Lessons from my association leadership transitions

association leadership transitionsIn June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position. Here are some valuable lessons learned from these association leadership transitions.

The Solar Association of Vermont

Although the rapid growth of the solar energy industry may appear to be a recent phenomenon, North American boomers will remember the late 70’s and early 80’s when the 1979 “oil-crisis” hit and interest in alternative energy generation soared. I moved to Vermont in 1978 and joined the management of a fledging solar hot water manufacturing business. After a couple of years, I helped to found the Solar Association of Southern Vermont. Eventually we became the Solar Association of Vermont (SAVE!) We’d hold monthly meetings in the tiny rural town of Brattleboro and sixty people would show up. SAVE went on to produce many of the earliest alternative energy conferences in the United States.

But in the 80’s Reagan was elected. He removed the solar collectors that a colleague of mine had installed on the White House. By the mid-80’s oil prices had returned to pre-crisis levels. Interest in solar energy dried up and SAVE meeting attendance shrank to a few people.

What did we do?

We shut SAVE down.

We held a big end-of-the-association party, inviting everyone who had been part of this brief flowering of community interest. Little did we know that our work would set the stage for the meteoric rise of solar photovoltaic systems today.

Lessons

As time passes, the key motivations for an association’s existence can transmute, or even disappear. I’ve worked with hundreds of associations, and seen some continue to struggle on long after their mission has become irrelevant. Check regularly that your association’s mission remains congruent with its circumstances. If not, change your mission or your operations to stay relevant. Or, if necessary, close up shop (not forgetting to celebrate all your good work if you do!)

A local association

After a number of years serving as a board member of a local chapter of a national association, the board offered me the presidency. The national was recommending that chapters fundamentally change the way they operated, a change I agreed with. I told the board that I would happily accept the presidency if we allocated the resources needed to make this transformation happen, arguing that the change would improve our financial resources by allowing us to significantly increase our community fundraising.

Unfortunately, the board refused to allocate the resources I requested.

Consequently I reluctantly turned down the presidency and left the board, as I did not want to lead an association whose board did not support the vision I had for its future.

Looking back on the subsequent evolution of the association, I don’t regret my decision, though I wish I’d been better able to convince the board that my approach was a better alternative to staying with the status quo.

Lessons

Before taking an association leadership role, share your vision for the future and make sure the rest of the association buys into it. If they don’t, don’t take the job!

edACCESS

In 1991 I co-founded edACCESS, a 501(c)6 that supports information technology staff at small schools. Initially, I had a professional interest in the organization’s mission for many years and served for free. As my consulting focus shifted increasingly towards meeting design, I moved into a paid part-time executive director role.

In May, I decided to give up the position, with the goal of making the handover to new leadership as smooth as possible. I announced my intent at the June annual conference and offered to stay for a year in a supervisory role, coaching new leadership as needed.

The existing leadership handled my announcement very well. I told them I would provide any desired assistance and advice around leadership changes, but felt it was important not to be intimately involved in ongoing decisions. I was gratified by the response, which to me reflects the fundamental health of the association I helped to create.

As I write this, the transition is going well. The full year’s notice will allow me to take new and existing leadership through an entire life cycle of core association process. I am confident that the association will be in good shape when I leave.

Lessons

I have seen (and experienced) a number of associations that were severely stressed by the sudden departure of leadership and the total lack of any leadership succession planning. To be honest, edACCESS is small enough that we did not have a formal plan in place. I am glad I have the flexibility to offer what will hopefully be sufficient time and support to allow the association to continue effectively carrying out its mission. Don’t assume that key association staff or board members, will stay with the organization for ever, or give you ample warning before they depart! Pre-emergency planning for leadership, staffing, and succession will minimize the turmoil that can be generated without warning when key personnel leave unexpectedly.

Association leadership transitions

Have you made association leadership transitions? What lessons have you learned that others may value? Share in the comments!

Photo attribution: Flickr user by_andy

How many mistakes have you made?

How many mistakes have you made?How many mistakes have you made? It depends.

From one perspective: millions. The step you attempted at eleven months but fell and skinned your knee. Your shame on hearing the gasps in class on announcing a sixty percent pop-quiz test score because you were supposed to be smarter than that. The time when you were so nervous at the interview that IBM turned you down for an internship. Girlfriends you fell for who dumped you. The partner who kicked you out of your solar energy business after five years hard work. The decision to adopt infant twins that led to so much heartache during their adolescence.

From another perspective: none. How else could you found out how to walk without all the attempts and resulting falls? Would you have ever dealt with false shame if you’d never become aware of it? How long would it have taken to discover your dislike for working in large organizations? If your first girlfriend had been the woman who has been your wife for 37 years, how would that have turned out? What other way could you have learned so much about running a business and managing employees in such a short time? Would you have absorbed so many vital liberating lessons about yourself without the hard truths you were forced to confront during the painful process of being a better parent?

All the learning that grows out of every single mistake.

How many mistakes have you made? Millions or none? It all depends on your perspective.

A story about letting go of control at a conference

letting go of control at a conference kayaking 1332642424_63f32ab9cb_o

Letting go of control at a conference

The last session of Conferences That Work is called a group spective—a time for participants to look back at what has happened for the group and forward to possible futures together. During the spective, I use a variety of activities to encourage and support reflecting, sharing, brainstorming, and deciding on next steps. One process is a simple go-around. Each participant in turn answers a few open-ended questions about their conference experience and ideas about what might happen next.

When using a go-around format, the first person to speak can have a significant influence on the subsequent sharing round the circle. Others tend to pick up and echo their brevity, tone, and emphasis, in the same way a minor current at one crucial spot can greatly influence a boat’s subsequent track on a river.

My concern

I used to worry that this could pose a potential problem. What if the first person who spoke had little to say, or was very negative about the conference? So I’d often pick someone to start who I thought would provide a “good” model of how to share.

My eyes were opened at a conference where I thought we had, over the years, arrived at a close-to-perfect schedule. At the group spective, I casually chose the attendee sitting next to me to start the go-around sharing. I listened in dismay as they offered criticisms and made pointed suggestions for improvement. The overall tenor of their remarks was quite negative. Other attendees followed their lead, refining their critique and adding their own judgments. Despite my initial consternation, as I listened I heard many good ideas. Ideas that could well improve the conference format in ways we hadn’t considered. Slowly, my excitement about these new possibilities overcame my fear of the critical tone of the spective.

During the discussion that followed, it became clear that attendees were also pumped up about these potential format changes. Many felt these could make an already great conference even better. Rather than make spot decisions during the spective, we ended up using an online survey over the next couple of weeks to consider and compare the proposed scheduling alternatives.

What happened

At the following year’s conference, we incorporated several of the changes suggested at the spective. There was wide agreement that the new design was better than anything we had done before.

It’s scary to let go, to let the unexpected happen. It’s hard to find the courage to watch without interfering, as an unexpected event leads to a host of consequences. As we sit in our boat, formerly safely floating down the conference river, but now suddenly veering alarmingly towards an indistinct muddy bank, most of us have a natural tendency to want to grab a paddle and attempt to wrest the craft back into the middle of the flow. Yet, if we surrender to the current, using our facilitation paddle merely to moderate our speed and make fine course corrections, we may find that the bank, once we reach it, is full of unexpected delights and possibilities.

[Adapted from a story in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love]

Did you ever let go of control at a conference? What lessons did you learn?

Image attribution: flickr user donaldjudge

6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences

using volunteers at conferences
I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. I’ve spent over thirty years organizing meetings. Here are 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

1) Is this conference marketable?

One of the most important ways I use volunteers is during the earliest conference planning stages to determine whether a proposed event is marketable.

Here’s my simple rule of thumb when deciding whether an idea for a conference might work.

Can I find at least five people enthusiastic enough about the proposed combination of topic/theme, audience, location, and duration to volunteer their time and energy to make the event happen?

If I can’t easily find at least five volunteers enthusiastic about a conference, I’ve (painfully) learned that the event is almost always not viable.

2) Use volunteers for creative work

You’ve got a bunch of willing volunteers—what should you have them do? I try to use my volunteers for creative jobs at conferences. There’s research that indicates that paying people to do work they find interesting can make them less motivated! Here are some examples of conference tasks well suited to volunteers:

  • greeting arriving attendees
  • introducing attendees to each other
  • facilitating sessions
  • organizing and running fun activities

In general, I use volunteers for creative work, and reserve mechanical tasks for paid staff.

3) Check in with your volunteers

Talk with each volunteer individually well before the event. Ask them how they’d like to help, and come to a clear understanding as to what’s expected from them.

4) Plan to have enough volunteers

Volunteers are sometimes less reliable than paid staff. Make sure you have a few people who can cover for last-minute gaps in your volunteer staff during the event.

5) Reward your volunteers

Reward your volunteers throughout the event. Make sure volunteers receive refreshments, meals, and access to conference amenities. If they are attending the conference, offer them reduced or free admission. Reimburse them for any incidental expenses they incur.

6) Never take your volunteers for granted!

Make sure you recognize their contributions, not only publicly, using appropriate perks, awards, and publicity, but also privately. Show them you genuinely appreciate their contributions, and they will become your biggest boosters.

These are the 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

How do you use volunteers at your events? What lessons have you learned?

Image attribution: flickr user sanjoselibrary – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic

Five lessons event planners can learn from the iPad launch

Seth Godin wrote a powerful post today—Secrets of the biggest selling launch ever—about why Apple sold 300,000 iPads on the first day of the iPad launch. Here are five of his secrets that are 100% relevant to the fundamental challenges facing event planners today.

Seth Godin head

2. Don’t try to please everyone. There are countless people who don’t want one, haven’t heard of one or actively hate it. So what? (Please don’t gloss over this one just because it’s short. In fact, it’s the biggest challenge on this list).

Designing events so that they will appeal to the least adventurous attendee guarantees the same-old snooze-fest. Event planners need to aim higher and use innovative formats, even at the risk of jolting people who didn’t expect to be jolted.

3. Make a product worth talking about. Sounds obvious. If it’s so obvious, then why don’t the other big companies ship stuff like this? Most of them are paralyzed going to meetings where they sand off the rough edges.

How many events have you attended that you still remember years later? (Or a month later?) It’s possible to create events that are memorable. And the best ones are memorable not because they had great content or great presenters, but because wonderful, unexpected things happened there. We know how to create events like this: by using participant-driven approaches. But we are afraid to take the risk of trying event formats that are different. Apple took that risk with the iPad launch. If we event planners won’t take the risk, who will?

6. Create a culture of wonder. Microsoft certainly has the engineers, the developers and the money to launch this. So why did they do the Zune instead? Because they never did the hard cultural work of creating the internal expectation that shipping products like this is possible and important.

Until we fully embrace the belief that it’s possible to successfully employ powerful interactive formats at our events, we’re going to be churning out more Zunes than iPads.

7. Be willing to fail. Bold bets succeed–and sometimes they don’t. Is that okay with you? Launching the iPad had to be even more frightening than launching a book…

Apple has been willing to make mistakes: the Lisa and the Newton come to mind. You can’t have great success without risking some failure.

Every time I facilitate an event I welcome the possibility of failure. Not the kind of failure where the event is a total bust—I’m not that far out on the edge—but the failure of a session’s process, or the discovery of a flaw in a new approach. And you know what? The new things I try that succeed more than outweigh the failures I experience. And, extra bonus, I get to learn from my mistakes!

So take some risks with your event designs. Have the courage of your convictions, trust your intuition and be willing to make mistakes.

9. Don’t give up so easy. Apple clearly a faced a technical dip in creating this product… they worked on it for more than a dozen years. Most people would have given up long ago.

We event designers can learn a lot from the success of the iPad launch.

I think we face a long hard road in changing peoples’ perceptions of what is possible at an event. It’s not easy to challenge hundreds of years of cultural history that have conditioned us to believe that we should learn and share in certain prescribed ways. But the rapid rise of the adoption of social media has shown that people want to be active participants in their interactions with others, and we need to change our event designs to satisfy this need when people meet face-to-face.

I’m willing to work on these issues over the long haul. Will you join me?