An Open Letter to Executive Directors


To my colleagues serving the important role of Executive Director of the Regional Associations participating in the Regional Association Council, I say thank you.  On behalf of the entire RAC Board of Directors, I thank you for the work that you do.

I also want to thank you for having been so responsive to the work that the RAC Board has been trying to accomplish this year.  Many of you took the time to participate in the District meetings that we held in person, and some of you were kind enough to participate in more than one! (Guess who??)

It’s an interesting time in our industry for you to have your job.  As many of you have had the courage to say, there are specific challenges to the continued livelihood of the organizations you serve; challenges that require time, attention and thought leadership to solve.

As we enter this week charged with creating the strategic plan document that will govern that which the RAC Board does going forward, our activity is infused with the information that you’ve shared with us, and it is our intent to work closely with you as well as your representative Board of Directors in the future once we are ready to deliver a completed document.

With that in mind, I have a favor to ask of you:

1) Remember, we ask that you assume no ill intent.

  • Paul Bellantone reminded us at LDW that there is a commom misconception that PPAI would like to take over the role of the Regional Association.  He also reminded us that as the 12 year relationship between the 2 has shown, they must be bad at their takeover attempts, or we must once and for all dismiss them as untrue.  I give you my personal assurances that I have witnessed nothing to give me any thought of PPAI wanting to sweep you aside.  If we can set that notion aside for good, it will be to the benefit of the relationship.

2) You’ll have to give to get.

  • As opportunities develop, I expect that we will ask for open and honest information sharing from you and your Board with respect to facts and figures about your organization.  In some instances, what you report may not be positive, and may give you the impression that your Association might be viewed negatively by result of sharing that information.  I ask that you work as closely as possible with your Board to share what is requested even if that scenario is the case.  Without honest answers to difficult questions, we may find ourselves working on problems that are not of the highest priority.  Let’s play with as many cards on the table as possible.

3) Help us create a sense of urgency around the progress that needs to be made.

  • I will start the exercise of creating regular discussion amongst your President community around the 3 Big Hairy Problems we discussed at this years LDW, NOTE: for those of you that didn’t catch what they are, they are:
  1. Finding alternative income streams to complement tradeshow revenue
  2. Recruiting non-members/retaining existing
  3. Board leadership recruitment and retention

We will use that exercise as a way for the Executive Leadership of RAC to facilitate conversation amongst Executive Leadership at the Regional level.  It’s important that your Executive leaders have a closer relationship with what is going on with their peers, so we make sure they have a sense of the potential impact of inaction.  Please work along with them as they participate in these activities with their peers, so that they may create actionable activity for their Boards to work on.

I leave you with this.  In many instances I’ve witnessed the exasperated faces of Executive Directors as a new topic of conversation is created or a new opportunity to do something pops up.  What I’ve come to understand about those faces is that the feeling of pain being expressed was not directed at the idea, but at the notion of another job laid at your feet because of that great idea.  I get it.  What we’re trying to do here is bring some clarity to not only the HOW things might get done in the future, but also to the WHO should do them.  If we can give you a deliverable that is accompanied by a description of whom in your organization should do the work, it saves you from what happens now; no one takes responsibility for the task so it then becomes YOUR job.  I will do my best to avoid that scenario whenever possible, and if we suggest a task be yours, hopefully it will be for reasons that you understand.

I’ve enjoyed my year as President, as we’ve looked things in the eye and are doing our best to help ensure the continued success of those Regionals to which you have dedicated time, talent and energy.  Please, as always, never hesitate to reach out to me about any topic.

President’s Message – September 2013

My blog post this month is a reprint of my address at the Opening Session of this years Regional Association Council Leadership Development Workshop, held last week in Dallas, TX.

This is a story about leadership and personal inspiration.

Leadership takes many forms. Some folks lead by example. Others, by virtue of quick decision making in the face of a threat. Sometimes, however, leadership requires a voice, someone willing to stand up and say what may be obvious, but what needs to be said nonetheless.  Someone willing to stand up and say, things have to change.

By a show of hands, How many sports fans are in the room?
Hockey fans (show of hands)…..
People that know the game of hockey exists? (Show of hands)

Ok, for those of you that have no concept of hockey whatsoever, bear with me, I hope you’ll find something of value in the story nonetheless.

In Detroit, we had the good fortune for a number of years to be the home to one Steve Yzerman, Stevie Y as he was known early in his career, or The Captain, an icon in the game as he eventually came to be known.

Stevie Y was the 4th pick in the NHL Draft in 1983, the very 1st pick of new team owners Mike and Marian Ilitch. The ilitches had purchased a team in the Red Wings that at the time were so bad they’d become known in town and around the league as “The Dead Things”. A proud storied franchise in the midst of a run of historic mediocrity that saw them miss the postseason 14 times in 16 years, during a time in NHL history when more than half of the Teams in the league played on after the regular season ended.

Enter Yzerman, a flashy but quiet 18 year old playmaker with a set of skills not often seen around Detroit during the Dead Things era. With Yzerman in the fold, the Wings made the playoffs that year, and 2 seasons later a then 21 year old Stevie Y was given the role of Captain, a role he would not relinquish for the next 21 years. Hockey in Detroit was once again relevant, with the flashy Yzerman leading the team in goals and points, as the Red Wings began their ascent into the league elite.

As is the case with any organization, there come points in times where those that have gotten you where you are no longer hold the skill set necessary to get you to the top. The Red Wings were no different, and over the course of the next decade long suffering Red Wing fans witnessed periodic changes in the coaching staff, each change carefully orchestrated by the Ilitches to catapult the team to greater levels of success. During that time, Yzerman continued his role as leader by example, scoring bushels of goals and consistently leading the team in points. If there was a knock on Stevie Y, it was that perhaps his desire in the offensive zone was not met with the same level of passion for defense, and while the team was routinely competitive, they never seemed to find the right combination of ingredients necessary to become champions.

Fast forward to 1993, when the Red Wings hired NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman.  At that time, Bowman had 6 NHL championships to his credit and had cemented his legacy amongst the most successful coaches in all sports, not just hockey.  But there was trouble afoot. The offensive-minded Stevie Y struggled under Bowman’s system, which stressed defensive contributions from every player.  As the face of the organization, as the guy that had resurrected hockey in what literally is called Hockeytown, after working to invigorate an uninterested fan base, it appeared that Stevie Y was in the midst of a proverbial pissing contest with the Vince Lombardi of hockey.  Famously, Bowman was observed calling Stevie a “prima Donna” during a game, and after an unceremonious early playoff loss to end the 1994 season, rumors circulated of an impending Yzerman trade to Ottawa, at that time one of the very worst teams in the league.

Imagine the feeling. Without ceremony, without ever asking for the spotlight, after carrying the fortune of the team on his back, the very player that had dedicated himself to the team was on the verge of being shipped out of town, labelled by the coaching staff privately as a selfish, one way player.

Fortunately those rumors proved false, and the Wings took another step, when they advanced but were ultimately swept out of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. While the sting of defeat was strong, the local and national news media at the time continued to project the Wings as strong favorites to contend the following year.

Desperate to win and end the decades long championship drought, team ownership gambled heavily in the 1995 offseason, bringing together a contingent of 5 Russian players to lead the team to an NHL RECORD for regular season wins and the #1 overall playoff seed to complete the 1996 season.  The pinnacle finally appeared to be within their grasp.

After a reasonably easy 1st round win, the team found itself in the middle of a dogfight with the St. Louis Blues, lead by an aging Wayne Gretzky (the best player ever) who in the twilight of his career managed to will his mediocre team into the 2nd round of the playoffs. After 6 games, the series was tied. After 3 periods and one overtime, game 7 was also tied.

Now remember, in his then 10 years at the helm, Stevie Y had been the quiet captain. He let his play on the ice define his leadership. Often, Detroit sports media struggled to get anything notable from him, much less a controversial quote or a plea for better play from the team.  His was a captaincy that reflected his status as the best player on the team, not the emotional or spiritual leader, vocal he was not.

Think of it.  Here they were, loaded with talent, coached by arguably the best coach in the history of sport at the time, driven by the embarrassment of being swept out of the Finals a year prior by a decidedly less talented team, stained by the public discussion about trading the face of their franchise.  A team that had said to a man in the media that year that nothing short of a championship would satisfy, one goal away from not only losing the series, but most assuredly changing their collective future and the future of their Captain.

In a story that has taken its place in professional hockey lore, Yzerman stood and addressed his team in the intermission after the 1st overtime. His message to the team was simple:  “We have to play better, and it starts with me.”   While not as wordy as my speech, the simple fact that Yzerman felt compelled to speak was noteworthy to his teammates.

What happened next is the stuff of legend.

I still get goosebumps watching that.

A few things about this are noteworthy.
1) it’s from Gretzky that he steals the puck (some sarcastic fans even credit Gretzky with an assist on the goal) but more importantly
2) for those not familiar with the game, the only reason he was in that spot was because he was playing good defense, which had been the knock on him all along and
3)  the odds of him scoring that goal from where he was at, some 60 feet from the net while still skating, was nothing short of miraculous. It was if the hockey gods witnessed his commitment to the outcome and rewarded him for his effort.

In that moment, Steve Yzerman began the transition that would ultimately result in 3 NHL Championships as a player and a 4th as a team executive, an Olympic Gold Medal, 1st ballot induction into the Hockey HOF and the #19 Detroit Red Wings jersey hanging from the rafters, never to be worn again. In that moment, his transformation into a championship caliber player was complete.  While the Red Wings did NOT go on to win the championship that year, they did win the next 2 in a row, as the competitive juices of the 96 loss and the lingering taste of his timely goal were enough to propel both he and the team to continue to play the brand of hockey that Bowman predicted would win.

Incidentally, at his retirement ceremony, surrounded by his family, The Captain stood at center ice in front of a packed crowd of Red Wing faithful, and told them that in his opinion Scotty Bowman had never been given appropriate credit for his contribution in making the Red Wings back to back champions. On the day meant to honor The Captain, it was the man that drove him to the pinnacle of success that wept.

No one knows for sure if his speech was the difference that day, and while The Captain continued to lead the team for another 10 years, he never became very outspoken. In that moment in the locker room, with everything on the line, The Captain did something uncomfortable, something he wasn’t used to, something that was required, because as The Captain, he realized that the responsibility was his.

I tell you that story for a number of reasons, the primary being that while The Captain and I may have different styles (there’s too many people in this room and at home that won’t let me get away with classifying myself as a quiet anything), it was never lost on me the way that The Captain went about his work, how he always did what was necessary to propel his team to the next level of success, and how in that defining moment he not only stood up and said what everyone needed to hear no matter how difficult, but that he then went out and got the job done.  His story has been been inspiring to me in my personal and professional career, and I hope if nothing else you found the video somewhat entertaining.

But maybe there’s more to consider. I wonder if we took a moment to think about it, how might our story compare to that of The Captain and my beloved Red Wings.

Are we in The Dead Things era, where our team struggles to even compete?
Are we in rebuilding mode, looking for talent to propel us to success?
Do we lack the structure and coaching to compete?

While each of you may have your own opinion about our current status, I would tell you that I as your current Captain, and the Board of Directors as a whole, feel as though we were at that moment during the 1st overtime intermission when at the Delegate Assembly last January in Las Vegas, I said, “it’s time we stop kidding ourselves”. That was my “It starts with me” moment, and I wanted to share with you some of what I’ve been up to since then, but we’re about results, so let’s talk a little about the deliverables we’ve been able to create since we last spoke.

With the leadership of Bruce Korn, CAS, we commissioned a task force to study the role of the RAC delegate.  Bruce hand selected some Regional Association members to participate in a survey amongst the Regional community to understand how each Association handles the delegate role, how the delegate interacts with each Board (including ours) and how each Regional goes about determining whom will fulfill that role. As I’m sure you can imagine, the answers to those questions vary greatly from association to association, and consequently there are numerous inconsistencies in the effectiveness of the delegate role across the country.  This is the result of a lack of guidance from RAC with respect to the role of the Delegate, and consequently Bruce and the task force set about creating a job description for this role. I’m happy to announce that the RAC Board approved the job description during our most recent Board meeting, and we’ll be distributing that document shortly.  My sincere thanks to Bruce (anyone else?) for their part in creating this document, as it the RAC Board’s belief that each of your Associations will be better able to recruit for the position if you’re willing to adopt our suggestions on the job description, as well as have a better understanding of the important role that we would like to see the delegate play between RAC and your Board. The end result should be a more seamless transfer of information, a more dynamic relationship between us, and a deeper candidate pool at the Regional level for the RAC Board.

Under the direction of Ted Fuehr, MAS, and with the almost savant-like knowledge of RAC history by our one and only Melissa Hall, a group similar in construction to Bruce’s undertook a painstaking review of the then current RAC by laws to determine how and where they might be updated to reflect 2013. I am also happy to announce that those changes are also complete, and Carol will share with you how we will ask you to ratify those changes while we are here together. Ted, Melissa, and the 2 former RAC presidents and 2 former PPAI chairs that participated, thank you for your tireless contribution, as we know it takes a special person to want to participate in that kind of exercise. We expect that the proposed changes will streamline some of our processes and will help give us the opportunity to write a more effective strategic plan when we reconvene next month.

As Paul and the PPAI Board completed their strategic plan last year, you’ve heard the folks at PPAI advance the message of Visibility, Viability, Credibility and Community. I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the role of Regional Associations in the industry community, more specifically, our ability to lend our voices to the important work that PPAI continues to do to advocate for our industry. Paul reminded me that ours is one of the largest constituencies amongst the varied populations that represent our industry community as a whole, consequently, a well organized and pro-active voice from us only strengthens PPAI’s advocacy efforts. With that in mind, I personally organized calls to assist those Regionals seeking to participate in the 1st PPWW as a collective. Many Regionals organized their own efforts, and we’ve been able to communicate the good work done at the Regional level in conjunction with Work Week. I’d love nothing better than to see the RAC community work more closely together as we approach the 2014 event, and we’ll continue to promote the work you do.  For those of you that participated last year, thank you.

At L.E.A.D. This year, I participated with a number of Regional Association members as we descended upon Capitol Hill to do the important work of keeping our elected officials aware of our industry and abreast of the challenges that face our industry comprised largely of small businesses. LEAD is an eye opening event, one that I believe every Board member in the Regional community should strive to participate in at least once during your term in office.  It was gratifying to see many of you there. (Show of hands, who was there). For those of you that have not attended, please use the time to talk to any one of your peers with their hands in the air).  If either LEAD or PPWW snuck up on you last year, or if you’d like to understand how to organize yourselves around these activities in a way that might mean more members for your Regional, please join Seth, Kim, Anne and I as we will have a panel discussion about this topic at 10:15this morning and again this afternoon at 1:15. Both sessions will be in Pheasant Ridge.

Lastly, a little something for the Executive Directors. At the last RAC Board of Directors meeting, the Board unanimously approved the creation of the Donna Hall Memorial Grant. This application-based grant allocates funds toward Executive Directors seeking financial assistance for continuing education.  Executive Directors play an often unsung role in the continued success of Regional Associations; this Scholarship honors Donna’s legacy of commitment to the continued success of our association community, and I’m proud to have the opportunity to announce the Grants’ creation in her memory. For those of you that are unaware, Donna was the Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan Association of Promotional Professionals from 1992 until her passing in 2011.  For anyone interested in contributing to the Grant fund, please see Melissa, Cassondra, Carol or myself, and to the Executive Director community, expect more details soon.

I’m also proud to announce that for the 1st time in Regional Association history, the 5 Districts within RAC each conducted in person meetings in 2013. Please stand if you had the opportunity to participate in one of the meetings. Let’s give these folks a round of applause, as it was their effort and input that will frame the majority of the work that we will do in constructing our new strategic plan. Thank you.

I was fortunate enough to personally facilitate each of those meetings, in addition to the input i received thru the President and Executive Directors forums on LinkedIn.   If you’re an incoming President or an Executive Director not yet participating in those forums, we welcome your participation. These District meetings and the forums were created for specific reasons, to ensure that your RAC BOD is armed with the most timely and relevant representation of the challenges facing the Regional Association community.

The message was clear; while the nuance of the challenges facing our community may vary, overall, the challenges are universal. Here are the Top 3 Big Hairy Challenges as we see them today.

1) regional associations MUST continue to explore complementary income streams to supplement your primary economic engine, the trade show
2) it’s critical that we as a community work together to establish best practices in non-member engagement
3) lastly, we continue to look as a group for ways to recruit and retain top talent onto our Regional boards.

Additionally, while we see a number of Associations coordinating their efforts around trade shows, little collaboration is going on with respect to the three challenges I outlined a moment ago. It’s surprising to me that we haven’t accomplished more in these arenas, however, what I realized during our discussions was that there isn’t much time left for Executive Directors or the Regional Boards to spend brainstorming solutions to these problems.

So, while we’ve been able to accomplish a lot, I stand before you and say there is much left to be done. Each of the previous task forces that I mentioned were put together to serve as a test to determine whether or not this Board could identify a problem, select a champion for that problem who could work with the Regional community to gather info on how those problems were affecting you and then come up with a potential solution. We took on the topics that we did on purpose, as they served as the biggest obstacles we saw standing in the way of a more dynamic relationship between PPAI and the Regionals, using the stated purpose of RAC to achieve the outcome.  While it remains to be seen whether a job description for the RAC delegate actually helps the flow of information between us, what’s clear is that we can establish a framework to work on those problems as they are identified.

Which brings us to the strategic plan.

Any time you’re going to do something like this, it’s not a stretch to think that one of the best places to look for help is in the last strategic plan. But in looking there, we quickly realized that the last plan was very inwardly focused. It spent a significant amount of time focused on RAC’s structure, but spent very little on how that structure could benefit its members, you, the regional community. So, that wasn’t really helpful.

Instead, we’ve spent a fair amount of time working on understanding what it is that RAC might actually do for the people that pay to participate.  Once we turned our direction there, our focus became clear.  So, as we approach the exercise, your Board has come to a consensus that our objective need be to focus on a single objective:

How can the RAC Board help focus the resources of PPAI on strengthening the value proposition of each Regional Association to ITS OWN constituency, which is comprised of members and non-members alike.  If strong associations are the stated objective of RAC, then it’s of the utmost importance that we figure out ways to develop things that will make you stronger, and where better to focus our efforts than on the Top 3 challenges that our 9 months of information gathering have shown us to be almost universal in nature. Many great ideas bubbled up during the District meetings, and we’ll use as many of them as humanly possible while we do our work.

I said at the Delegate Assembly that we would know what success would look like once we got there, so, I wanted to give you my interpretation of what that could be. I don’t believe that we as your Board will go into a room and 48 hours later come out with solutions to problems that have been dogging us for decades.  What I do expect, however, is that we’ll be able to leverage the work we’ve already done, and use the practice we’ve had so far to create a framework for how the RAC Board will go about doing its work going forward, the means by which we will ask for and share information with you, and the means by which we will go about trying to solve the problems we’ve all said need fixing. We’ll serve as a best practice collector, we’ll identify when there are no best practices within the community and look outside when necessary to learn how other Association groups are handling similar situations, as many of our problems look the same as other Associations.  When a new problem is identified, we’ll have a much more efficient way to introduce that problem into our discussion.  If we’re able to get there, I will consider it time well spent.

So, let’s take a look at how we’ll spend the next couple of days.

For the 40% of you that are new attendees, ignore me for the next few seconds.  For you RAC veterans out there, this years event might feel slightly different than in years past. For as long as I’ve been coming to this event, I’ve witnessed a scenario whereby Regionals will break up their attendees and send them to those breakout sessions most relevant to the position that each attendee is performing on behalf of the Board.  That’s still not a bad strategy, as the content included in the program is built around those 3 big hairy challenges, in addition to content meant for new Board members to understand how to best provide value. What is different however, is we’ve built in some time for you as individual Boards to spend time together at the end of the event to work on incorporating that which you’re able to learn while you’re here into something that you may immediately begin to work on once you find yourselves back home. We’ll use the closing session as an opportunity for you to report to your peers on those actions items. Now, that might seem like cruel and unusual punishment at the end of what will feel like a 2 day grind, but we’re doing that for a couple of reasons.

1) because we’ve identified the big hairy problems, it gives each association the opportunity to tell us which of the problems are the ones you’re going to try and tackle next year, so both RAC and PPAI staff can work together with you during the course of the year on those specific problems
2) because we’ll have an opportunity to hear from as many associations as possible about which problems are tops on their list, we’ll have opportunities to serve as facilitators amongst those Regionals that are working on the same problem.  If you’re working on the same issue, why not work on them together.
3) by identifying which challenges are the most important by Regional it gives RAC a better understanding to whom to distribute best practices as they are created.

Lastly, I leave you with this. I know some of you accused me of being a little alarmist and intentionally provocative with my comments this year, and while I agree that I do have a tendency to take things to the extreme on occasion, I will say that there have been moments this year where I’ve felt like I’ve been shouting at windmills. I’ve been on the road, I’ve talked to more association leaders than any RAC President before me, and of this I can assure you.  There are a handful of your brethren in this room that are having their Steve Yzerman moment.  We either do what’s uncomfortable for us right now, we either stand up and say we have to play better, or there is a very real possibility that this organization will look different next year, with some of you present today no longer with us. Everything is NOT rosy in all of Association land, and there are Regional Associations struggling to survive.

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care. What I ask is that you find amongst the problems that we’ve identified the ones about which you’re most passionate, and pursue solutions to those problems like there is no tomorrow, as for some of you, that may very we’ll be the case.  Use today and tomorrow to find YOUR personal inspiration.