Monday, March 19, 2018

We Feed Our Own Whirlwinds

We had Chris McChesney speak at my association's Annual Conference a few weeks back. If you don't know who that is, he's one of the authors of The Four Disciplines of Execution, also know as 4DX. If you don't know what that is, it's a book that describes a simple yet compelling system for getting an organization to focus on and achieve the wildly important. I've written about the book and my own organization's experiments with it many times on this blog.

Chris was well-received by my members. I had read the book, and had heard him speak at another event I had attended, so I can't say that I learned anything new from his presentation. But it did help reinforce some of 4DX's core messages and mechanisms and, in one case, give me a fresh perspective.

I'm talking about the whirlwind -- the label that 4DX places on all the day-to-day things that people in an organization must do to keep the organization functioning, and which usually get in the way of achieving what's wildly important. One of the things that I like about 4DX is that it doesn't necessarily paint the whirlwind as something destructive or dangerous (despite all the tornado imagery that the term automatically brings to mind). The tasks that comprise the whirlwind are not bad things to be doing, nor are they simply busywork. They are necessary and important. They keep the lights on and the revenue rolling in. They are, however, demanding and time-consuming. In the eternal battle between the urgent and the important, the whirlwind in the urgent.

4DX doesn't tell you to do anything different with the whirlwind. Indeed, the whole system is premised on the idea that each individual in the system can commit themselves to just one important thing in addition to the urgent reality of their whirlwind. But isn't there, in fact, something that can be done about the whirlwind itself? Isn't there a way to reduce the number of things that are in the whirlwind and which chronically demand the organization's attention?

I believe there is. Because, as I talked with members and staff after McChesney's presentation, I realized that not all of them faced the same kind of whirlwind as I one I just described. Their whirlwinds, to hear their descriptions, were filled with busywork and unimportant things. Tasks that were not connected to the smooth functioning of their operations. Tasks that were really little more than distractions from the urgent as well as the important.

Why? I wondered. Why would people allow their time to be filled with tasks that served neither the short nor the long term success of their organizations? Who was putting these tasks on their plates? Who or what was compelling them to attend to them?

The answer, time and again, was simply that they themselves were the ones responsible. Exploring the concept with several folks after McChesney's presentation revealed to me that they either didn't know what tasks -- urgent or important -- were connected to their success (and therefore took a kind of scatter gun approach to their work, hoping to hit at least some of the things that mattered), or that they lacked the organizational skills and discipline necessary to truly separate the wheat from the chaff. Only in a tiny set of circumstances could it be said that some external force -- a boss, a customer, a vendor -- was compelling them to do something they knew was counterproductive to their success.

This was a bit of a revelation for me. None of us choose to live in our whirlwind. But some of us, evidently, feed the frenzy of our whirlwind with our own habits and behaviors. 4DX is not going to help us in taming this tendency. But if we could, it seems o me, focusing on 4DX's wildly important would probably be just that much easier.

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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, March 17, 2018

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff

This is a collection of short stories that I picked up after hearing one of them, Bullet in the Brain, read on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast that I listen to. Later, after receiving the book but before getting around to reading it, I heard another, the titular The Night in Question, read on the same podcast.

The Night in Question is the thirteenth story in the collection, and it took me that long to figure out what Wolff was doing with them. Here a chunk of that story’s concluding paragraph.

Frances didn’t mind a fight, and she especially didn’t mind fighting for her brother. For her brother she’d fought neighborhood punks, snotty teachers and unappreciative coaches, loan sharks, landlords, bouncers. From the time she was a scabby-kneed girl she’d taken on her own father and if push came to shove she’d take on the Father of All, that incomprehensible bully. She was ready. It would be like old times, the two of them waiting in her room upstairs while Frank Senior worked himself into a rage below, muttering, slamming doors, stinking up the house with the cigars he puffed when he was on a tear. She remembered it all -- the tremor in her legs, the hammering pulse in her neck as the smell of smoke grew stronger. She could still taste that smoke and hear her father’s steps on the stairs, Frank panting beside her, moving closer, his voice whispering her name and her own voice answering as fear gave way to ferocity and unaccountable joy. It’s okay, Franky. I’m here.

I won’t tell you what the rest of the story is about. You should go read it for yourself. It’s simple, yet layered and brilliantly conceived. But, in a way, the other parts of the story are only relevant with regard to how they support the emotion conveyed in this final paragraph. Because Wolff’s stories, at least those that appear in this collection, are not about the series of events that they describe. They are each about a single, complex emotion -- fear giving way to ferocity and unaccountable joy. Each about a single inner working of one human heart.

And in Bullet in the Brain the technique perhaps reaches its apogee. There, it is Anders, “being strangely roused, elated,” by two words, by “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” Literally, you will see if you ever decide to read this remarkable story, nothing else in the story matters as much as this simple and lyrical moment in time, and yet it all hangs together as a delightful whole. In the beginning, in the end, forever, it is simply “time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.”

In this way, they are stories about very small things, but things that leave a lasting impression.

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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, March 12, 2018

Part Three: Writing Snapshots for Each Scenario

Two weeks ago, in Step Two: Creating Scenarios Based on Megatrends, Part 2, I continued a description of a Scenario Planning exercise my Board chair and I decided to conduct at our recently completed Board meeting. I ended the previous post with a comment that with our four future scenarios in hand, our Board was ready for Step Three of our process: Writing Snapshots for Each Scenario.

A Snapshot combines summary descriptions of each future written as though it has already occurred. They describe the outside world our organization will face in each scenario, and provide a set of indicators whose occurrence will reflect that a particular scenario is unfolding.

To begin the process of writing these snapshots, we split our Board into two task forces, each one tasked with writing the indicators and descriptions for the futures associated with one of the megatrends. In other words, given the two alternate futures described for their assigned megatrend, each task force had to think carefully about our environment and identify the factors that would not only be different in each of the different futures, but by clearly stating those differences, provide us with a set of indicators to watch to help us understand which future the industry was actually moving towards.

For the sake of example, let me first share just one of the indicators that the task force assigned the "Workforce" megatrend developed. Remember that for this megatrend, the Board has already defined two possible futures for the industry: (1) Fluid power has an EASIER time finding the skill sets it needs for growth and innovation; or (2) Fluid power has a HARDER time finding the skill sets it needs for growth and innovation.

Indicator: EDUCATION
EASIER: Engineering and technical programs HAVE increased their focus on fluid power and HAVE produced more fluid power-capable employees for the industry.
HARDER: Engineering and technical programs HAVE NOT increased their focus on fluid power and HAVE NOT produced more fluid power-capable employees for the industry.

In this one example you can perhaps see what the snapshots are driving at. Choosing the broad topic of EDUCATION, the task force had to describe its state five years into the future, assuming in turn that each of the two alternate futures had come true. In many cases, like this one, this process creates two simple and opposite statements about the possible futures. In other words:

In a future where our industry is having an EASIER time finding the skill sets it needs for growth and innovation, engineering and technical programs WILL HAVE increased their focus on fluid power and WILL HAVE produced more fluid power-capable employees for the industry.


In a future where our industry is having a HARDER time finding the skills sets it needs for growth and innovation, engineering and technical programs WILL NOT HAVE increased their focus on fluid power and WILL NOT HAVE produced more fluid power-capable employees for the industry.

The goal of this exercise is not to come up with a single set of descriptions for the one indicator that will tell us definitely the impact the megatrend in question will have on our industry. It is instead to come up with as many relevant indicators and plausible descriptions as possible so that, when taken as a whole, they paint an accurate picture of the world the industry may find itself in.

Perhaps the easiest way to show this is to list only the descriptions associated with one of the two Workforce futures. Looking only through that lens, and after a good ninety minutes of discussion, the task force, I believe, created a compelling description of one possible future for our industry.

In a future where our industry is having an EASIER time finding the skill sets it needs for growth and innovation:
1. Engineering and technical programs have increased their focus on fluid power and have produced more fluid power-capable employees for the industry.
2. Automation, including collaborative robots, has increasingly been used to fulfill tasks previously performed by people.
3. Consolidation trends have had a synergistic impact on the industry’s employee base, and have released more talent into the market.
4. Fluid power companies have increased wages to a degree that helps attract the right talent.
5. Fluid power companies have changed their standards to allow more flexibility in culturally-driven behaviors (legal drug use, social media, etc.).
6. Fluid power companies have increased their use of internships and apprenticeships.
7. People expected to retire have not.
8. Electrification has increased to a point that it has replaced more fluid power applications, lowering the need for fluid power-specific talent.
9. Fluid power companies have increased their sourcing from overseas to deal with the lack of U.S.-based expertise.
10. Fluid power has leveraged the IoT trend to create exciting product and employment opportunities. As a result, the pool of candidates interested in our industry has increased.
11. Changes in tax, immigration and export policies have created less demand for U.S. jobs.

Now, one of the most important aspects of this list is that it makes no mention of our association and what it is doing or intends to do. That discussion comes later in Step Four. But, before going there, we have to discuss how these descriptions combine together into different snapshots, similar to the way the futures combine together into different scenarios.

I'll tackle that in the next post in this series.

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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, March 5, 2018

Getting Out From Behind the Podium

My association's Annual Conference was last week, and among the things that means for me is making a presentation to the assembled membership on what the association has been doing over the past year.

It's not the first time I've done this. Indeed, with two major conferences a year, by my count this was at least the twentieth time I've spoken from the stage at one of my association's conferences. But there was something different about this time. For the first time in all those appearances, I did not stand behind a podium to deliver my message. Like so many of the professional speakers that we hire for our programs, I walked the stage and tried to make a more visible connection with my audience.

From my point of view, it went pretty well. My confidence was greatly supported by a simple trick of technology. Rather than having my presentation script printed in big type on the podium, I used Presenter View in PowerPoint to display my presentation slides on the big screen behind me and to display my speaker notes on the large confidence monitor we usually have at the foot of the stage. With the help of a co-conspirator scrolling down as I delivered the talk, it served as a kind of poor man's teleprompter. It allowed me both to maintain a connection with my audience and glance down when needed to keep my place in the script.

What surprised me most about the experience was not how much better I did or didn't do, but how much more comfortable I felt. When giving a presentation like this, the most frequent thing I usually have to tell myself is to slow down. I tend to gallop through a presentation; so much so that the printed scripts I used to put on the podium typically have the directive to S L O W   D O W N hand written across to top of every page.

But this time, even without those written reminders, I felt more at ease, more aware of my surroundings, more in command of my own pacing and delivery. I emphasized the things I wanted to emphasize. I calmly ad-libbed when my co-conspirator once fell behind on advancing the notes for me. I even paused in the right places for dramatic effect. And based on some of the feedback I received after the presentation, the improvements were noticed and appreciated.

It was almost like the podium, once seen as an anchor worth hanging on to, had actually been dragging me away from my objective. It had literally been standing between me and my audience, its presence more of a hindrance than a help.

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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, March 3, 2018

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I took this one from my wife after she was finished reading it. I asked her if she thought I would like it. She said she thought I would. She was right.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the blurb from the back cover:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State -- and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

There are two things I like about it.

First, although Strayed’s experience is very much that of a young woman, she has an awareness that she is telling a story that transcends her age and her gender. There are life lessons here for everyone. One of the most telling comes fairly early in her journey, just after she has a scary encounter with a wild bull.

The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer -- and yet also, like most things, so very simple -- was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadn’t seen where he’d run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward.

This strikes me very much as life at its essence, the choice everyone one of us has to make with every new challenge that crosses our path. Strayed’s phraseology clearly indicates that she is viewing her journey through this lens as well -- the bulls that would take her back or forward more metaphorical than actual -- but I can’t help but think that she is overlooking the most common choice that humans make in these situations. It was, clearly, the choice Strayed herself had been making in the period of time between the death of her mother and her decision to embark upon the PCT. The decision to neither move forward nor to move back, but to stay permanently in one place, the only place one was sure no bulls were threatening them.

There is an episode much later in her journey, where Strayed, under very different circumstances, faces a very similar choice.

“Me too,” I said. I was intensely aware of his hands on my waist, so warm through the thin fabric of my T-shirt, skimming the top edge of my jeans. We were standing in the space between Jonathan’s car and his tent. They were the two directions I could go: either back to my bed under the eaves in the hostel in Ashland alone, or into his bed with him.

Pulled out of its context, the excerpt above can sound frivolous and base, but I don’t mean it to. Strayed has been honest with the reader throughout her text that she has used sex as a kind of drug, a distraction from the painful realities of her own existence. She has met numerous men on the trail, fellow hikers who are making the same journey as her -- some for some of the same reasons. Although there is occasionally a snippet of flirtatious speculation in her mind, none of these transient relationships reach anything beyond platonic proportions -- the men and women on the trail more appropriately seen as the same kind of neutral gender. They are long-distance hikers, risking their lives to one degree or another, and they have left whatever sexual energy they otherwise possess at the trailhead.

This episode comes late in the story, during one of Strayed’s few excursions away from the trail. She’s had a shower. She’s put on clean clothes that aren’t designed exclusively for hiking. She’s gone out to a club and heard some live music. She’s met a man she finds attractive. Her decision -- to go into his bed with him -- is understandable, but a bit disappointing to this reader. Frankly, I was hoping she’d stick with the bull that would take her forward, not back.

The second thing I like about Wild is Strayed’s relationship with books while on the trail. One thing that she learns to do, rather than carry everything she would need for the thousand-mile hike from the very beginning, was to ship supplemental supplies to herself at post offices and way stations along the way. And one of the things waiting for her in each resupply box? A new book.

The things inside smelled like a world far-off, like the one I’d occupied in what seemed another lifetime, scented with the Nag Champa incense that had permeated my apartment. The ziplock bags and packaging on the food were still shiny and unscathed. The fresh T-shirt smelled of the lavender detergent I bought in bulk at the co-op I belonged to in Minneapolis. The flowery cover of The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor was unbent.

The same could not be said of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or rather the thin portion of the book I still had in my pack. I’d torn off the cover and all the pages I’d read the night before and burned them in the little aluminum pie pan I’d brought to place beneath my stove to safeguard against errant sparks. I’d watched Faulkner’s name disappear into flames feeling a bit like it was a sacrilege -- never had I dreamed I’d be burning books -- but I was desperate to lighten my load. I’d done the same with the section from The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California that I’d already hiked.

Desperate to lighten her load. Mark that, then let’s read on.

It hurt to do it, but it had to be done. I’d loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, they’d taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards inside the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as I grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever I’d read the night before.

I love this. Consuming literature like water, it must have nourished her in a similar fashion. And in what sense, I wonder, did it “lighten her load?” Undoubtedly, she’s taking there about something more than just the heft or her pack.

Strayed mentions each new book as it comes into her possession, and even includes an appendix, “Books Burned on the PCT,” to memorialize them. But she doesn’t discuss them much in the pages of Wild. And there’s only one on the list that I, too, have read.

I sat for hours reading the book that had come in my box -- Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita -- while waiting for my boots to arrive.

At the moment of this reveal I begin to wonder. Will she comment on this one? Will she let us know what her reaction to this one is? How can she not? Of all the titles in the world, how can Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita be simply mentioned in passing? Just another book her mind and her campfire consumed on the PCT?

There is only one other mention. It comes fourteen pages later.

I simply gave up and devoured a hundred pages of Lolita, sinking into its awful and hilarious reality so thoroughly that I forgot my own.

It’s enough. It has to be. Because Wild is not a book about books, much as I might wish it was. In the end, Strayed quite well understands that Wild has to be a book about the very elusive subject of its title.

I’d read the section in my guidebook about the trail’s history the winter before, but it wasn’t until now -- a couple of miles out of Burney Falls, as I walked in my flimsy sandals in the early evening heat -- that the realization of what that story meant picked up force and hit me squarely in the chest: preposterous as it was, when Catherine Montgomery and Clinton Clarke and Warren Rogers and the hundreds of others who’d created the PCT had imagined the people who would walk that high trail that wound down the heights of our western mountains, they’d been imagining me. It didn’t matter that everything from my cheap knockoff sandals to my high-tech-by-1995-standards boots and backpack would have been foreign to them, because what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

That’s what Wild is about, and for that, it is well 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, February 26, 2018

Step Two: Creating Scenarios Based on Megatrends, Part 2

Two weeks ago, in Step Two: Creating Scenarios Based on Megatrends, I continued a description of a Scenario Planning exercise my Board chair and I decided to conduct at our just completed Board meeting. I ended the previous post with a comment that, after a pre-meeting survey on the Megatrends facing our industry, our Board would have to select just two Megatrends and define two alternate futures for each in order to create the four scenarios that would make up the bulk of our exercise. To help them do that, we had provided them with a list of suggested Megatrends and futures, based on the common themes we saw in their survey results.

What followed was a lively discussion at our Board table. Several other Megatrends were suggested and put up on the screen. But when our Board chair called the discussion to a close, and asked each Board member to vote for the two that they thought would have the greatest impact on our industry in the next five years, two Megatrends and their alternate futures quickly rose to the top.

1. Fluid power benefits from integration with IoT technologies.
2. Fluid power struggles to integrate with IoT technologies.

1. Fluid power has an easier time finding the skill sets it needs for growth and innovation.
2. Fluid power has a harder time finding the skill sets it needs for growth and innovation.

These are four possible futures that our industry may face, but remember, as I described in my previous post, Scenario Planning posits that the future our industry actually will face is not just one of the four futures described by the two Megatrends. It will instead be an unpredictable combination of those four futures. According to the Megatrends chosen, our industry will either benefit from or struggle with IoT AND our industry will have either an easier or a harder time finding the talent it needs. In other words, the two futures associated with each Megatrend can be combined in four different ways:

I put the labels on each of the Scenarios to make them easier to reference in future discussions. In case you can't read them on the chart, they are:
  • Scenario A: “Connected Stagnation” - Fluid power integrates with IoT but struggles to find needed talent.
  • Scenario B: “Isolated Stagnation” - Fluid power struggles to integrate with IoT and struggles to find needed talent.
  • Scenario C: “Connected Growth” - Fluid power integrates with IoT and finds needed talent.
  • Scenario D: “Isolated Growth” - Fluid power struggles to integrate with IoT but finds needed talent.
Obviously, everyone would want Scenario C to be the one that represents our future, but there is also obviously no guarantee of that. The whole point of the exercise is to create alternate and plausible future scenarios so that they can be planned for, and so the association can more effectively adapt to them.

So, with these Scenarios in hand, we were ready for Step Three of our process: Writing Snapshots for Each Scenario. A Snapshot combines summary descriptions of each future written as though it has already occurred. They describe the outside world our organization will face in each scenario, and provide a set of indicators whose occurrence will reflect that a particular scenario is unfolding.

I'll describe how our Board accomplished that in a future post.

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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, February 19, 2018

Run Your Next Welcome Reception Like an Apple Store

This week I reviewed the free e-book, Fueling Exceptional New Member Experiences, from Amanda Kaiser at Kaiser Insights and the Smooth the Path blog. My favorite part was the section that talked about the importance of making a positive first impression with new members.

These first impressions can be very positive and assure the new member that they did not make a mistake in joining. ... It is no accident that staff at the Apple Store greets you as soon as you walk in the door. They inquire about what you need; they alert the person you need to see, they tell you how long it will take to get served and where to meet your contact. They actively orchestrate each and every first impression. The message is: you are being taken care of, you are in good hands, and you matter to us.

It got me thinking. Apple isn't the only retailer that treats its customers this way. Indeed, when I went to the internet to find an appropriate photo to accompany this post -- and was so turned off by all photos of mindlessly happy people mobbed inside of Apple stores -- I decided to use the more iconic shot of the Wal-Mart greeter with his mission of engagement clearly spelled out on the back of his blue vest.

What if, as I suggest in my post title, an association ran the welcome reception at its Annual Conference like that? Station a group of staff people near the entrance -- blue vests optional -- with the express purpose of greeting every member that enters the room. But not just greeting them. Engaging them. Asking them what it is they need and then doing the best they can to deliver it.

I firmly believe that one of the best services a staff person could perform in such a situation is to make an introduction that would otherwise be difficult for the member -- especially for a new member in the association.

We talk about the value of networking in our associations -- indeed, we pitch it as one of our most valuable member benefits -- but our approach to facilitating it is frequently haphazard at best. We book a room, put bars in the far corners, and vegetable and cheese platters in the middle, and then we step out of the way. The member, especially the member who is new, who doesn't know people, has to initiate conversation and navigate the cliques all by herself.

I, on the other hand, know practically everyone in the room. I would be happy to introduce a new member to the most senior individual present -- perhaps the president of a company she has always wanted to do business or otherwise get to know. The member may not realize it, but all she has to do to get that introduction is ask.

But here's the point. The greeters at Wal-Mart or the Apple Store don't wait for you to tell them what they need. They step right up and ask you.

How may I help you?

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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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