Monday, April 29, 2019

Associations Are Not Responsible For Hotel Rooms That Go Unused

A while back I wrote a kind of mini-series on this blog I called Paradoxes in Association Management, which I described as the counter-intuitive practices that we must embrace if we want to be successful. I'm not sure if this one really qualifies, but I'm going to try and frame it that way.

Associations are not responsible for hotel rooms that go unused.

Legally speaking, of course, we are. We signed the contract. The contract says we will utilize a certain number of room nights. The contract even says we can reduce our room night commitment in measured amounts prior to the conference if it appears we're not going to fill our block.

All that is true. At the same time it is all utterly irrelevant.

Here's the truth. When an association books three hundred hotel rooms for its upcoming convention, it is not then nor ever in a position to decide to put three hundred people into that hotel. It is not a convention for its staff. It is a convention for its members; which means that instead of one organization making one decision to put three hundred people in that hotel, there are actually going to be three hundred different people making three hundred different decisions about whether or not they will stay in that hotel and for how many nights.

Too often, we pretend this isn't the case. We look at convention histories, at pickup and occupancy reports, at attrition clauses and penalties -- all under the impression that it is somehow the association's responsibility to fill the convention hotel block. It is not. That responsibility belongs to the members of the association who will one-by-one be deciding to attend and book their rooms.

When a member decides not to attend -- or worse yet, books a reservation on the chance that they might attend, and then cancels the week before the conference when they decide they actually won't be going -- when that happens, if the hotel wants compensation for the hotel room that they took out of their general inventory so that member could have the luxury of deciding not to attend, it is the member and not the association who has actual liability for that room.

I don't care what the contract says. It wasn't, after all, the association that decided that member wouldn't be coming. It was the member him or herself.

This, I know, is a radical view. It goes against a century or more of practice and legal precedent. But it is the only view that aligns with the actual reality of the situation. Associations that don't figure out a way to push responsibility for unused hotel rooms on their own members will continue to face and pay attrition penalties in a game that is rigged against them. It is not their responsibility and they should stop thinking that it is.

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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, April 27, 2019

The Carver Guide Series on Effective Board Governance by John Carver and Miriam Mayhew Carver

Back in 2007 I read Boards That Make a Difference, which lays out the Carver Model of Policy Governance in book form. This series is comprised of twelve short pamphlets, intended to be read by Board members, that explains and accentuates important portions of that overall Model.

The association I work for has been using its own adapted form of the Carver Model for a number of years now, so reading this series was a good refresher for me. Here are the things I felt we could, and probably should, be doing a better job on.

Screening Questions

This is from the pamphlet on “Planning Better Board Meetings.”

The first screening question is, What category issue is this? Is it an issue of intended effects in the world? An executive means issue? An issue of the governance job itself? Or an issue of how governance connects with management? Answering the category question concretely labels the issue as, respectively, one of ends, executive limitations, governance process, or board-staff linkage. An issue that either does not fit into one of these or does fit into more than one is not yet adequately stated.

The second screening question is, What has the board already said in this category, and how is the issue at hand related? This question looks not only at the content of existing board policy but at the breadth or level of that policy. Content is inspected to determine (1) whether the board has already dealt with the issue and, if so, in what way and (2) whether the issue at hand is several levels of abstraction below current board policy or simply the next level lower. The board must, in short, stay closely in touch with its existing policies. Having only a relatively few, brief policies enables a board not so much to have policies but to live out of them.

These questions are intended to screen issues before they get placed on the Board’s agenda. The first ensures that the issue is within the Board’s scope and the second ensures that any discussion held in done in the context of what the Board has already decided.

Ends Policy

This was inspired by the pamphlet on “Board Assessment of the CEO.”

I mentioned that the association I work for has been using its own adapted form of the Carver Model for a number of years now. In that regard, we have adopted the following statement in our governance policy:

“Ends” determination is a pivotal duty of the Board. The Board will determine what results are to be achieved, for whom, and at what cost, and clearly express these “ends” in the mission, strategic priorities, ends statements, success indicators, and budget of the association.

To be honest, it is a way of bridging the specific language and format of an ends policy recommended by the Carver Model and the more general language and format that we had become accustomed to within the association. In other words, we didn’t have “ends”, but we did have a mission and a set of strategic priorities that acted very much like ends, although without the measurable specificity of the ends described in the Carver Model. The bridge allowed us to more easily adopt pieces of the Carver Model without radically changing the things we discussed and decided around the Board table.

But several examples of ends policies in this Carver series have made me question the wisdom of that approach. Adopting the language and format of the examples may provide greater clarity at the Board table regarding what it is we are trying to achieve, because it would force us to nest our mission, strategic priorities, ends statements, success indicators, and budget in one comprehensive policy document -- rather than scatter them across multiple documents they way we currently do.

Here’s a sample of what our Ends Policy might look like if I adopted the format of the Carver examples:

Board Policy Title: “Mission”
Policy Type: Ends

The mission of the National Fluid Power Association is to strengthen the fluid power industry for an annual expenditure of $3,596,988.
1. Efforts to provide an effective forum for fluid power manufacturers, distributors and suppliers to advance their collective interests will not exceed more than 21% of annual expenditures.
2. Efforts to provide our members with timely and accurate industry statistics and business intelligence that support improved decision-making will not exceed more than 18% of annual expenditures.
3. Efforts to provide opportunities and resources for our members to promote the unique strengths and inherent advantages offered by modern fluid power technology will not exceed more than 3% of annual expenditures.
4. Efforts to help increase the number of technical college and university students educated in fluid power and connect them to careers in the fluid power industry will not exceed more than 28% of annual expenditures.
5. Securing the general and administrative needs of the association will not exceed more than 30% of annual expenditures.

This takes our mission and ends statements and connects them directly to the budget allocations we have made to support them. Then, in keeping with the examples provided in the series, each of the points above would have their own ends policy. For example:

Board Policy Title: “Effective Forum”
Policy Type: Ends

The success of efforts to provide an effective forum for fluid power manufacturers, distributors and suppliers to advance their collective interests will be determined by:
1. At the end of the current fiscal year, there will be at least 346 members in the association, at least 5 of which will be suppliers of IoT technologies or services.
2. Overall satisfaction with the association on each member satisfaction survey will be at least 4.00.
3. The average participation score of manufacturer members will be at least 3.5, distributor members at least 3.0, and supplier members at least 2.0.
4. The percent of manufacturer members with a participation score of zero will be more than 10%, distributor members no more than 10%, and supplier members no more than 15%.
5. The percent of manufacturer members that have an active representative on one of our leadership committees will be at least 30%, distributor members at least 25%, and supplier members at least 20%.
6. The percent of member companies with an active participant in our Future Leaders Network will be at least 20%.
7. The percent of manufacturer members that send at least one representative to the Annual Conference will be at least 33%, distributor members at least 50%, and supplier members at least 25%.
8. The percent of attendees that agree the Annual Conference delivered good ROI on post-conference evaluations will be at least 90%.
9. The percent of manufacturer members that send at least one representative to at least one Regional Meeting per year will be at least 25%, distributor members at least 25%, and supplier members at least 25%.

This comprehensively lists the success indicators and corresponding goals that the Board has set and connects them to each ends statement. Would these documents, I wonder, be easier for the Board to get its head around that the multiple charts and pages that they are currently forced to go through?

Revisiting the Governance Policy

This is from the pamphlet on “Board Self-Assessment.”

One board of education in West Virginia decided to read its governance style policy aloud at the beginning of every meeting! For a board that has just read its own words -- pledging, for example, not to engage in determining staff means -- going ahead and doing so in the next agenda item is considerably harder to do! But no matter what technique you employ, it is amazing how much you can accomplish simply by coming back routinely to what you said you would do.

My association has a “governance style policy,” and it is included on the agenda for every Board meeting, although it is given about as much attention as the review of the anti-trust policy. It makes we wonder if we should take one item for the governance policy per meeting and really dig into it. Are we doing this effectively? How?

Dimensions of Diversity

Finally, this is from the pamphlet on “Making Diversity Meaningful in the Boardroom.”

Very few nonprofit or public boards govern on their own behalf. Ordinarily, boards exercise their authority as a kind of stewardship on behalf of others. In other words, there is some population that, at least in a moral sense if not a legal one, “owns” the organization.

Owners -- even if unorganized, unrecognized, and often undefined -- constitute the primary object of board allegiance and its source of moral authority. The board-ownership relationship is the essential, defining relationship of a board. Board members stand in for the ownership, operating on its behalf. The board can be seen as a microcosm of the ownership, a workable subpart of an awkwardly large group. It is therefore important to identify the ownership group.

The diversity relevant to board composition and conduct is the diversity of the owners, not the diversity of consumers, of staff, or of other groups. It is not that diversity in these other groups is ignored by the board, just that the board does not represent them.

This is something my association already does quite well, I think, making sure the diversity of the Board reflects the diversity of the membership. I wanted to include it here because it is such an essential point, and one I tried to champion when I was the Board chair of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives.

Diversity is an important component of effective governance, innovation, and decision-making, but the diversity that matters most is the one that exists in the current membership. Every organization, therefore, has the potential to define a different set of “dimensions of diversity” that are uniquely important to it. Those dimensions would be quite different in a trade association whose members are five multinational corporations than in a professional society whose members are fifty thousand practitioners.

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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, April 22, 2019

Risk and Reward

I think I've written on this blog before about the Technology Roadmap that my association maintains for the industry we represent. If not, as a quick introduction, our Technology Roadmap describes an industry-wide consensus regarding the pre-competitive research and development needs associated with improving the design, manufacture, and function of fluid power components and systems. We update it every two years, and we share its results broadly, hoping that companies, universities, and other research organizations will use it to guide their decisions on research projects of importance to our industry.

We are in one of our update cycles right now. We've already identified the eight broad areas of development that we think are important to help our technology meet or better meet the needs of our industry's customers, and we are now conducting a series of conference calls -- one for each of those areas of development -- so that a working group of industry and academic representatives with expertise and interest in each area can help us define the specific objectives for research projects that would help us make the appropriate advancements.

Our industry is a broad and diverse one. Having been through this update cycle a few times now, I know that every time we open up conversations like these, we wind up with more research objectives than our research partners can possibly act on. To help provide some focus, I usually ask each working group to not only identify the appropriate research objectives, but to prioritize them as well.

Imagine that we had limited resources, I often say (which, of course, is not far from the truth), and we could only invest in one of the many research objectives we just identified. Which one would we pick? Which one do we think we are most likely to see successfully achieved?

And every time I say that, someone, with the best of intentions, will start asking me questions about risk and reward.

Wait a minute, this person might say. Why are we focused on the one that is most likely to be successful? If we're prioritizing, shouldn't we pick the one with the largest possible reward for our industry? After all, you know what they say. Low risk, low reward; high risk, high reward.

It is an excellent point. And if we were building a roadmap that we actually had the capacity to act on comprehensively, I'd probably be the first person to agree. We should probably develop an entire risk vs. reward matrix, and plot every research objective on it.

But one of the things that's different about our roadmap from those developed by other organizations is that it really has no directed execution phase associated with it. We're not taking a holistic approach to its resulting recommendations, allocating resources in accordance with its prescriptions and predictions. We, the association that sponsors and organizes this roadmapping activity, has no such resources to invest.

Our goal, as strange as it may be to say, is not to actually develop any new technology for our industry. It is, instead, to engage the academic community in research projects that are important to our industry. We certainly want those research projects to be successful -- yes, for the industry that stands to benefit from the research discovery, but more importantly for the principal investigators and graduate students that create it. That is how they become interested in our industry's technology, and how they decide the devote their research and teaching careers to it.

And that is actually the reward we're looking for -- a group of academic faculty teaching our technology to a new generation of undergraduate students. When we're prioritizing our objectives, therefore, let's make sure we pick the ones that are most likely to get people interested and excited about our technology.

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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, April 20, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 8 (DRAFT)

We marched right over to Mary’s office. In a very real way, it was a relief just to be out of my little claustrophobic compartment. It’s probably not hard to believe that those of us who occupied those small windowless rooms for one-third of our lives naturally came to view them as a kind of cellblock. Working there, you’d hear a startling number of prison metaphors being used, like “Hey, what brings you out of your cage?” or “Gosh, I feel like I’m going stir crazy today,” or “Let’s bust out of here and go get some lunch.” For me, I always knew I had been cooped up too long when Ted the mailroom clerk would come by with his little cart of deliveries, and I would feel like I was in one of those old prison escape films, with Ted as the jailhouse librarian, peddling paperbacks and selling contraband cigarettes to the cons.

But private offices were the exception. As Susan and I made our way across the office floor, it was easy to see that most staff people were assigned to tiny, wedge-shaped workstations in one of a dozen or so large pods, each such workstation radiating out from a central hub, where all the electrical and Internet connections for the computers were made. Those wires came down from the tangled mangrove swamp that existed above the acoustical tile ceiling, and were enclosed in a cylindrical tube that came down in the very center of each pod’s circle. In these pods, none of the dividers between individuals were higher than your waist, and everyone sat facing inward in a concentric ring. They were so close to each other that, if they chose, they could all stand up, link hands, and dance around their electrical pole, hopping from desktop to desktop like happy woodland sprites.

Don was in charge of the custom build-out they performed, and he said these pods were the latest in ergonomic, team-focused design, but every time I walked by them, I thought they looked more like the decrepit tilt-a-whirls the carnies trucked in for the county fair. I always half expected them to start spinning around, and for each of the workstations to begin going up and down while its occupant surreally kept banging away on his or her keyboard. The only thing missing to complete the illusion was the wet plywood flooring and the smell of horseshit.

The other thing worth mentioning about Don’s Ergonomic Pods is that the people assigned to them were under the same set of restrictions that prevented those of us with offices from hanging anything on our white walls. The company enforced a complete and utter ban on personal effects in anyone’s office or workstation. Photos of loved ones, decorative paperweights, kitschy trinkets picked up at trade shows, even coffee mugs with cute or clever slogans printed on them—they were all equally taboo. If you were caught with any of these items, Don Bascom himself would pay you a visit and swap the offending item for a printed copy of the company’s office d├ęcor and accessories policy. They said it was all part of their efforts to present a polished and professional image to the client VIPs who occasionally paid us a visit, but I think it was more about de-humanizing people so they could get you to do inhuman things. More on that later.

When we got to Mary’s office we found the door closed and Ruthie MacDonald sitting at her desk outside, wetting envelopes with one of those little sponges and sealing them with the heel of her hand. Ruthie was Mary’s executive assistant, and still is, as far as I know. Ruthie’s been with the company longer than just about anyone, and is likely never to leave it. I’m not sure she could make it anywhere else. It’s not that she’s incompetent—far from it. It’s just that she’s never worked anywhere else. She had been Ryan’s assistant before he left the company, and was the assistant to the company’s founder for years before that. I think she started working there right out of high school. And now, she’s so much a fixture in what makes that company work, I don’t think either would survive if they were ever separated from one another.

Like a lot of other executive assistants in a lot of other companies, Ruthie could make people turn cartwheels through razor wire just by looking at them askance. People knew she had the inside track to the boss’s thinking and feelings on any particular subject, and they would do anything she suggested, or even hinted at, if they thought she was giving out clues that would help them stay a leg up on their competition.

At the core, Ruthie was basically manipulating people, but she wasn’t the type to take savage glee in pulling people’s strings. Rather, she had quite a business-like approach to the task, understanding how essential it was to her and to the company’s success. It didn’t say so on her job description, but Ruthie’s primary role in the organization was to keep the boss focused on the thing that mattered most. Mary herself, like a lot of bosses, didn’t always know what that thing was, but Ruthie did. Ruthie would do whatever she had to in order to keep that thing from getting sidetracked. Certain files would get placed on Mary’s desk—others wouldn’t. Certain phone calls would be put right through—others wouldn’t. And certain people would be admitted to the corner office even if the door was closed—others wouldn’t. These were the weapons that Ruthie wielded in defense of her sacred mission, and she wielded them with tremendous skill, honed from long practice.

That morning, I could tell by the look on Ruthie’s face that we were in for a battle if we thought we were going to be admitted to Mary’s office. I surreptitiously advised Susan to keep quiet and to let me do the talking, and then closed the remaining distance to Ruthie’s desk.

“Morning, Ruthie,” I said, as pleasantly as I could. “Is that a new necklace you’re wearing?” When necessary, I believed in putting an adversary off her game from the word go, and complimenting Ruthie on her jewelry was always a good way to start.

“Why, yes it is, Alan,” Ruthie said, suddenly blushing in the overgrown schoolgirl way she had. She was middle-aged with two teenage boys at home, but was still long and lean and freckled exactly as she must have been in high school. “Desmond bought it for me on his last trip to Florida. Don’t you love it?”

Desmond was Ruthie’s husband, a small business owner who spent all his time selling custom-built parts for speed boat engines and all his money on presents for his blushing bride. Physically, they made an odd couple, with Ruthie’s tall gawkiness juxtaposed against Desmond’s dramatically shorter stature. I always thought Desmond looked a lot like Yoda, the muppet Jedi master from the Star Wars films. He wasn’t green, exactly, but he had the same nose, and his ears sort of came to a point with those long, wispy hairs clinging to them.

Ruthie leaned forward, obviously intending for me to take a closer look at her newest prize.

“It’s really nice,” I said, caressing the pendant between my thumb and forefinger. “Is it twenty-four carat?”

“Of course,” Ruthie said with some indignant dismay. “Desmond knows all the best places to shop. He has some very reliable connections on both coasts. He would never be taken in by one of those charlatans who pawn costume jewelry off on the tourists.”

I wasn’t so sure. The pendant was a little teddy bear, and looked distinctly like something you might see hanging off a twelve-year-old’s charm bracelet. But I kept this thought to myself, knowing I had to keep Ruthie in a good mood if we were going to get inside.

“It’s stunning,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster, and then adroitly shifted gears, pitching my voice much more quietly, as if we were sharing a secret. “Hey, what’s on Mary’s calendar today? You think you could find me a few minutes of her time?”

I watched as Ruthie’s green eyes hardened. They lost the soft glow associated with her fond feelings for her puckish husband and the gifts of tribute he constantly offered her, and gained the calculating shine associated with her realization that something was up. She looked briefly at Susan standing impatiently beside me, then once quickly around the office to see who might be within earshot, and then focused laser-like on me.

“What’s going on?” she said.

I knew there was no way we were going to get inside without telling Ruthie some piece of what we had come to say. Like that mythical ferryman over the river Styx, only Ruthie could take us where we wanted to go, but she wasn’t going to do it without a little something for her change purse. And Ruthie’s preferred form of currency in these situations was information—inside information about what was really going on within the company. It’s what she hoarded and what gave her the ability to perform her job as well as she did. But I couldn’t come right out and tell her. That would be taking the risk that she wouldn’t deem it important enough to interrupt whatever Mary was doing on the other side of the door.

I aped Ruthie’s actions from a few moments before, looking furtively around at our surroundings. “I can’t tell you,” I said quietly, indicating with a tilt of my head that there were too many people walking by that could overhear us. “Not out here.”

I saw the sparkle in Ruthie’s eyes intensify, but she was a practiced master, and was frankly better at this game than I was. She turned those eyes down towards Mary’s calendar and slowly began shaking her head.

“I don’t know, Alan,” she said. “Mary’s got a pretty full schedule. I shouldn’t interrupt her unless it’s something that really needs to be dealt with today.”

And then she looked back up at me, her eyes still bright, but this time with the coy satisfaction of knowing that she was in control, and that I wasn’t getting inside unless I spilled the beans.

“Not just today, but right now,” Susan said suddenly, her voice not loud, but also clearly not pitched to avoid being overheard. “The company may be facing some serious liability for sexual harassment.”

Although I felt like strangling Susan for speaking out of turn, her words certainly caught Ruthie’s attention. Forget the twinkling eyes, if Ruthie had been a lioness I could now envision her licking her chops. But Ruthie was not someone to be trifled with, and that’s why I had cautioned Susan to let me do the talking. I had seen many other people in the company try to manipulate her—giving Ruthie only tidbits of information that sometimes didn’t even lead to some bigger scandal—in order to gain access to the boss’s circle of control. Without exception, they all came to regret their actions. The hapless ones found themselves merely boxed out of the influence they had envisioned for themselves. But the calculating ones—those who had angered Ruthie by treating her cavalierly in their own quest for power—one way or the other had a habit of finding themselves cashiered entirely out of the organization. Despite what Susan had reported—even if it was one hundred percent true—I wasn’t sure that Mary would see the same threat to the company that Susan did, and so I wasn’t planning on playing the sexual harassment card with Ruthie in order to get inside. If Mary didn’t see things Susan’s way, then Ruthie was liable to interpret such a ploy as a kind of bait and switch, and was likely to extract some form of punishment on us at a later date.

I watched as Ruthie slowly mastered her excitement and gave me a critical look—obviously waiting for me as the supervisor to confirm or refute the accusation of my direct report.

I swallowed my anger. “It might rise to that level,” I said diplomatically, but then turned partway towards Susan and spoke a little more tersely. “We’d like to brief Mary on what happened and get her read on the situation before making a judgment.”

Ruthie considered it for a moment or two more, and then put her envelope sponge aside. “Wait here,” she said, as she got up and moved towards Mary’s closed office door, her long legs sashaying beneath an ankle-length skirt. She knocked three times in quick succession, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door and poking her head inside.

I took the moment to turn fully towards Susan and give her my angriest look, but she fearlessly glowered back at me, clearly satisfied with her impression that she had gotten us inside.

“Got a few minutes for Alan Larson,” Ruthie said, the question mark not in her tone nor on the end of her sentence.

“What?” I heard Mary’s voice say from inside the office. “Now?”

Ruthie nodded her head, and turned part way back toward me. “He’s here with Susan Sanford. They’ve got something important to tell you.”

“All right,” Mary sighed. “Show them in.”

I skipped forward immediately, motioning for Susan to follow. Ruthie took a step back to give us access to the doorway and ushered us smartly inside. She followed us in and closed the door behind her, pressing her back against its frosted glass. I didn’t say anything. I knew being a fly on the wall during the conversation that was to follow was her payment for letting us in the dragon’s lair.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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, April 15, 2019

Clarity Is Fleeting

I was on the road for much of this past week. I was attending one of my association's major workforce development programs in and around Denver, Colorado, but where I was and what I was doing is not really relevant for the purposes of this post.

What is relevant is that I was away from my office, and that while I was away I was able to get a clear picture on several of the issues that have been vexing me of late. And now that I'm back, falling quickly back into my routine, that sense of clarity has very quickly evaporated and what had been vexing is vexing again.

This is not the first time that I've noticed this dynamic. Getting myself away from my patterns of activity and patterns of thought helps me approach sticky situations with a fresh mental perspective. Invariably, I find myself quickly convinced that a certain course of action is not only obvious, it is imperative. Not only do I know what to do, I feel an urgency to do it.

I'll often send myself an email with a short, crisp instruction. Do THIS, it'll say, and when I send it I think that I'll know exactly what it means when I get back to my office and come across it in the hundreds of messages that have piled up in my inbox. But in that context the instruction is not as obvious or as urgent as it once was. Yeah, I'll typically think, that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that I'm back and dealing with all these other things on my plate, it might be better to push that off into next week, or maybe not even do it all.

The lesson here is to always remember that clarity is fleeting. There's a reason why things become clear when you reduce the number of things distracting you and weighing on your mind. And the next time you feel that sense of imperative urgency, the only thing to do is to act on it, then and there.

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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, April 13, 2019

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw

This is a short and complicated play about Joan of Arc, in which I got more out of Shaw’s preface to it than from the play itself. Here, I think, is an essential piece:

There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us. The rascally bishop and the cruel inquisitor of Mark Twain and Andrew Lang are as dull as pickpockets; and they reduce Joan to the level of the even less interesting person whose pocket is picked. I have represented both of them as capable and eloquent exponents of The Church Militant and The Church Litigant, because only by doing so can I maintain my drama on the level of high tragedy and save it from becoming a mere police court sensation. A villain in a play can never be anything more than a diabolus ex machina, possibly a more exciting expedient than a deus ex machina, but both equally mechanical, and therefore interesting only as mechanism. It is, I repeat, what normally innocent people do that concerns us; and if Joan had not been burnt by normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness her death at their hands would have no more significance than the Tokyo earthquake, which burnt a great many maidens. The tragedy of such murders is that they are not committed by murderers. They are judicial murders, pious murders; and this contradiction at once brings an element of comedy into the tragedy: the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murderers.

This is exactly the kind of drama I like -- philosophies, each defendable, in conflict with one another. In the case of Saint Joan, the philosophies appear essentially to be those of Catholicism and Protestantism; the idea that God only speaks through an ordained church against the idea that God can speak directly to people.

The person in question is, of course, Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated Venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920. She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. Though a professed and most pious Catholic, and the projector of a Crusade against the Husites, she was in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs.

These seems really critical to understanding Shaw’s play. Joan goes to war to defend Catholic France against the Protestants, but she goes to war because God told her to directly, contrary to the Catholic doctrine that God only speaks through His church. When she is killed, she is killed by the Catholic church, killed for heresy, killed for refusing to recant her sacrilege, and is therefore a martyr to the cause that Martin Luther would nail up to the church door eighty-six years later.

But the story is more complicated than that, because it is not just the authority of the Catholic Church that Joan challenged.

At eighteen Joan’s pretensions were beyond those of the proudest Pope or the haughtiest emperor. She claimed to be the ambassador and plenipotentiary of God, and to be, in effect, a member of the Church Triumphant whilst still in the flesh on earth. She patronized her own king, and summoned the English king to repentance and obedience to her commands. She lectured, talked down, and overruled statesmen and prelates. She pooh-poohed the plans of generals, leading their troops to victory on plans of her own. She had an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgment, and authority, and for War Office tactics and strategy. Had she been a sage and monarch in whom the most venerable hierarchy and the most illustrious dynasty converged, her pretensions and proceedings would have been as trying to the official mind as the pretensions of Caesar were to Cassius. As her actual condition was pure upstart, there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable.

Joan’s sin is not just against the authority of the Church, but the authority of the Crown as well. And where one might shelter her against the conscriptive forces of the other, by making an enemy of both she more or less seals her fate.

The following section from the play, in which Peter CAUCHON, the Bishop of Beauvais, and Richard de Beauchamp, the Earl of WARWICK, wonderfully illustrates the dark realization of this situation.

CAUCHON [conciliatory, dropping his polemical tone] My lord: we shall not defeat The Maid if we strive against one another. I know well that there is a Will to Power in the world. I know that while it lasts there will be a struggle between the Emperor and the Pope, between the dukes and the political cardinals, between the barons and the kings. The devil divides us and governs. I see you are not friend to The Church: you are an earl first and last, as I am a churchman first and last. But can we not sink our differences in the face of a common enemy? I see now that what is in your mind is not that this girl has never once mentioned The Church, and thinks only of God and herself, but that she has never once mentioned the peerage, and thinks only of the king and herself.

WARWICK. Quite so. These two ideas of hers are the same idea at bottom. It goes deep, my lord. It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it.

CAUCHON [looking hard at him] You understand it wonderfully well, my lord. Scratch an Englishman, and find a Protestant.

WARWICK [playing the pink of courtesy] I think you are not entirely void of sympathy with The Maid’s secular heresy, my lord. I leave you to find a name for it.

CAUCHON. You mistake me, my lord. I have no sympathy with her political presumptions. But as a priest I have gained a knowledge of the minds of the common people; and there you will find yet another most dangerous idea. I can express it only by such phrases as France for the French, England for the English, Italy for the Italians, Spain for the Spanish, and so forth. It is sometimes so narrow and bitter in country folk that it surprises me that this country girl can rise above the idea of her village for its villagers. But she can. She does. When she threatens to drive the English from the soil of France she is undoubtedly thinking of the whole extent of country in which French is spoken. To her the French-speaking people are what the Holy Scriptures describe as a nation. Call this side of her heresy Nationalism if you will: I can find you no better name for it. I can only tell you that it is essentially anti-Catholic and anti-Christian; for the Catholic Church knows only one realm, and that is the realm of Christ’s kingdom. Divide that kingdom into nations, and you dethrone Christ, and who will stand between our throats and the sword? The world will perish in a welter of war.

WARWICK. Well, if you will burn the Protestant, I will burn the Nationalist.

And there you have it. The Church and the Crown working together to defeat the twin danger of Protestantism and Nationalism. And all of it in the person and actions of Joan of Arc. It makes for an intriguing drama, especially when one harks back to Shaw’s first point. The “villains” are acting against The Maid, not from evil intent or design, but from an honest and sincere understanding of the natural order of all things.

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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, April 8, 2019

Budgets and Bandwidth

Budgets and bandwidth -- two words that have received a lot of attention from me this week. Budgets because I've started sharpening the pencil on next fiscal year's budget for my association, and bandwidth because I've somehow found myself in the middle of four major projects, all hitting at about the same time.

And something occurred to me. Money will only go so far. There might be a hundred things we want to do, but if they all cost money, we're going to have to choose only a handful to focus on. But my time? Well, that's something very different. There has to be an upper limit, but it seems like we can always stretch that resource a little farther.

Maybe I need a time budget? Seriously. I spend so much time on my financial spreadsheets, adding in the cost of some programs, reducing the cost of others -- all in the critical attempt to get that bottom line to balance. We've only got so many dollars. How are we going to spend them?

Well, shouldn't the same concept apply to our time? We've only got so many hours in the day, and fewer still that we can be reasonably expected to keep working. What if we started with a fixed number and assigned a time value to everything we intend to put on our plates? Planning for that Board meeting? That's six hours. Writing that report? That's three. Meeting with and coaching my team? Add two more.

I think we'd quickly see that our time books don't balance. Assigning realistic time values to everything we do will add up to more hours than there are in each day -- and yet, somehow, we keep adding more things to do and we keep getting the right things done.

This is what I think we rightly call bandwidth. Unlike dollars, we can always spread our bandwidth out a little wider to cover more things. Everything we do will get a little less attention, but more things will get done.

Do those around us know we are doing this? They certainly would if we were talking about money. Sorry, all your programs only gets 90% of last year's budget because we need to add in something new. The people on the receiving end of that decision will howl if you pull something like that -- but if you do the same thing with your time and attention, they're likely to promote you to a position of even greater responsibility.

Budgets and bandwidth. Two very different resources used in two very different ways.

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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, April 6, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 7 (DRAFT)

You know, I should probably just start telling you the story. I’ve jumped around so much, you probably think there isn’t a story here at all, that I’ve just come here to wring my hands and make fun of people. Well, that’s not the case. There really is a story here—in many ways it’s the story of my own downfall—and if I’m going to tell it properly I have to go back to shortly after I got that promotion to deputy account executive.

I told you about the meeting Mary and I had attended, the one where she pretended to take me under her wing and re-introduce me to all the VIPs in the non-profit organization we served. Well, there was another meeting going on in another city at the same time, one I would have normally attended in my old role as a department head.

My job before the promotion was overseeing all the educational programming for my client organization, including a big national conference they conducted each year to keep their members up to date on the latest breakthroughs and developments in their field. This other meeting was a smaller workshop, and instead of me attending they sent my replacement, the new education department head, a freshly-hired woman named Susan Sanford. A couple of members of the education department staff went with her, and they really did most of the work at these kind of events. Susan’s role—and mine before that—was to act as a kind of figurehead, taking credit for everything that went right and assigning blame whenever something went wrong. Had it not been for the competing VIP meeting Mary wanted me to attend, I probably would have gone with Susan to introduce her around the way Mary introduced me, but in all the rush to get things done—and remember, under Mary’s leadership there was always a rush to get things done—it wasn’t considered essential and Susan was sent to make her own introductions.

Now, there are three pieces of background information you’re going to need to put what I’m about to tell you in perspective. The first is a little bit about Susan—truly one of the nicest and most forthright people I’ve ever met. No, really. I’m not kidding. She was nice, and when I say nice, I primarily mean that she actually had empathy for others. She had worked directly for a number of nonprofits before joining the company, and had brought much of their compassionate perspective with her. She honestly cared about the people she worked with. She wanted what was best for them. As a supervisor, Susan sought to develop an open and personal relationship with each person that reported to her. She wanted to get to know the whole person—not just an employee, but the real someone with a life and interests outside the office. She earnestly looked for ways to develop their personal strengths and leverage those traits for the good of the organization. She was conscientious, supportive, and caring.

She didn’t stand a chance.

Her meeting lasted a day longer than the one I attended, and the morning she returned she found me in my office.

“Alan,” she said gravely, shutting the door behind her. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

She startled me. I was blowing the steam off my coffee and when she spoke I nearly spilled the whole cup in my lap. Being startled happened a lot to those of us whose positions in the company warranted private offices, because all of those offices were small—so small that the only reasonable way to arrange the furniture was with the desk set facing against the back wall. If you tried turning it around so you could face the door while sitting at your desk—and believe me, some of us had tried—you were forced to literally climb over your desk in order to get behind it.

I spun slowly around to face Susan. I had no idea what was coming next, but whatever it was, it was serious. I said she was nice, but I also said she was forthright, and when she walked into my office that morning I could tell she was ready to take the gloves off. Susan never messed around. If she had something to say, she’d tell it to you straight and not put any varnish on it. Normally, she had this kind of laid-back hippie sensibility about her. It was partly the way she dressed—especially the fringe vest and distressed sandals she wore on casual Fridays—and the way she wore her hair—parted down the middle and hanging long around her face. But it also manifested itself in the way she approached life and human interactions. Like everything was cool in a metaphysical way except those things that were clearly not.

To Susan, certain things were Appropriate, and other things were Inappropriate. If it was Appropriate, then cool, man, let’s joke and laugh and have a good time because we’re all just monkeys trying to find something sweet on this big spinning planet of love. But if it was Inappropriate—if you said something even the slightest bit off-color or risque—then Susan was liable to get up and walk out of the room on you. That’s just the way she was. The line between proper and improper was as clearly defined as that center part in her hair. I didn’t know what Susan needed to tell me, but something had clearly crossed that line.

“Have a seat,” I told her, indicating the only other piece of furniture in my tiny office, an old and misused conference room chair whose bolts needed tightening.

“I don’t want to have a seat,” she said hotly. “I’m too angry to sit down.”

She then began to tell me what happened at the meeting she had just attended with two members of her staff. And here’s the second piece of background you need. Both of these staff people were young women, one of them not over thirty and the other not older than twenty-five. I had just been their direct supervisor as the former education department head, and I knew that they and a number of other young women in the company had formed a pretty tight bond with one another. They worked long hours, were largely underpaid, and were occasionally ogled by the mostly older men who served on the volunteer committees of the non-profit organizations we served. They were, in fact, a clique. And Susan, try as she might, just wasn’t going to be accepted as part of their club.

Susan explained that at their closing dinner—another long and drawn-out affair in another anonymous hotel ballroom with yet another rambling after dinner speaker—she and her staff people sat at one of the tables near the back of the room. That was typical, staff almost always sat apart from the participants at events like this. It wasn’t until you reached my or Mary’s level in the company that you were expected to fraternize with the volunteers and pretend like you had something in common with them. What was not typical is that they were joined by one of the workshop participants—a scheming and lecherous creep named Wes Howard.

He was a real piece of work. Pushing sixty, the most youthful thing about him was his full head of hair and the way he always tried to make himself the life of the party. He drank gin and had this down-home Texas drawl that you could feel crawling up your legs after he had one too many. I had even given Susan a warning about him before we had left for our respective meetings. If someone was going to get ogled at one of the events we planned, nine times out of ten it was Wes Howard who would be doing the ogling.

As usual, Susan didn’t mince any words.

“That man is a predator, Alan. He acts like everything is innocent, but he preys on women, and he pushes things as far as they will go.”

“My god,” I said, fearing the worst. “What happened?”

Susan’s face flushed red, as if she was embarrassed by what she had to say, but her voice was strong and direct. “They all had too much to drink,” she said flatly. “He kept pouring the wine and they kept drinking it, and before long they were whispering things to each other, and Amy and Caroline were giggling and laughing like a pair of schoolgirls.”

Amy was the older of the two. She had been with the company for close to six years. Caroline was younger and had been there less than two. As far as I knew, the company was the first job after college for the both of them.

“And him!” Susan nearly shouted. “Him! Sitting there between them, egging them on with his devious smile and that sick twinkle in his eye. A dirty old man with a stray hand on each of their thighs. It was disgusting!”

“He was…touching them?” I asked. “What did you do?”

Susan shook her head. “Alan, I have never been more embarrassed in my life. They were talking about me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they would whisper to each other and then look over at me and laugh. Like I was some kind of joke to them. Like I was too stupid to understand any of their secret gags. I felt humiliated. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what he would do if I left. They were so loud. They’d had way too much to drink and the whole room heard them and saw the way they were acting.”

I began to feel sick inside as Susan was telling me this. In some ways it certainly sounded like Wes Howard’s modus operandi—and that’s the third piece of background information you need. At events like this, good ol’ Wes had a habit of inviting himself along with a group of staff people at the end of a long day for drinks at the hotel bar. He’d done it dozens of times before. He’d wind up buying most of the drinks, cracking most of the jokes, and invariably sit himself next to the most attractive young woman in the group. Amy and Caroline had often been part of these groups, acting in ways that frankly stretched the boundaries of a strictly professional relationship.

It was Inappropriate, sure, but they were young and trying to have fun, and as long as there was a supervisor or someone like that present, things never went too far over the line. Of course, it didn’t help that Wes was well respected in his profession and had some powerful connections in the organization. He’d been on the leadership track for years, and even though he’d not yet found his way onto the board of directors, everyone agreed it was just a matter of time. He probably should have been at the VIP meeting I was at—I think he was actually on that invitation list—but had evidently made a different decision about where he belonged. It’s true that in the company we had come to think of his affinity for young women on our staff as something that needed to be managed rather than dealt with. But having said that, it’s also true that in my experience, I had never seen Wes, Amy, or Caroline act in the way Susan was describing.

“The whole room heard them?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly that,” Susan said. “The whole room heard them. They were laughing so loud the speaker could barely complete his talk. People at the other tables kept telling them to quiet down, and they’d stop for a little while, but soon they’d start whispering again, and before you knew it, Amy would burst out with that ear-splitting laugh she has. You know the one I mean?”

I certainly did. When Amy laughed it sounded like a howler monkey had gotten stuck in a trash compactor. I nodded my head.

“It was awful, Alan, unbelievably awful. When the speaker finished, everyone just got up and left. Everyone in the room was embarrassed by what had happened. There was no Q and A, no closing announcements—everyone just got up and left. And the three of them just kept goofing around and laughing.”

The sick feeling in my stomach got worse. I looked uncomfortably around the room and felt distinctly like the walls were closing in on me. There were no windows in my office. For whatever reason, the space we occupied had been configured with all the offices lined up along one long wall. It was the one that backed up against the building’s parking structure and, as a result, none of the offices had any windows. That left me with four bare walls and a door. The walls were bare—and painted a snow-blinding white—because company policy said we couldn’t hang anything on them. No framed art, no tacked up posters, no bulletin boards—not even an ass-kissing photo of our fearless leader or a plaque engraved with the company’s incomprehensible code of ethics. Don Bascom was known to say that the reason for the ban on wall hangings was that they didn’t want to be constantly patching holes in the walls as people moved in and out of the offices. He sometimes even said it with a straight face, not realizing what message it conveyed regarding his expectations for your tenure with the organization.

Now, I simply focused my attention back on Susan, doing my best to ignore my enveloping sense of claustrophobia. “What did you do?” I asked.

Susan looked at me resolutely, folding her arms across her chest. “I left, too. I’d had enough. I know what you told me about keeping an eye on him, Alan, but even I couldn’t take it anymore. I no longer cared what he might do to Amy or Caroline, I was so angry and humiliated. I just had to get out of there.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. Leaving Wes Howard alone with two young, attractive, and inebriated staff people was a mistake any way you looked at it. “Did you say anything to them?”

I know Susan could hear the unease in my voice, but she stood her ground. “I told them to act their age—all three of them—but they just laughed at me.”

Susan didn’t see them for the rest of the night, and the next morning she and Amy and Caroline all met each other at the airport for the flight home. Susan, being Susan, had by then recovered her natural empathy and wanted to know if they were both all right, if Wes had done anything Inappropriate after she had left.

“Amy told me to mind my own business,” Susan said. “She said they were both big girls and knew how to take care of themselves. But she was hiding something. Something they were both ashamed of. It seemed neither one of the them was standing as tall as they once had, and Caroline never said a word and never looked me in the eye.”

Susan paused, her eyes momentarily staring down at her feet, and her lips pressing together into a tight line. “I don’t know what that son of a bitch did,” she said direly as her venomous eyes popped back up, “but he took advantage of one or both of them, I’m sure of it.”

At this point my mind was racing, the claustrophobia growing and seeming to propel my thoughts forward. I was clearly looking for a way out, and I forced myself to take a step back. What exactly had Wes done? Susan was certain he had gone past impropriety and into some kind of assault, but she had no real proof, and neither one of the two possible witnesses had told her anything. For all we knew he had done nothing more than walk them back to their hotel rooms and kiss them on the foreheads. Neither Amy nor Caroline liked Susan, and they both had evidently had too much to drink the night before. Their reaction to Susan in the airport could have been nothing more than their contempt for her filtered through the head-pounding fuzz of their wine hangovers.

“What are you going to do about this, Alan?” Susan’s hostile tone interrupted my train of thought. She was angry—justifiably so—and made it clear that she expected someone to read the riot act to Wes Howard. She expected someone to confront him and tell him to keep his sick old hands off the junior members of our staff. And she was looking squarely at me.

I had been deputy account executive and Susan’s supervisor for less than three months. I had sent her to this meeting, had cautioned her against Wes’ behavior, and had instructed her to keep an eye on him to prevent things from getting out of hand. It’s what we always did when we knew he was going to be at an event, but those strategies hadn’t prepared me to deal with anything like this.

Wes Howard was one of the favored few—a VIP among VIPs—and Mary would have never promoted me if she hadn’t thought I had learned the lesson that wherever the VIPs are concerned, you puckered up first and asked for forgiveness later. And yet here was Susan Sanford, a woman new to our organization, but one honest and true and with a moral sense as yet uncorrupted by the company’s twisted priorities and politics, making accusations against him that, if true, should not just keep him off the board of directors, but probably land him in jail. I didn’t know what to do. And while I struggled to come up with the solution on my own, those damn white office walls of mine seemed to keep pressing in on me from all sides.

“Let go talk to Mary,” I said.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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, April 1, 2019

Back on Campus

I took a short break this week to do a college visit with my 17-year-old son. He's thinking about studying engineering (or math), and so we've been touring a couple of relevant universities to help him decide where he does and does not want to apply.

This past week's visit was to the same university that both my wife and I graduated from, now almost 30 years ago. Being back on that campus was nostalgic in so many strange ways. Look! There's a brand-new building. What was on that corner when I was here? Look! There's the off-campus house I lived in. It's still that ugly shade of green.

But the trip was for my son's benefit -- not mine -- and I did the best I could to see things from his point of view. We actually did three tours: one for on-campus housing, one for the campus in general, and one for the engineering school. And based on the discussion I had with my son on the car ride home, I'd have to say he was favorably impressed with all three.

One thing my son found appealing that neither my wife nor I remember having access to when we were students was the depth and prevalence of tutoring and acclimatization resources the university offered. It's a big school, and many children and parents are probably worried about students getting lost and struggling to navigate its many rules and diversions. But on every tour we went, we were told and we saw how hard the university works to make sure incoming freshman are safe and have access to the tools they need to help them succeed. Free tutoring, learning communities, student groups and clubs -- our tour guides seemed to bend over backward to stress both their importance and their availability.

It made both me and my son feel more comfortable about his prospects at the school. So much so that, by the end of the tour, I think my son was thinking that this university might be leading the others that we had visited.

Reflecting on that makes me realize how much college is a time for social as well as professional development. Looking at my son and the other high school students that were on our tours, and comparing them to the college students that gave the presentations and led us on the tours, I could see how much distance there is between those two groups of people. High school kids are still kids, but college students are young men and women. That gap was clear, but so were the ways in which that gap could begin to be bridged.

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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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