Association Management Basics: Successful Leadership Transitions

I just finished Hans Finzel’s Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. This book is nearly 20 years old, but it includes some timeless advice for leaders, with a particularly good chapter on successful leadership transitions.Top Ten

The transition to a new senior association executive presents a great opportunity for an organization to grow and innovate, but transitions that aren’t handled well can set an organization back for years Finzel says.

Finzel also says that anticipating and preparing for a leadership transition is something good leaders should do from their very first day on the job. Finzel says ideally, an association executive should identify and mentor their successor.

An executive leadership transition is a great way to propel an association forward, reflecting the updated goals of the governing board. Leadership transitions should be seen as an exciting opportunity for all parties – the board, the new and departing leaders, and the staff. An association or non-profit needs a steady flow of new ideas and fresh blood and a new leader brings these.

Fumbled leadership transitions do happen, but the chances are slim.

Here’s a partial list of things to keep in mind to insure your association’s successful transition to a new leader.

  • Mutual respect – Both the incoming and exiting executives must have respect for what the other brings to the table.
  • Efficiency – Departing leaders that stay around too long do much more damage than those that don’t stay long enough.
  • Cooperation – The team that’s staying in place should bend over backwards to welcome the new leader and have faith in the selection made by the board. Any resistance from the team will harm the organization in the short term and ultimately lead to someone’s departure.
  • Board Involvement – No other task is more important for a board than selecting a new leader. The Board must be clear and specific about what they’re looking for in the new leader and their performance goals must be reasonable.
  • Trust the Experts – If your organization has the resources to use a search firm to find a new leader they should do it. Search firms, commonly called “headhunters” offer comprehensive services far beyond just finding potential candidates. They’ve been involved with countless leadership transitions so their advice should be encouraged.

In Finzel’s book he says that “finishing well is an important measure of success in leadership.” Exiting gracefully can be a challenge, but it’s important to remember that when one door closes another one will inevitably open. There’s another organization that needs the help of the departing leader. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Association leaders new and old should read Beth Brooks’ book, The New CEO’s Guide, Advice for the First-Time, Aspiring, or Current Association Executives. Brooks is the President and CEO of the Texas Society of Association Executives. This is one of the newer books in the world of association management guides, and it’s great for both new and current senior association executives. Her style is very readable, and Brooks covers all of the basic elements of strong association leadership.

Travel Notes: New Orleans, Mobile & Fairhope


Faulkner House Books, Pirates Alley, the French Quarter of New Orleans


St. Louis Cathedral New Orleans

I had the good fortune to miss last week’s blizzard in DC. I was on the Gulf Coast, where it almost never snows, for work and pleasure. Notable stops included Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. It was my first meal there is about 35 years and I was expecting to find that the Garden District classic had been left behind in the incredible new cuisine renaissance taking place down there. But it hasn’t, and my dinner there was the best of many good meals last week in New Orleans.  I also visited the fascinating National World War II Museum, St. Louis Cathedral, and Faulkner House Books.  Faulkner House is located behind the St. Louis Cathedral and it’s where William Faulkner lived during the 1920s.  Today, it’s a tiny bookstore specializing in first edition fiction by Southern authors.

In Alabama, the highlight was visiting family and good friends in Fairhope and Mobile. I also finally made it to Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. An old pub in downtown Mobile that has become an intimate concert venue for serious singer songwriters. We enjoyed shows by Dylan LeBlanc and Andrew Duhon.

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On the Road for Flavor Creation

Santa Monica sunrise on an early morning run

Santa Monica sunrise on an early morning run

I had a great trip to Southern California earlier this week.  The Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association hosted a workshop in Santa Monica for food industry professionals interested in learning more about flavor creation. This was not a course for flavorists, the artists that create flavors. They have a professional society that trains and accredits them.  This was a course for people that wanted to learn more about what flavorists do.

Consumer awareness of flavors is pretty low, so it’s no surprise that people don’t know about flavor creation. Thousands of consumer products contain flavors, added to improve taste. The flavor industry has a digital platform called Flavorfacts so that consumers have a place to learn about these important food and beverage ingredients. I say food and beverage, but flavors are used in many product categories, including confection, pet food, and even medicines.

studentsI was on the program with Dolf DeRovira (Flavor Dynamics) and Richard Pisano, Jr. (Citrus & Allied Essences, Ltd.), two of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in the flavor business.  Dolf is a friendly, excited professor, with an encyclopedic knowledge of flavor ingredients and chemistry. Richard Pisano, Jr. is passionate about essential oils, and you can’t help but get excited when you hear him talk about these important flavor ingredients. Both men are running successful businesses, but they devoted an enormous amount of time developing this course, which they delivered for the third time this week in California. This course is hands-on, so the students smelled and tasted a variety of essential oils and aroma chemicals – the building blocks of flavors.

I was in California with Mat Gulick and Samantha Lee, two hardworking and creative members of the Verto Solutions communications and meetings teams. Before the workshop, Mat and I visited three successful Southern California food companies. You may not have heard of these companies because their sales are business to business, but you’ve no doubt enjoyed their creations.

John Cox and Albert Guerrero in Santa Monica

John Cox and Albert Guerrero (T. Hasegawa) in Santa Monica

Flavor Infusion is located in Orange County and they’re known for accomplishments in beverage flavors, with particular success is Central and South America. T. Hasegawa is headquartered in Japan, but we visited their large facility in Cerritos, CA where they excel at making savory flavors. The photo on the left was taken with Albert Guerrero, their production manager who’s an expert at making reaction flavors. I visited T. Hasegawa the day after Albert completed the Los Angeles Marathon in just over three and a half hours. We also visited California Custom Fruits and Flavors, in Irwindale, CA.  They are leaders in creating fruit preparations for a host of foods like yogurt, breakfast bars, and smoothie bases.

It’s an exciting but challenging time for the food ingredient business. What the food industry has accomplished in taste, safety & value is unprecedented in human history. But some people are questioning foods that are processed, even though it’s the very processing that has enabled the taste, safety & value.

On the trip home I read Mary H.K. Choi’s quirky piece in the New York Times about how much she loves LaCroix Sparkling Water. Choi says her favorite flavor of LaCroix is Pamplemousse and she says that what works for LaCroix is that they have a “suspicion of flavor rather than a bracing burst of taste.” Which made me think: “somebody did a nice job creating that flavor.”

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Getting Started in Government Relations: Advice for Law Students

What kind of positions or opportunities should a graduating law student pursue if they’re interested in government relations?  This is the question I’m trying to answer in this post and when I speak next week to University of Alabama law students that are in DC participating in a government relations externship program. Mike House at Hogan Lovells invited me to share my observations about getting started in DC.

Like many schools today, the University of Alabama recognizes that they must do more to make their students ready to practice law. For the students in Tuscaloosa interested in working in DC after graduation, this program offers an introduction to the city and particularly to working in government relations.

The U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol

Two years ago, I spoke to the students about legal opportunities in the association world. Many association professionals stumble into the field, and this applies to lawyers too. Last year, I conducted a survey of colleagues that have been out of law school for at least ten years, and I shared their observations with the students.

This year I’m focusing on government relations because that’s what many of the students want to pursue when they graduate. When I graduated from law school I had a vague notion that I might want to work in government relations, but first I wanted to work for a Member of Congress. I’ve made some missteps along the way, but in hindsight working on Capitol Hill right after law school was one of the best moves that I’ve made.

The Washington, DC area is an exciting place to live and because the economy is so diverse there are lots of things that a lawyer can do that don’t involve government. I know lawyers that have successful and challenging careers that don’t have anything to do with government; finance, technology, real estate & construction, healthcare, and even professional sports – DC has it all. But if you’re moving here to work in government relations, you should make your first position one with the government.

Once you decide that the government is where you want to begin as a young lawyer, there are two main options; working on Capitol Hill, or for one of the many federal agencies or perhaps eventually experiencing both which I did.

Capitol Hill is one of the most interesting and exciting places to work in DC, as a result, the competition is pretty fierce for the jobs. But it’s also true that there is constant turnover on “the Hill” and if you’re persistent you will eventually find something. I got a break after the historic election of 1994 when my Congressman’s office helped me get a job in the Republican leader’s office. The person that helped me, Jo Bonner, went on to eventually be the Congressman from my hometown, and today he’s the Vice Chancellor of the University of Alabama System.

Cannon House Office Building - U.S. House of Representatives

Cannon House Office Building – U.S. House of Representatives

Capitol Hill isn’t the only place in government where a new lawyer can find a job. The city is home to dozens of federal agencies, and they all employ lawyers. The competition for these jobs is different. Turnover doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does on the Hill, and there is also more “paperwork” and bureaucratic hurdles than in Congressional offices. The good news is that media reports suggest that there is a wave of retirements just getting underway at the federal agencies and these positions will have to be filled.

Working on the Hill will expose you to lots of interesting and important people – Members of Congress, their staff, and lobbyists, that you will likely run into for the rest of your career in DC.  Every day on Capitol Hill presents an opportunity to meet leaders from that district or state.  Mayors, generals, distinguished business people – they all eventually come to Capitol Hill.

While at an agency you will have a chance to go deep on an issue or policy area and that will translate into value down the road. In my blog post last year I made the point that lawyers must eventually become an expert in something, but there’s plenty of time for this.  Deep issue area specialization can happen on the Hill or at an agency, but it’s probably more likely to happen sooner at an agency.

My first “real job” out of college was at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and after law school it was working in the U.S. House of Representatives in the Speaker’s Office.  Both experiences were exciting and to this day I use lessons learned in both of these offices.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - My first "real Job" out of college

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – My first “real job” out of college

You need to have a long term strategy, so it’s fine to take a job with the government even if you know you’re not going to retire there. But make sure that you stay in each position long enough. Looking back there were at least two times in my career when I moved too quickly. Now when I meet people working on the Hill I offer the following advice: Stay as long as you can. There’s no place like Capitol Hill, and once you leave you’ll probably miss it.

When I emerged from law school it was impossible for me to imagine where I am today. My interest in government relations lead me to an association management company which opened my eyes to the association world. Although I do occasionally practice law in my current position, it’s more accurate to say that as an association executive and consultant to associations I’m in a “JD-advantaged” position, meaning the critical thinking and communications skills that I picked up in law school benefit me in my work today even though it’s not the practice of law.

So the bottom line is pretty simple. There are many things that you can do in Washington, DC after law school, but if you want to get involved in government relations down the road your first step should definitely be a position on Capitol Hill or with a federal agency.


Russell Senate Office Building.  A really cool place to work
Russell Senate Office Building. A really cool place to work
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The Year Without Pants and How to Replace Email

Year Without PantsThe Year Without Pants and the future of work is Scott Berkun’s account of his year working for Automattic, Inc. the company behind WordPress, the online, open source website creation software that many consider the easiest and most powerful blogging and website content management system (CMS) available today.

According to Amazon:

50 million websites, or twenty percent of the entire web, use WordPress software. The force behind is a convention-defying company called Automattic, Inc., whose 120 employees work from anywhere in the world they wish, barely use email, and launch improvements to their products dozens of times a day.

WordPress is mostly free to use for anything from a personal blog to a Fortune 500 corporate web site. WordPress was used to create the blog that you’re reading right now.

I picked up this book because it’s about working remotely, or running a “distributed company” as they call it at Automattic, Inc. The story of WordPress is interesting and Berkun has some profound yet simple observations about people and how we communicate at work.

Like many companies in the digital economy, Verto Solutions is struggling a bit with remote work. Most members of the Verto team are passionate and self-sufficient, but when professionals aren’t in the same office it takes extra effort to collaborate and keep projects moving. The Year Without Pants is about the team that is maintaining and continuously improving the WordPress software, while rarely working in their offices in San Francisco.

Commuting, kids, and travel create legitimate reasons for wanting to work remotely. There’s clearly a trend toward adoption of remote or distributed work. Some believe that any organization that works primarily in the digital world can work remotely, but it’s more complicated than that.

Working remotely comes with compromises. Compromises that impact the company, the clients, and the advancement of individual professional careers.  The reason many people want to work remotely is to help manage kids and the household. My wife and I find that the logistical challenges of raising children make it very difficult to work from home.

Working from home probably hurts the employee as much as the company and the clients. But working remotely, or “distributed work” as Berkun calls it, is a fact of life as a result of computers. The average Verto Solutions employee works on a half dozen projects or issues each day. All of these involve using a computer, but they also require collaboration with other members of the Verto team and of course, our clients. Collaboration is how we move things forward and get answers to the tough questions.

So how can we work remotely while maintaining high levels of collaboration and productivity? The book gave me some ideas, such as teams should increase connectivity by using chat and Skype as opposed to email.  In fact, the book helped me find the answer to a question that’s been on my mind lately:  How will we communicate after we stop using email?
shutterstock_132990344Email as we use it today is broken. The volume of email that most professionals receive is unreasonable. One of my new year’s resolutions is to unsubscribe to all the junk mail that makes it through the spam filter. Now that I’m consciously unsubscribing, I’m amazed at how much junk email I was receiving.

Berkun calls it email madness, “where people are so overwhelmed by the waves of email they receive that they protect their psyche by never reading any of it. Instead they skim emails quickly and write and send replies even quicker…What they don’t realize is if they send waves of bad email out, they’re guaranteed to get waves of bad email back…”

Email is a horrible tool for many of the things it’s used for. It puts too much power in the hands of the sender; they can put anything they want in your in-box. Email is also a closed channel, unless you’re one of the addressees you can’t see the conversation. And email goes away, it’s really hard to search and be reminded of previous conversations. All of these problems are solved when a group uses a blog.

Blogs are the collaboration and information sharing tool to replace email. Blogs, the web-based logs enabled by WordPress and many other software products, are an easy way for groups of any size to collaborate and share information. If you haven’t created one they might seem complicated, but fundamentally a blog is just a place where a small or large group of people can see and share information and comment on it. It’s a web page, but thanks to software like WordPress they’re really flexible and easy to create one.

All of the associations managed by Verto Solutions have boards, committees, and task forces. These groups meet in person just a few times per year (just like the teams at Automattic) but they are constantly sharing technical information and collaborating on documents. We all have strategies for dealing with the flood of information, I use folders and project management sheets, others hang on to all of their messages and rely on search to find what they need when they need it. Wouldn’t it be better if you always knew that to get the latest info and all the info on a particular subject you simply go to the blog page for that board, committee or project?

We’ve already created web pages for some of the boards and committees of Verto-managed associations. What I’m talking about is creating blogs for any group or project of any duration that will involve sharing information. Blogs are just less formal web pages that allow everyone to see everything and eliminate the annoying group emails.

Using blogs isn’t a silver bullet and email is part of how blogs work (assuming you sign up to be notified when something’s been posted). Some conversations need to be real time, and in-person conversations convey so much more information when you factor in the eye contact and body language. Email is not going away completely, but we need to stop using it for brainstorming and routine information sharing.

The Year Without Pants doesn’t provide a model of remote work that we could apply at Verto Solutions.  Scott Berkun’s team is made up of young people that work in shorts and don’t appear to have any children or spouses.  They’re young programmers traveling around the world, while remaining productive by living on-line.

But the story did open my eyes to the power of blogs as association management platforms. I wonder which Verto Solutions-managed association will be the first to experiment with using a blog to manage a project?

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What is Strategy?

RoadtoRelevancePerhaps you’ve noticed that strategy is the most overused word in the corporate lexicon.  Not just for-profit corporations, but non-profits too, and it’s also frequently used by military leaders.

So I was comforted by the definition offered by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers in their excellent book about association performance called Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations.

Here’s their definition:

Strategy is the skillful, creative, and disciplined use of an organization’s resources to achieve it’s objectives.

Pretty simple, right?

I was re-reading Road to Relevance in preparation for a hosting a panel discussion next week at the Professional Women in Advocacy Conference. The PWIA organizers invited me to host a panel discussion on delivering value to association members.  On the panel with me will be Chris Krese from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Kristin Wilcox from the International Bottled Water Association, and Shannon Campagna from Mars, Inc.  I hope to see you there.

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Innovation for Association Executives

I’m thinking about innovation in the context of managing associations and non-profit enterprises. Innovation is a corporate buzz word, but it’s also a fundamental element in any successful and growing organization.WideLens

This summer I discovered a book about innovation strategy for corporate product launches and I can’t stop thinking about applying these concepts to associations. The concept involved is using a “wide lens” when preparing a product or service innovation.

The book is The Wide Lens, by Ron Adner. Adner teaches strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His Harvard Business Review article, “Match Your Innovation Strategy to Your Innovation Ecosystem” is assigned reading in over fifty global MBA programs.

Innovation, Adner says, is a “problem for everyone because it is held up as the solution for everything.” But despite the excitement, Adner says that successful innovation remains the exception rather than the rule.

I saw this book on a friend’s home office desk this summer in Connecticut.  My friend works in corporate strategy for a major telecommunications company.  His team thinks about the future and helps their senior managers chart the company’s course.

The Wide Lens is about the difference between great innovations that succeed and great innovations that fail. Adner’s point is that it’s not just about whether or not the innovation is a good idea, because “no matter your situation, your success depends not just on your own efforts but also on the ability, willingness, and likelihood that the partners that make up your innovation ecosystem succeed as well.”

He focuses on innovative products that failed to launch. Examples include a Michelin tire that never went flat, Sony’s first electronic reader, and Pfizer’s inhalable insulin. Each of these failed in spite of massive investments and strong consumer desire for these innovative products.

The experts on innovation fall into two schools of thought in explaining the sources of failure and the path to success:

“The first school argues that most innovation failures are rooted in a shortfall in customer insight. Introducing a genuinely new product or service is not enough; if customers don’t see the innovation as uniquely valuable, or are unwilling to pay the required price, then the innovation will not succeed…The second school argues that failure is rooted in shortcomings of leadership and implementation. They claim that the key to success lies in building better capabilities for execution and implementation that will enable us to deliver on our promises and beat the competition.”

In the association world the most common barriers to innovation fall in the second category. Delivering a new idea in the association ecosystem is challenging because of the diversity and power of so many stakeholders. Corporations have shareholders, but these people normally rely on management to continuously innovate to remain profitable. Associations have stakeholders who care passionately about their industry or profession and they take greater responsibility for managing the association and deciding which innovations are worth pursuing.

Innovation in the association world is underappreciated. Given the competitive forces most associations face, every association executive should have a list of innovations in the pipeline.

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Global Public Affairs

My reading material on a recent business trip included Building and Maintaining a Global Public Affairs Function, by the DC-based Foundation for Public Affairs. The Foundation for Public Affairs is the association for public affairs professionals that produces excellent publications.

The paper is a high-level discussion of best practices and the evolving structure of corporate government affairs on the global scale.

Chateau de Divonne, France, location of recent global advocacy.   Courtesy of Yelp
Chateau de Divonne, France, location of recent global advocacy. Courtesy of Yelp

My trip last week included the last meeting with a global advocacy group I’ve had the pleasure to belong to for more than four years. The flavor and food ingredient industry has relatively little global government and public affairs capacity, but they’re effective at leveraging the resources that are in place and protecting their businesses in markets around the world.

This group, the International Organization of the Flavor Industry, brings together technical professionals from food ingredient companies representing just about every region of the developed world.

The playing field for global public relations has expanded and now includes all of the developed and developing world. The sooner you establish a presence in a country or region the better. Traditional strongholds like DC and Brussels are still important, but the action has shifted to emerging markets where companies are trying to get a first-mover advantage.

It is also true that companies take many different approaches to managing government and public affairs. In some companies and associations these functions are combined, in others they are separate which can create automatic internal communications challenges that inevitably hold the organization back.  Initial challenges include defining exactly what we mean by government or public affairs. Say these terms and people hear different things.

The IOFI group met last week in Geneva, Switzerland. Over the years that I’ve been involved we’ve also met in Tokyo, Brussels, and New York. I’ve seen this team evolve from tentative and clumsy to a collaborative and fast-acting global advocacy team.  Last week’s meeting included a group dinner at the Chateau de Divonne, (above), in France, just over the border from Geneva.

Tokyo Dinner last April with partners from Japan, Holland & Germany

Tokyo Dinner last April with partners from Japan, Holland & Germany

Over the years that I have been observing government relations the game has continuously evolved. The changes to global public affairs are now even more profound as the world has gotten smaller and more connected.

Here are what I see at the most basic elements of a global government affairs program:

Understanding the Business
Just getting a handle on all the various business units, products or services in a large company or industry can be a challenge. Strategic GR practitioners find the right balance between spending time in the business learning about it, and facing the external world, to explain and protect it.

“Lobbying” used to be seen as somewhat mystical. By calling it “public affairs” or “advocacy” you remove some of the mystery, but you still have to establish relationships with the right policy makers at many levels of government. The adage about being nice to the boss’ secretary applies to government relations too; people up and down the chain of an agency can be helpful or create obstacles.  My international colleagues have explained to me that there is no French word for “lobbying” and no Japanese term for “advocacy.”

Successful global government affairs requires the right combination of individual company representation and shared tactics through coalitions or associations. Associations are the most effective way for a company to shape public policy. However, this varies by region. For instance, in the U.S. and Europe governments encourage the business community to organize and speak with one voice when possible, but in Asia the association world doesn’t consistently play a role, at least not yet.

Culture and Secret Sauce
According to the Foundation for Public Affairs (FPA), “When multinationals are asked how they organize their global government relations function, there are nearly as many different answers as companies competing on the world stage.” Some companies have no resources dedicated to government relations, while others are fully engaged in partnering with governments.

Don’t forget that government relations really means human relations. When you add the international element to the game it makes it more complicated and more rewarding at the same time. I’ve gotten to know some smart and interesting people over some amazing meals.

The paper also includes some vivid anecdotes about the need to be aware of different cultures:

“In the U.S., we like people who get things done, are well-organized and are intolerant of ambiguity. Than kind of person could be a disaster in the Middle East, where meetings start late and relationships are so important.”

“In China, discussing business before having had two or three dinners together would constitute a faux pas.”

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom Map

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom Map

How does a company decide where to put GR resources? One company mentioned in the FPA report uses the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index to decide which governments might potentially interfere with there business. This is a fascinating index that for 20 years has provided a snapshot of government conditions country by country. But I can’t figure out exactly how this information would be used when deploying government relations resources. For example, if your company has significant operations in Canada, where there is considerable economic freedom, and Venezuela, where conditions have been steadily decreasing, where is it more important to invest in government relations capacity? I guess the answer is Venezuela, but you shouldn’t neglect any markets where you have operations.

The bottom line is that modern global government relations is still evolving, but it has become more sophisticated and interesting than ever.

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