I also recently served on the board of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE)--including a year as board chair. It was my first experience serving as a board member, and it gave me another perspective on the issue of leadership in associations and other organizations. Much of what I experienced as a volunteer board member provided a rich context for better understanding the position of the volunteer leaders in my own association and in other associations I've worked for.
I bring both of these perspectives to my writings on leadership. Here's an index of the leadership posts appearing on this blog:
Association Management Companies
06/27/16 - Busy Is Not Always Better
Association management is one thing, but association strategy and execution is another. Managing the transactional aspects of an association's operation requires real energy and attention to detail, something young workers in AMCs typically have in spades. But helping an association determine and drive its unique place in the universe requires deep thought and engagement, something those same staffers often struggle to find time for.
07/16/12 - Thoughts on Association Mergers
The first question to ask of any association leader contemplating a merger is: "Are you willing to create something new?"
Associations vs. For-Profit Organizations
06/20/16 - No Money, No Mission
No money, no mission. It's a common phrase in the world of associations. And it's worth remembering, even though, in my experience, it often isn't.
05/16/16 - Associations Are Non-Profits for a Reason
There is a clear and important reason that associations are organized as non-profit organizations. It is to fulfill their socially-beneficial missions. But just because you can't fulfill that mission without providing your members with valuable responses to their market-driven needs, you shouldn't let the quest to provide those responses destroy your ability to fulfill your mission.
02/25/13 - What is the Association Value Proposition?
Associations are organizations that manifest the collective will of a constituency that feels a sense of shared purpose. The challenge isn't that value proposition, but finding better ways to deliver it.
03/12/12 - Provocative Proposals for Change
Collective action for the public good is one of the things that separates associations from most for-profit organizations. Rather than strive to be more like for-profits, it may be time to embrace that difference.
Being a Board Member
01/30/17 - Why New Board Members Don't Speak Up
Like a lot of people in my situation, I kept my mouth mostly shut in my very first board meeting, paying more attention to the personalities and protocols I was seeing on display for the first time.
09/07/15 - What Are You Looking For in Your Next Board Member?
As past chair of an association board, and now the chair of its nominating committee, what are the three most critical things I'm looking for in potential board candidates? They may not be what you expect.
01/19/15 - And You Have to Have the Right Staff
Two positions--the Board Chair and the Staff Executive--must work in alignment with each other for any agenda to advance in the short period of time typically reserved for Board Chair terms.
01/12/15 - Reflections on a Year as Board Chair
All in all, my year as Board chair was a tremendous experience. I learned a lot about how associations actually function, and about what Boards can and cannot do to change things.
02/10/14 - Both Sides of the Board Table
Sometimes, the job of the Board chair and the job of the staff CEO seem more similar than different, more a part of a cohesive team than any kind of antagonists.
11/21/11 - Things I've Learned From Being a Board Member
In this edition: Association staff are pulled in too many different directions.
01/02/17 - The Importance of the Frame
If things are going to get argued and decided at the Board table, it is far better for the Board to be having those arguments and making those decisions about the key strategic objectives that govern both decision-making and program activity in the organization.
10/17/16 - Who Drives the Granularity of the Discussion?
When it comes to strategic association Board agendas, it is the job of the staff executive to make sure the Board members themselves are driving the granularity of the discussion. By which, I mean that the Board members have to be the ones who decide what to dig into, and how deep to do the digging.
11/03/14 - What Happens When Non-Board Members Attend Board Meetings?
Positive benefits came when we brought in folks from two distinct groups: (1) Members of key stakeholder groups that were under-represented on the Board; and (2) Individuals who had expressed interest and who we were beginning to groom for possible Board service in the future.
Building Coalitions and Partnerships
08/29/16 - Organizational Cultures at the Crossroads
Associations are often tarred with the "risk averse" brush. But there is one area in which most associations I know actively embrace risk, and it is an area that can scare the pants off some of their non-association partners. It's the area I've already mentioned--chasing after big goals with inadequate resources.
12/05/11 - Calling Everyone (Not Just Boomers): Which Battle Are you Fighting?
What if we convinced ourselves that success comes not from the individual struggle against the goal, but in the attempt to build the coalition that could best achieve the goal?
11/16/15 - All Committees Are Not Created Equal
Got into a friendly argument with a colleague about my contention that program committees should report to an association's Chief Staff Executive, or CEO, and not its Board of Directors. His take? Absolutely not. Never. Committees must always been created by and report directly to the Board.
11/09/15 - A Committee By Any Other Name
My association has four different types of "committees," each with a different core function. In our lexicon, "committee" is more appropriately used as a category, describing a class of volunteer bodies that help the association govern and manage itself.
01/21/13 - Actors in the Play
A metaphor a former Board chair used to describe the way program committees should report to the association staff executive, not its Board of Directors.
12/12/11 - What Race for Relevance Inadvertently Taught Me About Committees
Namely, that, despite their frequent dysfunction, they can still represent a unique benefit for professional development and industry advancement.
11/14/11 - Which Committee Are You On?
Some committee chairs put their preferred action ahead of engaging their members in determining an action. What does that do your willingness to engage with that committee and the association that hosts it?
09/26/11 - Should Committees Report to the Board?
Governance committees, yes; management committees, no. It's a simple as that.
Communicating Your Ideas
07/25/16 - Why Do I Keep Blogging?
Because it creates engagement around ideas that wouldn't otherwise occur. The engagement happens most often in person, when I meet someone who has been reading my blog at a conference or in the office. I said something they reacted to--good or bad--and now we can have a conversation about a subject we realize we both care about.
03/07/16 - Never Speak to Strangers
I got over my butterflies when speaking to a room full of my members at our annual conference. Now, I look forward to the opportunity to distill the work we've been doing and put it into a compelling story. It no longer feels like I have to convince a group of skeptical strangers. I'm just sharing some good news with a group of friends.
10/26/15 - Your Association in Three Slides?
A recent conference experience got me thinking. Could I "pitch" my association to a prospective member in five minutes and with the help of no more than three Powerpoint slides? What would I say? What would I include? And, perhaps more importantly, what wouldn't I say? And what wouldn't I include?
09/21/15 - Your Moment in the Spotlight
Your moment in the spotlight is when the attention of a crowd turns to you and you have a small window to make a big impact. When you see your moment approaching, calm down, decide what you need to say, and speak slowly. Far more people will actually hear you.
05/25/15 - Time to Think
Not time alone in your office thinking about strategy. Rather, the time that exists between when someone asks you a question and when you open your mouth to respond. That is one of the most critical moments of all.
04/06/15 - Infographics Have Jumped the Shark
Okay. Time for a rant. I hate infographics. Always have. Most do exactly the opposite of what they intend to do. Instead of making the complicated simple, they make the simple complicated.
08/04/14 - Communicating Takes Time
Communicating the right information, in the right way, without confusing or overwhelming your audience--it takes time. I can't do it effectively without appropriate preparation.
03/17/14 - The Challenge of Distilling Ideas
Many leaders are challenged by trying to communicate complex ideas. Time and attention often preclude the sharing of a reasoned and thoughtful analysis, and shortcuts and sound bites are often the result.
Dealing with Change and Uncertainty
06/13/16 - No Longer Unsolvable Association Problems
Great advice from another blog: When we are too close to the problem we tend to narrow our thinking. The trick is to broaden our thinking and develop many more reasonable solutions to add to the discussion.
04/21/14 - Your Leader Is In Control
Why do people need to know that their leader is in control? And what would happen if they would discover that he isn't?
07/29/13 - The Boss Isn't Always Right
What keeps staff people from solving their own problems, from increasing their own understanding of their environment, and defending their ideas based on what’s best for the mission of the organization? And what keeps bosses from staying silent, from trying to solve problems they don't fully understand?
04/08/13 - Association Turf Battles
Holding people accountable for resisting collaboration and teamwork is at least as important as clearly communicating your expectations for embracing these values.
01/09/17 - You Can Decide When To Check Your Email
If there is anyone out there who still needs to be granted permission, I'll grant it. You have the power to decide when to check and respond to your emails. Stop leaping every time a new message comes in.
04/04/16 - Association Professionals Are Experts
As an association executive, I've facilitated dozens of sessions, always being sure not to let any one voice dominate the conversation and listening carefully for areas of true consensus. And as a communications professional, I'm skilled at composing and organizing content on the fly, using my laptop and an LCD projector to present and test concepts in real-time. These are among the skill sets that association professionals are experts in.
08/03/15 - Roadmapping Is Just As Important As Roadmaps
If the roadmap is the plan, then the roadmapping is the process we use to develop the plan. It requires us to bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss and identify what's important and what we're going to work together to achieve and what we're not. And that--the bringing people together--is just as important as the decision we make about what to do next.
12/08/14 - Opposing Views Are Allowed to Co-Exist
When facilitating a meeting of members, remember that opposing views are allowed to co-exist in the room. Not every discussion is an argument that needs to be won.
12/01/14 - Seeing Through Their Lenses
When facilitating a meeting of members, be aware of the unique mix of perspectives (or “lenses”) that participants use to make sense of the world around them.
11/24/14 - Learning and Growth
When facilitating a meeting of members, remember that learning and growth result from the appropriate mix of challenge and support. We need to stretch our volunteers enough so that they engage productively with the work we need them to do, but we also need to provide them with the right amount of intelligence, tools, and logistical support so they can see clearly a path that leads to success.
11/17/14 - Breaking the Ice
When facilitating a meeting of association members, think about what “ice” needs to be broken--that is, given the work that needs to be done, the people gathered to do it, and the time available to get it done, what initial task should be performed in order to ensure that the group can knit together as a team and focus most effectively on the task at hand?
11/10/14 - Association Staff as Facilitative Leaders
Association staff are more than just facilitators of volunteer decisions. They are champions and advocates for the outcome of their facilitation. They have to communicate the decision to others and engage them in supporting the actions that naturally flow from it.
06/30/14 - Leadership and U-Shaped Tables
A great reminder of how something as ostensibly simple as your room set can affect the the outcome of your meeting.
03/18/13 - When Consensus Is Not Enough
Sometimes, an individual commitment to do more than the group is willing to sanction can help advance both the discussion and the organization's goals.
02/20/12 - Whose Job Is It to Be the Facilitator?
I say it is a better practice for the Chief Governance Officer (CGO), not the Chief Staff Officer (CEO), to serve as the board's facilitator. Not every association has a CGO with that capacity, but all would be well served by developing them.
01/18/16 - Make Less Bread
Don't ask for more so that you can add more programs to an already undigestible list of activities. Ask for more so that the association can increase the impact of the fewer programs that are actually working.
06/08/15 - Fundraising and Association Leadership
Successful fundraising in the association space is absolutely dependent on personal connections and relationships.
Governance and Management
03/20/17 - Boards and Annual Conference Venues
I've had two recent experiences that have made me think critically about an association board's role in selecting venues for their association's annual conference.
02/01/16 - Can Holocracy Work Inside Your Association?
How compatible is holocracy with what is often considered a best practice in association management: clearly separating governance from management?
10/19/15 - A Board That Governs Itself
My Board has been working for a number of years now on elevating their own performance--on taking more responsibility for governing the association and giving me more responsibility for managing it. But even now, there are times when my own Board surprises me, when their understanding of their role as governors and my role as manager surpasses even mine.
06/16/14 - Staying Above the Line
The struggle at every Board meeting is to provide Board members with enough information about the operational progress and plans of the organization so they can put their strategy work in the proper context, without leaving them with the impression that they are there to fix, direct, or change operational programs and priorities.
05/20/13 - Who Owns Your Association?
If you're the chief staff executive, you must own the association, because only you are in a position to take it where it needs to go. But you must take it only to the vision determined by the board.
10/31/11 - Race for Relevance is a Negotiating Position
Not a five-person board? Well, okay. Then how about seven? Or nine? You do agree that our board should be smaller and more competency-based, right?
01/25/16 - Generalist > Specialist
Been reading (and thinking) about the pros and cons of hiring generalists vs. specialists. When it comes to small staff associations like mine, generalists win hands down. Here's just three reasons why.
Leadership as a System Capacity
10/31/16 - The Distributed Periphery
I was flipping through the pages of a favorite book this week and came across the following quote: "The trick is to ... recognize that the power to achieve great things lies more in the work of the distributed periphery than in the inner workings of the center."
04/25/16 - Blogging and Systems Level Thinking
Even though many of my posts are about the professional challenges I face as the staff executive of a trade association, I have come to generally stay away from the specifics of any situation. This puts me immediately into a systems mindset. What is really driving the issue at hand? Looking past the people and the program, what are the underlying circumstances and assumptions that are bringing the difficulty about?
04/14/14 - On the Right Track
If things are continuing to trend towards diffusion of leadership and decision-making, then the track, regardless of any natural bumps we may feel along the way, is the undoubtedly the right one.
04/07/14 - Takeaways from Humanize
Across all four of the blog posts I wrote based on what I read in Humanize by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, a central theme seems to dominate. It is the idea of an association in which leadership and decision-making is not concentrated at the top, but diffused productively across its many levels.
05/07/12 - Leadership Is Not About Getting Your Way
A leader's job is not to impose solutions from above, but to help the organization develop the systems and resources to adequately address the problems that are holding it back
03/05/12 - Leadership Is a System Capacity
And for association boards, that means thinking about who is going to be leading the organization years from now, and putting systems in place that will identify and groom those future leaders.
08/15/16 - Leaders Need to Play a Different Game
The job of the leader is very different than those of the managers that report to him or her. Many work in highly complex environments, with cross-functional teams comprised of stakeholders in and out of their business units or even their organizations. And leaders of those kind of teams have to keep their eye on a different game than the one everyone else is playing.
07/11/16 - Decide Despite the Doubt
Here's a secret. Leaders are filled with doubt. But deciding is what makes them good leaders. They decide despite the doubt.
03/28/16 - Embrace the Messy Now
The Messy Now is the time when nothing seems to work, no one seems up to the task, and there's not enough money in the budget. The trick, of course, is to embrace this time, because it has things to teach you, if you are quiet and calm enough to learn them.
08/10/15 - Are You Excited About What Comes Next?
You'd better be. As your association's CEO, it's your job to be excited about what comes next. Look around, find the new thing that needs to be done, and use your own enthusiasm and influence to get others invested in accomplishing it. That's what CEOs do.
07/28/14 - Leadership Lessons on the Hiking Trail
When hiking, or leading others, try the thing that's difficult and do it publicly in front of people. And when you stumble, pick yourself up with humility and grace and press on.
07/14/14 - Decision Making for Number Ones and Number Twos
Thinking about the kinds of decisions that get made by association CEOs vs. association COOs helps illuminate some of the misunderstood differences between the two positions.
02/24/14 - The Arbitrariness of Leadership
There isn't a finite set of practices and procedures that can be used to define effective leadership in all situations at all times. Leadership is more of an art than a science, and some artists appeal more to some people than to others.
11/18/13 - When the Boss Loses His Cool
What does it mean when a boss loses his cool? Frankly, not much. What's more important is understanding what it doesn't mean.
04/01/13 - Stop Using the Word "Just"
"Just" minimizes whatever it is you're thinking about. It puts it in a mental category that can be more easily dismissed or ignored.
02/04/13 - Don't Compete on Price
Trying to compete with another provider on price is the surest way to destroy the loyalty members might have for an association and transform their thinking into that of the disinterested consumer.
01/28/13 - The Silent Boss
Knowing when to speak and when to remain silent is one of the toughest lessons to learn, especially in an organization where everyone--including the boss--has to wear multiple hats.
01/14/13 - The Messy Unknown
Fashioning success out of the chaos that seemingly surrounds us is one of the most challenging tasks any leader will ever face.
01/07/13 - Finding Success All at Once
If they're going to succeed in today's association environment, leaders have to be able to develop their skills, seek exposure, and seize opportunities all at once, or in whichever order the situation demands.
10/08/12 - Reduce, and Gain Power
The quest for clarity is universal. If you are the leader that provides it, your power to influence others and shape your external environment can be dramatically increased.
05/28/12 - Don't Say It If You Don't Mean It
If you don't think the organization has the resources, the expertise or the commitment to deliver, say that, and get your Board talking about what it will take to build the capacity so that the truly great ideas can be realized.
05/21/12 - Don't Rush to Fill the Silence
Sometimes it's better not to propose quick solutions to vexing problems.
Leading By Example
07/21/14 - Going on Vacation
I don't disconnect when I go on vacation, but expect my staff to. Since leaders lead more by their actions than by their words, if I truly want people to disconnect, wouldn't they be more likely to do that if they saw me doing it myself?
02/03/14 - Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration
Last year Henry Ford helped me think about how to change the game. This year, my thoughts are turning more towards Thomas Edison and all the things he supposedly said about what it takes to make things work.
02/27/12 - Pockets of Chaos
An argument for leaders to decentralize not their entire organizations, but as many parts as possible without losing control of the ability to capitalize on the outputs of those parts.
11/28/11 - Film Directing Lessons in Innovation and Leadership
Among others: The things that you get fired for when you’re young are the exact same things you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old.
04/11/16 - Some Rules Are Meant to Be Broken
Some people never return library books. That's a fact. But that doesn't necessarily mean that a library should stop lending to them.
03/25/13 - Measuring Behaviors, Not Outcomes
Measuring the behaviors that lead to the intended outcome instead of the outcome itself forces an examination of the behaviors that are desired and effective, and creates a reward system that is more closely aligned with activities that are actually under the control of the association and its staff.
12/03/12 - Measuring What Matters
You're not going to know coming out of the gate what should be measured--but you have to start measuring something.
11/19/12 - Too Big to Measure
Pledge yourself to something that can be measured and achieve things of lesser significance. Or pledge yourself to something of great significance and give up on the idea of finding a metric that truly tracks your progress. Does any one know of a third choice?
11/07/16 - The Limitations of Crowd-Funding for Associations
In many ways, associations are the original crowd-funded organizations. Their economies of scale are powerful. If everyone chips in a few bucks, then we can all benefit from a service that none of us are willing or able to fund on our own. But this model has its limitations.
06/03/13 - Transactional vs. Aspirational Membership - Expanded Version
It's actually a false choice. Successful associations don't approach this as an either-or proposition, because they know that failure waits at both ends of the continuum.
04/29/13 - Transactional vs. Aspirational Membership
How do you think about the relationship between your members and your association? Is it transactional or aspirational?
Motivating and Challenging Staff Members
04/18/16 - Terms of Engagement
When teams don't organically assemble you have to step in and dictate who will work with who and for what purpose. You have to define the terms of engagement.
11/30/15 - The Importance of Being Direct
What I've come to understand is that being direct about what to do and being direct about how to act and what decisions to make are only different in the sense that means are different from ends. Always be direct about means when the means are important. But only be direct about ends when the means are not important or they are better kept out of your direct control.
04/20/15 - There Is No Them
Turfing things to the marketing, membership, or meeting planning department is abdicating our primary responsibilities. We know who are members are, we know the value of the products we offer them, we know what we want to achieve from each meeting.
10/06/14 - I'm Not Building a Navy SEAL Team
A common type of speaker is someone retired from the military talking about their own experiences with team-building and team leadership. But, I'm not building or leading a Navy SEAL team. I'm running a 10-staff person trade association headquartered in Milwaukee with a $3 million budget. And I'm really not sure what one has to do with the other.
10/21/13 - How Long Does It Have to Be?
Leaders give out difficult assignments to challenge people and to challenge the capacity of the organization. They typically don't want to met with, but sometime are, the equivalent of "How long does it have to be?", the desperate plea of high school English students.
02/27/17 - Playing the Long Game
When in a negotiation of any kind, it's important to understand the time horizon that each party is bringing into the discussion. Because the one with the longer time horizon will have an advantage over the one with the shorter one.
Paradoxes of Association Management
08/08/16 - Organizational Alignment Flows From Decentralized Decision Making
Organizational alignment flows more easily from decentralized decision-making than command-and-control bureaucracy.
07/04/16 - Strategic Agendas Create Strategic Boards
Strategic agendas must create strategic boards before strategic boards can create strategic agendas.
05/30/16 - Learn the Language of Your Members
Success comes when staff learns the language of members, not when members learn the language of staff.
05/09/16 - All Associations Are Not Created Equal
Small, volunteer-driven associations have a keen sense of what needs to be done but not enough resources to accomplish it, while large, staff-driven associations have the resources needed to execute programs well but far less of an understanding of what really matters to their members.
05/02/16 - Paradoxes in Association Management
What are the paradoxes of association management--the counterintuitive practices that we must embrace if we want to be successful?
06/11/12 - A False Sense of Closure
Do not expect your organization's direction to emerge from a formal process all at once. Instead, develop capabilities for systems-wide innovation, reinvention, reconfiguration, openness and flexibility through which your association will be constantly renewed and re-aligned with the market.
01/23/12 - Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
If what you do doesn't adhere to the common assumptions that underlie formal strategic planning, then stop calling it that. Choose another term that captures your on-going re-invention of strategy and tactics. Association management?
02/20/17 - Not Everyone Will Agree With Your Vision
What you do in these situations can be one of the most difficult tests of your leadership. When I'm confronted with such a situation, I usually ask myself where my greater loyalties lie--with the vision, or with the relationship that I've built.
09/26/16 - How Many Eggs in Your Basket?
Every organization has to make choices. Choices about how many strategic priorities to have and about how many resources to allocate to each priority. How your organization makes those choices, and how those choices are perceived by those in and out of your organization, will, for better or worse, define your strategic vision.
05/06/13 - If the Future Is a Painting, Who's the Painter?
One of the pivotal responsibilities of the leader is not to present the clearest possible picture of the future, but to define for the organization the set of terms and conditions on which the future picture will be created.
04/15/13 - Accessibility vs. High Fidelity
Will an association that focuses on providing the highest quality experience, even at the expense of more and more accessible services, have a competitive advantage?
01/09/12 - Why Change the World in 2012?
Focus instead on changing (and elevating) the conversation. Ask why we are doing the things we do to create better alignment with your strategic vision.
10/03/11 - The Giant Hairball of Complexity
Netflix stays focused on the obvious end game. Shouldn't your association do that, too?
10/05/15 - Why CEOs Do "It"
Because doing something, even if It is not the right thing to do, is always part of the process of determining what the right thing is. Always.
05/18/15 - Talking About Resources at the Board Table Is Hard
Most associations--and many other organizations of both the non- or for-profit variety--face the same reality. Their goals are bigger than their resources. But instead of admitting this, lots of Boards and lots of staff executives silently agree to pretend it isn't true.
04/28/14 - Three Kinds of Meetings
I've been spending a lot of time on the road lately. It's part of the life of most association executives. But lately, it's gotten me thinking about the three kinds of meetings I find myself at.
05/27/13 - The Folly of Suppressing Overhead
Don't fall victim to the folly of suppressing overhead. It may look good on your balance sheet or help your Guidestar ratings, but it also means that you're not serious about accomplishing the mission you have supposedly pledged yourself to.
02/13/12 - A Bias for Action
Having a bias for action is a difficult but rewarding habit for a leader to develop.
12/10/12 - Are Your Members More Tech Savvy Than Your Association?
The online expectations of members are being shaped by their experiences across the web, and fewer and fewer of them will offer an association the same pass they might have offered before.
04/03/17 - The Glamourous Life
Even with all my experience, there's part of me that still marvels at the idea that I so frequently wake up in one city and go to sleep in another. It’s not anything to crow about. It's just the way our crazy world works.
Understanding the World of Your Members
01/11/16 - Going Toe-to-Toe with Your Members
A bungled conference call leaves me on the phone with only one member of a conference planning committee. What did I do? Did I apologize and promise to reschedule? No. I went toe-to-toe with the member, trading ideas for topics and speakers, leveraging the knowledge of the marketplace and my membership that I had built up over my time in the organization.
06/09/14 - When I Choose to Spend More Nights on the Road
Taking a few nights every year to intentionally slow your normal pace of doing things and to think carefully about how your members will view and take advantage of a new set of opportunities can be an extremely helpful exercise.
09/23/13 - Can You Cash That Check?
Yes, write about the most exciting and interesting things going on in your association's industry or profession on your association's blog, but do it in a way that respects the knowledge of the reader.
03/04/13 - What Kind of Professional Are You?
Which is better? To be an association professional serving your industry? Or to be an industry professional working at an association?
02/18/13 - Don't Talk to the Members
Some association staff members actually avoid contact with their own members. Here are three reasons why that might be the case.
Younger Generations Becoming Leaders
01/02/12 - Dear Older Generation: It's Not Just Your America
A bit of a rant on the barriers put in place by older generations that keep younger generations from assuming the leadership positions they will eventually need to assume.