Changing of the Guard


I facilitated a session a few weeks ago where some participants talked about the need to replace the "old guard" with some new faces and fresh thinking.

It's a common concern and a common expression.  No doubt for even the most dedicated of lifelong learners there is an expiration date on the value of their tenure in a particular role.

But remember, just because you're changing the guard doesn't mean you necessarily want to change what they were guarding.

People and programs will come and go.
Purpose and principles should be more permanent.

When recruiting new leadership be sure to explore their commitment to the purpose and principles you want to preserve, as well as their ideas for new ways to amplify them in the programs and practices they want to pursue.

Great Opening Sessions Light a Fire


It's the opening general session of a major conference.
What does that session need to do for those in attendance? For the sponsoring organization?

I've been thinking a lot about this after delivering the keynote at a fair number of opening sessions the past few years. 

Too often general sessions feel like generic sessions, defaulting to a very tired template:
Welcome. Announcements. Parade of insider talking heads. Sponsor thanks. Some awards.
Keynote speaker. Dismissal.

Great opening sessions require a far more strategic and intentional design, one that embraces their significant role in an event's rhythm and the attendees' experience of value.

I'd like to suggest that a great opening session is an accelerant. It takes the natural kindling of participants' desires—to connect, to learn, to conduct business, to find solutions, to celebrate—and turns it into a roaring bonfire.  Sponsoring organizations need to consider:
  • the mix of potential participant needs and aspirations; 
  • if some are more valued by their attendees (hopefully, a data-driven insight); 
  • what general session formats and components can accelerate participants receiving real value for each desire addressed in the session design; and
  • how to tweak or reinvent every single component of the session design and logistics for greater acceleration.
Every. Single. Component.
Every. Single. Decision.
Designed, not defaulted to standard practice.

A few examples:
  • Accelerate community-building by sectioning off seating (by geography, functional responsibilities, organizational size, et al) so people can opt to be near like-minded colleagues.
  • Accelerate learning by having multiple speakers addressing core topics or critical issues in shorter formats (IGNITE, Pecha Kucha, TED, et al).
  • Accelerate both recognition and learning by honoring accomplishments in a way that both celebrates the award recipient, but also makes explicit what other attendees can learn and apply from their efforts.
  • Accelerate connections by facilitating introductions at the onset and having participants join with a few others to discuss a non-threatening, but compelling question. My current favorite:  What is an experience that has significantly influenced your idea of what it means to be a good professional? Find 65+ simple conversation catalysts here.
  • Accelerate learning with a reactor panel of industry pros who comment on and engage with the thinking of a traditional opening keynote speaker if you have one ... connecting the speakers ideas to specific practical application opportunities.
  • Accelerate solution-finding with a running slide deck as people arrive, one that spotlights common challenges and organizational resources or member solutions. Or post a common challenge and let people text or Tweet a solution with responses displayed in real-time.
The possibilities are endless if you take the time to apply a simple, but powerful principle: design your opening general session to be an accelerant for the value participants seek. 

This is an update of an earlier post.


7 Simple Upgrades to Improve Conference R.O.I.


You know the old adage, "don't let perfect be the enemy of good."

It's tempting to hold off on making improvements until you've got just the right enhancements ready to really rock the return on investment (ROI) a participant gets from attending your workshop or conference.

But while you toil away to build the perfect, your participants often find an immediate good and register for another event.

Don't let that happen.  Here are seven simple upgrades you can make to improve your conference ROI right now.

1. Connect people at hosted tables.
Meals are often one of the more intimidating moments for a conference-goer who may not know any (or many) participants. Help them get connected by offering individuals the chance to sit at a hosted table. Who serves as hosts? Thought leaders in your profession, people speaking at your event, and board members or other prominent volunteer leaders—all are natural candidates.  Make sure to seat people at smaller rounds (48-60") or team tables to facilitate conversation, and do prepare your hosts to help people introduce themselves and get comfortable.  If you're worried about not having enough hosts, make the seating opportunity available to a more limited audience who would really value it; i.e., first-time attendees.

2. Use lightning rounds or "sneak peaks" to preview content.
Having too many good sessions to choose from is a great problem for a participant to have, but it is still a problem.  A possible solution?  Offer a lightning round of sneak peaks in which speakers summarize their session content in two or three slides and just a few minutes.  Think of this as a turbo-charged Ignite or Pecha Kucha round with the emphasis on previewing concurrent sessions that will occur in your conference.  Schedule these presentations during coffee or breakfast and people will start their day with a smorgasboard of key takeaways and a better sense of which sessions they want to explore in greater depth. Bonus: capture these speed talks on video for easy dissemination and post-conference marketing (look at what you missed). Double-bonus: if required during the program submission process, these lightning round slides actually could be used to help with selection.

3. Let people opt-in for more challenging learning formats or experiences.
Conference designers often lament that they have great ideas they want to try, but that their entire conference community would never go for them.  So don't focus on the masses.  Make whatever innovative learning format or experience you want to try an option that is limited to an "exclusive" number of attendees.  Instead of trying to win over the unwilling, you now have a great pilot group of the self-selected.  What you learn from this smaller group no doubt can help you decide if (and how) to implement your innovation to a larger audience in the next iteration.

4. Follow general sessions with discussion and application.
You've brought in a big name keynoter who wows the audience with her compelling content and interesting suggestions for their work.  But are you converting all that positive energy into practical implementation?  Most conferences don't.  A general session by definition often is very general. Schedule a round of facilitated discussions for relevant audience segments immediately following the session (or do so at tables if a meal occurs next) so that participants can connect with like-minded peers and explore the "so what, now what" aspects of applying the general session content. Since not everyone may be interested in following up on the general session, be sure to make other learning opportunities available.

5. Enable on-site volunteering.
We've known for some time that micro-volunteering is increasingly compelling to potential volunteers, but far too few conferences enable that commitment in real-time and on-site. By offering an expansive menu of simple tasks you make it easy for newcomers (or the less involved) to increase their connection to your community while making a meaningful and very manageable contribution. 

6. Offer an Idea Fair and incent participation.
All attendees hope to get a few new ideas to use in their work, so make it easy for them to do so.  How? Offer a nominal incentive (reg discount, entry into a drawing for free reg, etc.) for attendees to contribute one simple idea in the style of a science fair poster session. Provide a Google Docs template for them to complete and have them tag their idea from a limited number of categories you provide before uploading the file to a Dropbox folder. Print all of them out and have volunteers (see #5) hang ideas similarly tagged in a prominent space that will have regular foot traffic (exhibit hall, pre-function area outside general session rooms, et al).  Now you have an on-site idea gallery, but you also have the electronic versions of all these ideas for your future publication and dissemination. Go one step further and let a panel of volunteer judges create awards that are attached to the winning ideas.

7. Showcase attendee talents.
Few moments are as memorable as when you learn that the brilliant professional you admire is also an accomplished musician, artist, poet, singer, etc.  So many individuals in your conference community likely possess unknown talents. Make it possible for them to share them.  An attendee talent show is the obvious idea, but many more opportunities exist: let individuals "guest DJ" with their favorite playlists before general sessions or meals begin, have members serve as entertainment at meal functions or awards programs, and let members be busker entertainment in the hallways between sessions or at the registration area as people arrive.


What is another easy-to-implement conference upgrade you have found successful?

This is an update of an earlier post.

Building Community Takes Time


Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.

—Anna in The King and I


Can we ever learn enough about our friends, work colleagues, or collaborators? Probably not. That's why so many organizations engage in retreats and other teambuilding sessions: to strengthen interpersonal relationships and effectiveness.

When we think about how much time to spend on icebreakers and other teambuilding, the answer should be tied to the nature of the work and the participants doing it as I've written about previously: Given the work we must do, the timeframe for doing it, and the relationships among the people doing the work, what, if any, ice needs to be broken?

But I increasingly worry we treat building community in working groups and teams as a one-time commitment, something we frontload and relegate to the first board meeting or a staff retreat. Then we immediately move on to the real work.  But ongoing work on the quality of relationships is what makes all of the other work possible.  As Daniel Kim so elegantly outlines in his model for organizational success: the quality of relationships is the base (and basis) for the quality of thinking, actions, and results that follow.

If you share my sentiment that learning more about each other needs to be an ongoing and sustained commitment, here are three practical suggestions.

Involve participants in the design and facilitation of any activities.

Too often, team members find icebreakers being done "to them" or "on them" instead of with them.  While it is natural for a CEO, department chair, board president, or external facilitator to lead community-building activities, it in no way is a responsibility they alone own.

Why not rotate the responsibility among all the participants … letting individuals, pairs, or small groups each design and facilitate a community-building activity?  To ensure appropriate continuity among these efforts, engage all participants upfront in a discussion of what they would define as a worthwhile exercise. The simple question found on the nametag at the start of this post is the one I often use to support this exploration.  You may also find it helpful to share a one- or two-page list of resources for icebreaker and teambuilding activities. The side benefit is this helps develop everyone's presentation and facilitation skills.

Leverage the power of one single question.

I frequently facilitate sessions where participants already have good working relationships and our time to deepen them with an intentional activity is limited.  What I have discovered is that one well-crafted question can unleash significant conversation and insight, as well as deepens interpersonal connections.  Building a short list of compelling questions (here are 60+ I like to use) you can turn to is a worthwhile endeavor.  A few that have worked well for me include:
  • Tell me about an experience that significantly shaped your idea of what it means to be a good professional and/or your work ethic.
  • When have you felt most completely in sync and engaged with a group of people? Why? What made that possible?
  • A year from now, after we have spent significant time together, what would I probably have learned about you that would be beneficial for me to know right now?  See this post on creating an owner's manual for yourself for a related, but more substantive activity.
  • What is a misperception or misunderstanding of you that others sometimes have? Why do you think this perception develops?
Ensure that discussions and activities honor both introverts and extroverts.

Even the most gregarious among us can sometimes perceive icebreakers as forced fun.  But trepidation about forced disclosure is often more common among more private or introverted individuals.  When designing a community-building moment, we need to ensure it will not cause any participants to automatically shut down (see this post about challenge and support for more info).

My tactics for doing so include: letting people reflect and write responses on their own before sharing with others; letting people "opt-in" to when they share rather than always going around the room in order; modeling the way with my own responses to show an acceptable level of self-disclosure; and using formats that allow multiple one-one interactions instead of one-many when individuals feel the glare of the spotlight more.

An example of the latter is one of my current favorite activities: Fishing for Feedback.  I deal people a hand of five Go Fish cards (you can use index cards), each affixed with a random adjective.  Participants mix and mingle for about five minutes following the instructions provided.

We then reconvene and individuals share their chosen adjectives, volunteering to do when they are ready.  A brief discussion about the importance of sharing perceptions and feedback often follows.

You can download a PDF of the 80 adjectives I use here.  Simply copy the page on to 80-count return address labels, affix to cards, and you are good to go. A variation I sometimes use is to distribute a full-page of adjective stickers to each participant and then give them a few minutes to affix appropriate adjectives to others' nameplates (on front or perhaps inside where they stay hidden).  Individuals are then invited to simply react to the feedback they just received.

I hope I've convinced you that a continued emphasis on increasing the quality of relationships with our colleagues and collaborators is paramount to long-term success. If you have other approaches you have found successful, please share them in the comments.










The Clock Doesn't Tell the Whole Story



“Everyone is given the same 24 hours in a day.”

Well, of course, right? How can you argue with such a simple “truth”?

You can’t at face value, but the meaning behind the statement merits further examination.

Think about how this statement is most commonly used.  I most frequently hear it when people try to prod others into being more productive with their day. 
It’s often paired with the example of how some uber-entrepreneur invents some world-changing smartphone app before most of us finish our morning coffee.
“Look at Erin.  She gets more done in a few hours than most of us accomplish in a full day.”
Be. Like. Erin.

The underlying message is we’re not worthy because we don’t make as much of a difference with our 24 hours as others do with theirs … and remember, we all have the same 24 hours in a day.

Except that we don’t.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.

I am self-employed. I am single. I don’t have kids. I don’t have pets.

These four facts are the basis of a 24-hour day that undoubtedly is very, very different than others.  For the most part, I have almost complete control over my day unless I am speaking or facilitating for an organization or participating in the occasional conference call to plan upcoming client work. In general …

I get up when I want.
I work when I want.
I don’t have to attend many meetings.
No one checks when I punch in or out.

This is the epitome of privilege.  This is what genuine freedom of choice looks like, and it is a freedom that people possess in widely varying degrees.

We may each start with the same 24 hours in a day, but what is important to acknowledge, understand, and appreciate is how many of those hours are genuinely available for our discretionary use.  And that’s where the clock starts to tell time differently.   

When I was an association executive I found it very helpful to ask my board chair to tell me about his/her typical day.  You can learn a lot about others by getting a sense of how their 24 hours often unfolds and what choices are available to them about how they spend their time.  I’ve since turned that simple conversation into the exercise “A Day in My Life” that I often use as a part of leadership conferences or organizational retreats that I facilitate.

The bottom line is this: we don’t all have 24 hours a day available to us for our use.  In fact many people have very few discretionary hours at their disposal in any given day. This needs to be acknowledged and addressed both at the personal level and the policy level.

If we want to build more effective teams, if we want to strengthen interpersonal relationships, understanding a day in the life of others is a very good place to begin.

This is an update of an earlier post.

Before and After: Association Futures


Before there was a headquarters in DC or some other big city
Before there was a staff and an org chart and a policy manual
Before there were copiers and computers
Before there was a magazine, a website, and a PAC
Before there were budgets and bills, dues and donations
Before there were webinars and e-learning courses
Before there was an annual meeting, a trade show, and sponsorship packages
Before there were sections, or chapters, or councils, or components
Before there was a strategic plan, a BHAG, or a set of key result areas

Before there was any of what we now associate with an association, 
there was something much simpler, much truer, and much more important:

People who shared a common interest and cared about connecting with like-minded people.

In the end, that’s really all that is required for an association to succeed.

Spirited people once joined together to create.
Spectators now gather to consume or critique.

Such a shame that the essential spark that started it all
is now so often in danger of being extinguished 
by all that came afterwards.

Perhaps the future for associations (and other organizations)
may be found in their original beginnings, 
reconnecting to the power of purpose.


A great summary of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, a book well worth reading, can be found here.

Six Principles for Harnessing Volunteers' Talents


Author Bruce Tulgan (Winning the Talent Wars) asserts, “In the new economy, the best people are the most likely to leave. Why? Because they can.”  

Perhaps this is why management guru Tom Peters says we must be obsessive about P.O.T., the Pursuit of Talent. While Tulgan and Peters are both talking about paid staff in the new economy, associations and other organizations would be wise to note the relevance of their thinking for recruiting, developing, and rewarding volunteers. When competing for volunteer time and talent, organizations need to have compelling value propositions to offer. 

We are told this is the era of Me Inc., the Brand You, the Free Agent Nation, a time when everyone is taking his/her personal portfolio of talent and auctioning it to the highest bidder. Volunteers, however, have always been free agents. Organizations have never been able to hold volunteers hostage as corporations hold employees with their stock options, vested pensions, and so forth.

Sure some volunteers in the past “toughed it out” in unfulfilling positions because they were the generally accepted stepping-stones to more significant leadership roles. But volunteers have always been free to walk. The difference now is more and more of them may do just that, taking their talent portfolio to volunteer opportunities (and organizations) they find more meaningful, challenging, and rewarding.

So how do organizations attract and reward talent-rich volunteers in this age of Me, Inc.?  

Tulgan offers "a new set of organizing principles for employing people in the new economy." These principles appear below along with my commentary on their relevance to volunteers as opposed to employees. 

Talent is the show. 
Talent is the show when it comes to volunteers. Organizations need their talent, and volunteers are looking to further develop and/or share theirs. You would be well served to revise your recruitment brochures and methods to focus on recruiting talent regardless of an individual's age, tenure, and so forth. Learn what talents people can share and what talents they can teach others. Then match them with the work to be done. 

Staff the work, not the jobs. 
Spend less time monkeying with the organizational chart. Identify the work you hope to have volunteers do, find individuals whose talents match the work, and then create the structure to get the work done. A few talent-rich people with lots of time could fill what you might now list as multiple leadership positions. The work matters, not the positions. Structure should never be an end in and of itself. It exists only to facilitate the work being done and should be changed freely as needed. 

Pay for performance and nothing else. 
We need to break the practice of rewarding volunteers just for showing up. If volunteers do not see serving the organization and its mission as a privilege instead of a right, you need to help reframe their thinking. Volunteers who do nothing more than take up space should be cordially invited to the door. Organizations need clear performance standards for volunteers, and these should be articulated as people join your team. Reward results and performance … nothing else! Make results the criteria for more prestigious positions in your organization, not simply lengthy do-nothing tenure. 

Turn managers into coaches. 
If you have recruited for talent and provided an appropriate overview and training, your volunteers now need coaching. Being micro-managed is one of the many pet peeves of volunteers (ironic that this is a frustration shared by staff). If I am smart and talented, I need to know the rules of the road, the desired end results, and the deadlines to be met. Then I need you to get out of my way and let me show what I can do. Think athletics: when you deal with superstars, you coach more than manage. And if you are not recruiting superstars for your volunteer opportunities, you should be developing those volunteers you are recruiting into superstars. 

Train for the mission, not the long haul. 
Don’t assume your most talented volunteers have any intention of being around for the long haul. Focus on connecting their talents and interests to the organization's current mission and vision. If they stick around for more involvement beyond their initial contribution, great. Just don’t organize all your recruitment and training efforts to create volunteer "lifers" for your organization; it probably won't happen as much as you might hope. 

Create as many career paths as you have people. 
To be attractive to potential volunteers, we need to have flexible and fluid opportunities to leverage their time, interests, and talents for the good of the organization. How ridiculous is it that many organizations still turn away willing and capable volunteers because “no positions are available at this time.” 

Projects and positions should always be available if the right candidates/talents present themselves. After all, the work is never done. Try thinking of what your organization would look like if every individual sought a meaningful volunteer opportunity. Then organize yourself to let that become a reality. With any amount of luck, it just might.

This is an update of an earlier post.