Happy Fabulous Five, Spark!

Floral design - Flower

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.

Photo by Peedee on Unsplash

Strategy, Risk, and Implementation

Final day of whitepaper release week!

From the new Spark whitepaper, Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation, co-authored with Jamie Notter (JamieNotter.com) and Leslie White (Croydon Consulting):

Having…conversations around risk and opportunity is not necessarily easy, but it’s becoming increasingly important in today’s complex, mutable, fast-paced environment. You need people at all levels of your association who can analyze and make key decisions that are in line with your strategic direction, and that means they need the skills and tools to quickly get beneath the surface conclusions that create conflicts in order to resolve them, decide, and act.

You do that by:

  • Asking better questions
  • Bringing assumptions to the surface
  • Agreeing to disagree
  • Focusing on the decision

You can find out more about how to do that by downloading the free whitepaper at http://bit.ly/MJ5oo8.

Additionally, Jamie, Leslie, and I offer training for senior teams to help you develop the skills to make better decisions faster. You can find out more on the Spark Services | Training page.


Risk, Strategy, Conflict, and Consensus

Whitepaper release week continues!

From the new Spark whitepaper, Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation, co-authored with Jamie Notter (JamieNotter.com) and Leslie White (Croydon Consulting):

Strategy and risk are about choosing to do certain things and, sometimes more importantly, not to do certain things. Conversations about these choices are difficult because your organization naturally has a range of overlapping concerns and interests, typically represented by specific groups of people, maybe a department or a membership segment. When you have different groups representing different interests, it often leads to conflict. And most organizations don’t handle their conflict well.

Get the full whitepaper (for free, no personal information required) at http://bit.ly/MJ5oo8.

How Does Risk Relate to Strategy?

From the new Spark whitepaper, Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation, co-authored with Jamie Notter (JamieNotter.com) and Leslie White (Croydon Consulting):

Risk management is an intrinsic part of strategic thinking. When considering a strategy, you must first determine whether that strategy aligns with your risk appetite…The biggest challenge associations face in establishing a culture of strategic risk management is to get people comfortable thinking and talking about what could go wrong—or right—on the way to realizing your excellent new ideas. The key is to match your risk exposure to your risk appetite, while not undervaluing potential lost opportunity.

Like what you read? Want more? Download your free copy at http://bit.ly/MJ5oo8.

Why Does Risk Matter?

From the new Spark whitepaper, Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation, written with Jamie Notter and Leslie White:

The risk management process involves the continuous identification, assessment, prioritization, and selection of risk management techniques; implementation; and monitoring of outcomes.

But what if the board and senior team members don’t all agree on what the risk is, how likely it is, or what impact it might have? What if the decision-makers don’t have the same appetite for risk? What if they don’t accord the potential opportunity the same level of importance? Risk management sounds straightforward in theory, but the effective practice of risk management requires broadening your awareness about uncertainty and risk and integrating this risk awareness directly into your strategic decision- making. You need to define your risk strategy.

Want more? Download your free copy at http://bit.ly/MJ5oo8.

Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation

I’m excited to share the launch of the fourth whitepaper in the ongoing Spark whitepaper series, Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation.

Co-authored with Jamie Notter (JamieNotter.com) and Leslie White, CPCU, ARM, CIC, CRM, (Croydon Consulting), the whitepaper tackles the question: why do senior teams have so much trouble with strategic decision-making?

Our answer is that a major contributing factor is that they are unable to have good conversations about risk, risk management, risk appetite, and how that all relates to opportunity and opportunity cost, because they avoid conflict and have a mistaken understanding of what constitutes consensus. The whitepaper shares both theory and techniques to help senior teams have better conversations, make more informed choices about risk and opportunity, and ultimately, be more effective in forming and implementing their strategies as a result.

I’ll be blogging about the contents of the whitepaper all week, but in the meantime, pick up your free copy at http://bit.ly/MJ5oo8, no divulging of information about yourself required.

And don’t forget to check out the other Spark whitepapers:

“That Sounds Risky…”

Back in June, Leslie White (Croydon Consulting) and I presented a session for ASAE’s Finance and Business Operations Conference (FHRBOC). It was a simulation on risk management. We had assumed, given that it was a room full of accountants, that everyone would a common understanding of, and language around, risk.

Boy, were we wrong.

And it got us thinking: when senior teams are trying to make decisions together, do they suffer from the same problem? A lot of what we do or consider doing in associations involves the assumption (and hopefully mitigation) of risk. What if senior teams don’t share an understanding of what that means? How can they even have good, open conversations?

Well, as soon as we started thinking about good, open conversations, we realized we’d want to involve Jamie Notter (Management Solutions Plus), too.

So here’s what we’ve come to:

In today’s environment, an association’s success is contingent on its ability to make good decisions quickly. Heading in the wrong direction, or simply treading water while you try to decide, will move you further and further behind your competition. Today’s competition is tougher, and the margins are thinner, so we simply can’t afford to fumble our way through decision making.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the management team level. Here you have a group representing diverse interests that is tasked with making strategic decisions to support the whole enterprise. Yet the topic of how decisions are made (and what methods and processes would be best) is rarely tackled explicitly. Despite the imperative mentioned above, we actually do fumble our way through decision making.

As consultants, we see this problem and want to do something about it, but only if it actually makes sense to association execs, and only if we’re not duplicating what other smart consultants in the association space are already doing. So we have a few questions for you.

  • What is your experience with decision making at your organization?
  • What kinds of conversations do – or don’t – you have about risk?
  • If you are experiencing problems in these areas, what impact is it having on your organization? Your staff? Your relationships with your volunteer leaders?
  • Is there a need here?
  • Have you worked with somebody great who’s helped you through this, where we should talk to her first or just get out of her way and let her do her work?

Short version: we think there’s a problem here, we’re interested in trying to figure out how we fix it, but we’re not interested in trying to reinvent a wheel someone else has already done a better job creating.

What are your thoughts?

A World Without Boards

A million years ago back in Dallas (actual time: just over a month), Jeff De Cagna, in his unsession on Associations Unorthodox, has asked us to think about radical questions to ask.

Now I love the idea of a radical question. One of the focal points of my consulting work is that asking the right question is as important as getting the right answer, if not more so. Too often, we ask the wrong question, come up with a truly genius answer, and then end up frustrated when it doesn’t fix the problem. And then we kick ourselves for coming up with a bad solution, when that wasn’t the problem at all. We started in the wrong place, so it was going to be virtually impossible for us to end in the right one.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with:

Here’s my radical ?: are boards the best way to run our orgs? What would the alt be/look like? #asae12
— Elizabeth Engel (@ewengel) August 13, 2012

Now, as my wise friend Leslie White, the excellent risk management consultant, points out: assuming your association is formally incorporated (which about 99.876% of us are), you are legally required to have some sort of board.

(Thanks, Leslie.)

So I guess my real question is: why do they operate as they do?

I know not all boards behave badly. But over the years, I’ve seen personal agendas, ego-based posturing, arrogance, cluelessness, personal aggrandizement, meddling with issues outside their ken, lack of willingness to take appropriate responsibility, and lack of willingness to ask difficult questions, all to an alarming degree.

And I don’t just blame the individual board members. We, as association professionals, do a poor job of properly training and preparing them for board service, and then setting and enforcing boundaries. It’s no wonder they have a tendency to run wild.

The reason it becomes a big problem is that the board has a lot of power.


It’s not for legal reasons.

And I’m not saying that no board should ever fulfill the common responsibilities of financial oversight and planning and managing the chief staff executive. I’m just asking why we act as if they have to.

I don’t have an answer to the question of a world without boards – or at least, pace Leslie, where board service is dramatically different.

But if we aren’t being well-served by the model (and some of us plainly aren’t), why not look for an alternative?

Forget the “How” – Worry about the “Why”

Leslie White and I did a two hour (well, actually 1:15 after you took out the breaks and the fact that the predecessor session went long) session on Twitter at ASAE’s social media workshop last week. We had planned to talk a little about the mechanics and a lot about what associations are actually doing with Twitter. But we got bogged down in the how – how do I set up an account, how to I protect/unprotect my tweets, how do I use re-tweet, @ messages, via messages, direct messages, URL shorteners, etc. I was not thrilled at the time, and upon reflection, I’m even more dismayed that we got so sidetracked, not least of which because I’m sure a certain percentage of participants were totally bored.

The biggest problem is that, if you lack a solid answer to “why,” no matter how easy the “how” is, it’s too hard. And if you have a good answer to “why,” you’ll figure out the “how.”

When I asked how many participants had Twitter accounts, probably 75% of the room raised their hands. When I asked how many had tweeted within the last month, maybe 25% still had their hands up. When I got to how many had tweeted within the last day or hour, it was pretty much down to just the presenters.

Now why is that? Is it that it’s SOOOOOO hard to go to www.twitter.com, compose a 140 character message, and hit “return”? No.

But if you haven’t a good answer to “why am I doing this?” ANY “how do I do it?” is too hard. Because you know what’s easier 100% of the time? Doing nothing. You need a reason to move. And without that, any “how” is too much trouble.

And the thing is, the “how” of Twitter is really, really simple. (And yes, I know I’m techno-friendly, but I’m definitely not a bleeding edge early adopter type. And I’m not a rocket scientist, by any stretch of the imagination. Which means that if I can figure it out, so can you.)

Step 1: Sign up for account.

Step 2: (recommended but not required) Set yourself up one of the management platforms.

Step 3: It’s a cocktail party.

You wouldn’t charge into a party where you don’t know anyone and start making loud declarative statements, would you? (I hope not.) You’d start by listening to what’s happening, getting a feel for the room, and then joining a conversation that sounds interesting. Twitter’s the same way, only online and in 140 character bursts.

Oh – and all those “cool kids” comments? While there are some genuine social media rockstars (and no, I don’t mean Ashton Kucher or Oprah), I’ll tell you the secret to becoming one of the “cool kids” (and I won’t even make you pinkie swear that you won’t tell anyone): get on the social media platforms (blogs, wikis, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), talk to people, and say interesting things. That’s it. It’s a total meritocracy.

See? Easy how.

So what’s the why? You have to answer that for yourself, but I’m going to try to help you, by relating some stories of ways I’ve used – or seen others using – Twitter to engage people and benefit their associations over the next few weeks.