Archive for the 'Diversity & Inclusion' Category


Lessons in leadership from 2014

This guest blog post by Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, originally ran Dec. 22 on Associations Now. Athitakis has written on nonprofits, the arts and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkANMag.

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now.

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now.

So, what did we learn in 2014?

Part of me wants to say: Not as much as one would hope. Boards remain dysfunctional. Associations often are still slow-moving ships, particularly when it comes to globalization. Diversity remains a challenge. However, I don’t want to close out 2014 with a resounding “Bah! Humbug!”

Throughout the year I’ve spoken with plenty of association leaders, staffers and experts who are doing meaningful and path breaking work; look throughout and you’ll see my colleagues have done the same.

So take the five lessons-learned below not as a lecture about how leaders have fallen short, but as reminders that there’s always work to be done; this list only reflects where I figure that work is most needed.

It’s never difficult to find a CEO who will bemoan his or her board in private, or do it under cover of an anonymous survey.

Globalization is less of a might-do and more of a must-do. In 2014 the ASAE Foundation released research revealing that many U.S.-based associations are still struggling to expand their reach overseas. (More research is to come in 2015.) As sticky wickets go at associations, this is one of the stickiest, but it’s also among the most promising in terms of financial growth — and, even if you’d prefer to focus on mission more than money, it’s where the future members and users of your services are, particularly in the Middle East. This needn’t be an overwhelming task — even focusing on a couple of products can move the needle.

Disengaged boards are a killer. Boards are too nice to the CEO. They’re neglectful. They don’t do enough to help a new CEO settle into the gig. It’s never difficult to find a CEO who will bemoan his or her board in private, or do it under cover of an anonymous survey. And I do worry, as I wrote back in May, that social-media herd mentality might trickle down into leadership, leading to groupthink. But for the moment, I’m looking at the bright side: There are plenty of associations doing smart work assembling and educating their boards to do meaningful strategic work in the midst of these challenges.

Man-ListeningListening is an underrated leadership skill. I tend to gravitate to this particular leadership theme without explicitly trying to; it just seems that so many shortcomings with CEOs boil down to errors of miscommunication and failures to listen. If an exec isn’t listening to what his or her staffers are saying, he won’t have a sense of what their ambitions are, won’t be able to capably review their progress and will struggle to keep them on board when challenges arrive. Listening is the easiest skill to pay lip service to, and perhaps the most difficult to master.

Diversity starts with you. Without question, associations have made great progress in recent years in making their staffs and boards more diverse. But the seemingly popular instinct at addressing the issue — to create a task force or diversity committee — can risk echoing the marginalization it was meant to eradicate. Executives need to own diversity as a core competency as much as membership and revenue — all the Lean In circles in the world won’t mean much if the guys at the top aren’t getting the message and boards won’t evolve unless they’re mindful of where they’re underrepresented.

The big organizations don’t have this figured out any better than anybody else. Corporate America is often carted out as a better model for associations, particularly when it comes to generating revenue — it’s the tacit message delivered whenever somebody says, “Our association needs to run more like a business.” True enough, corporate execs get all the attention from magazine covers (well, almost all). But you didn’t have to try hard to find executives in the corporate world struggle to stay on point as much as anybody else. I gingerly suggested in March that perhaps GM was on the right path in responding to its cars’ ignition-switch problems; the months that followed have only made a fool of me. Apple’s board structure was much celebrated, but I think there are more interesting governance questions than board size. And even large nonprofits can have a leadership crisis when the executive steps into contentious territory. Case studies from the big guns can have some meaningful lessons to deliver, but ultimately the approach that works is going to be the product of what you’ve learned from what you’ve observed in your own organization.


Don’t feed the attendees: 10 insights for your next food function

The bag of trail mix that served as my lunch during the closing general session of #ASAE13.

The bag of trail mix that served as my lunch during the closing general session of #ASAE13.

It’s the closing general session at #ASAE13. I’ve somehow come down with the worst summer cold/sinus infection I’ve had in at least the last 10 years. Many of my friends seem to be sniffling and sneezing, as well. This has resulted in an unexpected morning expedition to the local CVS. Following two morning learning labs, I’m now eager to grab a bite to eat with my colleagues before Dan Heath takes the stage.

Our preset salads and individual pour salad dressings are delicious – and a great start to the meal. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you: (a) This is neither my first nor my only disappointing meal service during this conference and (b) This is not all that unusual of an experience for me during most conferences. So, I sit and I wait. And I wait. And I wait some more.

Two at a time, salad plates are removed from our table. They are taken to an undisclosed location that I only imagine to be near B218 – the furthest possible room from our present location in the Georgia World Congress Center. Many of you may recall this long walk from the learning labs you attended earlier in the week. Two at a time, prepared (tepid) meals are slowly walked back to our table.

By now, I’ve clearly identified myself as a vegetarian. As a lacto ovo vegetarian, I require a diet that excludes meat, fish and poultry, but may include dairy products and eggs. Unfortunately, it took several requests (from both me and my tablemates), a desperate tweet and a bag full of a friend’s trail mix before I received my meal. By the way, it came once everyone else had finished eating and the session had started.

As a result of this experience, and at the prodding of some of my friends, I’ve decided to compile the following 10 insights I hope will encourage a new awareness for both planners and suppliers alike as they approach their next food function:

  1. A lacto ovo vegetarian is not synonymous with lactose intolerance. As an aside, you wouldn’t believe some of the interesting dessert options I’ve been presented when assumptions like this have been made.
  2. Vegetarians vary. When I first became a vegetarian, I picked up the book Living Vegetarian for Dummies. It outlines the big three: lacto ovo vegetarian, lacto vegetarian and vegan. Know the differences, ask your attendees which they are and communicate accordingly with the chef.
  3. It’s unlikely that a single, all-encompassing meal that meets the special dietary needs of vegetarians, vegans and those observing a gluten-free diet (and potentially others) will be equally appealing and fulfilling. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all.
  4. Tofu should not be the protein default of choice. For starters, it’s incredibly bland and it actually requires much more culinary prowess than can reasonably be expected in a banquet environment. Instead, consider beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds as alternatives.
  5. Chances are good there’s at least one vegetarian in every audience. Therefore, vegetarian meals should always be prepared, whether or not they were ordered on the BEO. Additionally, care should be taken to serve all attendees at the same time.
  6. Servers should be effectively trained in the most efficient way to clear dishes and serve meals. This includes good instructions from their supervisors regarding which tables they’ll be managing, as well as the appropriate use of trays, jacks and hotboxes.
  7. Whenever possible, suppliers should invest in regular staff and ongoing customer service training. More than once in the last six months I’ve been informed that unsatisfactory service levels were due, in part, to the nature of transient staff.
  8. For a variety of personal and religious reasons vegetarians have elected not to eat meat, fish and/or poultry. Setting a hunk of meat down in front of a vegetarian, even as a place holder until an alternate meal can be identified and served, will likely not be well received.
  9. Buffet lines are akin to a culinary guessing game. Although it may be impractical to list and post the ingredients for every dish on a placard, do label for the most common types of special dietary needs and food allergies (e.g., vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nuts).
  10. Food allergies are increasingly more prevalent and equally challenging to navigate in a group setting. Here’s a brief primer about event planning and food allergy awareness that identifies the precautions we can take to eliminate possible cross contamination.

So, my question to you is this: Are you familiar with the dietary needs of your attendees? How are they handled? Are your attendees with special dietary needs and food allergies treated like second-class citizens? What will you do to improve their experience moving forward?


What have you done for me (young professionals) lately?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the millennial generation and whether or not my peers would be willing to ascend into leadership positions over the next five to 10 years as their Baby Boomer counterparts began to retire—not because they’re not capable, but because “associations cling to traditional operating models that … have little appeal to young professionals” (to quote Harrison Coerver).

Needless to say, this post garnered a flurry of interest. Two particularly compelling comments follow:

  1. Morley Winograd: Our book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, emphasized the very themes of a change in leadership that you talk about here. We believe the shift holds enormous promise for the non-profit world, including associations. The previous civic generation, GIs, created the social fabric of America’s towns–Kiwanis, Elks, etc. This civic generation, millennials, are creating the social fabric of America’s like-minded communities–on the web and in social media. Since associations are predicated on the common interests of those engaged in an activity or profession, they should be able to leverage this tendency on the part of millennials to gain new strength.
  2. Annie Gallagher: I joke with people and say for the first time ever we have what I call “four-play” in the workplace. This actually refers to the fact that there are currently four generations in the workplace at the same time. The boomer generation currently dominates leadership positions. Their energy and engagement are admirable. Yet most groups have not been successful in getting millennials engaged on a path to association leadership. You ask if they are interested. I am not sure. However, I have observed that the echo-boomers do not know how to get involved. Many groups claim to have young professional (YP) groups, but that is not enough. And guess what? The millennials do not want to just be by themselves. They want to be with the heavy hitters, too. So you need to mix it up. If you want to get millennials engaged, don’t give them a token YP group, really get them networked with all the centers of influence.

I was also reminded of a takeaway I jotted down during the LSAE annual convention two weeks ago. ASAE Chairman Peter O’Neil said the following during a session he led titled, Leadership Strategies for Today’s Association ExecutivesBoards today need to reflect where your organization is going in the future, including young people and people of color.

And I wholeheartedly agree; however, the implementation of this mandate is two-fold (and somewhat tedious).

First, young professionals must want to ascend into leadership positions (both staff and volunteer roles). And I believe that most do (note here that I’m intentionally referring to leadership roles in general and not necessarily an executive director position). They should also be poised with increasingly responsible experience, including prior exposure to committee work, task/project management, strategic planning, fundraising activities and member recruitment/retention efforts.

Second, and the more important component of this equation (similar to any diversity and inclusion discussion), is that every aspect of the organization must be positioned in such a way that pulls up these young professionals into leadership roles. Staff members, board members and other volunteer leaders must actively seek out and create opportunities to engage young professional leaders.

And not just by bringing them to the table (or by creating the token young professional group), but by giving them a meaningful platform upon which to speak and be heard. We’re hearing a lot these days about ideal board size, but just as important is ideal board composition and strategic initiatives designed to integrate diversity (including generational differences) throughout the organization.

This includes opportunities other than just board representation, too. Associations should consider engagement strategies that reflect the young professional perspective (especially those that intersect with the organization’s mission): building a personal brand, creating a portfolio of work, applying for the perfect job, balancing work and life, starting a new job, committee/meeting management, leadership, office politics, employer relations, professionalism, social media, promotions, moving on, networking, volunteering, donating (time and money), mentoring, education, professional designations, professional development, getting ahead and becoming a change agent.

So, my question to you is this (courtesy of Janet Jackson): What have you done for me (young professionals) lately? How do you engage this unique demographic beyond the requisite young professional group? How do you ensure their needs as members, prospective members and civic leaders are being met? How are you leveraging millennials (and their issues/interests) to ensure your organization remains strong and relevant well into the future?


The future of associations: Is the millennial generation willing to lead the way?

It’s no secret that on Jan. 1, 2011 (just about 13 months ago to the day), the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation celebrated their 65th birthday. Since that historic day, it’s estimated that more than 10,000 Baby Boomers have reached the age of 65 each and every day (and, believe it or not, this trend is expected to continue for 19 straight years). Staggering, right?

Undoubtedly, many of these Baby Boomers serve—or have served—the association community in top leadership positions, including that of president and CEO or executive director (not to mention a multitude of other C-suite, executive-level and director-level positions). And although not all are immediately retiring upon their 65th birthday, many have at least begun making plans for the future.

And we’re not talking about a few dozen organizations and a handful of retirements here. In 2000, it was estimated that the United States alone had more than 23,000 national associations. And that number only grows when you consider the 115,000 state, local and regional associations, as well as the 1,300 international organizations.

Enter the millennial generation (approximately 80 million strong).

Millennials want to make a difference in the world, be heard, feel like they are contributing, innovate and know they are succeeding. They live in a generation that moves at an extremely fast pace and are often left wondering why everyone in the workplace is not moving as fast as them.  By and large, millennials also work well on teams. They know how to delegate efficiently and choose the person best suited for a task based on skill, not hierarchy or seniority.

Millennials also bring to the workforce a unique proclivity for technology. They utilize social media tools daily and tend to remain connected long after the traditional workday has ended. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re also less religious, less likely to have served in the military and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.

But are they ready to lead our associations in light of this anticipated exodus from top leadership positions nationwide? (Better yet, are they willing to do so?)

Hear me out for a moment before you get crazy. (I know you want to; I had a similar conversation with a seasoned association executive and a room full of young association and supplier professionals just last week.) My question is not about the skills and expertise of the millennial generation (either now or in the future). I know they are great leaders and I know they are up to the challenge.

The question is really about interest. Is the millennial generation interested in the generalist lifestyle (or would they prefer to be experts in a particular field)? Are their feelings about hierarchy, governance and authority in competition with the present ideologies that form the backbone of our associations? Are they willing to fight the good fight and make the necessary changes to keep our organizations nimble, competitive and solvent?

Consider, for a moment, the unofficial (but widely offered) advice given to each new CAE candidate studying to sit for the exam: Plan to answer each question as a seasoned chief staff executive (presumably, Caucasian) from a national professional society. This, alone, implies that our leaders and, in turn, our organizations are to some extent predictable, conventional and unimaginative. Who’s to say the millennial generation is interested in investing their time and energy into changing this paradigm?

Certainly, some are eager to meet this challenge head-on (as was evidenced by my conversation last week); however, a majority of my colleagues seemed undecided. Perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit implicit in this generation is just too enticing. Most assuredly, opportunities abound. My peers are—by their own admission—interested in establishing association management firms of their own, serving as industry consultants and hitting the speaker circuit.

So, my question to you is this (and it’s an important one this week): What are you doing to attract young professionals to leadership positions within your organization? Is your organization committed to breaking the proverbial mold (especially as it relates to long-standing organizational behavior) and celebrating diversity (including diversity of staff, board and member composition, as well as diversity of skills, values and opinions)? What else are you doing to ensure the millennial generation will want to lead your organization long after your Baby Boomer executives have retired?

meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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