Monday, February 28, 2011

Better Communications: Make A Plan, Stan!

By Virgil R. Carter

Have you been caught in the communications trap? I have and it’s not pretty. At the annual meeting, a respected past president says into the microphone, “This organization does a crappy job of communicating. I never know what’s going on, except for my annual dues invoice! What should I renew when this organization can’t communicate any better than that?” Does this ring a bell?

Communications are vitally important. The challenge is that most associations have a wide range of audience segments. These segments are interested in some messages (and media) and not others. This is a case of “I want what I want when I want it (the way I want it).” There is no simple, single solution for communications with diverse members and customers. We are not all a size 6, living in one geographical area!

What to do? One useful proactive tool is creation of an annual communications plan. Conceived at the outset of each fiscal year, and modified as may be necessary during the year, the plan contains a small number of high priority messages for the year. For example, the messages might focus on new technical information, strategic priorities, and/or association achievements which improve the value proposition for members and customers.

A communications plan also includes a schedule of key events and appropriate media to reach desired audience segments during the year. Your public relations staff can use the communications plan and schedule as the guide for creating messages, presentations and articles throughout the year for volunteer and staff leaders.

For an annual communications plan to work, it must have the understanding and support of senior volunteer leaders, senior executives and communications staff. These are the folks who will be doing most of the communications during the year. Volunteer and staff leaders must understand that their individual, personal messages are secondary to the consistent presentation of the important messages from the organization each year. This is what makes for better, more effective communications which reaches more and more of your important members and customers.

Reaching your members and customers effectively is aided by repetition. Yes, I said repetition! Repetition enables more audiences to become more aware of and understand important communications. Have you ever wondered why commercials are so repetitive? One-time messages simply don’t have much impact.

If you want to improve your association’s communications, try working with your volunteer and staff leaders to create an annual message plan, and update it every year. It’s one of the surest ways to reach members and customers—even the members who are challenging to reach.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Helping Your Board to Be More Effective - Five keys for high-level governance

By Virgil R. Carter

Despite the great diversity among non-profit organizations, we all seek effective governance by our boards.

A critical starting point is to recognize what a vital resource time is. Recruiting new board members is challenging because volunteers are concerned about drains on their time. Governing well is critical because a board’s time together is limited. Thus, how you and your board use your time matters.

Boards that are forward-looking, focused on strategy, provide the maximum effective (and enjoyable) leadership when time is limited. Strategic boards spend the majority of their time identifying broadly important outcomes, setting priorities, and monitoring the way the staff and other volunteers implement major initiatives.

Here are five steps volunteers may take for an effective, productive, and rewarding board.

1. Define success. Establish and practice a shared definition of organizational success. No matter how well an organization may perform in any 12-month period, if it can’t perform effectively year in and year out, it can’t really be called a successful organization. Thus, success has a lot to do with consistency and continuity over time.

2. Understand your core assets. Every organization has core assets. Typically they include: 1) knowledge, 2) community, and 3) advocacy. These are the resources for an organization’s accomplishment of its mission. Volunteers and staff must be strategically focused on the welfare of assets that cause members and customers to value the organization.

3. Think the unthinkable. Ours is a rapidly changing world in which we face unprecedented competition. To remain both up-to-date and competitive, focus on and prepare for the unthinkable—both opportunities and threats. Effective boards consider the one thing that would most revolutionize their organization and the one thing that would most jeopardize it. Thereafter, boards focus strategically to realize the opportunity and head off the threat.

4. Set priorities and monitor them. Resources are always finite—there are never enough. So develop strategic priorities and communicate what is truly important. To maintain a strategic perspective, boards must think in terms of what is important, not how to achieve results. The staff and others of the organization’s operational side are the ones to be held responsible for executing the action.

5. Establish a respectful staff partnership. The professional staff of an organization offer important resources—so important that it may be impossible for a board to be truly strategic without them. For example, staff members may have access to knowledge, contacts, and resources that may be unknown to a board. The staff is uniquely positioned to help develop and implement a definition of organizational success that’s built upon consistent performance, year after year.

Effective boards are both enjoyable and productive where it matters most: achieving the organization’s mission.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Responding to Discord in Meetings

by Steven H. Davis, CAE, Society of Exploration Geophysicists

Recently experienced rough edges in meetings of my senior management team caused me to resurface a document long-ago evolved for the purpose of setting a positive tone for meetings through the adoption of Rules of Conduct and Behavior. This particular document, in its original utilization, proved effective enough in creating a constructive and positive meetings’ environment wherein it was ultimately bridged into utilization with the entire staff and with the elected leadership of the organization.

In this resurfacing, my intent was to use it as a jumping off point toward developing our own senior management team Rules of Conduct and Behavior. Where it will go from here remains to be seen and potentially serves as the substance of a future post.
The original Rules are 10 in number:

I. We will always treat one another with respect.

II. Harsh, demeaning or accusatory language will never enter our discussions.

III. Bad attitudes will be left at the door.

IV. When our opinions differ, we will provide our input constructively and with the
realization that none of us has all of the answers.

V. When we continue to disagree, we will agree to have different opinions and not allow the
conversation to merge into discord.

VI. We will not speak ill of one another to others in their absence.

VII. If we have issues with one another, we will discuss these one-on-one.

VIII. We will embrace the reality that our diversity is what makes us strong.

IX. We will support one another; one for all and all for one will be our guiding maxim.

X. Re decisions made, we will always speak with one voice.

The process in this instance was to put these pre-existing rules on the table for discussion, with the intent of evolving our own set of rules. In my original pursuit of this, I learned that total buy-in was essential, and that this could only be arrived at if we worked together to develop our rules. I also learned that it is a fine line between muting discord in the meeting room and stifling the passion that can help to generate critical thinking. This is something that has to be discussed and an approach agreed to. This has to be managed carefully.
In this current pursuit, initial discussions have gone very well. This next generation of Rules of Conduct and Behavior should be fully fashioned soon. If substantively different from the original, I will share these as well.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Would we be better off being an NFL coach?

by Pat Gouhin

With the close of another football season I am once again troubled by the inevitable turnover at the highest levels. This past year seems little different than years past and as of early January 2011, 7 NFL head coaches have been terminated with some reports of potentially another 5 coming before all is said and done and the season is officially put to bed. With 32 teams in the league, this leaves us with annual turnover of somewhere between 20% and 40%. Is that good? Is that bad? What could be considered optimal? How do these rates compare to what we see in the chief staff officer ranks of the association community? Certainly the jobs and responsibilities are very different but there are also some similarities as well.

On 6 January the Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “Inside a College-Football Tragicomedy.” It was about a high profile college coach who was fired. There were a couple of paragraphs that struck me as imminently relevant.

“From the inside, I discovered how complicated the game had become, requiring coaches to work 100 hour weeks recruiting, practicing and watching endless hours of film – only to see that 19-year old kid miss the kick. When that happens, the head coach can expect to get thousands of nasty emails and very little sleep.”

The article goes on to portray the typical day of the star player in a very grueling and demanding way and finishes with the following about the rest of the team …”or any of the 124 other players – does any of these things poorly, or not at all, that’s the head coach’s problem. And if any of those failures hit the papers, the talk shows, or the blogs, it’s an even bigger headache.

This beast (reference to the multi-$billion industry and massive college programs) we have created may be bigger and stronger, but the coach’s job security still rests on the kids who weigh 300 pounds and squats twice that, but still can’t grow a respectable mustache.”

Any of this sound familiar? Perhaps we should be analyzing the beast along with the coach?

Now we all accept the inherent responsibilities that come with the job and understand we have to take the good with the bad and rise above the chaff, but is there a more fundamental issue at work here?

Is there a mismatch between the expectations of the stakeholders and the reality of control and influence that can be exerted by any one individual to produce “winning” results year in and year out? If so, are we as association executives living up to our responsibility to communicate the many interdependencies, variables and unforeseen circumstances that influence the illusion of control or are we perpetuating the fallacy? When we truly believe that a coach can win a championship every year and when we aren’t willing to settle for anything less, is it time to examine the fundamentals of the system in which we operate?