Monday, August 26, 2013

In Praise of Past Presidents

image source
WSAE has invited me to lead a peer-to-peer discussion on Membership Engagement on September 4, 2013. It's going to be via conference call, so all are welcome to participate. Go here for more information and to register.

I'm going to start with some of my own thoughts and experiences in helping to lead a similar discussion at the ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference (which I blogged about here, here and here) but I expect the conversation will go in several directions after that. When it comes to member engagement, the conversation usually does, as everyone seems to have a unique set of problems they're trying to solve. And one of those common problems is often the question of past presidents.

In my own association, we call them Past Chairmen--because we use the "Chairman of the Board" rather than the "President" nomenclature to describe our chief governance officer. But whatever you call them, many associations struggle with keeping this group of knowledgeable, invested, and often passionate members engaged without giving them too much power and influence over the decisions that must be made by the current group of volunteer leaders.

I don't pretend to have a magic solution to this problem. But thinking about it made me realize that I may have something of a unique situation in my own association. One of my past chairs has a habit of calling me on a semi-regular basis and offering me his feedback on our association's programs and services.

In some situations, I can see how that kind of thing might be unwelcome. If the roles aren't clearly understood, there may be some questions about the use of such a communication channel and the perceived priority that such comments would be given. A busy CEO, struggling to shape the organization according to the directives of the new leadership, might wonder, Does the past chair know he's not the chair anymore? What does he expect me to do with his feedback? Put it to the top of my pile?

Happily, in my situation, this is not the case. The past chair in question knows that he has no direct authority over me; nor does he try to exert any. But because of our past relationship, he has an easy time picking up the phone and calling me. And I value his feedback. He sees things both through the eyes of a member--a consumer of the services the association is providing--and through the eyes of a leader--someone who knows what resources are at the association's disposal and what its capabilities are. The feedback he offers is always relevant, and grounded in the reality of what could be done better or next.

It has me wondering if this isn't a model for keeping past presidents engaged. What if each took responsibility for being a "watchdog" over one of the association's programs or services? Not the chair of a committee, but more of a confidential informant? Someone clearly on the side of the association and the CEO, who can provide honest and well-grounded feedback on how a particular program or service is being received by the membership at-large.

In my own situation, this is exactly how I use the feedback of my past chair--which often centers on one particular program he has always had a passion for. I don't do everything he suggests, but I do consider the impact of what he's advising, and they have helped me lead positive changes within the organization.

Wouldn't it be great if I had the same kind of relationship with half a dozen other past chairs, each focused on one of our core programs or services?

+ + +

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, August 24, 2013

The Old Beauty and Others by Willa Cather

I found out only after Googling this volume after I finished reading it that it contains what may be the last stories Willa Cather ever wrote. At least it was billed that way, and it was published a year after her death in 1947.

The one that stays with me is “The Best Years,” which strikes me almost like a first stab at My Antonia--where the symbol of goodness, family and love that Antonia represents is achingly filled by the character of Lesley Ferguesson, a young teacher, living away from her rural Nebraska family. Given the chance for a rare visit home by the itinerant superintendent of schools, Lesley takes the reader down a memory lane filled with nostalgia and homesickness.

Here, the narrator describes the place where her brothers are her slept and dreamed as children.

“Upstairs” was a story in itself, a secret romance. No caller or neighbor had ever been allowed to go up there. All the children loved it--it was their very own world where there were no older people poking about to spoil things. And it was unique--not at all like other people’s upstairs chambers. In her stuffy little bedroom out in the country Lesley had more than once cried for it.

Lesley and the boys liked space, not tight cubbyholes. Their upstairs was a long attic which ran the whole length of the house, from the front door downstairs to the kitchen at the back. Its great charm was that it was unlined. No plaster, no beaver-board lining; just the roof shingles, supported by long, unplanned, splintery rafters that sloped from the sharp roof-peak down to the floor of the attic. Bracing these long roof rafters were cross rafters on which one could hang things--a little personal washing, a curtain for tableaux, a rope wing for Bryan.

In this spacious, undivided loft were two brick chimneys, going up in neat little stair-steps from the plank floor to the shingle roof--and out of it to the stars! The chimneys were of red, unglazed brick, with lines of white mortar to hold them together.

Last year, after Lesley first got her school, Mrs. Ferguesson exerted her authority and partitioned off a little room over the kitchen end of the “upstairs” for her daughter. Before that, all the children slept in this delightful attic The three older boys occupied two wide beds, their sister her little single bed. Bryan, subject to croup, still slumbered downstairs near his mother, but he looked forward to his ascension as to a state of pure beatitude.

There was certainly room enough up there for widely scattered quarters, but the three beds stood in a row, as in a hospital ward. The children liked to be close enough together to share experiences.

Experiences were many. Perhaps the most exciting was when the driving, sleety snowstorms came on winter nights. The roof shingles were old and had curled under hot summer suns. In a driving snowstorm the frozen flakes sifted in through all those little cracks, sprinkled the beds and the children, melted on their faces, in their hair! That was delightful. The rest of you was snug and warm under blankets and comforters, with a hot brick at one’s feet. The wind howled outside; sometimes the white light from the snow and the half-strangled moon came in through the single end window. Each child had his own dream-adventure. They did not exchange confidences; every “fellow” had a right to his own. They never told their love.

If they turned in early, they had a good while to enjoy the outside weather; they never went to sleep until after ten o’clock, for then came the sweetest morsel of the night. At that hour Number Seventeen, the westbound passenger, whistled in. The station and the engine house were perhaps an eighth of a mile down the hill, and from far away across the meadows the children could hear that whistle. Then came the heavy pants of the locomotive in the frosty air. Then a hissing--then silence: she was taking water.

On Saturdays the children were allowed to go down to the depot to see Seventeen come in. It was a fine sight on winter nights. Sometimes the great locomotive used to sweep in armoured in ice and snow, breathing fire like a dragon, its great red eye shooting a blinding beam along the white roadbed and shining wet rails. When it stopped, it panted like a great beast. After it was watered by the big hose from the overhead tank, it seemed to draw long deep breaths, ready to charge afresh over the great Western land.

Yes, they were grand old warriors, those towering locomotives of other days. They seemed to mean power, conquest, triumph--Jim Hill’s dream. They set children’s hearts beating from Chicago to Los Angeles. They were the awakeners of many a dream.

You are so totally taken in by these remembrances, these irreplaceable and irretrievable mementos of the past, that when the inevitable blow falls, it comes down on you like a cudgel.

Miss Knightly, the superintendent who spent that weekend at home with Lesley, is traveling that winter, and strikes up a conversation with the train conductor, a man named Redman who hails from the same little town as Lesley. Their conversation quickly centers on a terrible blizzard that has blanketed Nebraska and disrupted train service throughout the region.

“I don’t know where I belong, Ma’m, and nobody else does. This is Jack Kelly’s run, but he got his leg broke trying to help the train crew shovel the sleeping-car loose in that deep cut out of W----. The passengers were just freezing. This blizzard has upset everything. There’s got to be better organization from higher up. This has taught us we just can’t handle an emergency. Hard on stock, hard on people. A little neighbor of ours--why, you must know her, she was one of your teachers--Jim Ferguesson’s little girl. She got pneumonia out there in the country and died out there.”

Miss Knightly went so white that Redman without a word hurried to the end of the car and brought back a glass of water. He kept muttering that he was sorry...that he “always put his foot in it.”

Miss Knightly wasn’t the only one who went white at receiving the news. It’s a testament to Cather’s craft that such an unexpected blow could be so effectively delivered.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mental Rules for the Staff Retreat

image source
Two weeks ago, in Careful What You Ask For, Part 2, I continued writing about the process I used to create my association's values statement, despite some misgivings about the value of values statements I've previously shared and still hold.

After digesting the results of the anonymous staff survey I circulated to gather feedback on the current values our organization rewarded and the kind of change that was needed if we were to be successful in the future, I had made a couple of key observations.

One was to acknowledge the juxtaposition that emerged between a staff that demonstrated a high level of commitment to exceeding the service expectations of our members and the fact that not every member of that staff was comfortable with experimentation and risk-taking, especially when those actions were perceived as putting the high member service commitment at risk. Another was to understand the importance of my role in the values process without allowing others to shirk their own responsibility for the culture we would say we wanted to create. As CEO, the organization would naturally follow my lead, and rather than allowing that to happen unconsciously--as I had been doing previously--I needed to take conscious steps to model the right behaviors. At the same time, I didn't want to lose sight of the fact that high-performing culture is a two-way street, and that driving everything only from the from the top down might prove to be counterproductive.

With these observations in hand, I began to prepare for the day-long staff retreat that we had scheduled to discuss the creation of our new values statement. I spent a lot of time thinking about my role in that conversation. I knew my intention was to facilitate, not dominate, the conversation. I wanted to ensure that everyone participated, that all voices had a chance to be heard, and that our output--whatever it was--was something that everyone would support. At that same time, I came to realize that there were certain concepts and perceptions that were simply off the table. I wanted and needed to have a guiding hand in the outcome, and, like it or not, there were certain outcomes that would be unacceptable if I was going to continue to lead the organization.

I eventually codified my thoughts into a set of mental rules that I kept at my elbow during the staff retreat and that I used as a signpost every time the discussion wandered away its original purpose. The first four of these rules I shared openly with the staff. In fact, I used them to form my opening remarks at the staff retreat. I wanted their help in shaping the future of our association, but they needed to know where I wanted them to start from. The last two rules I kept to myself, but they were just as important to my successful facilitation as any of the others.

Here are the four I shared with everyone:

1. Our overall objective as staff is NOT serving our members. It is to create a positive future for our industry WITH our members. The mission and strategic priorities the association has identified require its staff to take a leadership role in this regard, not acting in opposition to member needs and desires, but playing an active role in coalescing them around activities and initiatives that can positively shape the future.

It took me some time to come to this conclusion, but once there, I was and have remained absolutely convinced of its rightness and importance. Staff were to be lauded for their commitment to exceeding the service expectations of our members, but serving them in such a manner had to be seen as a means to a greater end, not an end in and of itself. The latter path leads to servitude and stagnation, the former one to growth and achievement of our broad and industry-shaping objectives. And fundamentally, that's what we were here to do--shape the future of our industry. We had to have a culture that supported that kind of vision. Thinking of ourselves as servants wouldn't do. We had to be partners, and in some cases, leaders, of the members themselves.

2. We are talking about the organizational values we believe will correlate with that success and the behaviors that can be adopted throughout the organization that align with them. We are NOT focusing on the individual actions or behaviors (past, present or future) of any one person.

I hoped this one would go without saying, but I have learned the hard way that it is best to actually say the things that go without saying. The survey results contained some criticisms directed at individual people within the organization--or at least at some negative mindsets that seemed to be shared by some members of the staff. It was helpful for us all to read those results, as they accurately described where we were starting from. But there would be little or no value in speaking ill of anyone around our staff retreat table. I wanted everyone to stay focused on the good things we were already doing and the things we had to change if we were going to bring more success into our system.

3. This is a work-in-progress. The discussion will not end today. There is no compelling need to push towards finality or any arbitrary number of values. We will confirm what is obvious and no more.

This one was absolutely critical for everyone to understand. What we began that day was a process that would reshape the culture of our organization--and to think that such an objective could be completed in one day was ridiculous. I didn't want to pretend otherwise. By the middle of the afternoon, I knew we would all be exhausted, and that it would be better to take stock of what we had accomplished and positioned ourselves for a subsequent conversation than to push towards a forced conclusion.

4. We function in a complex and adaptive system. The traditional conception of the single charismatic leader will not contribute to success in that environment. We must think of leadership not as the trait of an individual, but as a system capacity that functions throughout the organization.

Here I really felt like I was putting my cards on the table. It was my way of openly addressing the issue I felt strongly about--that everyone in the organization shared in the responsibility of creating the culture we said we wanted, and that none of us had all the answers nor could serve as the lone culture policeman moving forward. But it was also my way of empowering everyone outside the context of our values creation process. I was telling them not to look to me to lead them forward. I was the CEO, and I would continue to co-create with the Board the strategic space within which the association would operate. But they needed to understand that I am not the only leader the association has or needs. Everyone in the organization had to approach their tasks from the same leadership perspective as I approached mine. I wanted them to learn as much as they could about our environment, make decisions and take action, and constantly learn and refine their approach. Before we starting talking about the values we needed to succeed, I wanted everyone to understand that we all needed to get comfortable with living life on the skinny branches of the tree. Doing otherwise would not be helping the association grow and become what it needed to be.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: The two mental rules I kept to myself and the role they played in helping me prepare for the staff retreat.

+ + +

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, August 12, 2013

The Mission Driven Volunteer

image source
I was interviewed and my association is featured as one of the case studies in the new white paper--The Mission Driven Volunteer--from Mariner Management & Marketing and Spark Consulting. What is mission-driven volunteering? Well, according to the white paper itself...

It begins with a volunteer role and philosophical approach that draw their significance from the organization's mission rather than from a particular title or level in the committee structure. Mission-driven volunteer roles are built around what the association needs to accomplish, not what positions the association needs to fill.

It's a concept that strongly resonates with me. As the case study in the white paper shows, when it was time for me to create an organizational chart of our committees and task forces for a presentation I was writing, I really rebelled against the traditional chart with committees reporting up to the Board like employees reporting up to their boss. That seemed too "command and control" to me, and, importantly, inaccurate when it came to describing how my association functioned and how I wanted it to continue functioning. What I came up with instead was something my Board chair came to call "the paintball diagram."

It didn't hurt that in the first draft, what's now shown as colored circles were clip-art starbursts that looked a lot more like dollops of paint splattered against the wall.

But those aren't the circles that are key--the small ones that represent the different volunteer bodies within the organization. What's key are the large circles, the concentric ones that allow strategic communications to flow outward and volunteer engagement to flow inward. As the case study summarizes:

The center blue ring represents to Board and Board committees, which set the strategic vision of the association and allocate resources accordingly.

The next ring out, indicated in red, represents groups that are set up by the Board and include Board and non-Board volunteers, who take the strategic direction set by the Board and turn it into actionable goals with attached metrics.

The yellow ring represents the worker bees, consisting of both standing committees and ad hoc task forces. These groups engage members directly in performing the work of the association, and any member is invited to join just by raising his or her hand. [It is the] "incubator" of NFPA's future leaders.

Finally, the green ring includes groups that represent the specific interests of various membership constituencies across all programs, products, and services, ensuring that those association offerings meet the needs of the diverse groups who comprise the NFPA membership.

It's still not perfect, but it more accurately describes how the organization functions, and how we work to keep all of our volunteer activities align with the mission and strategic priorities of the association. One benefit I know the diagram has had is in prompting the right kind of conversations with leaders and volunteers within the organization. I've found that in describing the concentric circles and how they relate to one another, it opens up exactly the kind of conversation you'd like to have with an interested volunteer. What sort of contribution would you like to make and how can we nest it within the strategic objectives of the organization?

If you're interested in more, the white paper can be accessed here.

+ + +

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, August 10, 2013

Oates by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Oates" is one of these stories, centering on the character of David Oates, and describing the life he led before joining the Union Army and his first experience with battle.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Oates by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 7,300 words and the document is 24 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

+ + +

Oates had never been scared before. He thought he had. He guessed everyone thought they had, at one time or another. But early on he discovered there was no such thing as being scared until you were scared like he had been at Shiloh.

He wasn’t even supposed to be there. Not in the thick of it, at least. He had been on detached duty, detached from his own regiment and thrown in with some Illinois farmboys for a reason he had never been able to learn. The first lieutenant had just come up to him that morning and said Oates and about forty other men, two complete companies, had been ordered to fall in with another regiment for some forward maneuvers. That was it. No explanation offered.

Oates had not been in the army long at that time, and he had been actively engaged in the field for almost no time at all. He had volunteered at the mustering office in his hometown of Fond du Lac shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, but had spent much of his time since then training with other Wisconsin recruits at Camp Randall in Madison. He hadn’t learned until the first winter of the war that he would be part of one of the Wisconsin units slated for duty in the west, and it wasn’t until after the first of the year that he was told he would be serving in a brigade newly formed under the command of one William Tecumseh Sherman. Oates had never even heard the name before, and now, in early April 1862, he had allowed himself to grow somewhat familiar with it, and he realized he still had never actually seen the man other than as a distant figure, usually on horseback. But despite this lack of familiarity with his commanding general, and despite his genuine want of combat experience, Corporal David C. Oates was enough of a soldier to know an order when he heard one, and also to know that orders had to be followed, whether they came with explanations or not.

As expected, after reporting for duty with the Illinois colonel, Oates and the other men from his regiment were taken forward, farther than any of them had ever been taken before. They marched for what seemed like an hour through the Union camp, past countless other regiments, some of whom were forming for what would soon be their own advances, others who seemed sprawled out on the earth as if they had already done all the work they were ever going to do. Although Oates had not made many friends in the army, as they continued to move forward he glanced around at the faces of his comrades and saw the same look of fear and uncertainty he knew had to adorn his own. Seeing so many others who seemed to be in the same position as he, who were suddenly being forced to wrestle with their own frightful inexperience, it gave Oates a small measure of the confidence he needed to keep himself moving forward.

When they were finally brought to a halt, it was in a lightly wooded area atop a small rise overlooking a long plain. Oates and the others who had marched with him looked out across that plain and saw there were no other Union troops ahead of them. There weren’t any enemy soldiers at that time, either. There wasn’t anything out on the plain, it seemed, except for a small white-washed chapel, but that didn’t matter. The absence of any friendly forces meant only one thing to those anxious young men. They were the front. In the battle that was to come, the battle that they had been brought forward to fight, they had been chosen to stand on the front line and receive the first salvos of the enemy.

It was a frightening proposition, and there wasn’t a man in that strengthened brigade who did not feel the significance of it pressing down on him like a great stone weight that had reached the point in its clockwork descent which forced him to crouch beneath its looming shadow. But in truth, none of them had been selected to comprise the forward salient of the Union Army, and as the worrisome minutes ticked by, each man who had seen the weight lower to within the immediacy of his concerns saw it rise again to a safer and less troubling distance as other regiments in blue were marched into positions out in the field before him.

That is when the Illinois colonel turned to his captains, the captains subsequently turned to their lieutenants, and the lieutenants finally turned to their soldiers and privates, and revealed what the general (not their general, the one commanding their brigade, but the general, the one commanding the entire army, the newly-nicknamed Unconditional Surrender Grant) had decided would be their role in the forthcoming battle.

“Okay, boys,” began the second lieutenant through whose words Oates and the other Wisconsin soldiers heard Grant’s wisdom and strategy, “listen up and listen good. The Rebs, they’re all massed up behind those trees on the other side of these fields. They’ve been forming for an attack since early this morning, since before most of you boys were even up. They’re hoping to hit us before Buell gets here. Any minute now, they’re going to pop out from between those trees and launch themselves against us. Those boys out ahead of us, they’re going to take the first hit, but we need to be ready because it’s our job to fill any holes the Rebs are able to punch in our line. We’re what the textbooks call the reserves, and we’re going to be ordered forward by the company, by the regiment, or by the brigade as needed to throw back any Rebs that are slippery enough to sneak through our front. You boys have got to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Keep your eyes on me and, when the time comes, do exactly what I tell you and do it quick. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the voices echoed in unison around Oates.

Oates did not know if his voice had been included with those of the others. He had felt the words sound within him, he had felt the strength of his desire to measure up to the orders placed before him and to perform them in a manner exceeding the expectations of he who issued them, but he could not tell if he had been able to express those sentiments in the manner prescribed by the United States Army. He could not tell if he had been able to speak. At the time his mouth was too dry to know if it was even part of his face.

+ + +

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, August 5, 2013

Careful What You Ask For, Part 2

image source
Two weeks ago, in Careful What You Ask For, I continued writing about the process I used to create my association's values statement, despite some misgivings about the value of values statements I've previously shared and still hold.

I've been commenting on the responses I received to an anonymous survey I asked my staff to complete on the values our organization currently holds, whether or not they are worth keeping, and which new values should be added.

Last time I talked about the juxtaposition that emerged between a high level of commitment to exceeding the service expectations of members and the fact that not everyone was comfortable with experimentation and risk-taking, especially when those actions were perceived as putting the high member service commitment at risk. This time I want to talk about a second juxtaposition that I saw emerging from the survey responses.

Among the broad themes I identified were:

3. There is a desire for mutual respect and open communication.

It was difficult for me to tell from the survey responses if this was isolated to a few relationships or if it was pervasive throughout the organization, but it was clear that not everyone on staff was receiving the respect they believed they were entitled to, and that a forum for airing those grievances was thought to be be missing. This was a little jarring for me, as I took conscious pains to treat people with respect and for having an open door policy within the office. There had been times when personal conflicts between staff members had been brought to my attention, and I had worked hard to understand and resolve the differences--first as the active mediator, and then, increasingly, as the convener of the necessary dialogue among the people affected. The survey responses made me think that my actions had done little more than skim the cream off the top of the problem, and that unresolved issues continued to bubble away beneath the surface.


4. There is some frustration with a culture that seems to reward isolation and quiet over interaction and fun.

This one was more obvious to me. In my experience, there is always so much to do in running an association, and those staff members who are good at buckling down and getting volumes of work done are often the rising stars in any organization. My own career had been built on just such a foundation, and if people wanted to accuse me of bringing that expectation into my current association, I had nothing else to say but, "Guilty as charged."

What I saw in both of these themes was the importance of my role in the process, of understanding that as the CEO, the organization was going to follow my lead--for good or for bad. People who had become accustomed to more dialogue, and more opportunities to interaction and fun, were suffering in the environment I had unknowingly created.

But at the same time, culture is a two-way street. I was ready to take responsibility for my part, but what was keeping these people from speaking up, from interacting in the way they desired, for having more fun in the day-to-day struggle to meet our organizational objectives?

This juxtaposition, between my leadership style, and the responsibilities that we all shared for creating the culture we all wanted, was something I was determined to explore when it came time to start drafting our actual values statement.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: How I prepared for the in-person discussion that created the draft values statement.

+ + +

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