Archive for the 'Achieve More' Category


Celebrating two years

Two years ago, Aaron Wolowiec had a vision. Strategic planning. Instructional design. Meeting management. They were all in his wheelhouse. But it was time for something new.

And so, on Dec. 8, 2011, Grand Rapids-based Event Garde was born.

Wolowiec, a wordsmith at heart, chose the name carefully thanks to a little help from The Image Shoppe. Writers love the phrase “avant garde,” which is often used to describe trailblazers.  Event Garde:  A clever play on words? As a writer, I think so.

“Event Garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or status quo, especially as it relates to continuing education,” he wrote for the website. “By partnering with clients to tear away preconceptions, Event Garde reveals dynamic programs, events and professional development experiences that result in thoughtful, enthusiastic and empowered learners and practitioners.”

Fast forward and it’s hard to believe that we’re celebrating our two-year anniversary.

Cally Hill

Cally Hill, director of client relations

From the beginning, Cally Hill, director of client relations, has managed the ins and outs of the business. As it quickly grew, Hill led – and continues to lead – many of the firm’s strategic marketing initiatives, including outreach to association leaders nationwide. And she’s one of the important number crunchers.

As most of you know by now, I came on board this summer as digital content manager to help Event Garde grow its online and public presence. As the main writer and “voice” of the firm, if you will, it’s my job to keep you “in the know” about association trends and topics.

In the process, I’ve formed invaluable networks, and our blog has gained quite the following. In fact, throughout the last three months, our blog posts have been included in social media roundups and stories by Associations Now. And the Twitter traction has been just as impressive, thanks to #assnchat.

Sara Miller

Sara Miller, director of meetings and development

A couple months ago, Sara Miller, director of meetings and development, joined the team. Miller is a sales guru. She’s currently working with CPAs, selling sponsorships, advertising and exhibit space.

Event Garde has a great team, said Kathleen Mennillo, executive director of the International Hearing Society. Event Garde helped IHS plan its annual convention and expo for nearly 600 people.

“Aaron’s event planning expertise, coupled with his experience in the professional development and association arena, instantly made him an integral part of the team,” she said. “Aaron is extremely organized, creative and passionate about creating successful events that leave lasting impressions on event attendees. IHS is thrilled to work with Event Garde and looks forward to executing many more successful events together.”

Throughout the last two years, Event Garde has gained the professional accolades of the American Society of Association Executives and other key stakeholders.

Wolowiec now writes a regular column in Michigan Meetings + Events magazine and he’s been featured as part of two magazine cover stories. In addition, Wolowiec has given various presentations at ASAE meetings. And he was recently named one of four “rising leaders” by MSAE.

“Aaron and the Event Garde team have been so helpful to ALTA’s Land Title Institute,” said Kelly Romeo, vice president of the American Land Title Association. “It has been like expanding our own staff without actually committing to additional hires! Aaron engages 100 percent and quickly connects with what is important to our members and students. We are looking forward to the next project with Event Garde, and many more.”

We don’t often toot our own horn. But as we reflect on the last two years, we’ve reached some incredible milestones.

And in December 2012, Wolowiec co-authored “The Meetings Report,” published in tandem with MSAE. It’s the first-ever Michigan association meetings industry survey examining the characteristics of senior education/professional development staff, characteristics of association meetings, professional speaker hiring practices, industry speaker preparation and compensation and meeting evaluation practices.

Meeting Notes

The Meetings Coach column, by Aaron Wolowiec

At the end of day, however, none of this would be possible without your support. So we thank you for trusting us with your livelihoods and for appreciating the Event Garde vision. Thank you for joining us on an exciting ride towards a new horizon.

As a reminder, please like our Facebook page. We’ve made it to 500 likes, but we’d love to have hundreds more! And remember to follow me on Twitter and use the hashtag #assnchat.

We look forward to an exciting year ahead as our team continues to explore new projects and possibilities – and we hope you’ll be a part of that journey.


Achieve more: The art of collaboration

As part of my ongoing series titled “Achieve More,” I’m profiling this month the role of collaboration in the development of dynamic, meaningful, and compelling education and networking experiences.

Interestingly enough, collaboration is defined as the act or process of collaborating, as well as the product resulting from collaboration. A few years ago, the Michigan Society of Association Executives (MSAE) introduced a new award recognizing innovative collaboration. This annual recognition continues to spotlight and reward collaboration both as a process and as product.

But that’s an aside.

I was fortunate enough in 2011 to attend ASAE’s Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management. If you’ve never been, I would highly recommend looking into it. Yes, it’s a little pricey; however, it was—perhaps—the best professional development experience of my life (and as a professional development junkie, that’s saying a lot).

In addition to good, quality information that was immediately applicable to my work, I was introduced to and worked alongside dozens of well-respected and seasoned association professionals. Even more than that, I was challenged to think about collaboration in a new and somewhat innovative way.

I’m paraphrasing here, but a few key takeaways/principles that continue to guide my work with others (and which I return to from time-to-time to refocus and refine my approaches to collaboration, particularly in situations involving strongly divergent opinions):

  • When a problem exists (in this case, any challenge your association could and would face during the normal course of business), my solution and your solution are fundamentally different because our views/perspectives on what should be done are based on our own unique skills, expertise, beliefs and values. And this is perfectly okay (and, in fact, to be expected).
  • Simply selecting one solution over the other or creating a compromise somewhere between our two solutions would result in a fundamentally deficient decision or product. Likewise, when one person “wins” and the other “loses,” friction, hostility and demoralization could affect not only our relationship, but our future collaborative work.
  • Instead, a third option should be devised that honors the best parts of my solution and the best parts of your solution, builds upon our respective strengths, and results in a third, more robust solution that elevates the skills, expertise, beliefs and values we each bring to the table.

In my experience, organizations often excel or have strong expertise in a particular functional area. Many resources are funneled into this department to ensure success and, ultimately, to create value and best serve the membership. Naturally, these projects gain the attention of top leadership, are allotted disproportionately more time on the board agenda, and appear first in both the monthly newsletter and the year-end report.

Meanwhile, the remaining departments suffer from inexperienced/undertrained staff members, as well as a lack of resources, poorly defined goals/objectives, board/leadership apathy, and an overall lack of time, attention and focus. Intentional or not, these dynamics have a tremendous impact on staff morale, motivation and productivity.

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as striving for perfection (sorry Type As). If it were easy for every organization to be the best at everything they do, wouldn’t we just strive for perfection each and every day (and be increasingly more disappointed when every association began to look more and more alike or the occasional human error reared its ugly head)?

Therefore, in my opinion, we have at least two options:

  1. Strive to be more balanced. Aim for excellence in the functional areas our organizations excel at, but be more mindful of and fair to the other departments and staff, too.
  2. Be more deliberate about collaboration. Be honest about the functional areas that could use a bit more attention and resources – and deploy them accordingly.

Here, resources include staff (be it full-time, part-time or the often under-utilized intern), supplies, training, recognition and support. Additionally, collaboration is key. Collaborate with a trusted partner (such as a colleague or a consultant) and you’ll undoubtedly infuse new ideas, new energy and a renewed spirit into your department and, subsequently, your organization.

In addition to keeping projects on time, on message and under budget, I think you’d also be surprised by the impact collaboration can have on strategic thinking and long-term outcomes. In terms of professional development and creating dynamic member experiences, it could be the difference between planning the same conference year after year and developing a compelling experience – delivered in a unique and interactive way – that inspires learning, engagement and community.

So, my question to you is this: Do you identify with this model of collaboration? In what ways does your organization encourage collaboration both internally and externally? What outcomes – otherwise unachievable – has your organization realized as a result of collaboration?


Achieve more: How research should inform your association’s meetings strategy

As part of my ongoing series titled “Achieve More,” I’m profiling this month the role of research in the development of compelling educational experiences that inspire learning, engagement and community.

At least in my mind, there are two different types of professional development staff (and neither is better than the other, they are just different). The first is characterized as highly innovative, collaborative and experimental, and could easily be classified as an early adopter. The second is much more traditional in his/her approach to the development and delivery of content.

To be sure, those who are especially avant garde are immersed in a variety of professional development listservs and discussion forums; are knowledgeable about adult learning principles; and have a propensity for developing interesting new content delivery methods. Coupled with cutting-edge educational opportunities, case studies and white papers, these individuals are thought leaders in their field and light years ahead of their time.

Based upon the goals and objectives of each specific program, these individuals bring to their organizations a wealth of knowledge and experience which they draw upon when building an effective strategy for educating members. These individuals rarely rely on member feedback and industry research, spending much more time focusing on instructional design and curriculum development.

Ultimately, these programs are memorable, refreshing and very successful. Although they require significantly more planning, organization, lead time and logistics management, these experiences are not only well received but contribute valuable engagement opportunities that support the organization’s recruitment and retention efforts (not to mention the bottom line).

Conversely, those individuals and organizations with a much more traditional approach to education (think: keynote speaker and a series of lecture-style breakout sessions that follow a similar schedule from year to year), are struggling to compete/demonstrate value in a market that is literally saturated with learning opportunities.

To these organizations, the challenge is to transform industry-specific knowledge and information into viable training; to align education with member needs through regular industry research, analysis and trending; to connect the dots between theory and practice; and to explore opportunities for virtual or blended learning formats.

When organizations want to reimagine a signature program or an entire annual meetings calendar (and don’t have the knowledge, skills and expertise of a professional development pioneer), I very often recommend the following five-step research process:

  1. Develop and conduct a member survey. Based upon the goals of the survey (e.g., to identify topics or speakers for future education programs), the survey can be as little as one question (e.g., “What is the one work-related issue/challenge that’s kept you up at night within the last year?”).
  2. Facilitate an education focus group. Convene a group of key constituents (e.g., education committee members, board members, industry speakers, subject matter experts, target audience members and staff) to interpret the results of the member survey.
  3. Identify actionable next steps. Based upon the input of the constituent group, develop a reasonable list of action items that will breathe new life into your education efforts (e.g., rework the annual meeting schedule, explore different learning formats for an upcoming program or add a blended learning series to the annual meetings calendar).
  4. Implement actionable recommendations. The assistance of volunteer leaders, subject matter experts and industry speakers should be enlisted to support the implementation of the group’s recommendations. Consultants may also be secured to support the process, as needed.
  5. Evaluate the process and the outcomes. Once each recommendation has been implemented, a careful evaluation should be conducted to determine both effectiveness and member satisfaction. Additionally, the five-step research process should be evaluated, tweaked and implemented annually in some form to keep the organization’s education strategy fresh, competitive and valuable.

So, my question to you is this: Do education research and strategic conversations about learning inform your annual meetings calendar? Is your organization’s approach to member education cutting-edge or much more traditional? How would implementing this five-step research process impact the effectiveness (and reputation) of your meetings department?

For more information about my professional development consulting firm Event Garde, download our promotional brochure, visit the website or like us on Facebook. A personal, fun and completely free conversation will also enable us to discuss how I can best contribute (via research or other strategy) to the success of your organization’s professional development efforts. Together, we can achieve more.


Achieve more: Professional development consultations to the rescue

It’s certainly no secret that the professional development landscape is changing. If you have any doubts, take a look at my Feb. 29 post titled, “The professional development trifecta: Competition, strategy and experience.”

There I break down the impact technology is having on the sheer volume of continuing education programs being offered today, the importance of education research in the development of quality learning and networking events, and the expertise required to pull off truly dynamic member experiences that draw upon innovative programming models and contemporary adult learning principles.

As part of a new, ongoing series I’m calling “Achieve More,” I will profile each month a unique strategy guaranteed to breathe new life into some aspect of your organization’s professional development efforts.

To kick-off this series, I’d like to address the benefits of a professional development consultation. Each and every day, someone, somewhere is planning an educational program or special networking event for association members. The very first step in the planning process generally includes a look back at the previous year’s records, including timeline, financials, communications and the like (assuming this is a repeat event).

Depending on the amount of available planning time and resources; the foresight to identify member needs through industry research, analysis and trending; the interest of volunteer leaders to take an active role in the establishment of program goals and objectives; and, finally, the organization’s own staffing, infrastructure and expertise, stage two varies considerably.

And, without a doubt, it’s this next step that determines the fate of an entire event.

Consider, for a moment, the old adage: “You only get out of something what you put into it.” Or, more succinct (and a bit crasser): “Garbage in, garbage out.” Primarily used to call attention to the fact that computers will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical of input data (“garbage in”) and produce nonsensical output (“garbage out”), this phrase is equally applicable to programs and events.

Churn and burn the same processes, meet with the same cohort of volunteer leaders, book the same venues, call upon the same speakers, partner with the same vendors (the violations are endless). Know what you’ll get on the other side? The same exact member experiences you’ve been turning out for the last several years (and, in some cases, even longer than that).

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with building upon a successful learning format or booking a multi-year contract with a great hotel to save a bit of money for both you and your members, but the line must be drawn somewhere. Just because your members come back year after year doesn’t mean:

  1. Your educational program inspires learning, engagement and community (the ultimate goal);
  2. Your members will continue to come given the introduction of a next best alternative; and
  3. Your organization is meeting its fullest potential (for both attendance and revenue).

Now, I’m not jaded enough to think that meeting professionals and professional development staff around the world are intentionally taking the easy way out. Quite the contrary. I’m intimately aware of the limited resources with which many education departments are faced. However, this isn’t a valid excuse.

Enter professional development consultants.

“Quick-fix” consultations (limited in scope and, believe it or not, overall investment) can have a sizable impact on jump-starting your planning efforts and providing new, innovative perspectives on what is possible. Consultations with a knowledgeable professional development expert can range from half-day to full-day sessions (or longer, depending on your organization’s needs) and may focus on:

  1. Framing an upcoming program or event to make it unique and memorable (think innovative programming models here); or
  2. Coaching staff to host a meaningful volunteer leader committee meeting intended to capture new ideas or identify member needs; or
  3. Developing strategies to better support your speakers, transforming your organization’s subject matter experts into effective instructional designers.

The opportunities are endless. But in every instance, actionable recommendations should be provided by the consultant via a written report or executive summary to focus and refine your planning efforts long after the consultation has ended.

So, my question to you is this: What elements of your next signature program (or new 2012 event) could be reimagined? What effect would some coaching and advance preparation have on the effectiveness of your organization’s next education committee meeting? How would some targeted speaker preparation (e.g., dissemination of venue or session logistics, training or tips for better presentations) impact the experience of both your subject matter experts and program participants?

For more information about my professional development consulting firm Event Garde, download our promotional brochure, visit the website or like us on Facebook. A personal, fun and completely free conversation will also enable us to discuss how I can best contribute (via consultation or other strategy) to the success of your organization’s professional development efforts. Together, we can achieve more.

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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