Today marks five years since I launched Spark Consulting. As I look back on the past five years, I have much to be grateful for. Leading that list is all the people who’ve contributed to the success of this Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
First, I have to thank all my wonderful clients. Spark would not exist without each and every one of you. I particularly want to thank the American Chemical Society, my very first client, for being willing to take a risk on hiring the new kid in town, and Ross Simons for making the connection between a brand-new consultant and her first lead. Over the years, many of my clients have referred me to their colleagues and/or hired me again for additional projects. I can’t express how grateful I am for their confidence in me and my work.
Back in late 2011, I was working for the Children’s Hospitals Association. I’d been there for a few years and was starting to think about my next move. At the time, I was thinking it would be my first CEO position, leading a small association. I’d been in the biz for 14 years at that point, had my CAE and an MA, had worked in a wide variety of functional areas in association management leading a variety of different types and sizes of teams, and had even served as an acting CEO for a small association. I started applying for those types of positions, despite the fact that when I mentioned I was looking for my next gig, the nearly universal response was, “So you’re launching your own consulting business, right?” I want to thank Shira Harrington (Purposeful Hire) for being the one who helped me understand that being a consultant would be a better path for me.
Maddie Grant, Lindy Dreyer, and Jamie Notter came over to my house on a cold winter afternoon and helped me figure out what I wanted to call this new consulting business, how I wanted to frame the work I wanted to do, how brand Spark and myself, and brainstormed my clever URL (in which a discussion about “GetMeJamieNotter” led to “GetMeSpark”).
When I was starting out, I was fortunate to be invited to join a Mastermind Group that served as my kitchen cabinet, pushed me to define my goals, and helped me think through how to overcome the barriers to achieving them. Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Shira Harrington, KiKi L’Italien, and Sohini Baliga kept me on the right path during those critical first two years.
One of the most useful things I learned studying for the CAE 14 years ago was to know what you are – and aren’t – good at, and make sure to surround yourself with great people who know and can do what you can’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with four outstanding vendors on the tasks I can’t do for myself: Bean Creative for my website, ImagePrep for all my graphic design needs, Andrew Mirsky (Mirsky Law Group) for all my contracts and other legal needs, and Moran & Company for bookkeeping, accounting, and tax advice and planning.
My original career goal, back in college, was to be a university professor. I’ve always loved research and writing, particularly long-form essays. One of the most personally and professionally fulfilling things I’ve been able to do since launching Spark is the Spark collaborative white paper series. I now have the freedom to research and write, diving into topics that interest me and that I think are important for our industry.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a host of fantastic contributors for the nine existing monographs: Jeff De Cagna, George Breeden, Tom Lehman, Jamie Notter, Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Peter Houstle, Anna Caraveli, Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Shelly Alcorn, Polly Siobhan Karpowicz, Tracy Petrillo, Sherry Marts, Joe Gerstandt, Jess Pettitt, and Joan Eisenstodt.
I also want to thank the many association executives who were willing to share the stories of their organizations’ work, struggles, and triumphs in the case studies that illustrate many of the concepts the white papers discuss.
Thanks also go to Alison Dixon (Image Prep), who’s done all the beautiful layout and graphic work on the white papers, and to copy editors Ed Lamb and Joe Rominiecki, who’ve done their level best to save me from my typos and grammatical errors.
The association consulting community more broadly has also served as a tremendous source of inspiration, help, and advice over the years. Many association consultants have generously given of their time and expertise to answer my questions, point me in the direction of resources I need, or just generally help me to buck up when things aren’t going as I’d like them to with the business. We may be competitors, at least on occasion, but we are a community and we help each other out, and that’s priceless.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have to thank my spouse, Jim. When I came home from that fateful lunch with Shira nearly six years ago, I was nervous. As far as he knew, the plan was to land a CEO position, with the attendant salary, benefits, and security. I knew I was about to announce that I might want to throw all that over in favor of the risk, excitement, and uncertainty of launching my own business. This change in direction would have a dramatic effect on him and his life as well, and I didn’t know how he’d respond.
When I told him what had happened over lunch and what I was thinking, he responded: “I think that’s a great idea. I think you’d be a terrific solo consultant. You should definitely do that.”
“Well damn,” I thought. “If he’s that confident, what in the hell am I so worried about?”
Five years later, here we are. It’s been a thrilling, challenging, amazing, terrifying journey so far. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.
For those of us who are “on the bus” on the value of genuine diversity and inclusion, this is the crux of the matter: how do we effectively walk our talk on D+I?
We have to work from the inside out, starting with our own selves, taking steps to uncover and combat our implicit biases, understanding where we do – and do not – have privilege, and answering the question “Now that I know, what will I do?”
To quote Include Is a Verb:
That is, how will you move from unconscious reaction to conscious responsibility? How will you use your privileges to help others and, at the same time, let them use theirs to help you in areas where you lack privilege?
Only then can we begin to move outward, to working on our associations as workplaces, then to our boards of directors and other volunteer leaders, then to our members, then to the professions and industries we serve.
I’d like to conclude this week’s focus on Include Is a Verb: Moving from Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion with another quote from the whitepaper:
There’s a poem that begins, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.” As the man relating the parable lives his life, he realizes that was too grand a goal. He scales back to changing his nation, only to recognize that, too, as too grand a project. So he decides to focus on his town, and then his family. By the time he’s an old man, he realizes that the only thing he can change, the only thing he can control, is himself, but that when you change yourself, that impacts the people around you, and the people around them, and through that, you can change your nation and the world.
Start there. Pick one thing to change in yourself. Then think about one thing you can work on in your workplace with your colleagues. Then identify one program your association o ers that you can enlist your volunteers and members to help you transform. Small steps will add up to big shifts over time.
My co-author Sherry Marts and whitepaper contributors Joe Gerstandt and Jess Pettitt will be joining KiKi L’Italien for an Association Chat focused on Include Is a Verb on Tuesday, July 11 at 2 pm. You can register here.
And, of course, don’t forget to download the whitepaper itself at http://bit.ly/2peWwP0. It includes interviews with a DELP mentor/scholar team (Shawn Boynes and Desirée Knight) and with Cie Armtead, the current chair of ASAE’s D+I committee; sidebars from noted D+I experts Jessica Pettitt, Joan Eisenstodt, and Joe Gerstandt; and case studies of three associations that are doing outstanding D+I work for the audiences they serve (the Association for Women in Science, the Entomological Society of America, and the Geological Society of America).
We all agreed that it did, and Lowell Apelbaum added:
a2. By informal sharing – each lesson I learn I try to relate in a narrative to at least three other people #assnchat — Lowell Aplebaum, CAE (@Lowellmatthew) July 14, 2015
Partners in Association Management also keeps something they call “back pocket lists”: good ideas that couldn’t be implemented at the time someone came up with them that they reserve for a more suitable time.
Q3 What do you know about the outcomes your audiences seek? How are you helping them achieve those outcomes?
This question launched some observations about different generations in the workforce and the association having different goals, with Karen Hansen also pointing out:
…also asked what we can do to help, & will discuss more at upcoming strategic planning. Lots of #journalism industry change now #assnchat
Q4 How do you discover what your audiences really value? How do you use that information?
People had lots of good suggestions here, ranging from pilot programs to trial and error, asking them, tracking behavior, observing what they spread/share/talk about/promote, and Ewald Consulting went kind of Zen Master on us:
When we got to question 7, we kind of heard crickets:
Q7 How do you encourage collaboration between audiences and association? Among members?
Opinion was pretty much universal that this is a big struggle for associations. Kait Solomon pointed out:
A7) I think this will be the new standard for why you join for “networking.” The Assc that figures this out will stay relevant #assnchat — Kait Solomon (@KaitlinSolomon3) July 14, 2015
Q8 How do you currently define engagement? Is your definition adequate/satisfactory?
Where Kait also observed that “engagement” has become a buzzword, and I quoted Ed Bennett, who recently pointed out that if there’s no ring involved, we probably need to stop talking about engagement and focus on what we really mean: conversation, talking, listening, relationship.
Q9 What do you do with members once you engage them? What’s the next step/goal?
I’m going back to Lowell again:
a9. Engagement is a journey – should have many paths to pursue – ? is how assn can best be the map/guide/sherpa #assnchat
Are associations taking a backwards approach to member engagement?
Associations have always been “about” engagement of course, and in the past several years, we’ve had a renewed focus on engaging our audiences. The thing is, most of us aren’t really doing it well. Could that be because we’ve been thinking about engagement all wrong, focusing on what we want members to do and how we define value?
In the whitepaper, Anna and I propose a radical shift in our understanding of engagement, one based on an approach that encourages associations to view the world from our audiences’ perspective, focus on the outcomes they want to achieve, build authentic relationships, and harness the power of collaboration to co-create the value our organizations provide.
To participate, just follow and tweet to the hashtag #assnchat from 2-3 pm EDT on Tuesday, July 14. You might want to download and read the whitepaper in advance, although it is certainly NOT required. But it is free! Get it at http://bit.ly/1GPNUM6.
I didn’t exactly do a rigorously scientific poll, but the #1 answer to “biggest productivity killer” was: meetings. Planned meetings, unplanned meetings, drop in meetings, “do you have a few minutes?” meetings – just about everyone hated meetings.
“Of course!”, right?
Confession: I have an (earned) reputation as someone who is high-energy, highly productive, never misses a deadline (99% of the time, I deliver early), cranks out the work, usually at above-average quality.
I am about 1000% *more* productive now that I’m working for myself and not spending 25%-50% of each day in meetings.
(Look out, world.)
Given that everyone was sharing the hate for meetings, I pretty quickly posed the question: “how do we unsuck meetings?”
People receive a formal agenda in advance. No agenda = no meeting. After all, if there’s nothing you need to cover, why force everyone to sit around a conference table for an hour?
There are defined outcomes. Again, if you’re not trying to accomplish anything – or you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish – why are you wasting everyone’s time?
Collaboration takes place. I’m not so sure about this one (more below).
Clearly defined and communicated action items. This is more of a post-meeting item, but I agree that any decisions that are made need to be documented, any tasks that need to be done need the same, and you must assign responsibility and due dates.
NO standing meetings. Ooooo. This is a tough one. If you have a busy, high-profile group, there’s pressure to have standing meetings, or you fear not being able to get them together when you need them. On the other hand, if we dramatically cut down on the number of meetings we have (by, say, killing standing meetings), the problem might fix itself.
On the whole “collaboration” issue, I agree that TRUE collaboration can bring about better results. But it seems like “working collaboratively” has been dumbed down to “let’s have a zillion meetings and include anyone and everyone who’s even peripherally related to what’s going on.” And that demonstrably make us less creative and ultimately, less productive. Turns out, the best way to work in teams is to assign out pieces of the project to individuals, let them go away and do the work on their own, and come back together periodically but briefly to attack problems people need help with, and have ONE person (the project manager?) assigned to do the coordinating.
Finally, a thought exercise: the next time you’re in some interminable, agenda-less, all hands on deck type meeting, look around the room. Who’s there? Guesstimate her/his hourly rate (annual salary/2 and drop the thousands is close enough, plus about 30% for benefits – so $100K a year = $65 a hour), then add it up around the room and multiple times the number of hour/s you’re all stuck there.
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.