Monday, July 28, 2014

Leadership Lessons on the Hiking Trail

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I spent the last week in Colorado on vacation. We made it an outdoor vacation as much as possible, with hiking and biking the dominant activities. I'm not an extreme sports kind of guy, but I do like doing things outdoors that in some small way test me and my capabilities.

This was a family vacation, so our choice of outdoor activities was limited by the capabilities and comfort levels of my two young children. We looked at white water rafting, as an example, which two of us were willing to try and two of us weren't, so we opted for a bike ride instead that day (which turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip).

The most strenuous thing we did was hiking in Maroon Bells. Any one who has made the trek up to Crater Lake will attest to how difficult (and rewarding) this can be. Parts of the trail seem much better suited for mountain goats than Midwestern families on vacation.

I'll admit it. At one point I took my eyes off the trail and my toe caught on one of the rocks and I fell. My nine-year-old daughter skipped across them like playing hopscotch and my seventy-year-old father-in-law strode across them like Paul Bunyan; but me, I fell flat on my face and skinned both my knees.

In the moment I was more worried about the persistent ache in my right knee and the damage I had done to my pride, but with some reflection I realized it could more usefully be viewed as a lesson in leadership.

When hiking, or leading others, try the thing that's difficult and do it publicly in front of people. Prepare for it, and by all means, take it seriously, but have fun while you're doing it. There's certainly hard work to do, but remember to stop from time to time to look around at the scenery you would otherwise never see had you not taken on the task.

And most importantly, when you stumble, pick yourself up with humility and grace and press on. It is always the most difficult journeys that have the most rewarding destinations.

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

In the Far East, there are plenty of people who own a robe and a bowl. That’s all. They throw themselves on the waters of the world, and they know they will be borne up. They are more secure than you or I. I know by now that I can’t be like that. I’m too American. But I know it’s possible. That gives me a sense of security.

That comes early in Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one character talking to another, and it struck me as interesting and wise in a Zen kind of way. By the end of the novel, our first person narrator, Ginny Cook, a person very much tied to her family’s farm and her dysfunctional but outwardly upstanding family, will do exactly that—throw herself on the waters of the world in an attempt to get washed clean of her guilt and shame.

But you don’t know that going in.

What you learn bit by expertly-written bit is that Ginny and her sisters Rose and Caroline have lived all their lives in the fearful shadow of their domineering father, and have grown into women with three different ways of harmonizing those childhood experiences with their own independent personhoods.

The story is loosely based on King Lear, and I wish my Shakespeare was more up-to-date so I could better understand all the literary comparisons. Ginny, Rose and Caroline are obviously Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and their father, Larry, is clearly Lear—and aging landowner who decides quite suddenly to deed his farm—his thousand acres—to them in equal portions. But Caroline, Larry’s favorite as a child and most distant from him in adulthood, does the wrong thing at the wrong time, and Larry abruptly cuts her out of the deal.

One of the things that Smiley does really well in this novel is show you all sides of the characters, especially in how they relate to each other and their images of themselves. It’s so well done because none of the characters talk openly about their feelings. Like a lot of dysfunctional families, the passions and the guilt bubble and burn just under the surface. Here Ginny is talking about Caroline as a child:

We [Ginny and Rose, who had helped raised Caroline after their mother died] had no principles beyond those that were used with us, but it was true, as Daddy often said, that she [Caroline] was a better child than we had been, neither stubborn and sullen like me, nor rebellious and back talking, like Rose. He praised her for being a Loving Child, who kissed her dolls, and kissed him, too, when he wanted a kiss. If he said, “Cary, give me a kiss,” that way he always did, without warning, half an order, half a plea, she would pop into his lap and put her arms around his neck and smack him on the lips. Seeing her do it always made me feel odd, as if a heavy stone were floating and turning within me, that stone of stubbornness and reluctance that kept me any more from being asked.

Clear pictures of them all, in a small number of words, including Larry, for whom the “half an order, half a plea” comment demonstrates Smiley’s keen insight in into the psychology of all her characters, even her male ones.

This really impressed me. The novel is written by a woman with women as the main characters, but it is definitely not a “chick” book. Everyone in the book is a person—flawed and complete—both the women and the men. Here’s an especially perceptive dissertation on the inner differences between men and women.

Since my talk with Jess the day I planted tomatoes, my sense of the men I knew had undergone a subtle shift. I was less automatically critical—yes, they all had misbehaved, and failed, too, but now I saw that you could also say that they had suffered setbacks, suffered them, and suffered, period. That was the key. I would have said that certainly Rose and I had suffered, too, and Caroline and Mary Livingstone and all the women I knew, but there seemed to be a dumb, unknowing quality to the way the men had suffered, as if, like animals, it was not possible for them to gain perspective on their suffering. They had us. Rose and me, in their suffering, but they didn’t seem to have what we had with each other, a kind of ongoing narrative and commentary about what was happening that grew out of our conversations, our rolled eyes, our sighs and jokes and irritated remarks. The result for us was that we found ourselves more or less prepared for the blows that fell—we could at least make that oddly comforting remark, “I knew all along something like this was going to happen.” The men, and Pete in particular, always seemed a little surprised, and therefore a little more hurt and a little more damaged, by things that happened—the deaths of prized animals, accidents, my father’s blowups and contempt, forays into commodity trading and lost money, even—for Ty—my miscarriages. Of course he refused to try any more. He had counted on each pregnancy as if there was no history.

Smiley’s a master at this, and she needs to be, because the traditional gender roles of men and women are a big part of the subtext of her novel. Here’s an exchange between two of the men (Ty, Ginny’s husband, and Jess, her eventual lover), reflecting the time of the novel—the late 1970s.

What I had forgotten was the pleasure of a guest for dinner, someone unrelated, with sociable habits learned far away. While we helped ourselves, Ty said, “What do they think about this oil shortage out west?”

“Oil company scam.”

“They’ve got Carter by the short hairs.” Ty glanced at me, because he knew I rather liked Carter, or at least, liked Rosalynn and Miss Lillian. I rolled my eyes.

“The thing is,” said Jess, “he’s a realist. He looks at all sides. He ponders what he should do in a thoughtful way. You should never have a realist in the White House. Being president is too scary for a realist.” I laughed. Ty said, “Ginny likes him. I voted for him, I’ve got to say, though I don’t know a thing about farming peanuts. But every time something comes up, he just wrings his hands.”

“Nah,” said Jess. “He says, ‘What should I do?’ A president’s got to say, ‘What do I want to do? What will make me feel good now that I’m feelin’ so bad?’ He’s like a farmer, you see, only the big pieces of equipment he’s got access to are weapons, that’s the difference.”

Good advice for presidents, but also for farmers, and for anyone else—male or female—who wants to take charge of their circumstances and be successful. It’s something that Ginny has a hard time doing, plagued as she is by bouts of self-doubt and worry.

Had I faced all the facts? It seemed like I had, but actually, you never know, just remembering, how many facts there were to have faced. Your own endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed you by others who’ve really faced the facts. The eerie feeling this thought gave me made me shiver in the hot wind.

Most of this indecision, we discover bit by bit, is driven by her father and her fractured and difficult relationship with him. Here’s a typical encounter for Ginny, in which she struggles with something as simple as cooking his breakfast.

He backed away from the door and I entered the mudroom and put on the apron that hung from a hook there. He said, “Nobody shopped over the weekend. There’s no eggs.”

“Oh, darn. I meant to bring them down. I bought some for you yesterday, but I forgot them.” I looked him square in the eye. It was my choice, to keep him waiting or to fail to give him his eggs. His gaze was flat, brassily reflective. Not only wasn’t he going to help me decide, my decision was a test. I could push past him, give him toast and cereal and bacon, a breakfast without a center of gravity, or I could run home and get the eggs. My choice would show him something about me, either that I was selfish and inconsiderate (no eggs) or that I was incompetent (a flurry of activity where there should be organized procedure). I did it. I smiled foolishly, said I would be right back, and ran out the door and back down the road. The whole way I was conscious of my body—graceless and hurrying, unfit, panting, ridiculous in its very femininity. It seemed like my father could just look out of his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable. Later, after I had cooked the breakfast and he had eaten it, what I marveled at was that I hadn’t just gone across the road and gotten some eggs from Rose, that he had given me the test, and I had taken it.

Only later in the novel does this paralysis and fear begin to make sense—but only to a degree. In what must surely be one of the most surreal passages in all fiction, it is revealed to Ginny by her sister Rose that their father raped and sexually molested them both throughout their adolescence—a memory that has been completely suppressed by Ginny, to such a degree that she herself does not believe it until much later in the novel when she is overcome with the memory while lying down on her childhood bed in her father’s house. With Ginny as our first person narrator, the reader spends a good deal of time not knowing whether to believe Rose’s accusation or not—the evidence seems to fit, but the victim herself denies it. The denial is, in fact, Ginny’s primary strategy for living—denial and abject fear that feelings should be brought out into the open and displayed.

Rose is very different. She’s a fighter, scarred and bitter from the wars she has been forced to fight against cancer, against her father , and against a world designed by men like him—one that allows atrocities like his to be kept secret in darkened bedrooms while the perpetrators are lauded as successful businessmen and community leaders. Another crony of Larry’s (Harold, Jess’ father) is blinded (like Gloucester in King Lear) when he is accidently sprayed in the face with pesticides and is unable to wash the chemicals from his eyes because he has let his water tank run dry. Shortly after it happens, Ginny and Rose have this exchange, perfectly representing Rose’s view of things. Ginny begins:

“Well, it just struck me so vividly, that’s all. It’s every farmer’s nightmare. I almost threw up.”

“The actual event is shocking. I admit that.” She picked up her scissors and looked at me. “But I said it the other night. Weakness does nothing for me. I don’t care if they suffer. When they suffer, then they’re convinced they’re innocent again. Don’t you think Hitler was afraid and in pain when he died? Do you care? If he died thinking his cause was just and right, that all those Jews and everybody deserved to be exterminated, that at least he lived long enough to perform his life’s work, wouldn’t you have enjoyed his pain and wished him more? There has to be remorse. There has to be making amends to the ones you destroyed, otherwise the books are never balanced.”

“But this is Harold, not Daddy.”

“What’s the difference? You know what Jess told me? Once Harold was driving the cornpicker, when Jess was a boy, and there was a fawn lying in the corn, and Harold drove right over it rather than leave the row standing, or turn, or even just stop and chase it away.”

“Maybe he didn’t see it.”

“After he drove over it, he didn’t stop to kill it, either. He just let it die.”

“Oh, Rose.” The tears burst from my eyes.

“Daddy killed animals in the fields every year. Just because they were rabbits and birds instead of fawns—I don’t know.” She looked at me and smiled slightly. “When Jess told me, I cried, too. Then the next day I helped Pete load hogs for the sale barn. I thought about Daddy saying, that’s life. That’s farming. So, I say to Harold, gee, Harold, you should have checked the water tank. That’s farming. They made rules for us to live by. They’ve got to live by them, too.”

But this is not Ginny. This is much too direct and honest. For Ginny, the most fearful thing in the world is to tell people what she really thinks, and for the world to know how things truly are.

It was terrifying to think of myself so obvious, so transparent. I remembered just then how my mother used to say that God could see to the very bottom of every soul, a soul was as clear to God as a rippling brook. The implication, I knew even then, was that my mother could do the same thing. My lips were dry and hot, and I thought of right then just asking Pete what he knew, how he found it out—from Ty or Rose or Daddy or Jess himself. Wouldn’t it be a relief to have everything out in the open for once?

But that question was easy to answer, too. And the answer was negative. The last few weeks had shown well enough for anyone to understand that the one thing our family couldn’t tolerate, that maybe no family could tolerate, was things coming into the open.

And Ginny isn’t the only one whose life is affected by the need to keep up appearances. When things go so sour with her father he decides to sue his daughters (Ginny and Rose) and their husbands (Ty and Pete) to get his farm back, accusing them of mismanagement. For weeks leading up to the trial, Ginny and the others have to live under the Watchful Eye of their entire community—doing everything they can to keep an orderly farm and orderly houses, not providing any ammunition for their father and his attorney to fire at them.

I was amazed at what I didn’t have time for any more—reading, sewing, watching TV, talking to Rose, talking to Ty, strolling down the road, departing from the directives of my shopping list, taking the girls places. That Eye was always looking, day and night, even when there were no neighbors in sight. Even when no one who could possibly testify for or against me was within miles. I felt the familiar sensation of storing up virtue for a later date. The days passed.

Around the first of August, Pete got drunk and took a gun over to Harold Clark’s place and threatened Harold, who was sitting on the porch and kept shouting, “Pete, you don’t think I can see you but I can, so you just get away from here before Loren calls the sheriff! Get away now. I see you for sure,” always turning his head the wrong way. Then after he terrorized Harold, he drove his own silver truck into the quarry and drowned, and nobody knew whether it was an accident. According to his blood alcohol level, he shouldn’t have been conscious enough to drive, much less to stay on the road.

The juxtaposition or Ginny’s reaction to the Eye, acclimated as she is to its presence, and Pete’s is stark and well constructed. That last paragraph is a shock when it comes, but at the same time it is totally understandable. Pete is a man and Ginny is a woman, and in Smiley’s deft prose and character development, it makes sense that one would be able to smother her true self away from the attention of others, and the other would have to strike out and futilely assert himself.

It’s sad to say, but the end of the book is a bit of a disappointment. It’s been foreshadowed that Ginny will eventually break loose from the familial bonds that restrain her, but when she does it rings hollow.

First, unbelievably, she tries to kill her sister, jealous that Rose has been romantically involved with Jess, the same man she has had a tryst with. It is not a direct action—poisoning some canned sausage she expects Rose to eat at some point during a long winter—but even that seems radically out of character for Ginny. And then she leaves her husband, leaves everyone and everything, waitressing for years under an assumed name in the Twin Cities. Eventually, she comes back to take charge of her two nieces after Rose dies of her breast cancer, but it’s only for a brief time, and she takes the girls back to the city with her. At the very end of the novel, Ginny muses on the life she had led:

And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can’t imagine. I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose never to remember—the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house late at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all others.

It’s a troubling end to a troubling novel, especially with the way Smiley chooses to link Ginny’s decision to kill her sister with Larry’s decision to rape his daughters. It leaves me wondering how like him she truly is, and what she is likely to do to her nieces. In Smiley’s world as well as the one we all share, after all, cycles of abuse will continually repeat themselves.

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Going on Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Decision Making for Number Ones and Number Twos

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Does Your Board Act as Your Innovation Committee?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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