Sunday, March 27, 2011

Listening Up

In my last post, I talked about something I called the Catch-22 of innovation.

Your association wants to deliver new innovative products that meet the needs of your members, so you ask and poll them incessantly about their needs, wants and desires. But the whole point of innovation is to change things in a meaningful enough way that it renders past patterns meaningless. Your members can't know what that next innovation is because it doesn't yet exist in their world. They have no familiarity with it.

And where should I find inspiration for how to resolve this conundrum? Where else but in a blog post by Umair Haque. If you're familiar with Haque, then you know he's all about creating a new definition of success in the corporate world--one not based on profit but on human satisfaction and enrichment. With that as his context, in this post he rips into traditional mechanisms of marketing, espousing a new strategy for engaging with customers, something he calls "listening up." And throughout, by simply substituting "members" for "customers" he provides a recipe for how association professionals can address the Catch-22 of innovation. Here are just a few salient excerpts:

Listening up means spending time actually talking to your customers, about not just their "wants" and "needs" but about their hopes and fears, their opportunities and threats, their greatest achievements and biggest regrets.

How many conversations like this have you had with members of your association? How many opportunities have you had for such a conversation that you've squandered on tactical and programmatic details? Forget about what kind of benefits they want from you. What kind of people do they aspire to be?

Listening up means empowering as many people inside your organization as possible to spend time talking to your customers to have those conversations, and empowering them to talk to one another openly.

How many people are there in your organization? How many member contacts do they have every week? What if you instituted a practice of talking openly with your staff about your members--not just what they complained about, but about what they're striving to achieve? Forget about serving those needs for a moment. Let's just develop a habit of understanding the world our members live in and sharing those insights with each other.

Listening up means asking questions that matter--and then being tough enough to hear that, just maybe, yes, you really, honestly do suck at having real, tangible, lasting benefits.

I believe this is the hidden fear that keeps us from truly engaging with our members in the way Haque describes--the fear that our services don't measure up to their expectations. But what better way is there to build those benefits--not just for today but for our innovative futures--than these simple (in concept) but difficult (in execution) recommendations?

The WSAE white paper on innovation talks about the need to understand the mind of your community. By doing what Haque recommends that becomes elementary because the community is no longer something external to your organization, something difficult to understand whose needs you still must serve. By creating this kind of dialogue with your members you become part of their community and you will develop an intrinsic understanding of what is necessary for it to succeed.

Photo by vagawi

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Catch-22 of Innovation

Lots of good lessons in this HBR post for association professionals looking to be move innovative. It's by Scott Anthony, and it's about the multiple approaches car makers are taking towards the development of electric hybrids.

Nissan believes that customers will use electric vehicles primarily for short trips around town, which mirrors most people's current car usage. The company's all electric Leaf has relatively limited range and takes eight hours to recharge.

General Motors believes that customers will expect performance that mirrors traditional gasoline-powered cars. Its Volt has a backup engine to power the car when the electricity drains out.

The problem is, no one really knows what customers will do with electric cars, because the customers themselves don't know. They don't know what they are, or what they should think of them. They don't know what's good about them and what's bad about them. Most customers have never driven one in their day-to-day lives.

It's the Catch-22 of innovation. Your association wants to deliver new innovative products that meet the needs of your members, so you ask and poll them incessantly about their needs, wants and desires. But, as Anthony says, the whole point of innovation is to change things in a meaningful enough way that it renders past patterns meaningless. Your members can't know what that next innovation is because it doesn't yet exist in their world. They have no familiarity with it.

The truth is, you'll know what customers will do with an innovation only once they've done it. And done it in real, natural environments, not artificial environments like a supervised usage test. This reality places stress on companies that need to place big bets without complete knowledge of the outcome. And it places a big premium on getting as close to market conditions as possible as quickly as possible to figure out what really happens when people start using your product.

At the last meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force, Jeff De Cagna shared with us an idea that could provide a work-around for this Catch-22. The idea is to embrace "rapid-prototyping" for new association products and services. Don't go through the usual committee development, project approval, budget allocation process that bogs down so many associations. Get something experimental into the hands of your members at the earliest opportunity, and allow their reactions and suggestions for it to drive its further development.

We even started a short discussion about the subject in WSAE's new Innovation Hub for Associations. Does anyone have real-world experience with this practice in an association. Care to comment here or, even better, on the Hub?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Association Leadership

Here's another HBR post that got me thinking. This one is about "social" CEOs — leaders of multinational corporations who are comfortable with social media. They blog, have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, or engage with the public using YouTube.

Turns out they are few and far between. One who does it, Forrester CEO George Colony, diagnoses the problem like this:

As time has passed, I have come to see fear as the greatest barrier to overcome — whether it's in my decision-making, communication, tennis game, or in the setting of strategic direction. To fear feedback from customers ... is to ignore the most relevant raw material for improving your products and services. Sure, it's not nice to get negative reviews — but CEOs are paid to seek out and understand the brutal truths.

There is a real reluctance, evidently, at the top of many for-profit organizations, for opening oneself up to transparency and criticism.

It's an interesting read. And it poses an interesting challenge for those of us who run associations. Are we any different?

As I look around the landscape, I see many associations who have embraced social media and who have made it work as a communications and engagement tool for their organizations. Their members gather, connect and learn through association-sponsored social networks. Their staff people push ideas, moderate discussions and interact openly with members on association blogs and in association forums. But how many association CEOs get personally engaged in these activities?

The HBR post cites a study that found only 36% the largest company's CEOs communicate through company websites or social media channels in any way. The study says that when CEOs do go social, and venture beyond the standard shareholder letter, they are most likely to post statements or messages on their company websites (28%), next most likely to be featured in video or podcasts on their corporate websites or company YouTube channels (18%) and least likely, (less than 10%) to use Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

I'd say those numbers hold true for association CEOs as well. Why are so many not engaged with social media, either personally or on behalf of their organizations? If you ask them, I'm sure you'll get some very predictable reasons. They don't have the time. They're concerned about the legal liability. They don't understand what the fuss is about.

But if you dig a little deeper I think you'll find another motivation that's driving some of them. There's the fear that George Colony talks about — the fear of negative feedback. But there's something else at work and I'll call it loathing — a deep reluctance to engage with their own members because they suspect they lack the capacity to fully satisfy their needs. And this comes, I think, because too often association CEOs force all of their member connections into a purely transactional format. "Tell me what you need," they essentially ask, "and I'll connect you to the association program that best satisfies you." If they can't do that — and often they can't — then they view that as a failure, something that reflects poorly on them and their association.

It doesn't have to be this way. And social media, a tool that allows for a longer arc of social dialogue, can actually provide a path away from this transactional mindset and towards one that is more collaborative and conversational. If only more CEOs would see it that way.

Image by andrellv

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Modern View of Leadership

Here's a short, 5-minute video from HBR where a group of "expert thinkers" discuss the crucial skills needed by tomorrow's leaders. As near as I can tell by listening to their comments, those skills are:
  • Trust
  • Authenticity
  • Empathy
  • Devotion to others
  • Explaining why
  • Curiosity
  • Mindfulness
  • Clear sense of purpose
Hmmm. Does that list look familiar to you? It certainly does to me. Let me quote one of the thinkers, Ellen Langer, who says in the video:
"Not surprisingly, since I've been studying mindfulness for over thirty years, I believe that leaders of the future would prosper enormously by becoming more mindful."
Thanks, Ellen. That's almost as good as Bill George telling us to be authentic after publishing a book called Authentic Leadership.

My thoughts are summed up well by one of the commenters, Mitch McCrimmon:

I found this video very disappointing. It is supposed to be about leaders of the future, but most of what it says could have been said 30 years ago and probably was. Much of it consists of the usual motherhood statements about trust and purpose characteristic of a very old-fashioned concept of leadership.

So what is a more modern view of leadership? Well, I like what my fellow Hourglass blogger Jamie Notter often says. Leadership is not a skill to be learned by an individual, it is a system that is to be established by an organization and successfully implemented over the multiple comings and goings of individuals. A modern leader, in other words, is not someone who surrounds himself with followers, it is someone who builds the capacity for leadership in her organization.

And in today's multi-generational environment, I think that means multi-generational leadership systems. Boomers, Xers and Millennials all have a role to play in creating new systems of leadership, and each brings a unique perspective that, when integrated, can make the system stronger and more sustainable that any system based on a single generation's ideals.

Trust, authenticity, mindfulness. There all good attributes to have. But they have to exist across your organization, not just in your leader.

Image source

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to Tell if You Have a Bad Board

I think I've mentioned before that one of the things I like to do on Hourglass is look at policies and practices in the for-profit world and see how they compare or can be applied to associations. My work on the WSAE Innovation Task Force came almost entirely from this mindset. As the Executive Director of a professional trade association, whose Board members are a group of very successful business people, I'm frankly fascinated by the interplay between for-profit and non-profit sensibilities. In my experience, the fresh thinking it inspires works best when it flows in both directions.

But as Shelly Alcorn recently reminded me, the for-profit model is not always the best template for association activities. Here's a case in point. Another HBR blog post from Roger Martin, this one focused on six ways to tell if you have a bad board. Written from a decidedly for-profit and publicly-traded perspective, Martin includes such tell-tale signs as:

1) They complain about how hard Sarbanes-Oxley has made it to be a director.
2) They complain about how the fees for being a director aren't high enough to compensate for the onerous work involved.
3) They are paid in the top tertile of peer boards.
4) They express excessive pride over being on the board.
5) They express enthusiasm for the enjoyable social atmosphere on the board.
6) They express enthusiasm for the personal growth opportunities the board provides them.

If you ask me, these are either not problems for most associations (#1, 2, 3) or may actually be good things in our environment (#4, 5, 6). Seriously, a desire for personal growth is a good thing in an association Board member, isn't it?

But this analysis begs the obvious question. What are the signs of a bad association Board? If we were to take a poll of association executives, we'd probably see things like:

1) They don't show up for board meetings.
2) They show up for board meetings completely unprepared.
3) They don't disclose their conflicts of interest and use their board positions to financially enrich themselves.
4) They micromanage staff activity.
5) Individuals publicly disagree with decisions of the board.
6) There's more than 20 of them.

When you compare those two lists, you see how far apart the for-profit and non-profit worlds sometimes are.

Photo by fpra

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Sad Paradox of Board Governance

This post really got me thinking. In it, Roger Martin describes what he calls the "sad paradox of board governance" in the corporate world. It's worth a full read, but the quick summary is that a publicly-traded company with "bloody-minded" CEO, one who wants to take advantage of the shareholders for his own benefit, winds up getting passive Board directors, because that CEO makes sure no one comes onto the Board who will challenge his authority. While the company with a "romantically-inclined" CEO, one who just wants to do the right thing for shareholders because it is the right thing to do, gets engaged Board directors who will challenge her assumptions because she understands that this is part of good governance and she wants to company to be the best it can be. In other words, when its comes to protecting the interests of the shareholders:

When the shareholders need the directors least, they get them most. And when they need them most, they get them least.

Does the same paradox apply to the association world? When the members needs a watchdog board the most, because they have a "bloody-minded" CEO abusing his position for his own personal benefit, do they wind up with a board full of pushovers and clock-watchers? And when they need that engaged board the least, because they have a "romantically-inclined" CEO working day and night to leverage all of the association's resources for their needs, do they get a board that is overly-engaged, micromanaging, and preventing the CEO from doing all that she could? I think every association professional reading this blog could probably tell one or two stories that support one or both of those scenarios.
But here's the twist. I think the same paradox works in reverse when it comes to associations. When the members need a crackerjack CEO the most, because they have a board comprised of well-meaning but hapless managers, they get just the opposite--a CEO who will take the small-minded orders of the dysfunctional board, and someone who will be quickly disciplined or replaced if they ever stray out of the narrow zone of influence the board has defined for them. But when the members need a gunslinging CEO the least, because they have a board that understands the separation between governance and management, that stays focused on the big picture, and delegates to the CEO in terms of limitations and not prescriptions, that association gets a really talented CEO because that board knows what it's doing and how key an effective CEO is to organizational success.
The sad truth for associations struggling with the some part of the governance/management gap is that there are more ways to fail than there are to succeed.  
  • Hapless board hires crackerjack CEO ---> Hapless board fires crackerjack CEO for "overstepping" his authority ---> FAIL
  • Hapless board hires hapless CEO ---> Association achieves nothing of significance ---> FAIL
  • Crackerjack board hires hapless CEO ---> Crackerjack board fires hapless CEO for being ineffective ---> FAIL
  • Crackerjack board hires crackerjack CEO ---> Association achieves big things ---> WIN!!!
It sort of reminds me of that other paradox, the one about chickens and eggs. When it comes to organizational performance, which comes first? The CEO or the board?

Photo by The Wanderer's Eye