Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Association CEOs and Board Culture

A couple of posts ago I talked about some of the lessons I'm learning while serving as a volunteer Board member for my state association executives society. For me, it's been a great experience and something I would recommend for any association CEO who wants to improve how their Board functions. But today I wanted to share one key lesson I think I've learned from the other side of the fence.

I've been the CEO of a trade association for about three and a half years now. And I've just returned from one of my own Board meetings. Since it's near the end of our fiscal year, and several Board member terms are coming to an end, this was the meeting where departing Board members were thanked, the gavel was passed to a new chairman, and incoming Board members were given their first glimpse of how this Board operates and what it is that they'll be expected to do.

And as all that was happening, it occurred to me that it will only be a few more years before it's me--the CEO--who will have the most association-specific experience at that Board table. The group of Board members who were there when I started--and who really set the tone for what the Board is and how it will govern the association--are bit by bit rotating off, and the new people coming on--while well-intentioned and experienced in their own businesses--understandably have more questions than answers in this regard.

If there are traditions to honor, policies to enforce, and expectations to communicate, it'll be up to me to make sure they are appropriately honored, enforced and communicated. Now, for new Board members, and soon, for the entire Board, I will be the sole source of information for what the Board does and how it does it--not just its procedures but its very culture.

This is a different view of the equation than I've previously had. New Board members don't really know what they're getting into, and their on-boarding is a critical time to get them engaged and assimiliated into the culture of the team their joining. An experienced association CEO can take ownership of that culture in a way new CEOs can't, shaping it Board member by Board member in a positive direction and then reinforcing its best elements for the good of the organization.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seeing New Social Opportunities

In my own crazy little adventure in social media I’m exposed to a lot of thoughts and opinions and it takes me time to weed through them and figure out which have something to say and which are just saying something. That’s why I’m consistently responding to things later than everyone else.

Case in point. Read this April 1 blog post from Umair Haque on social media and social strategies. I think Haque has something to say, and not just for venture capitalists and for-profit entrepreneurs. Read his take on social media strategy, which he boils down very well to:

1. Social media fits inside your business strategy, and is shaped by it.
2. Social strategy fits outside your business strategy, and shapes it.

In other words, those who view social media as a new tool for doing the old kind of business are missing the point. Social is the new way of doing business, and social media is one of its tools.

Haque says more for-profit organizations are figuring this out and are getting better at delivering meaningful social experiences instead of just products and services.

I see that as an opportunity for associations and non-profits, who could be working with socially-aligned corporate partners (on their Boards, in their memberships, as project partners) to better advance their missions.

Do you?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lessons from Being a Board Member

I said I was going to comment on my experience as a Board member. After 16 years of working with Boards as an association staff person, I'm now serving on a Board myself, and learning lot about the color of the grass on the other side of the fence. Here are some quick things to remember the next time you're frustrated with a Board member.

1. Everyone's schedule is already full. Volunteering for a Board means adding something to an already full plate, which means an engaged Board member is either doing association work outside of work hours and neglecting their personal pursuits or during work hours and neglecting their professional pursuits. You must make volunteer activities relevant to a Board member's personal or professional pursuits so they don't have to make these painful choices.

2. Let’s talk strategy. Don’t waste the Board's time on operations. Staff does operations and Board does strategy. I get it. That Board member who doesn't speak up might be frustrated with the tactical level of the conversation and wondering what he got himself into.

3. Committee chairs do the most work. Thank them. Often.

4. Numbers get confusing. Even smart people who reviewed the agenda materials before the meeting get confused when line items in a budget start getting tossed around. Slow down. I'm not questioning your competency by asking questions.

5. Socializing is important. I've joined a team and that is being asked to perform before all the players have been properly introduced. Hearing everyone's name and the organizations they work for is not enough. Why are they here? What do they want to accomplish? Let's spend some time talking about that first.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Xers and Honest Conversations

Here's another post from Harvard Business Review's series on Imagining the Future of Leadership that caught my attention.

It's about Ed Ludwig, the CEO of Becton Dickinson, and his "unconventional" use of honest conversations to overcome challenges and drive success. The blogger, Michael Beer, thinks Ludwig's strategy of openness and transparency is rare among senior executives, but will necessarily characterize the leaders of the future. Ed Ludwig...

...allows people to speak truth to power, which is difficult — lower levels are hesitant to tell the truth and upper management are threatened by it.

It's an interesting case study, and seems to typify the culture of truth Jamie Notter recently wrote about in Associations Now. But here's what I want to focus on. What gives Ludwig the ability to do what he does? What makes him apparently unique among corporate leaders? Beer says it's because Ludwig harbors two paradoxical qualities.

He is not shy about advocating a new direction — high purpose, strategy or values that he believes should guide the company. But as this story clearly indicates Ed is also equally willing to inquire into that direction, its plausibility and what stands in the way of executing it.

It is, in fact, Ludwig's practicality--his willingness to discuss with others in the organization what really stands in the way of them achiveing their goals and then working with people to find practical ways of addressing those barriers--that sets him apart in Beer's analysis. Beer refers to him as "the antithesis of the heroic leader"--working with people on the possible, not trying to lead them towards the impossible.

Sounds a lot like GenX to me, but Ludwig is a Boomer--58, according to his profile on Forbes.com. So, it's another example of how what we often think of as generational dispositions are more predominantly philosophical in nature. Being an Xer is less about when you were born and more about how you think and how you approach problems and leadership.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Innovation Needs "Leadership from Behind"

Harvard Business Review has been running a blog feature for the past several weeks on Imagining the Future of Leadership. There's about 40 posts there now--many of them thought-provoking and well worth your time.

Here's one that really jumped out at me: Leading from Behind, by Linda Hill.

For now and into coming decade or so, the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front — a phrase I've borrowed from none other than Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography, Mandela equated a great leader with a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

Hill cites three realities that are making this "shepherd" leadership style a necessity. The first one...

1. The psychological contract between companies and employees is changing. Among other things, people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives. They want and increasingly expect to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author their organization's purpose. They want to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world.

...strikes me a purely generational. Most would argue that these desires to be valued and to contribute to something larger than themselves are Millennial values, but I see them as more universal--something common to most of humanity. The generational impact I see is more the pragmatism of GenX moving into ascendance. People have always wanted to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world, but it is Xer pragmatism that is saying that the way to accomplish that is to let employees co-author their organization's purpose.

But that's really a side point. What I really want to focus on are Hill's latter two realities--both dealing with innovation.

2. Innovation — not simply incremental but continual breakthrough innovation — will be a key driver of competitiveness. Society's notion of the brilliant innovator, the solitary genius with a sudden flash of creative insights is hard to shake. But, after all, an iPod or a Pixar movie is not the product of a single person's vision or labors. Most innovation is the result of collaborative work involving a diverse group and a collective process of iteration and discovery. Those in positions of authority have been taught to think that it's their job to come up with the big idea — but sustained innovation comes when everyone has an opportunity to demonstrate a "slice of genius". Breakthroughs come when seemingly ordinary people make extraordinary contributions.


3. Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate. Of course, leaders do need to act as direction-setters and vision-makers, and we need to prepare them for those roles. But we often emphasize these skills at the expense of others that are growing in importance. If you're looking for innovation, it doesn't make much sense to say that the leader's job is to set the course and mobilize people to follow them there. If you want your team to produce something truly original, you don't know where you're going, almost by definition. The traditional leadership model just doesn't work.

In my work with the WSAE Innovation Task Force, I think we have come to see the truth that underlies these two concepts. Innovation is not a skill that the leader possesses, it is a culture that the leader must support and that the organization must embrace. I've heard it said that good scientists view science as a process and not as a confirmed body of knowledge, and I'm beginning to think of innovation in similar terms. It is a process that allows an organization to effectively achieve its objectives in ways not previously thought possible. No one person--not even the leader--can predict where the process of innovation is going to take them. We can only accurately predict that the process will take us to the best possible place.

At that's where "leading from behind" comes in. If you try to get out in front of it--try to direct where innovation is going to go--you hamper innovation's ability to function. As the leader of an innovative organization, your best role is simply to set the process in motion and to give it the resources it needs to move efficiently forward.