Monday, April 30, 2012

Everyone Is Responsible for Member Recruitment

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There's a great article in the March 2012 issue of Associations Now. "A High-Stakes Turnaround Strategy" is about Bob Weidner, CEO of the Metals Service Center Institute, and the strategy he used to turn that association around. There's a lot of leadership lessons in it, but the thing that really caught my attention was the new business model he proposed and was able to create.

Weidner wanted to find out what would make MSCI indispensable to members. His conclusion was that crafting targeted solutions to the critical issues that kept members up at night delivered far greater value than providing programs and services that had increasingly shorter shelf lives and were easily found elsewhere.

I wanted to learn more, and I had a unique opportunity to do so. I know Bob. So I called him up and asked him some of questions about how we was able to effect such a critical change to the way MSCI staff functioned and viewed their relationship to the members. My interest was especially piqued by this paragraph in the article.

Weidner instituted new performance criteria and incentives for staff to emphasize this important change in their role. Staff is expected to uncover concealed needs even before members are fully aware of them and to help members plan for the future "and not just what's on their desk today," he says. As a result, staff members' focus shifted from tactical process and program management to continuous member engagement and solutions development.

Bob was very generous with his time. He talked to me about the need for change. He talked about the dysfunctional situation he walked into at MSCI, and the ground rules he confirmed with his leadership before accepting the turn-around challenge. He talked about a very difficult financial situation, his need to cut expenses, and the decisions he had to make to eliminate more than 50% of MSCI's staff positions. But more importantly, he talked about the staff behaviors he wanted to keep within the organization and the incentives he put in place in order to encourage and develop them.

"Everyone," he said, "is responsible for member recruitment."

When he said it, I have to admit, it sounded like another platitude to me, like something you might read in a consultant's book. But Bob was serious, and he has given this platitude real teeth within MSCI. Everyone there is responsible for recruiting 2-3 new members per year. Not just the membership manager, but everyone. It's part of their yearly goals. It's discussed as part of their performance evaluations. Compensation decisions are based on it.

And I suddenly saw it as something other than a membership growth strategy. Given the context of our discussion and the paragraphs I've highlighted from the article, I saw it as part of a larger strategy to help the organization develop a deeper understanding of its members, the marketplace they function in, and the value they place on the association's evolving products and services.

Think about it. Especially those of you who don't have direct member recruitment responsibilities. Charged with such a task, would it not compel you to learn more about your universe of prospective members? Why should they join your association? What do you have to offer that can help them solve problems they're facing on a day-to-day basis? And what value would they place on those solutions? Now think about every staff person in your organization asking those questions and interacting with people in your marketplace to help answer them. Could you not take that shared market intelligence and use it to make your association's products more relevant and valuable to your constituency?

It was a tremendous insight for me, and one worth considering in order to breed a deeper understanding of the world we serve.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Who Revolves Around Who?

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I've been reading a bunch of blog posts about people's reaction to ASAE's choice of James Carville and Karl Rove as General Session speakers at their upcoming Annual Meeting. Jamie Notter provides links and offers his own thoughts here.

I also read this fantastic post on SocialFish by Ryan Crowe about an outsider Millennial's perspective on associations and association membership.

And they've all left me with a this thought. I am a member of several associations. ASAE, WSAE, CMA. I get value out of my membership in each of them. I wouldn't belong to them if I didn't. But, emphatically, I am NOT a satellite that revolves around any of them. Quite the reverse, in fact. In my solar system, they are satellites that revolve around me.

Do any of them know this? I'm not sure, but I am sure that none of them act as if they do. And frankly, neither does the association I currently manage when it comes to interacting with our members. We all still act as if we are the center of the universe and our members revolve around us.

That makes sense, doesn't it? We're we the ones with the services they need. We're the ones leading our industries into the future. We're the ones that make the big decisions about what matters and what doesn't.

Aren't we?

Yes and no. There is very little that the associations I belong to can do that will dictate whether I am successful or not. There is a lot they can do that I can take advantage of, that I can leverage for my own success, but that is a much different proposition. I am not sitting idly by, waiting from them to tell me what to think or where to go. I take a look at what they offer and decide how I can best put it to use.

I don't think that's radical. I think that's what most of us do when it comes to the associations we belong to. So why do so few of us who lead associations think this way when the shoe is on the other foot? Why do so many of us persist in treating our members like satellites that revolve around us?

Well, it's easier, for one. Even those associations that effectively engage members in their product identification and development processes typically offer a static menu of programs that are designed for broad cross-sections of their memberships. Almost no one that I'm aware of turns the machinery of the association over to an individual member and let them create customized value out of it.

But isn't that what a member ultimately wants? I know I do. I don't want to comb through a thousand educational sessions or a hundred magazine articles to find the salient points of information that can get me over the next hump in the road. I want quick and consistently valuable interactions with my associations and my fellow members in them. And I want to be in control of it. That's the way it has to be. I'm in the driver's seat when it comes to my career and professional development, after all. Why should I turn that responsibility over to someone else when it comes to the associations I belong to? Why would I choose to be a satellite when I can be the center of all creation?

There's deep implications here for the way in which associations are managed and resourced, but I believe these are the challenges we need to face. The fundamental value proposition between an association and its members is changing. The days of one-to-many communications are over, and associations are losing their authoritative positions in the eyes of their members. We must find ways for our members to create their own value from the resources we can leverage for them, and stop assuming that we can accurately predict the problems they need solved.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

The End of Faith was better. There’s a quote from Richard Dawkins on the back cover of this edition:

I dare you to read this book…it will not leave you unchanged.

Well, Richard, Letter to a Christian Nation did not leave me unchanged. The End of Faith did. Still, there are some high points—places where Harris’ pointed and logical wisdom leaps off the page. Some of it, in fact, seems more pointed because he is writing directly to the Christian reader.

If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible. It is impossible to behave this way by adhering to the principles of Jainism. How, then, can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?

They can’t, as Harris well knows, unless they admit that the morality of the Bible has nothing whatsoever to do with the alleviation of suffering. Indeed:

One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not—that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral—that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings.

How can this happen? Harris is kind enough to provide the reader with several examples from their own doctrine, including a look at the details of Christian opposition to stem-cell research.

A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

But Christians are not concerned about the amount of suffering in the universe, as Harris has already pointed out. In this case, what they are worried about is their belief that the three-day-old embryos have souls. To which Harris presents the classic and simple retort of twins and chimeras—embryos that either split or fuse—and the mathematical gymnastics that soul-believers must evoke in order to make sense out of those situations.

Isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The na├»ve idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

Like humans with spinal cord injuries.

The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.

I think it would be best to drop “religious” from that last sentence, and rest the blame solely on dogma—religious or otherwise. There are plenty of atrocities and idiocies committed in the name of non-religious dogma, something to which Harris’ side of the argument is vulnerable if it only reserves religious dogma for its condemnation. Harris knows this, and has one of the best rebuttals to the “Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot” charge regularly leveled against atheists.

Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia are not examples of what happens to people when they become too reasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of political and racial dogmatism. It is time that Christians like yourself stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. One need not accept anything on insufficient evidence to find the virgin birth of Jesus to be a preposterous idea. The problem with religion—as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology—is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

I love that phrase—totalitarian mythology. I’m going to use that more often. It’s kind of like nationalistic mythology. Believing things without evidence-based reasons leads to idiocies or atrocities, whether those beliefs are based on religiosity or patriotism.

Two more quick quotes that are worth mentioning. One about the accusation of arrogance often leveled at the non-believer:

One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for their intellectual arrogance. There is, in fact, no world view more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell.

And the second one about just how messed up our society appears to the individual who lacks belief in a god:

…just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in. This is the woefully irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create.

Like The End of Faith, I’m not sure Harris is going to change any Christian’s mind with Letter to a Christian Nation. But if you harbor any doubts about the benevolence of a Christian-based society and those who would like to create it, this handy little tome will give you plenty to think about.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Taking Risks to Avoid Loss

Here's a fascinating TED talk that persuasively makes the case that humans (like other primates) are willing to take on greater risks in order to avoid loss.

The presenter closes with the idea that what makes humans unique is that we are able to know and understand these limitations, and therefore design systems that prevent us from taking unwarranted risks, even though our instincts are screaming at us to do so. That may be possible, but I think it's somewhat rare in the real world. Most people, like the monkeys in the video, consistently engage in the riskier behavior when the stakes include non-trivial losses.

Except, strangely, when it comes to taking the risks that are necessary to drive innovation. Organizations and the people in them are unwilling to take risks (i.e., to try something new) precisely because they are trying to avoid a perceived loss of prestige or reputation. We can't launch this idea. It's half-formed. What will the members think if it falls on its face? The threat of loss in these situations doesn't motivate them to take risks. It makes them risk-averse.

But what if we redefined loss in these situations so that it was associated with doing nothing instead of doing something? What if we came to see entrenching behind proven programs as the action more likely to result in the loss of prestige or reputation? Then, I believe, the natural instincts the presenter talks about would help compel us to engage in the riskier behavior. We'd be willing to try something new. It may not work, but it may lead to even greater success.

The trick is getting the people in your organization to see things through this lens. To see that standing pat threatens the organization more than doubling down. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe it more accurately describes the situation many associations are facing.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bucking the Trend

McKinley Advisors is out with the results of their 2012 Economic Impact on Associations study. I think it's their fifth one. Throughout the recent recession and slow climb back to prosperity it's been an interesting way to check the pulse of the association community.

The results of one particular question in the 2012 report that really jumped out at me. Here it is:

Considering the current economic situation, it asks, how concerned are you with the following issues? Then it lists eight issues that have clearly been on the minds of association professionals through the last few years. Membership retention, membership recruitment, sponsorship, annual meeting attendance, attendance at other education seminars, advertising, product sales, and volunteer participation. The total percentage of respondents who responded with "extremely" or "somewhat" concerned to each issue are graphed against the same responses offered in 2011, 2010, and 2009.

And here's what jumped out at me. For every issue, the overall trend is down. After peaking in 2009 or 2010, every issue shows fewer and fewer people expressing concern. Except one. There's only one issue that bucks that trend, where association professionals are growing more concerned as the economy recovers. Volunteer participation.

This certainly reflects the situation in my own association. In 2009 and 2010, we were very concerned about member retention and attendance at our conferences. They took a sharp hit as companies in our industry cut their expenses in order to protect themselves against bankruptcy. In 2010 and 2011, when it appeared the bottom had been reached, we grew more concerned with member recruitment, trying to draw members that had left back into the association and to acquire new ones. But through it all was the growing sense that volunteer participation was falling off and, unlike our membership and attendance numbers, it didn't spring back the way so much of our industry did.

There were fewer people, you see. Our member companies had cut staff in order to survive the downturn, and as they grew their way out of it, they discovered they didn't need the numbers they had before in order to be prosperous. This is a dynamic we're seeing across our economy today, as companies leverage productivity gains and higher workloads to do more with a smaller number of employees. I'm not criticizing those decisions. I'm simply noting that they have left our association, and hundreds like us, with a situation in which there are fewer people to draw on for volunteer roles, and in which those we can draw on have less time to offer for volunteer responsibilities.

This is another reason why I have chosen to focus on member engagement as a topic of innovation in my association. We're looking for new and compelling ways to engage our members in our activities, not just for our benefit but for theirs as well. I'll be blogging here about some of our experiments, and I'd appreciate any feedback or ideas my readers have to offer.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Goya by Patricia Wright

This is actually one of those Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Books aimed at school-age children. Last time the kids were on Spring Break, we found ourselves in a quaint little bookshop in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and I bought my daughter the one on Cats. On the interior front cover and title page, they show the covers of all the other Eyewitness books and I saw the one on Goya.

"Goya," I told my son, who wanted an Eyewitness book of his own, since his sister had gotten one. "You should get the one about Goya." I knew next to nothing about Goya, other than that he had painted all those dark and foreboding "black" paintings on the walls of his home near the end of his life. A few days later, when we were back home at at our local library, I saw the very book I mentioned, and we checked it out.

The format of these Eyewitness books makes it really hard to keep track of and retain a coherent narrative. Each spread is about a different facet or period in Goya's life, and each contains more a smattering of pictures and captions than any real expository information. After reading it through I know that Goya lived an extremely long life, that he enjoyed alternating periods of wild popularity and practical exile, based on the shifting political winds of Spain and Europe in the 1700s, and that many of his paintings were deeply allegorical, often twisting the classical themes that possessed other painters to mimic the political caricatures and issues of his day.

The greatest and most disturbing (in my opinion) of all his black paintings, Saturn Devouring His Children, can be viewed as an allegory on the situation Spain was then facing--a series of brutal wars and revolutions that were devouring its own citizens with the same blind madness that grips Saturn's face in Goya's great work. He promoted a decided anti-war theme in countless other etchings and paintings, and produced several famous series of prints that showed the ruthless and violent reality that few other artists of his day dared explore.

Another great theme was that of sorcery and witchcraft, where Goya allegorically attacked the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church and its Holy Inquisition.

A sentimental favorite of mine is one that Goya sketched near the end of his life. Aun aprendo, it says in the upper right-hand corner. "I am still learning." Given everything I read about him, and the scope of experimentation he showed throughout his career, I imagine it is very much the way Goya must've felt when he drew it in his seventy-ninth year. Shouldn't we all be thus? Tottering forward on our two canes in our old age, still eager for the next opportunity to learn something new, open to all that life has yet to offer?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Every Organization Needs Two Values Statements

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So I finished reading Humanize on my last airplane trip a few days ago, and there are a few more things I want to say about it.

If you're not familiar with the book, it's a deft and well-reasoned battle cry from Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant for making organizations more human in our increasingly social age--by which the authors mean making them more open, more trustworthy, more generative, and more courageous.

Chapter 7 is about being trustworthy, and there are several pages in there about the importance of having a values statement--a clear and transparent declaration of what actions, beliefs and assumptions your organization values.

Now, I have a confession to make. I've always hated values statements. There was a time when I would have been ashamed to admit that. But no more. I'm comfortable confessing it now because Humanize has helped me understand why I hate them so much.

They're fake. And being fake, they too often undermine the very purpose they were created to fulfill.

The next time someone talks about creating a values statement, do what I'm going to do. Tell them you'll only participate if you actually get to write two of them.

Call the first your current values statement. It will be an honest and direct summary of what the organization actually does value. Butts in chairs, hours on timesheets, whatever makes Ruthie in accounting happy. It's time to take the gauze off everyone's eyes and have real conversation. Whatever makes your organization tick, you've got to be able to say those things out loud, get them up on your flipchart paper, and make sure everyone agrees that they accurately describe your current values before you're ready to move on.

And moving on means writing your second values statement, what I'll call your aspirational values statement. This one describes the values you wished the organization embraced. The values it needs to embrace if it is going to succeed in a way that produces meaningful change for its customers or stakeholders.

The problem with not taking this dual approach when writing values statements is that it leaves too much to everyone's assumptions about what they're doing. And if those assumptions don't all align, then the project is doomed to failure.

Many leaders are reluctant to have a conversation about current values, and I don't blame them. It takes a lot of courage to embrace the level of honesty necessary to write one. So instead they skip that step and rush right into the aspirational statement. The problem is that they are seldom clear about what they are doing. Some participants may think they've actually been asked to describe the organization's current values, and the disillusion and frustration comes quickly when they realize that something else entirely is going on.

This is where all the flowery language that usually populates values statements comes from. The words come easy because they are largely meaningless. They don't describe reality and people suspect that there's no real intention of working towards them, so what does it matter? "Excellence"? Sure, sounds good. We can be about excellence. Wait, I know! How about "optimal performance"!

One solution may be to be very clear about the aspirational nature of the exercise. But without grounding everyone in a collective understanding of the organization's current situation, these more transparent exercises can also quickly become meaningless. If the leader isn't willing to acknowledge where things are, can he or she really expect a productive consensus about where things need to go? Identifying targets to aim for is a good thing. But unless there are realistic pathways for an organization to use in hitting them, they probably do more harm than good. Rather than inspire people, unrealistic targets depress morale, especially if the leader proposing them seems out of touch with practical realities.

So I say write two values statements--one that describes your current values and another that describes those that you aspire to. Then, roll up your sleeves and put the statements to work by figuring out how your organization can move from the first to the second.