organizational changesOne of my favorite quotes was when Eric Shinseki, then the Army Chief of Staff, now Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, said “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

I love that.

But boy, is it tough for a lot of associations to heed this advice.  Many organizations are well on their way to irrelevance.

If you’re a leader of an organization that feels like it is headed that way, here are a few ideas:

  1. Revamp your Board.   This means dropping the dead wood and looking for some people who will come on the Board and shake things up.  If your Board isn’t future looking, the organization won’t be either.
  2. Look outside your space.   As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane heading to the TED conference.  I went last year, thinking I’d be excited to hear the technologists and organizational gurus.  But here I learned the most was from poets and gardeners.  Sometimes lessons come from unlikely places—open your experiences.
  3. Stop doing something.  You’ll never get to the items on your “to do” list unless you have a “to don’t” list.  Spend some time at your next Board meeting talking about what you can stop.  You make discover it leads to a new beginning.

advisory boardWell,  for many Board members, “fading away” means unceremoniously dropping them off the Board.  That’s why former Board members are often a trouble spot for organizations—someone goes from being “in the know” to “out in the cold.”   The result:  a one time key member—and often still influential one—becomes disenfranchised.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One thing many organizations do is create a separate “advisory board” of past Board members or past chairs.   A simple meeting a few times a year with the lead staff executive and current chair can keep the group informed enough to feel like their input matters.

A more formal role is to create an Emeritus Board seat.  These seats are typically reserved for Board members who performed exceptionally well while on the Board.  If you’re considering this option, be sure to have some hard and fast rules, such as:

  • Limiting the number of Emeritus Directors from each class
  • Limiting the total number of Emeritus Directors that can serve at one time
  • Spelling whether Emeritus Directors can vote or count towards quorum (I vote no on both of these)
  • Establishing what information they do and don’t receive

One last place that many organizations involve former Board members is on the nominating committee.   I understand the rational of this, but be sure to have some limits on this one.  Make sure your nominating committee reflects your organization’s future, not its past.

Missed Connections

Missed connectionsI’m still pretty young (by my own standards).  But I can remember the days of pink “while you were out” slips, calling in for messages from pay phones and (gasp) not having email at work.

And every innovation carries with it the same promise—it will keep us more connected.   In many ways, this is true.   When I sit in a far away hotel room talking to my kids over Facetime (when they actually answer), it’s a remarkable display of the promise of the connected society.

But just like the characters in the recent movie Her (great premise, but too long), the technology that brings us together can also be isolating.  I’m struck by how infrequently the phone rings in my office these days—but I’ll look down at it and find 20-30 text messages.   Of course, that implies that I’ve put it down at all.  Too often my phone is my companion in meetings, conferences or at the dinner table.

So what does any of this have to do with associations?  A lot.   At their essence, associations are about connectedness.  Whether its connecting people or companies, associations are about creating the fabric that weaves people together.  And the same technology that enables our doing so in ways we never imagined can also make us more isolated.

Here are three ideas to prevent this.

First, never forget to talk with—or better yet, meet with—your members.    Nearly twenty years ago, at the Massachusetts Hospital Association, I oversaw the “CEO Visit” program.  Put simply, we made sure our VPs visited every CEO in our membership once per year, in that CEOs office.   It was a simple way to stay connected.  Whether it’s just picking up the phone to talk to someone or making an effort to see them at a conference, it’s well worth it.

Second, adopt “in flight” rules.   When I facilitate a Board meeting, I adopt what I call the “in flight” policy—that is, all Board members must put away and stow all portable electronic devices prior to meeting takeoff.   It’s a sign of respect for those in the room to truly be in the room.  We take breaks, and all rush to our electronics, but while we’re talking, we’re really talking.  It’s remarkable how much you can get done with this simple rule.

Finally, go old school.   I get several hundred emails a day.  And more and more, I get tons of texts from our clients.  But I can count the number of letters I get per month on one hand.  I still get them—and read them—but no one sends them.  Sometimes going old school is the way to reach someone.  I still appreciate a handwritten thank you.  I still write tons of birthday cards.  Don’t forget that connecting with your members may be the cost of a stamp away.

At the Ready

Ready to produce resultYesterday I went underwear shopping.

This isn’t usually blog-worthy, but it actually tells you a bit of what we try to do here at Virtual.

One of our clients was due to testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.  Due to a massive 4-inch snowstorm that Washington isn’t terribly adept at clearing, his testimony was delayed until Thursday.   Since he was a precise packer, this meant he was out of underwear.

So I went to Macy’s and bought him some.

There’s a lesson here for associations.   Sometimes your members need complicated things…help on Capitol Hill, advice on a key issue.  Sometimes they need the basics.   And sometimes you can’t deliver on the complex items without the basics.   Are you paying attention to what your member’s really need?

Because no one should go commando to Capitol Hill.

Always On

always onMy holiday gift to myself this year was a Pebble Smartwatch.  Of course, I got one in part because I can’t resist the latest gadget.  (For other gadget geeks out there, I strongly recommend the UK Magazine T3, available on the iPad.  It’s like porn for gadget geeks.)

But another reason I got one is even more pitiful.  I simply can’t resist the siren song of my vibrating phone, and the twenty seconds it was taking me to dig my phone out of my pocket was just too much.

I’m not alone in feeling this way.  More and more, you see devices that display your texts on your car dashboard (yikes!), your watch, or even your ski goggles.   We’ve become an “always on” culture, where the idea of waiting to read something is just more than we can bear.

So what does this have to do with associations?   Quite a bit.    A funny thing happens when people read their texts and emails that fast.   They reply just as fast.  And expect a reply even faster.   Cell phone maker HTC did an informal survey to gauge expected response time ( , segmented by audience.  They found that during work hours, clients expect responses to text messages within 1 hour.   And colleagues and “boss” are even faster—expecting a response within 15 minutes.   Emails are only a bit slower, with clients expecting 4 hours and boss/colleagues both at 1 hour.   And  during non-work hours, the response time goes to 24 hours. (Note:  weekends are at least 48).

So what does any of this mean for associations?

It means that traditional expectations for member service need to be dramatically updated.   A “same day” response policy is likely angering your members.  Same day is too late.  Same hour is what they often want.

There are four things I’d recommend for associations to function in this environment.

  1.  Arm your employees.   Make sure your employees have the best technology to stay in touch with their members.  If someone needs help accessing their work email on their phone, give it to them.
  2. Communicate expectations.  Make sure your staff is aware of the changing expectations of members.   I’m not that old, and in my first association job I still called in to have someone read my pink “while you were out” messages when I was on the road.  People didn’t expect immediate response.   Make sure your staff is well aware of how much times have changed.
  3. Communicate expectations, part II:  It’s also critical to set expectations to your members of when they will get a response.  Remember a quick message saying “got your question…I’m on it” often assuages concerns.
  4. Provide flexibility.  It’s only fair.  If you expect employees to respond at odd hours, you should be flexible with their work hours as well—the advantage (and disadvantage) of technology is people are still connected, even at a little league game or appointment.

I’d have more to say, but I have to run, my watch is calling me.