Who’s Allowed to Make the Call?

Adult coach dressed in black on the pitch with a youth soccer team in red uniforms

Another observation that has fascinated me since my earliest years in associations is: Who’s allowed to make the call?

What do I mean by that?

Well, if you search for “stories of outstanding customer service,” all kinds of lists come up, compiled by HubSpot and Forbes and RingCentral and others, referencing all kinds of things from dentists to bicycle shops to yoga studios to rescuing a forgotten bridesmaid’s dress to creating a prayer room on the fly to implementing a great idea from a small child.

What do they all have in common?

The sentiment that provided the title of the original post I wrote on this topic in 2011: Be Human.

How does this apply to associations?

As I wrote in that original post:

…your senior staff can always make exceptions based on member needs and doing what’s right, but that’s totally unhelpful, since they are rarely the ones dealing with the immediate need in the moment. If your line staff members aren’t empowered to make decisions and do what they need to do in the moment to make things right for a member without worrying about being punished afterward for not following the rules, any statements your organization makes about being member-focused or providing excellent member service are so much bullshit.

Thirteen years later, I still stand by that.

In my very first job in associations 27 years ago, I stepped into running a membership department staffed by dispirited people for an association with declining membership. A big reason for ALL of that was that the association had a reputation for poor customer service that was a factor of staff who were NOT “empowered to do what they needed in the moment to make things right for a member without worrying about being punished afterward for not following the rules.”

So that was one of the first things I changed as leader of that team, with the promise that any blowback from anywhere else in the association for any decisions my team members made would stop with me. They were promised – and I delivered – 100% “the buck stops with Elizabeth” immunity.

Did it work?

Yes – by the time I left the association seven years later, not only had we arrested the slide, we’d grown membership by more than 50% AND fixed the cultural issues within the team.

Empower your people to do the right thing, to be the ones to “make the call.” You won’t regret it.

Photo by Adrià Crehuet Cano on Unsplash

Who’s Allowed to Be Honest?

fallen tree in a pasture

One of the observations that has fascinated me the most over my years of consulting is this question: Who’s allowed to be honest?

What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s flip it around.

Have you ever hired a consultant for your association?

The answer is probably “Yes.”

So then you’re likely familiar with the phenomenon of: In her report, the consultant includes something that you or someone else on your staff has been pushing for months, maybe years, and it’s been like the proverbial tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear. But all of a sudden, when the consultant recommends it, there are all these people standing around saying, “Hey! Did you just hear that tree fall down?”

And there are reasons that The Powers That Be in your organization are more willing to listen to the consultant. She has experience with multiple association clients. She’s done research. She’s “objective” (well, none of us is truly objective, but she at least has no vested interest in a particular outcome).

But it’s still frustrating, right?

I know, because I’ve experienced it myself as staff and even written about it previously.

As I wrote in that post:

A lot of associations complain that our volunteer leaders are disengaged or make unrealistic demands or just don’t understand the reality in which we operate. But is it our fault?

What I meant by that was: When staff does tell leadership, particularly volunteer leadership, the truth, when they give their most accurate assessment of a situation and their best recommendation for a course of action, what happens?

Who’s allowed to tell the truth? And, perhaps more importantly, who does your leadership (paid and volunteer) actually listen to? And if staff are repeatedly ignored or even punished for sharing those assessments, particularly when it’s bad news, and providing those recommendations, what happens?

Remember: Whatever behavior you reward is what you’re going to get more of.

Alternatively: Show me what you reward, and I’ll tell you what you value. 

I’m not trying to put myself out of a job here, but your staff members at ALL levels know things leadership doesn’t, see things senior leadership isn’t privy to, and have good ideas. But if you’re constantly shutting them down, don’t be surprised if they disengage or decide to take their talents elsewhere.

Photo by Andrew Yu on Unsplash

Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow

hand holding a crystal ball up to a sunrise, showing a reverse image within

Fourteen years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a futurist session held in honor of the 50th anniversary of the CAE program.

After a dense presentation by facilitator Marsha Rhea, we broke into 10-year, 30-year, and 50-year discussion groups. I found myself in the 30-year group (2040) and discovered that my fellow discussants could not seem to wrap their minds around things like sea level rise and the encroaching crisis in fresh, potable water. In other words, climate change.

At the time, I was thinking a lot about generations, and posed, as a final thought:

We will need someone to lead us, and nonprofit organizations could fill that leadership vacuum.  Assuming we survive the larger global forces at work.

I still believe that associations have significant role to play in addressing climate change, as evidenced by my latest collaborative whitepaper The Time Is Now: Association Adaptation and Resilience and the Anthropocene Climate Disruption.

We *could* have led on this 14 years ago. We *must* start leading on this now, today. There are SO many ways associations can play a significant role in addressing climate change:

  • On operations of our organizations as businesses: making choices about office space, commuting, work from home, LEED certification (not just of new builds, but also retrofits), and investment of reserves that reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.
  • On our member-facing work: reducing the carbon footprint of our in-person gatherings, building resilience through greater localization (aka, build up your components, whether those be formal or informal groups), and communicating information about the effects of the climate crisis appropriately with members and other audiences.
  • On our outward-focused work: making different  lobbying choices and leading on concepts like thinking vertically and the circular economy for the professions and industries we serve.

If this all sounds like a good idea to you – and I hope it does – come join us at the Association Climate Action Coalition and our free Community of Practice around climate education and solutions (thanks, Breezio!).

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Focus in a Distracted Era

Two people sitting next to each other on a bench in a lovely nature setting, both looking at their phones

I recently had the opportunity to attend my first Prometheus Retreat (more on that in a minute), and it got me thinking about the concepts of connection, distraction, unplugging, and focus, issues I’ve written about here before.

Twenty association executives (CEOs and EDs, AMC leaders, and consultants) gathered at a lovely resort in Pennsylvania to ponder some Big Issues together: AI, DEI, nurturing the next generation of association leaders, the role of voluntary membership associations in an increasingly polarized society, and, of course, boards boards boards.

At our closing circle, one of the other newbies mentioned that an experienced Promethian had, upon seeing her take out her phone to respond to email early in the retreat, advised her to put it away. My fellow newbie expressed her deep gratitude for that advice, which she chose to follow and which she felt dramatically improved her experience.

As I wrote back in 2009:

The thing about being “on” all the time is that it can seriously interfere both with our actual face-to-face relationships (and our ability to form and nurture them) and with our ability to really *think* about stuff. We’re not multitasking mavens – we’re just distracted…all the time.

“Connection” is ubiquitous today. We all always have a tiny super computer in our pockets that lures us with games and amusing (or infuriating) videos and the infinite scroll of social media platforms and “I’ll just take 30 seconds to answer this email right now and get it off my plate.”

But that doesn’t come without a cost. We’ve all seen – or been – the distracted spouse, parent, friend scrolling our phones rather than paying attention to the person in front of us. We’ve all experienced the Pavlovian response to the new email notification that “is just going to take 30 seconds” and yet interrupts our focus on whatever it was we were doing before it arrived for FAR LONGER than 30 seconds – that “switch tasking” (a more accurate descriptor than “multi-tasking”) can consume as much as 40% of your productive time.

How do we ensure that all this wonderful tech serves us rather than the other way around?

Some of the practices I follow include:

  • Turning off nearly all notifications on both my computer and my smart phone
  • Using time blocking for tasks that I know will require significant uninterrupted focus
  • Confining work, to the greatest degree possible, to my actual physical home office (I am fortunate to have a dedicated room)
  • Not keeping my phone on me at all times (a privilege of not having school-aged children)
  • Resisting the siren song of false urgency (just because someone wants something right this second does not necessarily mean that they need it right this second, aka “A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
  • Identifying a few trips each year where I am NOT working (and letting clients, partners, and my various volunteer gigs know that WELL in advance)

What practices have you found to be helpful in preserving your ability to focus in a distracted era?

Photo by Gigi on Unsplash

Becoming a Leader

Scrabble board spelling out Lead, Team and Succeed

There’s plenty of advice on what it takes to be a good leader, but in my own experience, it doesn’t matter how curious or analytical or resilient you are if people don’t trust you enough to follow you. How do you make yourself worthy of that trust?

1. Praise in public, correct in private.

This encompasses a number of things:

  • Catch your people doing good stuff.
  • Make sure the people “above” you know when the people “below” you think of or do something great.
  • Remember that good ideas can come from anywhere.
  • There’s no such thing as too much praise.
  • Saying thank you is free.
  • Make sure your people know that you have their backs.
  • Be generous – GENEROUS – sharing credit.

2. Be willing to take risks.

Refusing to make a decision IS a decision. The only decision you’ll ever make in life that you can’t change later is the decision to have kids. Whatever you’re considering is probably not *that* serious.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if we do this?”AND “What’s the worst thing that could happen if we DON’T do this?”

3. Behave with integrity.

People have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can trust you. That doesn’t mean you’re never going to screw up. But when you do, own it and FIX IT.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

2: Strategic Planning v. Strategic Thinking

silhouette of a person wearing a hiking backpack hiking in the mountains at sunrise

We’re almost at the end of the revisiting of the top ten all-time Spark blog posts in honor of Spark’s tenth anniversary!

Coming in at the #2 spot: Strategic Planning v. Strategic Thinking.

In the original post, I highlighted Henry Mintzberg’s well-known Harvard Business Review piece “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” in which he encourages us to focus on creating dynamic, flexible visions of the future that accommodate disruption and allow us to rapidly respond to emergent trends.

In other words, do 100% the opposite of what we usually do in strategic planning.

Now, I mostly do *membership* strategy for clients. But every once in a while, I have an organizational strategy project. When I do organizational strategy, I use Appreciative Inquiry methods to try to help my clients switch from a strategic planning (static, rigid, episodic, fixed) perspective to a strategic thinking approach. And it is generally a HARD mental and organizational transition for them to make, because we’re all so accustomed to the “traditional” way.

But as so many of us saw during the pandemic, the traditional way of planning fails us, and it fails us SPECTACULARLY when a crisis hits.

One of the things we learned is that we CAN rapidly gather information from our members and other stakeholders and use that to create minimum viable product style tests, then take what we learn from those tests and use it to create the next iteration of that MVP, or to change directions entirely. And the world doesn’t end if the original thing isn’t perfect, or if we do have a make a small – or big – change in the next round.

Now this mostly happened in the context of events and professional development, where all of a sudden, our traditional way of going about the business of associations was unavailable to us. But we can apply those lessons we learned, about focusing on the journey, about becoming deeply curious about our members’ and other audiences’ daily challenges, about being inventive and responsive in providing solutions those challenges, both outside event planning and outside a global pandemic.

If we’re willing to change “the way we’ve always done it.”

Are we?

Photo by Mukuko Studio on Unsplash

Association Meetings in a Post-Roe World

On Tuesday, October 11, Shelly Alcorn hosted Joan Eisenstodt and me on The Phoenix Cast for an important conversation about association meetings in a post-Roe world.

Just as meetings are starting to recover from pandemic shutdowns, new (and old) laws are putting pregnant attendees at significant risk.

The key thing I think associations need to take from our conversation is that choices about where we host our meetings could be putting pregnant attendees at SIGNIFICANT risk if they have a medical emergency related to pregnancy during the event.

In the immediate term, association execs and boards need to talk that through and make a plan for your next event.

In the longer term, we need to talk, as a community, about what this means in terms of equity of access (or lack thereof) for attendees.

We also need a plan as an industry to respond to this. As we saw back in 2016-17 when we came together to respond to the rash of transphobic “bathroom bills,” there is strength in numbers!

Most of all, DO NOT ignore this situation.

Edited to add: ASAE has recently released a decision guide to help association executives think through implications of our choices in conference location decisions. Learn more about it and download the guide here

Being Responsible About Research

In this final post celebrating the launch of Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research, I want to talk about why this matters.

Why do association execs need to develop discernment about research, both as consumers and sponsors? Why do you need to have at least some familiarity with research terms? Why do you need to understand the benefits and drawbacks of various types of research methods?

Quoting from the monograph:

It’s important for associations to get this right, both so that association executives have the best possible chance of making good decisions about how to invest limited association resources to generate the best return for members, and because associations are viewed as trusted, unbiased sources of information for the members and other audiences we serve. It’s incumbent on us to provide quality research products so we remain worthy of that trust.

As a reminder, the whitepaper also includes:

  • An interview with Dr. Sharon E. Moss, co-editor (with Sarah C. Slater) of The Informed Association: A Practical Guide to Using Research for Results, on ethical practices in research.
  • An interview with Dr. Joyce E. A. Russell, The Helen and William O’Toole Dean at Villanova School of Business, on developing discernment in assessing research.
  • An interview with Jeff Tenenbaum, Managing Partner at Tenenbaum Law Group PLLC, on avoiding antitrust liability.
  • Case studies with the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Casualty Actuarial Society, and IEEE.
  • A plain English review of key research terms, and a brief explanation of the rules of formal logic (and how they affect research work).
  • Recommendations for books, articles, websites, podcasts, and courses you can use to improve your research skills.
  • A series of thought questions for you to use to spark discussion with your team.
  • An extensive list of resources in case you want to dig deeper on any of the topics addressed.

My co-author Polly Karpowicz and I are in the process of arranging additional opportunities to learn more, including a webinar with Association Insights in Old Town in April of 2023 – more information to follow.

In the meantime, get your free copy at https://bit.ly/3SYJiAO, no divulging of information about yourself required.


Curiosity with a Purpose

As Zora Neale Hurston described it:

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

When you’re sponsoring a research study, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is what method(s) to use.

What are your choices?

  • Quantitative v. Qualitative
  • Primary v. Secondary

You also have some decisions to make about data collection. The choices there include:

  • Formal v. Informal
  • Active v. Passive

All of these choices have associated pros and cons.

For instance, surveys (quantitative primary research where the data collection is active and formal) provide numeric answers that can be described by levels of statistical significance and degrees of confidence (see yesterday’s post for more on that). That’s obviously a pro.

On the con side, because surveys provide reassuringly specific answers, it’s tempting to over-rely on them. They’re also more susceptible to design flaws that can introduce bias – and once the survey’s deployed, you can’t correct those errors without invalidating all the responses that have already come in.

So what’s the answer?

Download the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research to find out!

“P-Value”? What’s a “P-Value”?

And why should you care?

Associations generate a lot of original research, but association execs also use a lot of research created by other entities both to assess the internal operations of the association as a tax-exempt business and to understand what’s happening in the industry or profession the association serves.

And let’s face it: Lots of research terms are pretty jargon-y. P-values and margin of error and confidence interval and representative versus purposeful samples, oh my!

It’s easy to find yourself glazing over in the methods section of the study you’ve chosen, ignoring it all together, or just deciding not to worry about what it reports.

That would be a mistake.

All those things directly affect the validity of the study and the results presented, results which we use every day to make decisions for our associations and the professions and industries we serve.

Quoting the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research:

Good research does not guarantee good decisions, but it certainly helps. And bad research, barring getting lucky and guessing right, almost inevitably leads to bad decisions.

We want you to have everything you need to make good decisions, so in Caveat Emptor, my co-author Polly Karpowicz and I provide plain English explanations of key terms in research design so that you can build your information literacy muscles and choose wisely what research you will – and won’t – trust.

Get your free copy at https://bit.ly/3SYJiAO, no divulging of information about yourself required.