Dump the Performance Review!

five yellow stars on a pink and blue background

We all know that one of the top reasons people voluntarily leave their jobs is bad management. Bad management can express itself in a variety of ways: the infamous “one person screwed up/took advantage of the organization so let me send out a cranky email to everyone setting up a Draconian new policy,” the capricious boss who takes out bad moods on staff, the micro-manager, the boss who never, ever backs staff members in confrontations with volunteers or members, the boss who plays favorites, the boss who doesn’t give enough direction or support, the boss who only knows how to give negative feedback, the narcissist, the boss who’s terrified of making a bad decision and so makes none, the boss who’s totally impulsive, etc.

We can add the boss who uses performance reviews as an opportunity to bludgeon staff to that list. Why do annual reviews have to be like this?

I like the idea UCLA’s Samuel Culbert proposes as a solution: If someone has a behavior, attitude, or productivity problem, don’t wait until review time to address it. Address it right away!

I’d add: If performance isn’t a determinant of pay in your organization (i.e., everyone’s getting a standard 3.7% raise or whatever), don’t pretend like it is.

What if annual reviews were viewed, first and foremost, as an opportunity to formally recognize all the good work each staff member has done in the past year and thank them for it? Not that you don’t want to thank them along the way, but what if this were the time to pile up the loot, so to speak, and acknowledge it?

What if reviews were used as a time to look back at the goals each person set for the year and assess what happened? Which ones were met? Exceeded? Which ones weren’t met, and why? Many times, there are very good reasons why goals weren’t met – they were discovered partway through the year to be no longer relevant, other more pressing things that weren’t anticipated came to the fore, some critical prerequisite wasn’t met, they weren’t realistic in the first place, they just got delayed/deferred, etc.

What if, in talking about any behavior/attitude/productivity issues that need addressing, the focus was on coming up with a plan to address them together (staff person, manager, team, organization)?

What if staffers had a chance to tell managers what they need from the managers or from the organization to be successful? What if staffers had a chance to, without fear of repurcussions, offer positive and negative feedback about their managers? To their faces?

What if reviews focused on setting goals for the coming year, and what each player (staff, manager, team and organization) needs to do to make them happen?

What if salary was a minor part of the discussion? What if some of the rewards offered were non-monetary?

In other words, what if reviews were a positive, open, friendly, useful process, in which BOTH sides got to give and receive positive and negative feedback, and the focus was on working together to set and achieve good goals and address any obstacles that might get in the way?

If your association were to throw out how you review people and start from scratch, what would that look like?

What really constitutes effective feedback at work, both positive and negative? What would your ideal performance assessment system be? What rewards, financial and non-financial, are most meaningful to each of your staff members? How do you know? 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Meme Time: Changing the World in 2012

Maddie Grant has thrown down the gauntlet of the first meme challenge (that I’m aware of) of 2012: How am I going to change the world in 2012?

The responses are already starting. I particularly like Jeffrey Cufaude‘s reframing of the problem: start by changing your own world and maybe you’ll be able to change THE world.

What’s my answer?

I’ve long believed that when the same thing keeps popping up for you over and over, you should probably start paying attention, since clearly the universe is tapping you on the shoulder.

What’s been tapping me on the shoulder lately?

Diversity and inclusion.

First there was Joe Gerstandt‘s amazing Fly Your Freak Flag session at ASAE11.

Then Jeffrey Cufaude wrote a fantastic blog post that drew a ton of comments and that, rumor has it, is about to appear as a full lengthe article in an upcoming issue of Associations Now.

Those two inspired this post.

Then I had the chance to meet the amazing Constance Thompson from ASCE at the October idea swap, which also provided food for thought and, with a little luck, a session at an upcoming ASAE conference.

Then, of course, the calendar year ended with this.

How *are* we doing on D&I in associations? Short answer? Not well.

And I can’t change that by myself. And neither can you.

But I can light one candle. And so can you. So that’s what I’m going to do: do what’s in my power to shine a spotlight on diversity and inclusion and where we fail and how we can pick ourselves back up and try again.


Next-Generation Leadership

JNott recently concluded a great series on leadership skills for the 21st Century, and Acronym has declared May to be Leadership Inspiration Month, and the combo got me thinking:

What qualities will the association leader of the future need?

Rather than putting together some laundry list, I thought I’d focus on the two that seem most important to me:

Nimbleness of Mind 

It took us a while to catch the bug, but boy howdy, do associations love planning these days.  We love strategic planning.  We love action planning.  We love work planning.  We love metrics.  We love data.  We love environmental scanning.  We love SWOT analysis. We love Gantt charts.  We love Microsoft Project.  You’d think we were getting ready to invade Normandy, rather than just trying to roll out the renewal notices on time.

And that’s all great – really it is.  A constant Ready –> Fire –> Aim approach can get you in big trouble.

But the thing is, you can’t plan for everything.  Associations were never the most change-friendly organizations in the first place, and all this process-heavy planning infrastructure is slowing us down even more in a time when the *pace* of change is accelerating.  Rapidly.  News cycles, already 24/7, have been sped up by social media.  Competition from free and for-profit sources is increasing – and neither of those types of groups has to wait 6 months until the next board meeting to even get an idea on the agenda to be considered.

I’m not saying fly by the seat of your pants all the time – that can leave you without the available cash to make payroll at the end of the month.  But I am saying that the ability of our leaders to perform rapid analysis, trust their instincts, adapt, and come to decisions quickly is going to be critical to our ability to thrive as an association community.

Cross-Generational Fluency

We have 4 generations in the workplace at the same time for maybe the first time ever, as younger Silent generation members and Boomers delay retirement, while Gen-Xers are firmly in the middle of our careers, and the Millennials are moving en masse out of their schooling years and into their careers. Even the most cursory review of the available datareveals that these generations have MASSIVELY different ways of interacting with both people and technology. That lack of shared experience and understanding can produce significant friction in the workplace.  Does any of the following sound familiar?

  • That old guy in my office still prints out all his emails and dictates his responses to his assistant!  What’s wrong with that guy?
  • Why won’t those damn self-centered Boomers retire already? Or at least help prepare younger people for leadership positions?
  • Stupid Gen-Xers – they’re so secretive.  Why do they always want to work on their own?  What’s their problem with team work?
  • Why does the 25 year old program assistant think she’s too good to make copies?  And why did she apply for that open director position?  She’s only been here 6 months!

One of the key management lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you need to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to you.  Our leaders are going to have to become multi-generational-lingual in order to be able to get the most out of our teams.  For more on this idea, I highly recommend Karen Sobel Lojeski’s work on virtual distance.

What do you think?  What do our next-generation leaders need to do and be to make sure associations continue to thrive?


Big Idea Month: What if associations offered no agenda at its next staff retreat other than “show up and talk about how we can be better?”

My third entry in the Acronym Big Idea Month rodeo:

What if the only thing associations focused on was “how can we be better?”

Or, to quote Jeffrey Cufaude from the December 8 #assnchat, what if we had “calls for ideas” just like we have calls for papers/presentations?

I think this gets to some of the other questions, like what if we forgot about petty internal politics and focused on the mission, what if we weren’t afraid to share new ideas, what if we removed “we have always done it that way” from our vocabularies?

Anyone who knows me knows that this is what I try to do, and I know a LOT of others in the same boat – you can find us without looking too hard (the association blogger community, association geeks on Twitter, the YAPstars, etc.). And we’re all tempted to think that other people think/reason the same way we do. But that’s demonstrably not true. Particularly not in this case, or “petty internal politics” would be an oxymoron.

So the question becomes: if “Ideas BAD!” is the focus of a sizable contingent of the association professional world (hell, of the world in general), AND we accept the premise that people act in ways that make sense to them, what’s going on here?

No, “my colleagues are all crazy” is not an acceptable answer.

And those of us on the side of “Change GOOD!” *need* the answer, because we have to persuade at least some of the “Change BAAAAAD!” crowd to at least not oppose us if we hope to accomplish anything other than a big ole headache from whacking our heads on our desks repeatedly.

I think – and I certainly could be wrong – that it comes down to fear. But I think it’s more than the traditional flip “they fear change” answer. Because that begs another question: why does this person fear change? What happened in her/his past to cause this? Did she have an idea – or multiple ideas – that were shot down in their infancy? Did he get to implement an idea that failed, and then get punished, or just totally hung out to dry? Did she have a great idea that was implemented and worked, only to see someone else hog all the credit?

I’m not saying that you’ll be able to somehow fix those past bad experiences. This isn’t therapy, and sitting around singing Kumbaya gives me hives anyway. But if you can get some idea about what’s happening in your detractors’ heads, you can think a little more constructively about what might help them be more comfortable with what you’re proposing than “very well, then let it be war between us!” And that’s when you can finally get some of those great ideas off the ground.

Big Idea Month: What if associations decided that sometimes, telling a member ‘no’ is an acceptable practice?

Post two in my contribution series to Acronym’s Big Ideas Month:

What if (perish the thought!), we actually told members NO?

I actually suspect that most associations already do this, but we do it in the wrong way. We say “no” all the time. Only it’s called, “That’s against association policy.” Which, aside from “we’re out of bourbon,” might be my least favorite four words in the English language.

You know what “that’s against association policy” REALLY means?

  • “I’m only line staff – I’m not actually empowered to decide anything.”
  • “I don’t want to/feel like it.”
  • “Member service isn’t my job.”
  • “Some day, far in the dim, dark past, someone decided that we don’t that. I don’t know why. Just because.”
  • “We have always done it that way.” (my least favorite seven words in the English language, other than “by the way, also out of chocolate.”)

Members are absolutely not always right – they know the industry/profession, you know how to run your organization – but what if every request was considered on its merits, rather than whether or not it’s “against” some random policy that some person put in place some time ago for reasons known only to him? What if ALL levels of staff were allowed, even encouraged, to make decisions? What if we really measured what we’re doing on “does this serve the members?” (Not just *this* member, all members – which can help resolve conflicts when a member asks for something that would be bad if universalized.)

Giving every staff person the ability to make decisions implies that sometimes she might say no. Which means it’s really important to know how to say no in the right way. “No.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” Not the right way to handle members. “We can’t do X (and there better be a reason other than “Because you were mean to me and I don’t feel like helping you”), but we do want to make this right. What about Y instead?” Or “what else can we do to make this right?” Get the member involved in producing a solution, and you’ll get her mind off the fact that you just said no to what she asked for and on to the fact that you’re working with her to resolve the situation. Detractors can become your most passionate fans/evangelists *if* you handle them right.

Big Idea Month: What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?

I’m just a little late to the party, but I’ll be devoting the next 3 (edited 12/23 to add: nope, FOUR) Tuesdays to musing about questions from the awesome list at Acronym in honor of Big Idea Month.

So what if EVERY staff member had to talk to members on a regular basis?

Despite the existence of the idea “Membership is Everyone’s Business,” too often, it’s really not. Membership retention, for most organizations, is the business of the membership department. If retention goes down, the membership staff gets blamed, even if the reason people are leaving is because, for instance, the receptionist is rude. Or they hate the monthly magazine. Or they’ve decided to focus their energies on their local chapters. Or they’re organizing online. Or the annual meeting’s too expensive. Or whatever.

(And, while we’re on it, why are we always so concerned with affixing blame? It’s pointless. It stifles innovation, because people think “cover your ass” not “come up with and try amazing new idea.” And it wastes time and mental energy that would be better spent FIXING the PROBLEM. But I digress…)

I was hired for my first association job as Director of Member Services and Technology not because I knew anything about associations or management, but because I was from the profession, and the executive director figured I’d empathize with the members. And she was right. And that was great, as far as it went. Which was to one staff person. Not far enough, by a long shot.

We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, etc. But most of us have no freakin’ clue what those things are. We do annual satisfaction surveys and listen to and repeat conventional wisdom and swear that we’ve been doing this long enough to know every little thing about our members, their industry or profession, and what’s best for them.


You know the easiest way to find out what people want and need? Ask them. And not in some “1-5/very dissatisfied-very satisfied” BS survey, either.

“Hi there,. This is Elizabeth calling from NACHRI. If you have a few minutes to chat, I’d love to find out what’s going on in your children’s hospital and general area, and if you have any questions or comments about what’s we’re up to here at NACHRI.”

What do you get? Information, sure, but also connection. Community. A source of new ideas. The feeling that the association cares about me. Early warning of problems that might be cropping up, whether in your industry, or related to your association.

And, more importantly, it’s unfiltered. This is not meant to imply ill intent to your CEO or membership staff (the only people who commonly have contact with members). But everyone filters information they receive through their own mental maps. And someone with a different map might interpret the same data differently.

How would your association benefit from deep understanding of your members, their needs and wants, and industry or profession spread widely across the entire organization? What could you do with that? Would your members think different about the association when the renewal notices show up or when they arrive at your annual meeting if they felt connected not only to other members through the agency of the association, but to the association itself through contact with staff?