Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Authenticity in Association Governance - Building Empire

Too bad, people say what's wrong with the kids today
Tell you right now they've got nothing to lose
They're building empire!

Game point, nobody wins. Decline, right on time.
What happened to the dream sublime?
Tear it all down, we'll put it up again.
Another empire?...................Queensryche, Empire

The Short of It
  • Association governance is challenging
  • True leadership is steeped in authenticity
  • Honestly embracing the members and the mission
  • Representing those interests above all others
  • But when your governance structure loses that authenticity
  • Then you are in for a long run of playing politics and "building empire"
  • Achieving your core purpose and envisioned future will be more difficult
  • And maybe even impossible
The Long of It

Association governance takes a bad rap most of the time. As an executive, it will be one of the trickier and most frustrating things you have to learn to deal with. Engaging in discussions around "governance" typically devolve into a quadrata of entrenched perspectives.
  • Governance is nothing but a decision making model so if we play with the flowchart that will fix things.
  • Governance is nothing but politics and the day belongs to the winners.
  • Governance is entrenched and steeped in tradition therefore I am powerless against it.
  • Governance is unnecessary and if we could just get rid of it our problems would be solved.

We've all heard these statements thrown about at one time or another. It seems to me those perspectives are too simplistic. They smack of "management" rather than "leadership" or seem to reflect a latent desire on the part of executive or board members to see themselves as Machiavellian power brokers or victims.

I am not going to pretend I am the end-all-be-all authority on governance issues. I do have a significant amount of hands on experience with different governance structures, many of which worked better than others. It isn't intellectually honest to assert simpler governance structures are automatically less troublesome or lead to faster decision making. In some cases, simpler structures can actually be steeped in more political struggles than larger ones perhaps because the perceived stakes are higher. In my humble opinion, the simplicity or complexity of the structure itself is less important than how it is run. Even complicated governance structures can run smoothly and efficiently if the volunteer leaders therein decide to embrace an authentic structure.

What do I mean by that?

Authenticity is defined as undisputed credibility, truthfulness in origin and intention, reliable and real. Authenticity in governance comes down to this - allowing and encouraging dissension, not hiding motives, recruiting volunteer leaders with diverse backgrounds, ideas and opinions, gathering facts, presenting both the positive and negative, acting credibly and consistently and, most importantly, eschewing petty politics for sincere concentration on pursuit of the mission above all.

Authentic governance structures honor the pieces that fit and eliminate the pieces that don't. They behave openly and with integrity without allowing personal politics to undermine and interfere with the greater good. Authentic structures focus on encouraging and implementing the types of innovative ideas that will benefit the membership as a whole and don't expend a great deal of energy playing politics and labeling the "winners" and "losers."

(Hey, I heard that! For those of you cynics out there who say, "Well our governance structure fits the definition of authentic because we are authentically nasty and uncooperative," then my response to you is you have bigger problems than this poor little blog can address.)

Moving on.

Here are three signs your association has a governance structure that is struggling with some authenticity issues and is focused on "politics" and "building empire" as opposed to "governance."

1. The Executive - If your executive director is vetting all prospective board members warning bells should be going off. Is the executive's perspective important when identifying future leaders of the association? Of course. Should the executive have a limited role in nomination committee activities? Sure, if certain guidelines are met. However, you know you have crossed the line when your executive brags about "hand-picking" those that ascend, or when simply being nominated to the board is, in effect, a fait accompli. At that point authentic governance is out the window. You are now operating in a structure dominated by the executive and the executive's main interest becomes self-protection not the accomplishment of the mission. At that point, the executive is building empire.

2. The Board/House of Delegates - If you require a professional parliamentarian at your Board or House of Delegates meetings to help control disputes you are in trouble. (I used to have the National Association of Parliamentarians on speed dial.) Should your board members and delegates be trained in Robert's or Sturgis' rules of order? Of course they should and in fact, your bylaws should reflect their use. Authentic and honorable use of parliamentary rules help ensure orderly progress through an agenda and do nothing to discourage honest discussion and debate. However, when squaring off with a couple of Lyndon-Johnson-wannabes requiring a professional parliamentarian to ensure they a) are appropriately corralled or b) don't wrest control with obscure motions nobody else understands then you have a much bigger issue. Authentic dissension is one thing. Deliberate obstructionism or attempted takeover is clearly another. At that point, your board/house of delegates is not governing, they are playing politics and building empire.

3. The Chapters/Regions - If you are continually wrestling with chapters and/or regions engaging in power struggles and disputes your governance structure needs a shot in the arm. A governance structure not based in authenticity is rife with chapter politics. Is that to say, chapters should not represent their local constituencies? Of course not. Chapters have regional flavors, diverse needs and I don't believe any chapter should blindly walk in lock step with the umbrella organization during a debate. They must represent their constituents sincerely and at times vigorously. However, as the character Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one." In an authentic structure, regional input is legitimately solicited and honored. If the votes go down contrary to the chapters' opinion a reasonable and cogent argument should be made as to why. At that point, the chapters have a responsibility to set their individual concerns aside for the good of the order. Chapter leaders should not disingenuously attempt to revolt and continue the struggle in other venues. At that point, the chapters are building empire.

Your association should focus on achieving the mission and vision, using all assets to achieve the greater good and ensuring an open and authentic operating environment. Ideas to help in that include:
  • Training your board, chapters and volunteer leaders
  • Holding an annual board orientation with a professional third party
  • Developing a task force to work through governance issues with an independent specialist
  • Developing a strong and compelling core purpose and envisioned future for your members
  • Developing and implementing strong affiliate agreements and enforcing them
  • Developing nominating committee policy to assist in appropriately distributing "influence"
  • Developing and publishing policy overall and following it
  • Ensuring decisions are clearly documented and communicated to all interested parties

Good luck with your governance challenges.  My hope is that your volunteer leaders are appropriately inspired and trained to focus on doing the good work on behalf of the members who put them there, not playing political games and building empire.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Association Subculture Word for 2010 - Authenticity

Like the echoes of your childhood laughter, ever after
Like the first time love urged you to take it's guidance, in silence
Like your heartbeat when you realize you're dying, but you're trying
Like the way you cry for a happy ending, ending...
I know the feeling
It is the real thing....Faith No More, The Real Thing

The Short of It
  • I may not dig new years resolutions
  • But I am intrigued by the idea of a "word(s) for the year"
  • So, I've picked a word to focus on
  • And blog about in 2010
  • One I hope to see in more association discussions
  • Authenticity
The Long of It

I've been inspired by the idea of picking a word (or series of words) to define actions to focus on in 2010. Chris Brogan has his three words picked out - ecosystems, owners and kings. Jared Goralnick of Technotheory has picked "swim." I've seen other words run across my dashboard-o'-folks-I-follow. After much reflection on what word or words I would choose for myself, and by extension this blog, to focus on in 2010 (and whether I even should) I've picked a word.


Now, although it is true I am an avid avoider of new years resolutions because I tend to see them as vain attempts to "overcome the negative" i.e., I will quit ABC, I will lose X number of pounds, etc., I see picking a theme word as a different exercise. It seems to accentuate consistent positive actions to promote an idea or concept. (Maybe it's a little Jim Collins-esque desire to experiment and see if I can get all "flywheel" with a word.) I've never done such a thing before and even though there is little doubt your dear Alice will chase other rabbits from time to time I'm going to commit to embedding that concept when and where it seems authentic to do so.  (Ha!)

Authenticity strongly resonates for me as a legitimate and fundamental aim for this blog and hopefully for our association community as a whole. This is not an unfamiliar word. Many calls for authenticity are routinely promulgated on blogs and in staff, board and committee meetings. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot more than talk when it comes to actually embracing authenticity.

Two outstanding blog posts recently caught my attention. Jeffrey Cufaude had a great post on "Speaking Our Truth"  and Joe Gerstandt did as well with The Whole Truth.  I think both posts do a fine job of identifying some of the reasons why we are marginalized into not bringing our truth and our whole selves into the work-a-day or volunteer world. Let's see what we can do to change that in 2010.

Topics I have on the horizon to blog about include authenticity in:
  • executive and board relationships
  • board and committee governance
  • membership recruitment and retention
  • professional development programming
  • legislative and regulatory activity
  • marketing and communications
  • staffing issues including support of gender identity and LGBT issues
  • workplace policy including attire and appearance
You get the point.

Authenticity is not for the faint of heart. I struggle with it just like everyone else (lots of birds flying into these glass walls today). How much is too much? What should I share and what should I keep back? Nobody is going to make this process easy for me, least of all myself.

I used to have a sign up in my office to remind me my job was not to tell the board, the staff or the volunteers what they wanted to hear, it was to tell them what they needed to hear. When you do that - you make friends and you make enemies. Ambivalence in the face of someone who is attempting to speak their truth is a rarity. However, it doesn't necessarily mean the truth teller is always "right," it just means they are reporting objective facts through a filter of their experience, best estimates and perspective. The best you can hope for is a truth teller isn't intentionally misleading anyone and has the best interests of the individual and/or organization at heart.

The other reason we have to be vigilant about marginalization and make sure we create safe spaces for people to speak their truth is because - it changes. What is true now about a situation (or about one's self) may change in the future. We are continually evolving as individuals, as teams and as organizations. What we assume is true for the moment, may lead us to feel threatened if it changes. What we assume is written in stone, can lead to the demise of our relationships, our strategic initiatives or our associations. By assuming what is true now will be true forever, can lead us to believe the worst of a person if their direction changes. We denounce them as liars from the beginning, when that may be far from reality. By assuming what is true about our organization won't change, we may miss indicators that say otherwise and miss opportunities to react or adjust as necessary to forestall difficulty, decline or collapse.

Am I advocating an anchorless amorphous purely situational based existence? Well, no. Striving for authentic stability and adjusting to inevitable changes is inherent in the dynamic tension of our entire existence.

We would hope certain things about our organization should remain stable over time. Our dedication to our core purpose, core values and our envisioned future. But if authenticity is missing from any one of those pieces we risk erosion of trust on the part of our staff, volunteer leadership and members.

We would hope certain things may remain constant about individuals over time although their expression may change. Certain beliefs and values I possess have changed as I've matured and certain things have not. I am at a point where I no longer feel it necessary to compromise quite so much.

So...authenticity it is. 2010 looks to be shaping up as an interesting year.

I know the feeling
It is the real thing
The essence of the soul

The perfect moment
That golden moment
I know you feel it too......

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The End of the World as We Know It (in Associations)

Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh, this means no fear - cavalier. Renegade and steer clear! A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.....REM, Document

The Short of It
  • I don't believe in new years resolutions
  • However, there is merit in stopping for a moment of reflection
  • And moving forward with a renewed sense of purpose
  • But that should happen more often than once per year
  • Change doesn't wait for us to catch up and notice
  • It lies in wait for us every moment of every day
The Long of It

My new years resolution is swearing off resolutions. (Ironic.....but let me explain.)

Most of us are heading back into the fray this week and I'd like to stop for just one more moment, have one more leisurely cup of coffee and consider the landscape ahead.

The world, as we know it, ends every day not just on December 31 of each year and thank goodness for that. We are given endless opportunities on an ongoing basis to promote positive changes (or survive negative ones). Financial institutions crumble, laws change, society changes, media changes. Governments struggle and sometimes achieve great things, wars begin and (thankfully) end. We face the birth of new technologies and move away from the old ways of doing things. Personally, we may generally feel the same about ourselves but even we are different today than we were yesterday. Professionally, the challenges we face this year may be similar but not identical to last years. Our board members will change. Our staffs may change. Even projects we were working on when we left a week or so ago may look different when we get back as perspective can change in the white space of even a few days off.

At this particular time of year, many of us stop and reflect on what was, what is or what could have been. It's almost as if life itself programs us with a basic subroutine for "personal strategic planning." Many of us go through a similar, natural annual process triggered by family, cultural, secular or religious traditions, the gathering of old friends or even the consumption of specific treats we associate with this time of year.  (Many of us find our association careers dictate this is the ONLY time of the year we can truly call our own after having run the previous years gauntlet of board meetings, conferences, etc., and playing "legislative committee roulette" or "regulatory agency Twister.")

After we have stopped, reflected and taken stock of our situation we sometimes feel a compulsion to appear to be "doing something about it" so we step forward and make pronouncements otherwise known as "new years resolutions."

That's where we blow it.

The resolution isn't enough and typically it isn't anything new. Most of the time the resolution is something we've been meaning to do and just haven't dedicated the resources to actually doing.  (Read Jeffrey Cufaude's recent post on "re-solving resolutions" for another take on this topic). Resolutions are notoriously unsuccessful, particularly when given an annual time frame for achievement. For example:

Resolution - "I'm going to lose twenty pounds this year."

Reality - Eating only carrots for three weeks, working out three times per week until I lose ten of those pounds, slowing to two times a week, then one before going back to business as usual while figuring I have a while until I get to the end of the year when the REAL goal is supposed to be reached, regaining the ten pounds but it doesn't matter cuz I still have my "fat clothes" in my closet, starting a diet in October because I need to regain the ground I lost and then some and I only have a few weeks left to hit my goal, getting sideswiped by Halloween, tripped up by Thanksgiving and then, well, then all hell breaks loose because nobody cares anymore and I have the opportunity to make another resolution in December for the same goal next year - which incidentally I MEAN to keep this time!

With cultural programming like this, is it any wonder our boards have such trouble with their own annual strategic planning process?

I'm guessing your organization goes through a similar process at their annual board retreat. They reflect on what was, what is, brainstorm an ideal future, make some "annual strategic priority" pronouncements and then what happens?

Resolution - "Our association will achieve "x" outcome."

Reality - The outcome statement goes to a committee who holds one meeting just to "figure out what the board means by that" and several more meetings to develop ideas on how to go about it, someone mentions doing a survey and months are eaten up developing, executing and analyzing the survey results at which point the strategic operating environment has changed again, six months in the budget is undergoing some fine-tuning to get to the end of the year on target so some retooling on costs of proposed ideas gets underway, members come on or go off the committee leading to some loss of institutional memory and the need to get the newbies up to speed, a little undermining here and a little obstructionism over there, staff goes on vacation which puts off implementation of any idea for weeks, several meetings are spent talking about new priorities subsequently assigned by the board that don't have anything to do with the original outcome and by that time everything they HAD scheduled is interrupted by the annual meeting, staff has no time to work on any committee projects and suddenly the board is back at the annual planning retreat coming up with a resolution to give that goal another go next year.

Let's agree to stop the personal and organizational "resolutions" madness - new years or otherwise.

By all means, Whether personally or organizationally, regularly set aside time to stop, reflect and plan to move forward. Celebrate your successes, revel where you are in the moment, evaluate your current environment and visualize a compelling future. Work to define your core purpose, core values and a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) for yourself or your group. But resist the siren song of the "sweeping resolutions" which left unchecked can distract you from actually achieving your ultimate goals. Set strategic priorities that are obtainable, within a certain time frame (ideally shorter than a year because we are almost pre-programmed to blow off annual goals), properly monetized and do everything you can to minimize interference and/or distractions.

If your personal BHAG is to live a long life and your purpose and values reflect a commitment to health then don't make huge pronouncements about the immediate changes you intend to make to achieve that goal - eliminating all sugar, working out eighteen times a week and swearing off colas from now until eternity. Isn't it smarter to say to yourself, hey, I am committed to health and because of that just for today I will eat healthfully and consider joining a gym. Tomorrow, I'll actually join and next week, I'll go. Making smaller commitments in shorter time frames will allow for incremental change that can be sustained. It also allows you the ability to make adjustments as your environment changes rather than blowing the entire project off until the next time you guiltily decide to do something about it.

Accept that change is upon you.  Not just on January 1 but every day of the year.  Don't expect a single, dramatic pronouncement to achieve the final outcome. Your life will turn around in the small, daily actions you take to achieve your overall goal. Your environment and everything in it, including the people, is in the process of following an evolutionary path that is not always linear or logical. Your environment is predisposed to denying and resisting the very change that it demands. Deal with it. Then seize the opportunities the daily pursuit of authentic change will present to you!

Go out and live this year according to a more natural rhythm. Swear off the resolutions and stay focused on the reasons you made them in the first place.

It's the end of the world as we know it....and I feel fine!