Monday, May 29, 2017

Get Specific About Your Workforce Needs

Like a lot of manufacturing based trade associations, our organization is working hard to tackle the workforce issue our members consistently cite as the number one challenge facing their companies. Given the multi-faceted challenge this represents, we have been deliberate in our strategy conversations about what piece of the problem we will try to fix.

Our members have a wide spectrum of workforce needs, and, given the availability of other workforce development programs in the market, we need to acknowledge that our efforts can focus effectively on only one portion of that spectrum. In other words, if you need a welder, we can point you to the nearest tech school with a welding program, but we're not going to spend our time and resources on developing a welding program specific to our industry.

Our attention is more appropriately placed on the development of skill sets that would otherwise be ignored by the marketplace, those that are unique and specific to our industry.

Truth be told, it took us a fair amount of time to reach that conclusion. For too long, our strategic discussions were hampered by a lack of clarity and consensus around this core issue.

Everyone was talking about workforce development, but some were talking about welders, some were talking about maintenance techs, and some were talking about degreed enigineers. While everyone was talking about fruit, it wasn't always apparent that some were talking about apples and others were talking about oranges.

We've seen that getting specific is key to having any chance at success. Picking a category and describing the desired skill sets is absolutely crucial. Only then can you apply your resources in a way that maximizes your chances of delivering what your industry decides it needs.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party by Michael F. Holt

This is a massive work of serious history. More than a thousand pages, based on a detailed and studied analysis of, among other things, state-by-state voting patterns in every election, Congressional and Presidential, between 1828 and 1856. It is a book much better suited for consumption by academics and their students than by enthusiastic amateurs like me.

So I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it. But I can honestly say that I’m glad I read it. It taught or reinforced a few things.

The More Things Change…

Here’s three paragraphs from the first ten pages.

But there was more to Jackson’s appeal than martial glory. Though himself a wealthy slaveholding member of Tennessee’s plantation gentry, Jackson was a perfect standard bearer for angry voters bent on venting resentments. Westerners and Southerners embraced the Tennessean as a foe of the haughty East. His ownership of slaves and his renown as an Indian fighter only increased his appeal to such men. More important, Jackson was clearly a political newcomer compared to Adams, Clay, and Crawford. All who wanted to throw the establishment out of Washington, or at least out of the White House, could cleave to him.

Andrew Jackson: the first Donald Trump?

As astute Jacksonian managers recognized much more quickly than the Adams party, dealing with a mass electorate required different strategies than could be used with a relatively small one. Voters had to be mobilized directly; alliances of local elites loyal to one political leader or another could no longer win. Issues now had to be framed in terms that were understandable and compelling to relatively less educated and less interested voters. At times this necessity meant presenting specific policies in broad ideological or symbolic terms; at times it meant developing campaign issues that resonated with voters’ emotions, values, and prejudices but that had no specific programmatic focus.

Andrew Jackson: the first Barry Goldwater?

Surprisingly optimistic about their ability to topple the new regime, National Republicans initially decided to wait quietly for the Jacksonian coalition to disintegrate. Refusing to acknowledge the 1828 election as a repudiation of economic nationalism and of leadership by the traditional political elite they represented, they regarded the outcomes instead simply as a triumph by the magnetic Jackson over the aloof and colorless Adams. Hoopla, demagoguery, and Jackson’s refusal to take a stand on matters of national policy, they thought, had temporarily dazzled voters, while sheer opportunism had engaged politicians with divergent policy goals in the Jackson cause. Once Jackson clarified his position on matters such as the tariff and internal improvements, they believed, people would regain their senses and desert the Jackson movement as quickly as they had joined it.

Henry Clay, leader of what was then called the National Republicans: the first David Cameron on the eve of Brexit?

Time and again, as I read history, I discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same. History, especially political history, is like a great pendulum, swinging between populism and pluralism, repeating predictable cycles of rhetoric and action with every movement back and forth.

Whigs Took a Stand Against Executive Power

The early focus on Andrew Jackson is an appropriate place for Holt to start his book, because the American Whig Party came into being as a direct result of his election to the presidency.

At the end of December, [Henry] Clay defined the opposition’s platform in a ringing three-day speech. “We are in the midst of a revolution,hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending towards a total change of the pure republican character of the Government, and to the concentration of power in the hands of one man,” he warned the Senate. He demanded passage of two resolutions. One rejected [Treasury] Secretary [Roger B.] Taney’s report to the Senate justifying removal [of government deposits for the Bank of the United States]. The other denounced Jackson for trampling on the laws and the Constitution. With these resolutions, the Whig party at its birth focused on its everlasting basic principle: opposition to executive usurpation in general and to Andrew Jackson in particular.

But it wasn’t just Jackson that they opposed. As described above, the weapon they opposed was that of unchecked executive power. As the most adept wielder of that weapon, Jackson was the catalyst for their creation and organization, but their opposition to executive power would keep them together for years after Jackson’s vacancy of the White House.

Indeed, for forty or so years in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Whigs and the Democrats were the two major political parties. They each stood for certain principles, but, at least in the case of the Whigs, their primary principle was simply one of opposition. They opposed all kinds of Democrats, Jacksonian and otherwise, and it was only in that opposition that they seemed to come together as a political force. Finding something consistent that they could all be in support of -- especially as the nation began to align itself into Northern and Southern factions -- proved much more difficult, and would eventually bring about their own demise as smaller parties, each single-mindedly focused on support for one particular position, splintered off the shaky Whig tree.

The Issues Are Different; The Angry Rhetoric Is the Same

After more than a thousand pages of deep and scholarly analysis, I know that I still don’t understand the politics that shaped the history that Holt is describing in his text. Some of the issues -- especially slavery -- may just be beyond my ability to fully understand from a nineteenth century perspective.

But one thing is interesting. Whatever the issues were that the Whigs and the Democrats of the 1840s and 1850s fought over, the angry rhetoric that they used to demonize each other is eerily familiar.

These contrasting partisan perspectives on governmental activism also engendered conflicts over social legislation. To a far greater degree than Democrats, Whigs backed state intervention to regulate social behavior: temperance legislation, Sunday blue laws, and the creation of state-run public school systems. Democrats denounced such legislation as intolerable infringements on individual freedom, and although they did not oppose education, they feared that state-supported schools would compel increased state taxation and threaten local supervision of schools.

There’s a twist. Democrats standing up for individual freedom and local supervision of schools, and Whigs (in some ways, precursors to our modern-day Republicans), in favor of state-run public school systems. It’s almost like this Connecticut Yankee has gone back in time and found himself in bizarro land. But here’s where things start sounding familiar again.

Increasingly, Democrats portrayed Whigs as bigoted and self-righteous religious fanatics intent on imposing their ethical values on others. Whigs retorted that Democrats were immoral deadbeats or dangerous radicals bent on destroying the very fabric of society -- property, morality, education, and the rule of law.

Now there’s a political paradigm I have some familiarity with. Although the strange juxtaposition of opposite issues and identical rhetoric makes me speculate on how true the accusations of any age can be. If you can swap out the cake of political principles and keep the same frosting of demonizing rhetoric for your opponents, you have to suspect that the two things are really not all that connected in the first place.

No, seriously. Look how the Whigs reacted when they lost the presidential election of 1844 to Democrat James Polk.

Those Whigs who remained convinced of the superiority of their candidate and their issues could only attribute the Democratic surge to “the utter mendacity frauds & villainies of Locofocoism [a term referencing the radical wing of the Democratic party of the time].” The Democrats, Whigs repeatedly inveighed, relied on “appeals to every bad passion, the hostile instinct of the poor against the rich, lies and calumnies etc etc” to “bamboozle” the masses. Worse still, Whigs charged, Democrats illegally naturalized immigrants and marched them to the polls, openly bought votes or paid the taxes of those who could not meet taxpaying requirements to vote, employed double and triple voting, and stuffed ballot boxes to steal the election from Whigs in Louisiana, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. “You have lost this state by the most unprecedented frauds and rascality,” a New Orleans Whig consoled [losing Whig presidential candidate Henry] Clay. “Parishes giving more votes or as many as there are white inhabitants of all sexes & ages being in them. Steamboats chartered to convey voters in the same day at different Polls, and every other species of fraud that could be imagined.”

Millions of illegal votes, indeed. If only the Whigs had access to Twitter. Have these things ever been true?

History Is Made by Political Compromises Only Understood in Their Time

This is another one of those truisms that becomes more apparent to me every time I read history. Not apparent in the sense that I can effectively explain or remember the political nuances and compromises of another age, but apparent in the sense that I encounter examples of this dynamic over and over again.

For example, a lot of the political and legislative victories and defeats chronicled in Holt’s book derive from an vibrant and acrimonious debate over banks and tariffs.

To Whigs, banks and tariffs were integrally linked as the keys to prosperity, for the oil that lubricated the engine of economic growth was credit. Individuals’ ability to borrow beyond their existing resources and to use those loans to transport products, start businesses, pay workers’ weekly wages, buy land to farm, and earn the profits from which to repay loans generated expansion and opened opportunity for upward mobility. Banks and businesses provided the necessary credit, and since the specie resources of the United States were limited, it came primarily in the form of paper bank notes, bills of exchange secured by goods in transit, and promissory notes.

Got that? Whigs want people to be able to borrow money from the government so they can launch business ventures they couldn’t otherwise afford. And, because government financial resources at that time were limited by the precious metals it had in reserve, that meant that Whigs supported protective tariffs.

The credibility of those paper devices ultimately depended on assurance that they could, if necessary, be redeemed in specie. Thus the supply of credit and interest rates for it ultimately depended on the nation’s specie reserves. That is why Whigs regarded the tariff as so crucial. To them the biggest threat to the nation’s specie reserves and thus to the availability of credit was an unfavorable balance of foreign trade. If the value of imports exceeded the value of exports, Whigs believed, specie would be drained abroad, and credit, the economy’s lubricant, would dry up. Hence protective tariffs did more than shelter American manufacturers, mine operators, and workers from foreign competition. By limiting imports, they also slowed the exodus of specie and preserved the credit supply that freed men to pursue their economic ambitions beyond the limits of their restricted individual financial capacities.

But, of course, not everyone agreed with the Whigs on this point.

Most Democrats, of course, had always castigated this program as baneful and unnecessary. They viewed credit from its dark flip side, as debt, as a trap rather than a release. They denounced its public form -- bonds -- as a burden on taxpayers and its private forms as threats to individual autonomy, as insidious inducements to self-enslavement. They attacked banks and other corporations as privileged monsters that violated the principle of equal rights before the law. They vilified paper money as a cheat and a fraud. They dismissed protective tariffs as pandering to manufacturers, who would inevitably raise prices to unjust and unjustifiable levels if shielded from foreign competition. What is more, they denied that active government intervention into the private economic sector was necessary to achieve growth or enhance public welfare. “There is, perhaps, no more dangerous heresy taught in our land than that the prosperity of the country is to be created by its legislation,” intoned Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor William Bigler in his inaugural message of 1852. “The people should rely on their own individual efforts, rather than the mere measures of government for success.”

What resulted, apart from the cognitive dissonance in my 21st century brain trying to wrap itself around 19th century Democrats taking a stand against government involvement in the economy, was years of back and forth, from one political administration to the next, first in favor of protective tariffs, then against them. As that dance occurred, countless other pieces of legislation got dressed up and spun around on the dance floor, the political parties cutting deals for and against things not because they were for or against them, but because their position would help them get closer to the position they sought on the tariff.

That was evident enough, even if I had trouble following all the ins and outs of every discussion chronicled. But if nineteenth century vibrant and acrimonious debate is what you’re looking for, nothing compares to slavery and how it would be understood and practiced as new states continued to be admitted to the Union. Presidential candidates were chosen or rejected, and presidential elections were won or lost on how the divisive and tangled issue was proposed to be resolved. And many, although fully recognizing its polarizing power, did not even see the disagreement over slavery’s expansion as one of direct substance.

Most regarded the whole sectional dispute over slavery extension as far more symbolic than substantive. To them, protecting southern equality and “Southern honor” by escaping the stigma of enslavement to northern dictation that congressional prohibition of slavery entailed, rather than actually extending the institution of slavery westward, was the heart of the territorial issue. Even [Whig Georgia Senator John M.] Berrien, who argued that slavery could flourish in California, saw the territorial dispute primarily in symbolic terms. He admitted to his kinsman [Charles J.] Jenkins that Northerners in Congress had no intention of abolishing slavery and that slavery could prosper into the unforeseeable future even if its extension were prohibited. Nonetheless, he protested, if the Northern majority could exclude slavery from the Cession, they would gain complete control of the national government. “Slavery will then exist in a double aspect. The African, and his owner, will both be slaves. The former, will as now, be the slave of his owner -- but that owner, in all matters within the sphere of federal jurisdiction, will be the doomed thrall of those, with whom he associated on the basis of equal rights.” For Berrien, other Southern Whigs, and many Southern Democrats, in sum, what was at stake in the territorial question was neither the end nor the weakening of African-American slavery. Rather, it was that dictatorial Northerners intended to treat white Southerners themselves as slaves.

I find this one of the most fascinating aspects of American history -- essential to any accurate understanding of these times and the civil war that followed. That Americans of the same history and lineage could have such divergent views on the same subject. Putting black men in chains was slavery, but so evidently, was trying to prevent white men from doing so. Yikes.

Because, frankly, I don’t see why things had to be interpreted that way. Take a different issue. Tobacco smoking, let’s say. If majorities in the majority of States in the Union wanted to ban the practice of smoking tobacco in their States, and in any new States that entered the Union, would those minorities in those same States and the majorities in other States that wanted tobacco smoking to be legal everywhere and in newly-admitted States really describe themselves as the “doomed thralls” of those with whom they associated on the basis of equal rights?

And if something morally ambivalent like tobacco smoking doesn’t make my point, how about something with obvious moral implications? Like child molestation? Those who wish to outlaw child molestation in newly-admitted States are enslaving those of us who support child molestation and will “gain complete control of the national government.” Why is the idiocy of that line of thinking obvious to us today, but far from obvious those those wrangling over the morally loaded issue of slavery in the 19th century?

Maybe that’s why, whether is was seen as an issue of symbol or substance, the disputes over slavery were the thing, eventually, that obliterated the existing party lines, transforming those political institutions, temporarily at least, from houses divided by political principle to houses divided by geography. Whigs and Democrats in the South came together in the existing Democratic Party, and Whigs and Democrats in the North similarly coalesced more painfully together in the new Republican Party.

States Mattered a Lot More Before the Civil War

Perhaps that’s an obvious statement, but it really hit home while reading the majority of Holt’s 1,000+ pages.

… in April [1851], Whigs stumbled across a new issue that united their party and redivided the Democrats. It bore no relation whatsoever to [Whig presidential candidate Millard] Fillmore, the Compromise [of 1850], or slavery. It illustrated a fundamental fact about the federal structure of American government in the nineteenth century: state policies often mattered more to politicians and the public than the actions of Congress or presidents. The issue that saved the New York Whig party from almost certain disaster was enlargement of the state’s Erie Canal system.

For this reason, Holt spends a lot of time describing state-level issues and politics and, despite ample warning in his preface that this deep dive analysis is one of his key objectives in this work, I have to admit that this enthusiastic amateur frequently got lost in all the details. Here a randomly-selected sample of what I’m talking about.

As even Berrien recognized, however, Stephens and Toombs insisted on nominating military men in 1847 and 1848 primarily because they feared that the party could never carry the state legislature or governorship again without attracting Democratic support. Even in the congressional elections of 1846, when Whigs had joyously pilloried the record of Polk and the Democratic Congress, they had won less than 47 percent of the statewide vote. And the chief source of their weakness was clear to all -- the seemingly unshakable grip Democrats had on the growing nonslaveholder vote in the Cherokee District of northwestern Georgia. Running only military heroes appeared the easiest way to cut into that vote, and hence Whigs from northwestern Georgia clamored more vociferously than anyone else for Clinch’s nomination in 1847. After his narrow defeat in October 1847, those same Whigs insisted that Taylor be the Whig nominee. Taylor was a more famous military hero than Clinch. His image as a No Party or People’s candidate who repeatedly spurned a regular Whig nomination made him potentially far more attractive to Democrats than Clinch, who had served in Congress as a Whig. “Very many Whigs from the counties North & West say that we are down unless we hoist the Taylor flag,” wrote one Georgia Whig. “Nothing can … save us but Genl. Taylor -- nothing can destroy the Democracy but Genl. Taylor.” Gaining control of a party that could not control the Georgia state government had little appeal for Stephens and Toombs. Thus they insisted on, and energetically worked for, Taylor’s nomination in December 1847, not only to isolate Berrien but also to win crucial Democratic votes.

And that’s just the view from the Cherokee District of northwestern Georgia. After a while I found myself looking forward to the chapters where he came back up to the national stage, or at least talked about what was going on in my home state during all these years.

There Was Initially More Than One Republican Party

There’s precious little about Wisconsin in the book, but I was primed to look for one linchpin that was clearly going to force Holt to spend some time on the Badger State -- the birth of the Republican Party in Ripon in 1854. But that, at least according to the way Holt tells things, is not necessarily how it happened.

The new organizations emerging in 1854 and 1855 co-opted Whigs’ mission to defend republicanism by portraying themselves as better able to do so. They insisted that powerful new threats to America’s experiment in republican self-government had emerged that made executive tyranny and the other antirepublican bogeys against which Whigs had campaigned seem tame by comparison. They explicitly and repeatedly invoked the key code phrases of the familiar republican idiom -- power, tyranny, corruption, conspiracy, and enslavement versus liberty, freedom, self-government, majority rule, and republicanism itself. And they summoned voters to join a crusade in defense of republican principles and institutions that, they argued, far exceeded in importance stale partisan quarrels fought between now irrelevant parties. They initially portrayed themselves, in short, not as officeseeking politcial parties, but as patriotic Minute Men springing to freedom’s defense. Anti-Nebraska coalitions and the Know Nothings, however, saw different dangers to republicanism that approached from different directions. In effect, they wanted to wage the battle to rescue public liberty on different fronts.

There were many “anti-Nebraska coalitions,” the name being a reference to their opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by Congress in May 1854, and which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, prohibiting slavery north of latitude 36°30´, and which allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. Which one, if any, gave direct rise to the Republican Party that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860 is never made clear in Holt’s text. It rather leaves one with the impression that, like much of actual history, the process was much more organic than linear.

But however the Republican Party came about, the organic progression that resulted in its creation would be a much more interesting subject of deeper inquiry. It was described earlier in this post. Not just the death of the Whigs and the birth of the Republicans, but the national transition from two parties representing ideological difference to two parties representing geographic ones.

Speculation about a political realignment in which parties that exclusively represented the North or South displaced the nationwide, bisectional competition between Whigs and Democrats began in early February [1854] when events seemed to presage such a reshuffling. Caucuses of pro-Nebraska southern Whig and Democratic congressmen in Washington portended a bipartisan fusion in Dixie. Simultaneously, in community after community across the North, meetings that combined Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, and the politically unaffiliated gathered to protest the Nebraska bill as an outrageous southern aggression against the rights, interests, expectations, and moral convictions of Northerners. Along with the acrimonious debate in Congress and angry recriminations traded by northern and southern editors, these cross-party sectional gatherings in 1854 seemed harbingers of intrasectional unity and permanent intersectional conflict.

Let’s add it to that imaginary list of future PhD dissertations I plan to write.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 22, 2017

Choose Your Dimensions of Diversity and Get Started

Spark Consulting is out with another white paper -- this one on the sometimes challenging topic of diversity and inclusion -- and it's another thought-provoking read for association CEOs. If you're interested, you can download "Include Is A Verb: Moving From Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion" here. It's free and you don't even have to register for it.

For me, there were several key concepts. Here's one.

Research demonstrates that millennials think about and define diversity in significantly different ways than members of previous generations. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers tend to think of diversity in terms of protected classes. Millennials are more focused on "cognitive diversity, or diversity of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies."

In either worldview, as Joe Gerstandt points out: "We can be different from each other in many ways, but the key words here are 'from each other.'" This is leading many organizations to try to think about diversity more broadly than protected class. Gerstandt emphasizes that diversity is not -- or not just -- race or gender relations, affirmative action, compliance, or sensitivity. Diversity is contextual. For instance, in a teaching association, diversity in volunteer leadership could mean recruiting K-12 teachers into leadership roles traditionally held by college professors.

First, it's good to see Joe Gerstandt getting some love in the association community. I've been reading his blog for years and, even though he doesn't post as often as I would like, you should too. We've never met, but his 2011 video on flying your freak flag should be required viewing in order to call yourself a member of the human race.

Second, when I was chair of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE), that Board was wrestling with its own diversity initiative. After a lot of discussion, one of the first things we decided was that we needed to define what diversity meant for WSAE.

There was universal agreement on the returned value of embracing diversity and inclusion in our association and in our association's leadership. What there was less agreement on was what the categories -- or what we would come to call the dimensions -- of diversity should be. If my memory serves, the lines of disagreement that rose to the surface were consistently drawn between camps representing the generational viewpoints described in the above excerpt for the Spark white paper. Some could only view diversity through the lens of protected classes, and others -- not necessarily those of younger generations -- saw added value in viewing diversity through a cognitive lens.

As the discussion progressed, we also recognized that not all the protected and cognitive classes that could be enumerated were necessarily relevant in our association's environment. And, even if they were relevant, there was no way that we could focus on improvements on any more than a handful of dimensions. We needed to be selective -- both about which dimensions of diversity mattered most, and of those, which would be choose to focus on in the short and long term.

One dimension of diversity we selected was gender. Our view was that association management was a profession dominated by women at the manager level, and dominated by men at the executive level. After surveying our membership rolls, we discovered that WSAE clearly reflected that trend. Its membership was 70% female, but the Board, which was dominated by association CEOs, was only 25% female. Getting more women onto the leadership track became a compelling priority for our Nominating Committee, work that clearly continues to this day. The current elected WSAE Board is 55% female.

Gender is one of the protected classes, but many, if not most of our dimensions of diversity fit more squarely in the cognitive class. One unique to our association was the career aspirations of our members. What was the split, essentially, between those who viewed themselves as an association professional, on a career track towards the association executive, and those who viewed themselves as a specialist (a marketing or information technology or accounting professional) who happened to work for an association, on a career track towards a directorship within an association or perhaps another organization? Knowing that (and according to one survey that latter category represented as much as 20% of our members who worked for an association) would, should and did have a consequential impact on the kind of education we offered in our programs.

In summary, while a commitment to diversity and inclusion should be universal among associations as organizations dedicated to representing a specific profession or industry, the dimensions of diversity that define that commitment can and should be as numerous as the number of organizations pursuing them.

One final word. As WSAE chair, I frankly chose to focus less on which dimensions of diversity were chosen and more on the culture and structures that needed to be built in order to understand and embrace them. I suspected that an organization built to on-board diverse populations into its leadership and its activities -- however it defined those diverse populations -- would have the tools necessary to on-board newly identified categories when they inevitably arose in the future. That ability is hopefully one of the legacies I was able to leave behind.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Let's Stay the Course

I continue to put the necessary pieces into place for our annual strategic Board retreat. This week it was a discussion with our outgoing and incoming Board chairs about the strategic conversations we want to build an agenda around.

In our annual cadence, this is traditionally the meeting where one Board chair passes the gavel to the next, and as a result, we typically ask the outgoing and incoming chairs to tag-team on the agenda. The outgoing chair leads the business aspects of the meeting (call to order, approval of minutes, review and discussion on progress made to date), while the incoming chair leads the strategic aspects of the meeting (how will we define success in the coming year and how should our resources be allocated). It has worked well for us.

Something that has worked less well, but which is also traditional for us, is some sort of environmental scanning exercise. Our Board meets only three times a year, including this retreat, and the other two meetings are typically of shorter duration, so the retreat is often the only time when we have the freedom and flexibility to pull our heads up out of the business of the organization and take a deliberate look around. And that's how I usually describe it to the Board chairs when we come to this planning discussion. It's an opportunity to momentarily put our association's strategy aside, examine and discuss the external forces that are shaping our industry and our world, and then use the insight gained to return to and, if necessary, reshape our strategy.

And frankly, that's hard. Around the Board table, it requires a shift in thinking. For a moment, we have to stop thinking about steering the ship and we have to start thinking about the winds that are blowing. Over the years we have tried a number of different structured exercises in order to make the need for these mental transitions more apparent. Most recently we have relied on a kind of SWOT survey. Prior to coming to the meeting we ask all the participants to respond to a few short questions about the organization's internal strengths and weaknesses and the environment's external opportunities and threats, and then we comb through the results to identify areas of common response. At the Board table we spend time going through those common responses, discussing if any warrant actions different from the ones we are already taking.

It works, but it is always clunky. I tend to think that the clunkiness is just the nature of the beast. Any environmental scan always reveals things that are difficult to deal with, and there tends to be an unwillingness to admit defeat on any front. If we took the time to bring these things up to the surface, ignoring them or deciding to do nothing with them feels like losing, or worse, like we're wasting time.

Maybe that's why this year, in consultation with my outgoing and incoming Board chairs, we have decided not to formalize any such environmental scanning exercise at all. We've been doing a good job over the last several years, I was told, building a clear and coherent strategy for addressing the issues that matter most to our members, that opening the door to wholesale change would be counterproductive. If there are environmental factors that need to be considered, we'll consider them in the context of implementing the strategy we have already determined.

It was a refreshing perspective to hear from my Board leaders, this acknowledgement that the association is doing the right things, and that rather than contemplating another change in direction, they would prefer to stay the course and give us the time we need to reach our destination.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Riven Rock by T. C. Boyle

Soundlessly, the shabby orange creature unfolded itself from the cage, crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

Do I need to tell you that Boyle is describing an orangutan here? I don’t, do I? You can just see it, can’t you? Crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

O’Kane took another step back and the two keepers exchanged a nervous glance -- the thing was nearly as big as they were, and it certainly outweighed them. And, of course, like all the rest of the hominoids, it stank like a boatload of drowned men.

And now you can smell it. A boatload of drowned men. Boyle never forgets to include the other senses in his descriptions of things.

Julius didn’t seem much interested in the oranges, but he folded them into the slot in the middle of his plastic face as if they were horse pills and shambled through the dust to where the monkeys and baboons were affixed to the doors of the cages and shrieking themselves breathless. He exchanged various fluids with them, his face drooping and impassive even as they clawed at the mesh and bared their teeth, then sat in the dirt sniffing luxuriously at his fingers and toes before lazily hoisting himself into the nearest tree like a big dangling bug, where he promptly fell asleep. Or died. It was hard to tell which -- he was so utterly inanimate and featureless, it was as if someone had tossed a wad of wet carpeting up into the crotch of the tree.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The number one reason to read and keep reading Boyle is for prose like this. Each and everyone of his books has been an absolute joy to read for this reason alone.

This one, Riven Rock, is about madness -- and a particular kind of madness at that. There are three main characters (a kind of Boyle novelty in and of itself, who seems more frequently to focus on the juxtaposition of two, not three characters). There are two people evidently taken from the pages of history…

Boyle anchors his unforgettable table with the remarkable and courageous Katherine Dexter. Her husband, Stanley McCormick, thirty-one-year-old son of the millionaire inventor of the Reaper, has become schizophrenic and a sexual maniac. Stanley is locked up in his Santa Barbara mansion and forbidden the mere sight of women -- above all, his wife. Throughout her career as a scientist and suffragette, Katherine’s faith never wavers: that, one day, one of the many psychiatrists she hires to try to cure her husband will free him of his demons.

...but there is also Eddie O’Kane, mentioned in the orangutan excerpt above, and frankly far more Katherine’s antagonist, but evidently not fit to be mentioned on the backflap of my paperback. Stanley McCormick is the madman, suffering from a sexual psychosis so extreme that he can’t be in the presence of women without attacking them…

“Mr. McCormick!” O’Kane heard himself cry out like some schoolyard monitor, and then he was on him, grabbing the taller man’s pumping shoulders, trying to peel him away from his victim like a strip of masking tape and make everything right again, and all the while the lady gasping and fighting under all the inexplicable weight and Mr. McCormick tearing at her clothes. He’d managed to partially expose himself, rip the bodice of her dress and crumple her hat like a wad of furniture stuffing by the time O’Kane was able to force his right arm up behind his back and apply some persuasive pressure to it. “This isn’t right, Mr. McCormick,” he kept saying, “you know it isn’t,” and he kept saying it, over and over, as if it were a prayer, but it had no effect. One-armed, thrashing to and fro like something hauled up out of the sea in a dripping net, Mr. McCormick kept at it, working his left hand into the lady’s most vulnerable spot, and -- this was what mortified O’Kane the most -- taking advantage of the proximity to extend the pale tether of his tongue and lick the base of her throat as if it were an ice in a cone. “Stop it!” O’Kane boomed, tightening his grip and jerking back with everything he had, and still it wasn’t enough.

...and Katherine is his adoring and faithful wife, determined with a progressive and clinical interest far ahead of her time and her gender to heal his affliction, to shape him into the thing she needs him to be…

He was inexperienced, like her, she was sure of it. And that was the beauty of the whole thing. Here he was, a big towering specimen of a male, and yet so docile and sweet, hers to lead and shape and build into something extraordinary, a father like her father. And there was no chance of that with Butler Ames [another potential suitor of Katherine’s] and the rest -- they were smirking and wise, overgrown fraternity boys who tried women on for size, like hats, and went to prostitutes with no more thought or concern than they went to the barber or the tailor. But Stanley, Stanley was malleable, unformed, innocent still -- and that was why everything depended on getting him away from his mother, that crippling combative stultifying monster of a woman who’d made him into a pet and all but emasculated him in the process. He needed to get free, that was all, and then he could grow.

...and Eddie O’Kane is Stanley’s head nurse, a man with motives other than the care and well-being of his wealthy employer, motives driven by a sexual psychosis all his own, one much more in alignment with the repressive conventions of the age.

...and he couldn’t help seeing her as she was half an hour earlier, bleeding and impotent, Mr. McCormick on top of her and her face twisted with fear, and that gave him a strange sensation. He’d rescued her and should have felt charitable and pure, should have remembered Arabella Doane [a female nurse Stanley had previously attacked], but he didn’t -- he wanted to see her nude, nude and spread out like dessert on the thin rolling mat of his berth. There was a thread of crusted blood just under the slash of her cheekbone and a blemish at the corner of her mouth, the flawless bone-white complexion tarnished and discolored, and he looked at that blemish and felt lewd and wanton, felt that way he did when Rosaleen [his wife] rolled over in bed and put her face in his beneath the curtain of her hair and just breathed on him till he awoke in the dark with a jolt of excitement. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t admirable, but there it was.

Fact is, Stanley McCormick and Edward O’Kane are two men with the same obsession, with one socialized to keep it in check on one not. What separates them, what makes Stanley and lunatic, utterly incapable of caring for himself or loving others, and O’Kane caged beast, capable of self-interest, subterfuge and empathy, is a mystery to everyone in the novel, and indeed, I believe the Boyle himself.

It was eerie. Unsettling. No matter how often O’Kane experienced it or how many patients he’d seen like this -- and he’d bathed them one after another at the Boston Lunatic Asylum, twenty at a time, hosing them down afterward like hogs in a pen -- it still affected him. How could anybody live like that? Be like that? And what did it take for the mechanism to break down, for the normal to become abnormal, for a man like Mr. McCormick, who had everything and more, to lose even the faculty of knowing it?

If I have one complaint about Boyle’s work, in fact, it’s that he often doesn’t answer the perplexing questions his fiction is structured to explore. The exploration is entertaining -- thrillingly so, as both a philosophical and rhetorical exercise -- but too often it simply fizzles at the end instead crashing in a satisfying climax.

In Riven Rock, for example, Boyle creates an elaborate and sustaining metaphor around Riven Rock itself, the California house and estate that Stanley first helps construct for Mary Virginia, a mentally-disturbed older sister, and which becomes the prison for his psychosis as well.

Stanley took up the blueprints like a man snatching a life jacket off the rail of a sinking ship. He spread them out on the table and studied them for hours, oblivious to everything, his mother, the servants, the yellow plains of Texas and the distant dusty cowboys on their distant dusty mounts. With a T square and a handful of freshly sharpened pencils, he began a detailed series of modifications, moving walls, drawing elevations where none had been provided, even sketching in shrubbery and the odd shadowy figure of Mary Virginia seated at the piano or strolling across the patio.

What did he think of the plans? That they were all wrong, that they were an insult, a product of nescient minds and ill-conceived motions. What did he think? That Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge should be dismissed for incompetence, that any fool off the street could have come up with a more practical and pleasing design and that the architects’ man in Santa Barbara had damned well better bring his drawing board along. But all he said was to his mother was, “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to suggest some changes…”

Unwittingly, it seems, Stanley is obsessed with designing and building the cloistered estate that will house his sister’s madness -- and by Boyle’s literary extension, the prison that he will come to make of his own madness.

They wound up staying nearly four months, taking rooms at the Arlington (the Potter, with its sea views, six hundred rooms and twenty-one thousand dollars’ worth of custom-made china plate, wouldn’t be completed until 1903), and in that time Stanley altered every least detail of the original plans, from the height of the doorways to the type of molding to be used in the servants’ quarters. And he altered them daily, sometimes hourly, obsessed, fixated, stuck in a perfect groove of concentration.

And it is even Stanley who comes to christen the place Riven Rock.

And then, one afternoon in the final week of their California sojourn, it came to him. He was walking over the grounds with his mother and Dr. Franceschi, the landscape expert, elaborating his feelings regarding caryatids, statuary in general and the function of fountains in a coordinated environment of the artificial and the natural, when they emerged from a rough path into a meadow strewn with oaks all canted in one direction. The trees stood silhouetted against the mountains, heavy with sun, their branches thrust out like the arms of a party of skaters simultaneously losing their balance. It was October, the season of evaporative clarity, the sky receding all the way back to the hinges of the darkness beyond. Butterflies hung palely over the tall yellow grass. Birds called from the branches.

The trees, it is explained, are a product of the region’s prevailing winds.

“What about that one over there?” Stanley said, pointing to a tree that defied the pattern, its trunk vertical and its branches as evenly spaced as the tines of a fork. It was a hundred yards off, but he could see that there was a band of rock round the base of it, a petrified collar that seemed to hold it rigid.

Dr. Franceschi wants to show him that one. It’s a local curiosity.

As they drew closer, Stanley saw that the massive slab of sandstone girding the tree was split in two, and that the tree seemed to be growing up out of the cleft. “Very curious,” Dr. Franceschi was saying, “one of those anomalies of nature -- you see, there was a time some years ago when an acorn fell from that tree there” -- pointing -- “or that one maybe, who knows, and found a pocket of sustenance atop this blasted lump of stone, and you couldn’t find a less promising environment, believe me --”

But they were there now and Stanley had his amazed hands on the rock itself, a massive thing, chest-high, big as a hearse, rough to the touch and lingeringly warm with the radiation of the sun. It was the very stuff of the earth’s bones, solid rock, impenetrable, impermeable, the symbol of everything that endures, and here it was split in two, riven like a yard of cheap cloth and by a thing so small and insidious as an acorn. …

It is Riven Rock, and it is the metaphor for Stanley’s madness that endures throughout the novel. Something small, defying identification, that, given sustenance and time, can split the solidness of the world in two. Immediately following these words in the novel is a two-page, stream-of-consciousness italicized tirade produced by Stanley’s tortured mind, not from when he was healthy, building and naming Riven Rock for his “crazy bughouse sister,” but in the relative future, when he himself has become its inmate.

I am therefore left with the impression that Stanley has built and named his own madness the same way he built and named his own madhouse. And, that once having completed it, moved into it, and lived within it for years, he eventually loses his way within its familiar walls, no longer knowing where he is or how he came to be there.

Maybe it was his domineering mother that set him on his original course, and maybe it was Katherine’s desire to shape him that affected his trajectory, attempting to re-arrange him just a sure as she took control and re-arranged things at Riven Rock.

In the past months she’s redecorated the house, removing the gloomy Spanish paintings, heavy black furniture and pottery to the attic above the garage and replacing it with seascapes and western scenes, modern chairs and sofas with square edges and low backs, draperies that gave back the light and made the place look less like a West Coast version of McLean and more like the home of an important and consummately sane man with just the slightest, most temporary indisposition. She’s hired a new head gardener, a landscape architect and half a dozen new wops and Mexicans. And though the McCormicks still owned the house and Mr. McCormick paid a monthly rental back to his mother, all decisions, no matter how trivial, went through Katherine. She was in charge. There was no doubt about it.

But, regardless, at the end of the novel, when asked about it, we find that Stanley himself has very little to say.

There was only one point at which he rose to something like coherence, and that was right at the end, when the distinguished doctors had filled their notebooks and begun to shoot glances at one another out of the corners of their eyes. The Lean Doctor said “Riven Rock” and Mr. McCormick looked up alertly.

The Lean Doctor: “Tell us about your home, if you would, Mr. McCormick, about Riven Rock -- how did it get its name?”

Mr. McCormick (sunshine at first, and then increasing clouds): “I -- well -- it’s because of a rock, you see, and I -- well, my mother, she -- and then I came and saw it and it was, well, it was --”

There was a long hiatus, all three doctors leaning forward, the day drawing down, Mart snoring lightly from the vicinity of the couch, Nurse Gleason silently dusting the plants, and then Mr. McCormick, his face finally settling on a broad winning ear-to-ear grin, at last spoke up. “It beats me,” he said.

In the end, Stanley McCormick loses himself in his madness, no longer understanding the construction that he himself oversaw. And, as much as I enjoy Boyle’s fiction, I have to also say that I felt much the same way. At the end of this entertaining story, I’m left with a similar sense of befuddlement. It all seemed important, but what did it all mean, again?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 8, 2017

Goals Lead to Tactics

I recently had an interesting conversation with my staff that helped reinforce the importance of choosing the right goals.

We were talking about the best ways to measure the success of our association's trade show. Among the many possibilities was the number of potential customers our members could engage with by exhibiting at the show.

For a long time, our way of tracking this was based on counting the number of attendees who registered for the show. Sorting all those registrants by the customer markets and job titles they self-selected on their registration forms gave us the ability to count how many potential buyers we had attending the show.

But we realized something important. Setting a goal associated with increasing the number of buyers attending the show would lead to a set of strategies and tactics focused on pre-show promotions. Given that our show is co-located with another, larger show means that promoting the show to attendees during the show is also important. But a goal focused only on growing pre-show registrations would bias resources against that second objective.

So we needed a second goal. Not only do we want to grow the number of buyers who attend the show, we also want to increase the number of those attendees who spend time in our hall visiting with our exhibitors. Only by adding this second goal would we be likely to focus the time and resources needed to create the necessary promotions during the show.

It was a great example of how important choosing the right goal is. Choose wrong and you may inadvertently focus your tactics in the wrong areas.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 1, 2017

When Goals Seem Impossible

Kudos to Amanda Kaiser at the Smooth the Path blog for recently voicing typically heretical thoughts in the association community. In a post titled Commonly Used Association Goals Doomed to Failure, she says:

Often we set goals for ourselves that are likely to fail. Failing demoralizes the team and makes us more risk adverse. Over time we become caught in a downward spiral.

What kind of common organizational goals are doomed to failure? Growing revenues in a consolidating industry. Increasing membership when the pool of professionals is decreasing. Or improving member engagement with no strategy for innovation or change.

Instead, she says, we should be developing goals that are achievable while also being helpful to our members and our association. Goals like maintaining the percentage of members from the pool of desirable members. Or goals that employ strategies that involve existing members more. Or goals that increase staff or board engagement.

Let’s dump the goals that are setting us up to fail and instead adopt goals we feel good about that help our members, and ones we can achieve.

As I said, to anyone who has labored for several unproductive years under impossible goals, Kaiser's words might be viewed as a welcome relief. An injection of sanity into an increasingly insane situation.


How does one know that the goals Kaiser describes -- growing revenues, increasing membership, improving member engagement -- are doomed to failure unless one has tried both conventional and unconventional strategies to achieve them?

In my own experience, the perception that these goals are impossible is just that. A perception based on years of trying and failing at the same old strategies and tactics.

Before giving up on these goals, associations would be well served by trying the unconventional, by chucking out the old playbook and finding new frames of reference for examining and tackling them. After all, consolidating industries and decreasing pools of professionals can sometimes better be viewed as stimuli towards organizational re-purposing.

Too often, the well-worn currents of activity and thinking within an organization doom it to believing that difficult goals are doomed to failure. More often, we should be re-framing them to find unconventional methods for success.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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