Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The New Lost Generation?

I've noted before articles that I've seen that seem to predict an impending leadership takeover by Millennials. They are, as these articles say, more numerous, more entrepreneurial, and (evidently), just plain better than us crusty old Xers.

Imagine my surprise when someone called my attention to the cover story in a recent issue of Business Week, where they're beginning to worry that this economic downturn and the joblessness crisis that has accompanied it is turning those heir apparents into apparently nots.

For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of "lost generation." Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.

But it's not just bad for them. It's bad for us, too.

Equally important, employers are likely to suffer from the scarring of a generation. The freshness and vitality young people bring to the workplace is missing. Tomorrow's would-be star employees are on the sidelines, deprived of experience and losing motivation.

It's an interesting twist in the generational leadership narrative. Perhaps the Millennials are not so unstoppable after all. But then I have to remember, for every Millennial who is kept off the bottom rung of the ladder by the bad economy, there is likely a Boomer who is isn't leaving the top rung for the same reason. And the Xers? Stuck in the middle again.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Association Leadership and Innovation

I recently accepted an invitation to join the Board of WSAE, my state society for association executives and staff. After 16 years of working with Boards as an association staff person, it will be my first experience being a Board member myself. I expect to learn something new (new to me, at least) about leadership in associations and the appropriate interplay between Boards and staffs. The WSAE Board and membership, like a lot of other societies these days, include a changing generational mix--Xers like me moving into prominence and positions of leadership. I expect to learn something from that angle as well. And I expect to blog about some of those experiences here on Hourglass. Stay tuned.

One thing I've already learned (or reinforced, since I sort of knew it already, but now the shoe is really on the other foot) is that one of the best ways to get a Board member engaged is to help them build a link between their personal/professional interests and the organizational objectives of the association.

In my current situation, that link proved to be the topic of innovation. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, looking for better ways to support a culture of innovation in my association, and finding inspiration in several examples from the for-profit world--examples where successful companies have incorporated an "innovation function" into their business model. This is dedicated, defined, and resourced function within the organization that works to generate innovative ideas and select the right ones to develop into innovative products. Ram Charan, our keynote speaker at our February 2009 Annual Conference, described it something like this:

I clearly remember sitting in that keynote session, scribbling down notes from Ram's presentation, knowing that I would use them to construct a flowchart like the one I've reproduced above, fascinated with the idea that this "corporate best practice" might have an application in the association world.

And that's where my link with WSAE comes in. I wanted to explore these concepts with a peer group of association CEOs, ones who, like me, are committed to this idea of creating an innovative culture for our associations, but are struggling to find a workable model. And WSAE wants to find ways to engage more association CEOs in their activities, leveraging their interests and experience to add more value to the whole profession of association management. That organizational objective, coupled with my professional interest, has resulted in something we're calling the WSAE Innovation Task Force.

Essentially, it's a group of WSAE members, weighted with association CEOs, who are willing to share information and meet on a regular basis to discuss innovative practices in their organizations. Before every meeting, we'll select one case study, from either the for-profit or non-profit world, to review, and then at the meeting we'll discuss:

1. Principles of innovation successfully employed by the organization profiled.
2. Strategies for applying those principles to the association environment in general.
3. Actions for individual participants to take in applying those principles in their organizations.

Future meetings will follow a similar agenda, but we plan to start each subsequent meeting by asking participants who made a commitment to action at the previous meeting to share their real experiences in implementing those actions in their organizations. Adjustments to a growing list of innovation principles and strategies for the association environment will be discussed based on these real experiences. Over time, our objective will be to develop an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community.

Knowing that there is a lot of expertise out there on the subject of innovation in associations, I'd love to engage interested readers of The Hourglass Blog in this process as well. Right now, the task force is planning to meet once every two months or so, and our first meeting has been scheduled for January 22, 2010. If you have any case studies or other information about organizations successfully creating an innovation function for themselves, please send them my way. If you all have enough interest, I'd be happy to post a record of our on-going discussions on this blog.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Social Media is Not a Generational Issue

I want to follow up on Eric's post last week about Social Media. I agree completely that there is not a one-size fits all answer when it comes to social media (not everyone has to do it right now), but I would also push back a little on the "our business model works so we don't need it" argument too, because EVERYONE's business model works--right up to the moment it doesn't. Changing your business model BEFORE it's obsolete is a lot easier than after, which is one of the arguments for at least experimenting with social media before you think it's absolutely necessary.

But the main point I want to make is related to his last point--that social media will happen when either Xers or Millennials take over leadership positions. I have a different view.

I don't think Social Media is based in one or two generations. It's not driven by a particular generation, and it's not best suited to a particular generation.

I think some of the confusion stems from the fact that the Millennial generation is currently being shaped by the social internet. Xers may be awed by the vast amounts of information that's on the internet, but Millennials grew up being able to connect and create things via the internet. I (and others) think that is shaping their generational values.

Fine. But that doesn't mean social media was designed exclusively by or for them. Old folks (Xers and Boomers) understand the concepts behind social media too, and have been applying them rampantly. I have seen lots of statistics about the fastest growing age groups in various social media platforms, and it's often the old folks.

Whether your organization uses social media effectively or not will not be based on the generational composition of your leadership positions. It will be based on the leadership composition of your leadership positions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Social Media - Change or Die?

I've been seeing a lot of stories like this one, arguing that "smart" organizations that want to compete for the best talent in the Millennial generation had better start embracing social media and making it available to all their employees. This particular article talks about being "uber-connected," and even makes a case that younger workers with unrestricted access to social media websites (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are more productive than those that aren't.

This seems a reaction to a lot of studies, like the one cited in the article, that confirms a majority of workplaces still prohibit or restrict access to these sites. Indeed, many organizations I know are struggling to find the business case for these technologies.

Ultimately, I think the debate over whether or not social media is a productive use of a person's time depends on the person, and that the debate over whether or not it makes good business sense depends on the business. For every person that thinks Twitter is a waste of time, there's another who's using it to keep in touch with family and friends scattered across the country. For every business that refuses to give employees access to Facebook for fear that they'll waste time and expose the organization to legal risks, there's another whose employees are using it to find new customers and deliver better customer service.

The reality that these "change now or become obsolete" articles always seem to miss is that there are organizations for whom social media is more of a risk than a benefit.

Trade associations seem especially reluctant to enter the fray and, in my own experience, those run by older professionals seem to skew towards the "we ran the idea by our legal counsel and they recommended against it" mindset. Will these trade associations stop being successful anytime soon? I doubt it. Their business model works and it doesn't require the grease of social media to keep its wheels turning.

But will these same organizations eventually incorporate social media into the fabric of what they do? Yes, I believe they will, but it won't happen because the Boomer who runs the organization or the Boomers who sit on its Board read an article about how much the young folks like using Twitter. It will happen when those young folks start to move into positions of leadership (in the staff and on the Board) and naturally bring some of their productive social media practices with them. Change, in other words, will happen from the bottom-up, not the top-down.

The only question I have is which set of young folks are we talking about--Millennials or Xers?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Big Idea: What if Associations Allowed CEOs to be Board Chairs?

I thought I'd get in on the action with December being declared Big Ideas Month over at the Acronym Blog.

This post from the Harvard Business Blog has been kicking around in my brain since I first read it in early November. In it, Bob Pozen asks if for-profit CEOs should be allowed to be Chair of their own Boards. In other words, are companies better run when a single person holds both the position of CEO and Board Chair, or when two different people--with different skill sets--each hold one of those positions and work together as a leadership team?

I'll admit, my first reaction was to think two. You've got to have two different people in those positions because they encompass two very different sets of responsibilities, and they are meant to complement and counterbalance each other.

But Pozen goes on to state that empirical studies show no statistically significant improvement in either a company's net income or its stock price when those positions are filled by two individuals versus one. Indeed, Pozen says, the only arrangement that seems to show consistently negative results is when a former CEO becomes the Board Chair of the same company. In the for-profit world then, having a separate CEO and Board Chair is not necessarily an advantage. Pozen says that only 37% of U.S. companies have that arrangement.

So that got me thinking about the association world. In my own experience, every association I've ever worked for has had separate Board Chairs and CEOs. And that's also true of every other association professional that I know. Is there anyone out there who actually serves both roles in a nonprofit association? Would such an arrangement even be legal? Given the amount of literature, educational programs, and hallway conversations that go on about how to keep the two jobs separate but closely aligned, I have to think the practice of having a single person fill both roles in an association is either rare or illegal.

But what if it wasn't? A Google search turns up a fair amount of debate on the subject in the for-profit world. More seem to think it's better to split, but those who think it's better to merge cite several advantages:

1. Once a Board commits to merging the two roles, they spend less time on a watchdog evaluation of the CEO and more time on making smart decisions for the organization.

2. A combined CEO/Board Chair is better able to withstand pressure from the Board and stick with a long-term strategy, especially when short-term changes don't immediately pay off.

3. A CEO who is not the Board Chair is the Board's hired hand. A CEO who is also Board Chair has far more influence over the other Board directors.

I personally have never wished to be both the CEO and the Board Chair of the associations I've worked for. And I'm not bucking for the job now. But I can imagine situations when such a structure would be advantageous.

So much time and energy is spent on getting the right leadership team in place--two individuals that understand their roles, clearly communicate with one another, and work in partnership to fulfill the association's mission. When it works, it works really well. But such successful synergies take time to develop, and too often they end before they even get started, because Board Chairs ultimately rotate out of the positions at the end of their terms. In the associations I've worked with that's usually after one year. I still remember what it felt like to "lose" the best Board Chair I ever worked with.

As association CEOs we know this turnover is inevitable. So, we develop all kinds of policies, procedures and resources to bring the new Board Chairs up to speed as quickly as possible. We know they are key to our organization's success, so we do things like groom them while they're in subordinate positions on the Board. We create committees made up of future Board Chairs to help determine long-term strategy, and we use the decisions of those committees to help shield our associations from the distractions that come with having to "turn the battleship" with each new Board Chair, or with needing to protect "legacy programs" of past Board Chairs. We spend copious amounts of our time on these activities, working hard simply to get our associations ready for effective governance.

Imagine what our associations could accomplish if more of that time was spent on actual governance itself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Encore Careers

I've blogged before about signs in the for-profit marketplace that Boomers are transitioning to careers in the non-profit universe. Their retirement funds have been decimated by the recent financial implosion, and they're reaching the end of their careers, but still feel relevant and want to make a difference in society. What better time for Boomers to lend their considerable experience to running socially-conscious non-profits?

Well, now there's a term for that phenomenon--Encore Careers. And, evidently, a whole infrastructure springing up to help Boomers make it happen. Check out Civic Ventures and their companion website, Encore Careers.

Civic Ventures is a self-described non-profit think thank that is...

...leading the call to engage millions of baby boomers as a vital workforce for change. Through an inventive program portfolio, original research, strategic alliances, and the power of people's own life stories, Civic Ventures demonstrates the value of experience in solving serious social problems--from education to the environment and health care to homelessness. Founded in 1998 by social entrepreneur and author Marc Freedman, Civic Ventures works to define the second half of adult life as a time of individual and social renewal.

And they're getting such a big write-up from me because I find the whole concept fascinating. Among other things, Civic Ventures provides: — The growing network for people who want work that matters in the second half of life. provides news, resources and connections for individuals and organizations establishing encore careers that combine personal meaning, financial security and social contribution.

The Purpose Prize — $100,000 awards for social innovators over 60 creating new methods for solving the world´s biggest problems. The Purpose Prize is awarded to individuals who discover new opportunities, invent new programs and foster lasting social change.

Experience Corps — A national service program engaging adults over 55 as tutors and mentors for elementary school students struggling to learn. Today more than 2,000 Experience Corps members in 20 cities help 20,000 students learn the skills they´ll need to succeed in school and in life. Launched by Civic Ventures, Experience Corps is now an independent organization.

Encore Career Community College Grants — Grants for innovative community colleges preparing people 50+ for careers in education, health care and social services.

The Next Chapter — An initiative providing directions and connections for people who want to make a difference in the second half of life. Local Next Chapter projects in dozens of cities offer expertise and assistance to community groups working to help individuals set a course, connect with peers and get involved in significant service work.

BreakThrough Award — Awards for organizations that tap experienced employees to help solve serious social problems. Ten organizations were awarded MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Breakthrough Awards in 2007.

Now, that is some serious infrastructure. And there is evidently some real muscle behind it. Their website lists financial support from 30 or so major foundations, including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The whole thing makes me long for an encore career!

But wait, there's hope for me yet. According to the survey they released (published June 2008), the cohort they've examined and are reaching out to are people between the ages of 44 and 70 (birth years 1938-64). That's a pretty wide definition for Boomers. Our friends Strauss & Howe say Boomers were born 1943-60. That means the folks in their cohort born 1938-42 are actually Silents, and those born 1961-64 are actually Xers.

And guess what else? The younger the individuals surveyed, the more interest there was entering encore careers. Using the survey's own terminology:
  • 50% of "trailing-edge boomers" (ages 44-50, birth years 1958-64) were interested in pursuing encore careers.
  • 46% of "leading-edge boomers" (ages 51-62, birth years 1946-57) were interested in pursuing encore careers.
  • 34% of "pre-boomers" (ages 63-70, birth years 1938-1945) were interested in pursuing encore careers.
Given how many Xers (or maybe Jonesers?) are in their "trailing-edge boomers" and how many Silents are in their "pre-boomers", I wonder how much of this for-profit move towards the non-profit world is really about Boomers wanting to give back, and how much of it is about people of multiple generations growing disillusioned with the for-profit environment.