Monday, July 25, 2011

Courage and Clarity

I've started reading Joe Gerstandt's blog and following him on Twitter. If you don't, you should.

On of his recent blog posts really engaged my thinking engine. It's called Dancing in the Intersection, and it's about diversity of thought and how people, even people who think diversity of thought is a good thing, shy away from the tension it naturally creates.

Tension is much easier to avoid than embrace. It does not require any hatred or bigotry to avoid the tension of difference, it only requires aspirations of some order and some comfort and some simplicity. Avoiding difference is the path of least resistance…it is where the river of human nature flows naturally, without effort, without conviction, without intention. It is the default.

But Joe has a different take on the tension one finds at the intersection of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. He says we should wade into it. We should seek it out and embrace it because, although the tension can birth conflict and dysfunction, it can also birth learning and creation. The intersection, he says, is the church of possibility, the runway where tomorrow touches down first.

And to do this, he further counsels, requires two things.

Wading into the tension of the intersection requires courage and it requires clarity regarding benefits and challenges associated with the intersection.

So let me reflect.

It requires courage. Do I have that? You bet. I have it in spades. With every passing day, it seems, I have more and more courage, stemming from the realization that there are a finite number of days ahead, and that if I'm going to make a difference in this world, I need to take greater responsibility for it. I need to stand up and make it happen.

But it also requires clarity. Do I have that? I'll be honest. No. I sure don't. When faced with a concept like clarity, I find myself hiding behind a lot of questions. Clarity? About what? About what needs to be done? About what will make things better? About what will solve the problem? I don't have that kind of clarity, and don't think I ever will. Does anyone? Really? In my experience, people who go into the intersection with that kind of clarity just wind up crashing into other people, hurting themselves or others in the process.

In fact, isn't that what the intersection is for? Finding a new kind of clarity that transcends your own thoughts, ideas and beliefs?

Picture it. If we’re all driving cars that will potentially collide in the intersection, we may want to convince ourselves that we have clarity, that our halogen high beams give us the ability to see the way forward clearly. How else can we survive the conflicts that lie ahead?

But aren’t we only seeing the pavement immediately in front of us? In high detail, perhaps, but it's only one small section of all possible roads leading to the intersection. In some cases, in fact, this focus doesn't even allow us to see the intersection coming. Sometimes, conflict surprises us. We turn a blind corner and are suddenly threatened by other cars approaching from different directions, each with their own drivers, headlights focused on a different set of thoughts, ideas and beliefs.

That's why it takes courage to enter the intersection. If you just want to barrel through, keep your high beams on and your foot on the accelerator. You'll make it, and then you can get back on the road you've been traveling. But if you want clarity, the clarity that comes from the intersection, you're better served by turning your headlights off and looking at the problem from different perspectives.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Those Who Understand Your Members Best Aren't on Your Board

I have a hard time keeping up with the blogs that I follow. I use an RSS reader to keep an eye on them all, and each day I go through the new items there and do a quick triage. Each one gets a thirty-second scan: (1) Nope, not interested. [Delete]; or (2) Hmmm, that's interesting and it's short. I'll read it right now; or (3) Oh man, that's going to require some thought and some processing. I'll flag that and get back to it later.

One that recently fell into that third category was Joe Rominiecki's Acronym post on What good is governance without influencers?, which was based on Maggie McGary's post on Influence in the Context of Associations. They're both discussing the rise on online and non-traditional influencers in associations, and how these thought leaders and the followers they attract are changing the leadership dynamic in our community. Maggie asks:

[A]s time goes by and more of your members begin interacting in the online community, a new group of influencers will grow out of those interactions. Meanwhile, traditional influencers—board and committee members—will become less visible and, therefore, less influential and important, at least to members. Will you know when this change occurs, or will you be stuck in thinking the wrong people matter the most?

I see this change taking place in my own life and in the associations I'm affiliated with. I wrote about it here, and called it "networking in a box." Associations want to keep members connected within their own "boxes," but more and more the borderless online world is allowing people to create and leverage their own networks that don't follow any pre-existing association lines--which are, to the concern of the pre-existing associations, all the stronger and more powerful for it.

Joe speculates that associations should work to bring the online influencers in the lives of their members into the leadership of the organization, but struggles to identify a mechanism for doing so. I sympathize. To many non-traditional influencers, I would imagine that the structure and hierarchy of formal association leadership would seem like shackles compared to the freedom of association they currently enjoy online. They will naturally reject the idea of being locked up in anybody's box.

I think traditional boards are growing less and less in touch with their respective memberships--and the rise of online influencers is only one of the reasons why. But you know who remain in touch with their membership? Association staff. Especially staff people that naviagate, either as part of their professional responsibilities or personal interests, the same open and unstructured online networks that the influencers do. Joe himself, I'll bet, is much more in tune with what the ASAE members are thinking, than many of the well-intentioned and hard-working folks on the ASAE board.

Does the ASAE board view things this way? Does Joe come in at the start of every board meeting and give a ten-minute update on what's on the mind of the members, of what topics are being discussed in the blogosphere, of which ones seem to resonate with people and which ones don't? Would the board members listen to him if he did?

Maybe it's not a staff person in your association. Maybe it's one of your association members. Maybe it's the editor of one of your industry's trade magazines. Or maybe it's a blogger who has critical things to say about what your association does. Whoever it is, if they are more connected with your membership than your leadership is, you'd better find a way to get their market intelligence into your strategy discussions. And asking them to serve on your board is not going to work. They're not interested.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

We're All Millennials Now

It's been a while since I talked about generations on this blog. Isn't that what this blog is supposed to be all about? It's almost as if the themes of leadership and innovation have taken over. I wonder if I'm getting better at either as a result?

But here’s an interesting article Shelly Alcorn pointed me to. It's about the multi-generational workplace, and how some organizations are experimenting with management models based on democracy--giving workers of all generations an equal vote in how things are run--to better balance and leverage the talents of all.

It's a good read. But here’s what gets me, and what’s tempered my enthusiasm for the generations biz. The article defines the generations this way:

Veterans: Workers who preceded the baby boomers tend to be authoritarian and loyal, and they value wisdom gained from experience over technological expertise.

Boomers: Known for their workaholic habits and need for status symbols, they’ve sacrificed a lot for their careers. They often expect their junior staff to do the same.

Generation X: They are generally comfortable working within the systems established by their employers and, like the boomers before them, are more willing to let work cut into their personal lives. They have no problem using technology, having entered the work force just as computers were becoming mainstream.

Millennials: Tech-savvy, entrepreneurial and independent, they tend to value work-life balance and meaningful work more than a large paycheque. They are less likely to be attached to an employer than other generations and tend to stay only a few years before moving on.

Huh? GenX is comfortable working within the systems established by their employers? They're willing to let work cut into their personal lives? What strange alternate universe have I found myself in?

You know, I used to be happy being GenX. Then for a while I decided I wanted to be Generation Jones. Now, with the definitions listed above, I think I'm going to start being a Millennial.

Care to join me?

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Careful What You Complain About

This post's inspiration is this HBR post from Michael Schrage. Read it. It's all about a company leader's need to pay attention to his/her people's complaints about their customers.

Few things say more about organizational culture and character than how employees complain about the customers and clients they serve.

The same is true, I think, about association staff and what they say about association members. I've heard it throughout my career--execs complaining about their board, staffers complaining about their members; complaining about how short-sighted and awful they are. It always reminds me of that joke about IT Guys. "You know, my computer network would work just fine if it wasn't for all these stupid people screwing it up all the time." Well, here's a newsflash for those IT Guys: the "stupid people" are why you have your computer network. It has to serve their needs (not your esoteric desires). It has no point without them. And guess what, association professionals? The same concept applies to you and your members.

Sure there are situations where associations and association members should part ways. Most often that’s decided by members when they decide to stop paying their dues because they don’t see the value. Occasionally that’s decided by associations when members act unethically or otherwise break the social contract. But outside of those situations, I think it's important for association staffers to put things in the proper perspective. And ideally, I think that perspective has to transcend the conception of members being your customers.

In know. It’s an analogy I use all the time. If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m fascinated by what the for-profit world can teach associations about governance and innovation. But thinking of your members as “them”, as customers whose needs you must serve, creates an artificial barrier between you and them you can't afford.

You and your members are on the same team. More than that, I'd say you’re equal partners in a single model of success. If you wouldn’t tolerate a member of your staff talking trash about another member of your staff, don’t let the same things happen between your staff and your members. If they don't see your members as partners in your mutual success, you probably won't succeed in anything you set out to do. Unless your goal is simply to make a profit off your customers.

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