Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Black Swan, starring the Association CEO

It’s possible that everything in life is not a metaphor for association management, but I really cannot get “The Black Swan” out of my head. The movie is about a ballet dancer who will be dancing in a famed ballet “Swan Lake” and the movie audience participates in her practice, transformation and experience.

A few thoughts on how it relates:

1. Pick the best. Whether it’s the best ballerina, the best staff, the best consultant, the best anything – sometimes by selecting the best you really will get the best performance as a result.

2. If you dance the White Swan, you have to dance the Black Swan too. One dancer performs two roles in “Swan Lake”, and a CEO cannot avoid that either. There is clearly a genuine preference to be the White Swan all the time: able to answer yes to everyone, avoid all conflict, always able to have pleasant conversations, accommodate any problem, never have to fight a legislative issue. But it doesn't work that way in "Swan Lake" or in associations – the CEO has to be the Black Swan too. Things happen that must be addressed: certain policies or positions make some members unhappy, deadlines may be missed, contract terms violated, employees under perform, a negative ad needs to be run. It's a dance to be done by those willing and able to dance both parts. And the outcome is beautiful, and ugly, and unforgettable and needs to be forgotten.

3. The perfection thing. If you want to be perfect you're going to miss opportunities. Of course it's hugely important to do something right, then do it better the next time, and the next time, and the next time. But if you focus on doing one thing to perfection, then starting something else imperfectly might not happen - and that second thing may be essential. And if you do thousands of things, you can't avoid falling sometime - it's just the way it is. Let yourself transform. And practice, practice, practice. Perform, perform, perform.

4. You're going to think you're going crazy. That's noted on a slide in a “New AE Boot camp” program I teach for my industry. It’s genuinely impossible to sit at your desk with hundreds of various deadlines and programs - and thousands of people who do or do not like any given thing that particular day - and not genuinely question your sanity. You won't know if what you fear will actually happen, or what you think is happening is real or unreal, or what the real motive is behind any given question, or who's coming after you, or which situation is or isn't as it appears to be, or if that next contact is some giant unexpected issue. The crazy energy can help you better prepare to address whatever in the world may occur. And it's totally normal to think you're going crazy. It just is. Normal. Really.

5. But if you're going tooooo crazy or suffocating ... get help. There are so many things that help so many people (e.g., therapy, medicine, yoga, exercise, sunshine, pets, a sounding board). Also, if you walk through any door and you feel immediately suffocated (if you watched the movie you get the reference), get out.

6. It takes a lot of years and a lot of hard work to get you to the moment of your biggest performances. I believe many of us have moments in our career where we know exactly what it took, and how many years and types of preparation, to personally deliver something that could be characterized as absolutely masterful. For me, at the end of one brutal advocacy issue, if I could have handed myself an Academy Award for outstanding performance in a leading role, I would have. I totally know what it took, and it was ridiculously difficult and used every skill I could muster. No one can really see the labor behind an end product, so desperately difficult work can appear effortless. Whether ballet or association management, what did it take to get to that moment?

7. When you're on stage, put it all out there. A common question of those in the arts is how they can perform night after night - and still give the audience what they came for. The answer is almost always the same - they just put it all out there and decide to make it a big night. They value their work, their skill, and the fact the audience has paid to see them. And that's how we should perceive our association CEO position too. Do you give your best performance for any audience you speak with; do you decide you're doing your part to change the industry; when you perform that day do you believe your own audience got more than their money's worth?

Go see the movie. Feel the performance. Feel your performance.