not the room had windows, and I found myself having to reassure my Board member of that fact.

But the exchange got me thinking about the window wall in a way I hadn't before. Initially, its appeal was mostly aesthetic. It lets a lot of light into our office suite, and gives us a commanding view of our atrium and all the activities going on in our building. Now, I realize that it can serve another important purpose. It makes a statement about transparency. It tells everyone in the conference room and everyone walking around outside that this organization does things above-board. That it has nothing to hide.

And when you see that my office shares the same window wall, I think this statement about transparency becomes even more powerful. After all, it's not just our conference room that you can look into, but the CEO's office as well.

Can you make a louder statement than that?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at