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Turning the Corner, Heading for Home

I write this armed with the perspective of my recent attendance at PPAI’s annual North American Leadership Conference, held this year in Chicago.  At the event, industry participants gather to share their opinions on key topics as identified by a work group of peers that volunteer to help set the agenda of topics for the event.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate on the work group this year, and I cannot sufficiently express my admiration for the hard work that was done by your industry peers to ensure open and honest dialog between suppliers, distributors and service providers about those items most vexing to those of us that call the Promotional Products industry our home.

As the President of your Regional Association Council Board of Directors, I find it important to share a bit of information that came to my attention during a discussion at the event about the timing, frequency and necessity of trade shows.  After some instruction, we divided ourselves into discussion groups that followed supplier and distributor roles, where the perspective of each side was allowed to voice its thoughts. Once those discussions were complete, we rejoined one another so that each side might present its perspective.

What came out in the Supplier discussion is noteworthy.  When asked to stack rank the value of return on investment for the various types of shows that exist in the marketplace today, Regional Association shows ranked second to last.  I’ll say it again, when asked to stack rank the value of the various shows they pay handsomely to attend, Suppliers resoundingly agreed that ours ranked NEXT TO LAST in value.

This is troublesome, but not surprising.

Troublesome, as the chief economic engine for your Association continues to rank low for return on investment.  Not surprising, as it has been the opinion of the RAC Board for more than a year that an alternative form of revenue to supplement your trade shows is of vital importance.  However, make no mistake, this is a real issue, one that may be masked by an improving economy, but a real issue worthy of discussion and brainstorming nonetheless.

As we approach the event of rewriting your RAC strategic plan in October, we continue our laser focus on an outcome that intends to move the needle on your value proposition to your constituency.  If successful, we will have created a mechanism to allow for the spread of best-practices in real-time.  However, without bright minds offering opinions on what their true needs are, the possibility exists that the outcome may not match the effort.

I’ve asked each Regional Association President to participate in an exercise with me whereby we attempt to reach some consensus on the order of importance of the real challenges facing their Association.  In meeting with each of the Districts this year, we’ve used those discussions to identify the 3 biggest challenges faced by our Association leaders.  Those 3 issues are:

  1. Identifying and implementing strategies to introduce additional income streams to the Association economic engine
  2. Identifying and implementing strategies to recruit and retain non-members
  3. Identifying and implementing strategies to recruit and train Association leaders

This is where you come in.  You’ve heard me tell you that your Suppliers are weary of an increasing load of trade shows, ours provide the second least value to them, and their ability to continue to support us could be impacted as a result.  You see above that we have brought clarity of thought to the challenges facing you.  We’re prepared to do the work, but ours will not and cannot be the only avenue for this work to be done.  If you’re reading this, its clear that you are a part of this community.  Would you not want your voice to be heard?

As we turn the corner and head for home, it’s time to speak up.  It’s time to be creative. It’s time we as a community rallied around one another and used the time we spend together to solve the problems with which we are faced.  Many of us will come together in a few weeks at PPAI’s Leadership Development Workshop and Executive Director Learning Forum.  If you’re attending, expect that I will challenge each of you to share your opinion on this topic.  If you’re not attending, please use this interim time to share your opinions and thoughts with ANY attendee from your Board.  If you know of no-one going, share your opinions and thoughts with me.  Solutions do not occur in a vacuum, but from the hearts and minds of a caring community.

We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history.”—Sonia Johnson

I look forward to sharing with you the opinions and thoughts shared with me. Until then, enjoy this fleeting remainder of summer.

A Letter to the Accidental Entreprenuer

There came that moment in my career when I realized recruiters would struggle working with me.

One visit to my LinkedIn profile raised all kinds of red flags  – I’d unwittingly taken one too many visits to the “sales career re-start” section and all of the horrible but effective HR filters meant to weed out chronic under-performers were going to apply to me, even if I wasn’t blindly handing out resumes or applying for random LinkedIn job postings with no inside track. The rumors were understandably swirling, all while my previous managers were writing recommendations on my profile.

I’d long grappled with what my career apex would look like.  By achieving noteworthy success in a multitude of roles, I was approached with and accepted an evolving career of “specialist” roles. Jobs like these came with top notch compensation, lots of opportunity for travel and all the benefits of strategic & team selling with none of the managerial baggage found in an average group of direct reports, but they are assuredly the first of the deck chairs thrown from the sinking ship of a bankruptcy-circling Company. I’d had the consecutive bad fortune of having roles among those lines on the spreadsheet in need of paring before the inevitable Board-directed corporate belt-tightening. Not once. Not twice or three times. Four. (Twice by the same Company) Many of my former colleagues in direct sales and sales management roles now hold executive positions for some of the most recognized names in their industries. The roles they held were almost always spared the accountants pen, and in retrospect, their’s were the more direct path to leadership roles. They may not have been smarter or more talented than me, but they knew the importance of being close to the revenue line when times got tight.

It was time to decide; time to bite the bullet and find my top end. Push the limits as hard as possible. I knew I was able, but had no idea where my capability would run out. It was time to channel my #AccidentalEntreprenuer

In the last 24 months:

  • I’ve written two sales plans from scratch. While there have been some similarities, each plan was unique to the circumstances of the coverage model chosen and the vagaries of the market served.
  • I’ve recruited, trained and hired a grand total 7 salespeople in both inside and outside sales roles
  • Created & implemented activity plans delivered and measured via CRM tools, with training on competence and effective use of the tool to support the plan.
  • Created & implemented marketing campaigns (often including a social media component) to aid the sales effort, with occasional front-page worthy effectiveness.
  • Made a tangible difference in the markets in which we were competing. Our presence has made a difference in the way consumers buy the products we sell. The evidence is on the revenue and profit lines.

I’ve also:

  • Worked to the point of utter exhaustion
  • Argued, yelled and fought for what I believed in with people dead set against my ideas seeing the light of day
  • Passed countless sleepless nights trying to stay ahead of the crushing workload awaiting me once I decided to stop pretending to sleep
  • Apologized directly to clients for not being able to make the promises I’d made to them come true, all the while working to make the best of the situation for all parties involved – often working to alter client plans to accommodate our shortcomings
  • Gained 15 lbs of worry weight and ignored the need to maintain the healthy lifestyle necessary to cope with crushing amounts of stress.

I’m truly the eptiome of the #AccidentalEntreprenuer.

The results have been extraordinary. I’ve come to understand the outer edges of my coping limits. In searching for those edges, I’ve also developed a healthy understanding of the edges I’m willing to seek – and those I’m not. This sharpened understanding has afforded me an accelerated pace in decision making and a sense of the most effective actions possible to move a sales plan forward for a brand new team and formed the foundation for the sales training program I’ve delivered to each of the teams I’ve created.

I’m not a finished product, but I’m no shrinking violet. Each positive step forward gives me more confidence to keep pushing those previously suffocating self-imposed limits on my capability. Make no mistake, we’ve not created the next Google, but I can sense the confidence of my latest recruits – they don’t know they’re not supposed to succeed, so why WOULD they fail?

My only regret is not having figured out how to arrive here SO MUCH sooner. The argument is “you need to go thru that to get here” and I cannot discount the value of the path in this journey, but a healthy understanding of how to push the edges of my capability would have hastened the journey. Perhaps those of you reading along might ask yourself the same question.

Will you explore the edges of your capability in an attempt to serve your inherent ability?

All We Sell Are Suits, Suits, Suits (and Shirts)

Elegant problem-solving via data & technology. User experience focused. Make the 40+ hours per week devoted to vocation the best hours possible. Embrace #thehustle.

We’re a Company based in the realities of today. We have something to say and we’re willing to say it in a voice of our own. We’re #TheRedTieSociety, a collective of #ExcellentHumanBeings.

We’re market-researchers, we’re hypothesis-testers.

Oh, yeah. We also happen to sell really cool custom suits and shirts for $250 & $50, respectively, delivered to your door in 14 days. Today, we focus the brand on those times in your life when you’d stand out in a custom suit – weddings & other formal events, young professionals beginning their careers, anyone searching for the flexibility a lower price point provides for suit ownership. We want you to find us in those moments when you need to look your best, and it doesn’t have to cost you a missed trip or concert festival ticket.

I had the good fortune to attend The Internet Summit last week in Raleigh, NC. My good friend and partner in joy-spreading Danny Rosin and I conducted a few experiments while participating in the event over the course of 30 hours. Being the gracious friend he is, Danny took great pains to introduce me to an excellent cross-section of participants; young & old, male & female, red & blue. Our objective: what kind of initial reaction would the SnapSuits value proposition engender from participants?

I’m kicking myself for not recording the responses. They were THAT good.

I met a bunch of really great people (Hudson Haines, Cole Watts, Chris CiminoDevin Kelley amongst many others) and we couldn’t seem to find one person to tell us the SnapSuits premise wasn’t valid. We DID hear some people tell us they wear more Sport Coats than suits, but NOT ONE PERSON could give me a reason our concept shouldn’t fly, and I’m expecting a few orders after Thanksgiving. Hypothesis tested. Results confirm the validity of the business model.

An e-commerce driven, direct to consumer solution designed to significantly alter the current status quo for custom apparel is the foundation of our business , but it’s our desire to bring a human element to the way we interact with people even when we’re having them buy from us online. The hybrid model lives here at SnapSuits.

Articles are infrequently written from the 1st person perspective of someone in the middle of building a start-up from scratch. Even less frequently found are examinations of the means by which this level of specialization might be approached. I welcome each of you to follow along with this chronicle.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to keep an eye on the brand, please feel free to check us out in all of places you’d expect to find us.




An Ode to Order Managers

It was a sunshine-splashed day in our Itasca, IL office, but the mood of the women in the bullpen was anything but sunny.  As I made my way into the office and got over to the coffee machine, I realized that something was wrong.  Not your everyday “someone has a case of the Monday’s” kind of wrong, but real, palpable issues that were going to need my attention.

I had expected some tension; we’d recently won a multi-million dollar account, and after the predictable calm that comes with the on-boarding of a new client, the web-site had gone live and we’d been promoting it with the client in earnest in the month leading up to my visit. With increased workload comes the prospect of tension, and this group had little experience in processing the kind of orders our efforts were creating, so the notion of some unease wasn’t out of the ordinary, but what I encountered was something for which none of us were prepared.


I’d no sooner finished stirring in my flavored cream before they’d surrounded me.  A semi-circle of confusion, exasperation and anger. Worse yet, one of them was on the verge of tears.

Like the weakest link in a chain, a process is only as strong as the combination of it’s systems and people.  We had excellent staff; tenured, professional and hard-working, but the system they were required to use to execute on the business we were creating was SO flawed and convoluted that it was pushing them all to their breaking point, and they needed me to know about, NOW.

As is often the case, we had not taken steps to understand what an increase in order activity would do to their workload, and we had not hired additional staff to shoulder the burden. We were asking them to do more with the same resources, expecting that the systems would be capable of processing the increased volume. We couldn’t have been more wrong, and it was quickly ruining our best people.

 We were asking them to do more with the same resources, expecting that the systems would be capable of processing the increased volume.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand. Often, your order management staff are bound by your systems, almost all of which have some degree of constraint that come along with them. Because they are focused on productivity, your order management staff limp along with those limitations and become accustomed to working within them so as to ensure the continuing flow of revenue. But that doesn’t mean the system works well. When you add more volume to the mix, it’s only natural for the possibility of the type of revolt I encountered to occur should your team be pushed beyond their threshold of ability to manage that new volume within the context of their overall workload. It often won’t be until the moment that you’ve pushed them too far that the problem will truly reveal itself, and then you have a real issue on your hands in that you need to service both your existing AND new accounts with the kind of service you’ve promised (which most likely won you the business in the 1st place). It’s very hard to remodel a plane at 30,000 feet.

As owner, your responsibility must include some degree of attention to your systems, thereby allowing your staff the opportunity to successfully shoulder increasing levels of volume without the expense of additional headcount.  Fortunately, as is the case with what we’ve created at Order Commander (as well as many other service offerings available today), there is ample opportunity to partner with service providers to offload time-consuming tasks, thereby freeing your staff to take on that additional volume responsibility as your business grows.  A key objective must be to work closely with order management team leaders to prioritize those services which would free the most time for your staff, make the appropriate time investments in learning about those potential service providers and understand when best to introduce them into your order management mix.

The economy is rebounding and many owners that I speak to are enthused about potential growth opportunities.  Plan now for that growth and avoid the evil eyes that you might encounter in the bullpen once your business begins to take off.

Campaign Development (A Cure for the Prospecting Forehead Crease)

Ever walked into your office and seen one of your salespeople behind their monitor with a crease in their forehead?shutterstock_153751445

After some investigation into this phenomena, I came to realize that which often caused said condition. Prospecting.

Let’s face it, prospect development today is, how shall we say it?  Like pushing a massive rock up a very steep hill.  Once-successful tactics are often met with disinterested silence.  Poorly written e-mails are often seen as intrusive, and while a suspect may accept your LinkedIn connection request, that by no means equates to an opportunity.

So, what’s a sales professional to do, and how can you help them erase that prospecting-induced forehead crease?

Campaign development is a fancy term for creating a set of targeted activities and a corresponding schedule of follow-up designed to achieve a specific outcome.  In this instance, the campaign you’re seeking to develop is meant to progress a potential candidate for that which you sell from being unaware and uninterested to aware and willing to talk.

In creating this type of campaign, you have the opportunity to direct your salespersons prospecting into a predetermined cadence of targeted activity designed to achieve the outcome we previously mentioned, plus, it inspires confidence in your people, as they need not concern themselves with HOW to get the attention of their prospects, but rather focus their attention on identifying those prospects best suited for the products or services you sell, entering them into the cadence of the campaign and following a predetermined schedule of follow up activities.  If you are using a CRM tool (and if you’re not, why?), imagine the relief a salesperson might feel in opening their computer each morning to a set of pre-scheduled activities as dictated by the campaigns for which their prospects have been slotted?

More than anything, the crease in those foreheads has to do with your salespersons uncertainty about effective suspect engagement. Campaign development eliminates that uncertainty, creates an overall increase in salesperson activity (as they are merely executing on a predetermined strategy) and shifts your managerial focus from a review of the overall quantity of salesperson activity to a thorough review of the campaigns across the sales team, their overall effectiveness, and where in the campaign those suspects are most frequently migrating into prospects.  Over time, your sales team will begin to view prospecting as a more enjoyable activity, as they’ll be able to witness their activity blossom into a more robust pipeline.

Start the process with a team brainstorming session of their most effective suspect-engagement activities.  Create a schedule of those activities and the corresponding follow up that should accompany the activity.  Lastly, target a subset of existing suspects to use as your focus group and create a schedule in your CRM to follow the cadence of activity and follow up you’ve developed.

Any sales manager worth their salt knows activity feeds the sales pipeline.  Lend a helping hand with the types of activities your salespeople should employ and watch those forehead creases turn into smile lines.




I Made It…..So NOW What?

This isn’t your average birthday.  Today I become the age of my father in the year of his passing.

At 20 years old, I had absolutely no idea the profound impact his death would have on my life.  In retrospect, many important decisions have been directly influenced by his absence, and I’ve often made decisions out of fear that I would have only those same number of years on Earth.  For what seemed like an eternity, I viewed 2014 with dread.

As my children become young men, I’ve left the fear and doubt behind and replaced it with an air of determination; a desire to be a part of their lives in much the same way that I am certain I would have wanted my dad to be in mine.  While boys need their mothers, young men need their fathers, as the decisions they face are best measured in the crucible of another man’s experience.  We may occasionally chafe at our fathers direction, but the advice is almost always given from a loving place.  Just because I was unfortunate doesn’t mean that life is doomed to repeat itself, and fear is a tough place from which to live your life.

So, for those of you celebrating with me today, know the context of this landmark, and do me a special favor.  Hug your children and call your Dad (ok, you can call your mom, too). Tell them how much you love them.  You never know when you won’t be able to again.


I’ve Been Everywhere…

My travels this year sound much like the fabled lyrics to the Johnny Cash song:

I’ve been everywhere, man. Crossed the desert’s bare, man.
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.  Of travel I’ve had my share, man.
I’ve been everywhere.

Mine was a labor of necessity.  It was high time we stopped speaking to one another in the corners of the room and brought the conversation to the table.  Not just the Regional Association Council table, either.  To stand in front of the PPAI Board and admit that we have Associations struggling to survive was what needed to happen, and it did.  The future of our continued organization is a discussion to be held by many, not by few.  To decide what is best for a practitioner in this industry is only determined when you ask them, and we couldn’t find out without going and speaking to them, face-to-face.  It was a lot of work, but we got it done, and I’m proud of our effort in the process.

So, now what?  What happens from here?

You’ve told us what you’d like for us to do, and we are working tirelessly to create a chance for you, the community that we represent, to come together and work on the common problems with bright minds from all corners of the continent.  Working together starts by understanding what kind of help is most in need, and getting the right minds together to help solve that which comes to light.

2014 and beyond have the benefit of not yet unfolding, but 2013 has the opportunity to become “the year that everything changed”.  In 2013 we documented the existence of 4 Big Hairy Challenges for the regional association community:

1) Member Recruitment & Rentention

2) Leadership Recruitment

3) Alternative Revenue Streams

4) Trade Show Health

In doing so, we’ve created a unique opportunity to work together on ways to lessen the impact of these universal challenges, and focus on opportunities to improve together. We heard loud and clear your desire to create and have us facilitate a benchmarking exercise, and we are well down the path of that effort today.  I cannot stress how imperative it is for us to have meaningful participation from you.  This exercise belongs to you, it is merely our objective to make it happen and help everyone understand how to use the information the exercise creates in ways that help ALL regionals.

Should we be successful in our benchmarking efforts, we collectively will have a tremendous opportunity to drastically improve the value that RAC provides its constituency, and strengthen the very reason why someone might choose to participate at the Regional level.

Your RAC Board as a group has a strong sense of common purpose and an evolving skill set.  With good information and collaboration I’m confident new roads will be forged and new sources of income will be identified.

I was asked recently for my feedback on this year.  In reply, I suggested that my tenure as President will not be judgement worthy until some time in the future, as much of what we are trying to accomplish going forward was created in my time as President.  While I can’t be assured of the success or failure of the effort, I am extremely proud of the work this Board has done in a very dynamic and often changing environment.  Being on the RAC Board means something different than it did when I joined the Board and I am proud to have been a part of our transformation.

As I hand the reins over to Ted Fuehr in 2014, it becomes YOUR turn.  With your input, Ted will direct our activities; we can do nothing but improve and each of you have something of value to share. While as Past President it will be my responsibility to help shape the future of our Board, I’m excited for Ted’s opportunity to seize this moment and preside over a watershed moment in Regional Association history.

Take this moment to find your own inspiration about that which you’d like to improve in our industry, and seek me out so I can help you get involved.

Until next time.


Presidents Message – Strategic Plan Edition

I write this at the recent conclusion of our November RAC Board of Directors meeting.  At that meeting, the Board unanimously agreed to approve the strategic plan document meant to guide RAC business for the period of 2013 – 2015.  This plan will serve as a departure from previous strategic plans, as previous versions generally covered 36 month periods.  This plan is a formalization of the manner by which the Board experimentally conducted its business in the 2013 calendar year.

After a period of discovery with Strategic Plan facilitator Michael Woody, CAS, the group participating in the exercise concluded that our focus be limited to the next 24 months rather than 36 months and should work to solve communication issues between RAC, the regional associations and PPAI.

At the conclusion of the 48 hours of hard work, we emerged with 2 specific goals and 8 measurable strategies to help implement those 2 goals over the next 12 months.  Our goals are:

1)To be the indispensable industry resource for Regional Associations by providing tools and resources to address their top four pain points: membership recruitment & retention, volunteer leadership development, trade show decline and alternative revenue development

2)    To better position the RAC Board as a critical component of support and advocacy for the regional association community as it relates to PPAI, identify common opportunities and challenges that impact all industry practitioners, regardless of member affiliation.

I believe the Board emerged with a better understanding of RAC from a historical perspective, and a much improved understanding of how we perceive our role to be of value to Regional Associations and the industry as a whole going forward.

One strategy to achieve our biggest goal is ambitious, and slightly controversial.  We were urged by our constituents to approach the exercise, and after careful consideration we’ve agreed that the RAC Board would like to lead those Regional Associations willing to participate in a benchmarking exercise.  This exercise is meant to give each Regional the opportunity to help RAC determine a set of relevant measurement statistics by which to conduct the exercise, and then submit individual answers for review against mean and median measurements of the group as a whole, as well as by segmentation.  (Geography, Size of Membership, Show Size and Frequency, etc)

Simply put, we’ll facilitate the creation and implementation of a survey.  The survey questions will come from you, the Regional community.  We will gather each of your answers to these questions, and then provide an impartial report that merely provides averages of what was reported, with some segmentation provided to allow you to measure yourself against organizations of similar size and scale.

Participation in the exercise should be enlightening to both Regional Boards as well as RAC, and our interpretation of the information will help inform how we will work for you going forward.  For instance, if a number of Regionals are struggling with member recruitment, it might raise the urgency with which we work to grapple with that issue and the resources we ask for as a result.

More information will be coming soon, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss this topic with you individually should you be sufficiently interested in hearing more in the short term.  I and the rest of the Board are excited to provide this remarkable opportunity for every participating Regional to learn how they’re faring.

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.

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