Okay, time to weigh in on ASAE’s choice of Karl Rove and James Carville as the opening general session speakers at this year’s annual meeting in Dallas. There have been several very good blog posts about this topic already:
I’ve also had LOTS of conversations with people about it, beyond just those bloggers. I feel like the negative reactions can be bunched into groups.
Group 1: Anger. “How dare you bring that evil bastard in here.”
The angry people I’ve heard have all been liberal, so their anger is directed at Rove. He’s just in a different category for these people. There are plenty of conservatives that they would come and listen to (even if they disagree with the content), but not this guy. He makes their blood boil. I’m not sure if conservatives have the same reaction to Carville, but the bottom line is that this session pisses some people off. They’re either not coming or somehow wish they could disrupt the whole thing.
Group 2: Boredom. “Seriously? I can see these guys on TV for free.”
There is a category of people that either don’t care about politics, or view these two as not bringing anything new to the discussion. ASAE says it needs to give politics more attention (since that’s a major part of association work), but if that’s the case, this group of people is confident you could have picked better speakers (or they just say “meh” about the whole politics topic to begin with).
Group 3: Frustration. “Exactly what will anyone actually LEARN from this session?”
We as ASAE members do what ASAE does: we plan conferences and general sessions and care about education. We think about this stuff. It’s our job. So there’s a group that looks at this general session and is frustrated with its design. It’s weak in terms of education: you don’t learn a lot when the situation is intentionally polarized, and it doesn’t seem connected to other politically focused learning in the conference. It’s also blatantly NOT addressing the much-emphasized priority of diversity and inclusion (yay, two more white men!). This group is frustrated, because we feel we can do better than this.
Hmmmm. So what do we do about all this? There are obviously groups of people who dislike this program choice for pretty different reasons. And I’m sure there are other groups that I haven’t identified, too (not to mention the groups of people who, I assume, are very happy about this program). It seems like an impossible demand to make everyone happy, right? Is this actually a problem we can solve?
True. It should NOT be ASAE’s job to make everyone happy. When that’s your goal, you end up with the lowest common denominator. But maybe that gets us to the deeper issues here.
What is ASAE’s job? Better yet, to take the attention off ASAE for a minute, what is YOUR job as an association executive? I know that’s kind of a “big” question, but let me propose a controversial answer for your consideration:
We have no freakin’ idea what our jobs are as associations.
Now, I can hear the protests in my mind:
Oh, get off your consultant high-horse, Jamie. We do too know our jobs. We’re a big community and most of us are doing just fine, despite the bad economy, and we’re delivering value to members and making a huge difference in our various communities. We know our jobs, and we’re doing them, thank you very much. You can stay in your theoretical bubble about what our jobs are as associations all you like, but here in the real world we have to get stuff done.
I hear you. I didn’t mean you were incompetent. You’re doing your job. ASAE is doing its job too. What I mean is, I fear that this community is really doing the job that was required five (or more) years ago, but we’re not shifting to meet today’s needs at the same time. Think US auto industry in the early 70s.
Our “foundation is cracked,” as Maddie said in a post linking to these discussions, but we’re focusing on what’s right in front of us instead of addressing the real problem. We’re making sure the paint is perfectly polished on that huge gas-guzzling sedan that’s rolling off our assembly line. Great.
In my mind, the Rove/Carville thing is an illustration of that bigger picture issue. ASAE’s job is not just to put on a good annual meeting with big name speakers that get a 4.0 or above on the evaluation. That’s old school: deliver good content and produce a nice experience for people, and you win.
I think the rules have changed. We can all get great experiences and great content in so many different places now. Do you know how many mind-blowingly good presentations I can hear during my lunch hours between now and Dallas at Ted.com?! Certainly more than the sessions I will attend in Dallas. I don’t think we’re really letting that reality sink in. We are planning our conferences and picking our speakers with an outdated vision of success: good evaluation scores and good attendance.
Today’s member wants more. Sure I want good speakers and good experiences, and of course I don’t expect to be thrilled by every choice you make. You don’t have to be perfect. But boy, when I see something outrageous, I’m going to jump up and ask for engagement, and I will expect you to respond. I expect you to change and shift and offer alternatives. I expect you to negotiate with me. I expect you to be transparent about why you made your choices and engage in this conversation, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Why? Why am I being so demanding? Because it’s no longer acceptable for me to be a passive partner with you in my professional growth. I am no longer willing to simply take what I am offered when it comes to my community of professional practice. Everywhere I turn these days, I am empowered with options and customization and engagement. And I like it. My standards have changed, and they aren’t so tolerant of the centralized, scarcity approach that I think too many associations are still embracing. The one where everything narrows down to that press release where you announce your opening general session speaker, hoping for a home run, and ending the conversation right there. And I don’t think it’s just me. Our business has changed–not “is changing,” but “has changed.” And we are being too slow to respond.
In the end, I just don’t feel strongly about the specifics of the Carville/Rove issue, partly because, sadly, I gave up on American politics years ago. But mostly because I am more interested in the broader issue of how associations are adapting to a new reality and a new relationship with their communities, including my deep concern that we are not.
What do you think? Am I off base here? Too far out in front? Maybe. But if so, then I think that’s a space that needs occupying. I’m hoping that as I ride by you, with my steel bike and 45-year old legs, that I might wake you up a little, maybe even piss you off. But either way, you’ll start pedaling faster.