Ex Officio: The Best Title You’ll Ever Take

From time to time I have the pleasure of introducing the concept of ex officio to groups I work with. It’s normally a concept reserved for non-profit boards, but I’ve found that its value goes far beyond that.

In the most basic terms, it refers to a position that participates in research, discussions, and overall analysis but has no voting power. In my experience, it’s held by former voting board members or close advisors.

“What’s this,” you say? “A board member who fights but never gets any power of voice?”

Not exactly.

As I said to my incomparable friend Helen today, I have infinite empathy, trust, and use for this type of voice in organizations.

The Strength to Move Forward

Good leaders know that one of their key responsibilities is to future-proof their organization. That means making sure you know who should take up the reigns after you, and who could take them up after that person. It means knowing that new ideas are how you stay relevant. It means knowing that having institutional knowledge isn’t the same as having visionary excellence.

There’s power in the ability to look the future of your cause (or company, or church) in the eye and say “I’ll help you remember what got us here, but it’s up to you to get us there.”

The Wisdom to Look Back

I’ve served in an ex officio capacity on a number of occasions. I bring over a decade of knowledge in non-profit service, leadership, and marketing to the table (among some other skills) and I have seen a lot of teams through growth and change. I am always delighted to offer that knowledge as a resource, without limits. A group mentor for learning leaders.

And that is the thing that always charms me most.

These learning leaders (regardless of their age) have asked you to do this so they can learn from the mistakes of others. Or so they can always have a concept of their roadmap by deciding where to go while also connecting to where they came from. Or so they don’t suffer through a solved problem.

Probably a little bit of each, if we’re honest.

The Space for Lasting Change

When you have a clear-eyed group of leaders and a selfless set of advisors, you can make more confident plans for future visions. You can forecast how a program will be received. You can gauge how long it takes your organization to embrace a new direction.

Most importantly, though, you set everything up for success and get to help train a new generation of powerful, life-changing voices.

Tips for the First-Time Ex Officio

  • Set aside the notion of “Only One Right Way” – Consider the possibility of “A Few Clearly Wrong Ways” and many ways that are basically right.
  • Present facts both positive and negative – A good resource tries to be balanced and this is no exception.
  • Don’t lobby – This isn’t the time to make carbon copies, it’s the time to uncover shared foundations. See item one.
  • Offer perspective proactively – There are so many unknowns. That’s why you’re there, to shine lights on mysterious spaces.
  • Refrain from “I told you so” – We all get it wrong sometimes. Shaming people forces inaction, not correction.
  • Practice tender discipline – Challenge people to do more than they are comfortable with, but work with what they have.

Making the Most of Your WordPress Meetup Experience

I’m a longtime organizer of local events, from happy hours to educational gatherings, and nothing makes me happier than seeing a crowd making connections and learning new things. As an unapologetic extrovert, I find every event I attend invigorating and joyful.

But I know that the world also has introverts and shy, but friendly people. For those people, things like Meetups are scary.

Meetups are great in theory. They gather people together based on nothing more than proximity and a shared interest with the sole intention of making friends out of strangers. It can be an ideal alternative for anyone who dislikes the advice “join a church” or “meet people at the gym”.

The hard part is making yourself attend these group events so you can meet people in real life.

  1. Bring along a friend. They don’t have to use or know about WordPress. Friends for moral support are welcome at all events.
  2. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ll hear, a lot, that WordPress is easy. I’m here to dispel that rumor – it’s the easiest of CMSs, all of which are hard. WordPress is the easiest difficult tool you’ll use to manage your content, so don’t worry when you get things wrong sometimes.
  3. Ask specific questions if you’ve got them. Once you have become an expert in anything, it’s hard to know what non-experts need to know. If you’re new, bravely ask your questions even if you think they are dumb.
  4. If WordPress is new to you, then take notes. You’ll need them later.
  5. If WordPress isn’t new to you, then be prepared to hear new things. Flint sharpens flint.
  6. Don’t let highly-skilled people scare you. WordPress was and always will be a brilliant blogging platform. Embrace it. Everyone started at zero. If you find a person who was born knowing WordPress, you let me know straight away!
  7. Be brave enough to come back.

And I’d like to share my personal WP Meetup manifesto:

  1. I will always greet you so you know you’re in the right place.
  2. I will not condescend to you when I’m explaining things.
  3. I will make room for vulnerability; admitting you don’t know something is hard.
  4. I will make sure you’re invited to the table.
  5. I will shed light, not heat.

The Burden of Proof

As we head into the final quarter of the calendar year, many organizations are looking toward the future. Sorting out the money, planning the calendar, and identifying the biggest worries are high on most board agendas. And from time to time, every board stops to look at their mission statement, just to make sure they are still headed in the right direction.

One of the boards I serve on is doing exactly that. There are discussions of who we are, what purpose we serve, and where we fit in the local landscape. We discussed what we want to be in the future, what we tell people about ourselves, and why we want to be part of the organization. And, of course, we discussed who we believe our audience to be.

Who We Speak To

The question of who your audience is versus who you want them to be is never an easy one. For so many organizations the answer to “who do we want to appeal to” is “we want to appeal to everyone”. And of course who your audience currently is tends to tie right in to who you appeal to naturally. During our conversation of audience, our board president said:

“If you serve, or want to serve, minority groups, then the burden of proof lies with you. Not with with the people you wish were there.”

In plainer words, if you want to speak to people who have reason to believe you are not speaking to them, you have to say “and that includes you”. If you are a church that accepts and loves those of all sexual orientations, you have to say it. If you are a technology company that accepts and values those of all skin colors and sexes, you have to say it. If you are a sports league that accepts and invests in those of all levels of ability, you have to say it.

What We Want to Be

All people, as we grow into the wonderful adults we will be, are shaped by those around us. We are formed by the experiences we are afforded (or subject to, depending on your perspective). We trust what we know and sometimes that means we surround ourselves with people who think, act, look, or speak like us.

Trusting in what we know is a basic survival instinct; anyone like us, probably won’t harm us. Stereotyping is a basic coping mechanism; grouping people and things lessens our cognitive load. Putting our faith in people and things that aren’t already like us takes a lot of self-awareness and personal growth… but we don’t continue to grow without it.

With these combined truths, you can see why it is so important to state when you embrace that which is not like you. Because people, when left to our own devices, often won’t.

Where It Takes Us

Very few people or companies will argue that diversity (of thought and demographic) is bad. There is a lot of support for the idea that different view points lead to better outcomes, no matter the project.

The most important thing that it does, though, is help us to share who we are with the people who would love to be here… if only they knew we were here for them. Figure out who you wish you could share your work with, and tell them how much you miss their voice.

Not sure how to get started? Here are a few things you can do today!

  1. Look for coded language in your public content.
  2. Instead of broad declarations (everyone is welcome), make clear statements (beginners welcome).
  3. Amplify people who are having trouble getting heard. 
  4. Here are a few more ways to support minority voices.

The Panel Predicament

For anyone who has worked with me organizing content-driven events, you will have heard me say regularly how much I hate panels. I am quick to declare my dislike of them, but generally only in the safety of a group of organizers. I’ll try to provide some clarity in the need for panels, why I dislike most panels I see, and what we can change to make them better.

The Value of Panels

In theory, I understand the appeal of panels. There is a lot of information available in the world, and it’s increasingly difficult to assess how trustworthy to consider the opinion of any self-proclaimed expert. There are many ways to achieve expert level opinions: by education, by research, by practice. Probably other ways, too. To solve the problem, we host panels. We gather industry thought leaders or experts and have them discuss things openly, in the accountability-forging context of “filming in front of a live audience”. We then leave it up to the audience to decide — what is your version of this truth that we’ve presented to you, almost without editorial aid?

The Failing of Panels

In practice, panels are far from that. They are either overpowered by a single voice or are overpowered by apparent fighting among the panelists. Moderators double as panelists and leave the group with no discernible direction. Panelists answer in a round robin style, often leaving no time for interesting or informed viewpoints to shine through. Panels are overstaffed and used as a way to prevent the discomfort of having to turn down speakers. Most people don’t apply to be on a panel, and many who get assigned to participate on a panel think that it means no preparation is required.

The Best Panels

It’s not that we’ve never seen a good panel. We see them from time to time, on TV or at large-scale niche events. There is a lot of writing available about how to be a better speaker, but not a lot about how to be a better panelist. Or even how to craft an excellent panel as an organizer. So I’ll tell you what’s proven to work for me over the years, as a long-time event organizer.

Crafting an Excellent Panel

In my experience, the best panels require a thoughtful moderator and panelists with a decent level of rapport (but not best friends). It’s great if you already have a group that fits that description. If you don’t there is a short, simple process that you can follow to foster one from the expert panel you have assembled.
  1. Dedicated Moderator – Find your moderator first, because you’ll need them throughout this process. The best moderators keep the discussion moving by helping with time management, directing questions toward particular panelists, and resisting the urge to join the discussion.
  2. Limited Number – If the time allowed for your panel is one hour, you should select no more than three panelists not including the moderator. That gives each speaker about 15-20 accumulated minutes assuming everything else is perfect.
  3. Prepare Panelists – Your moderator and panelists should have two meetings. Each meeting should take about an hour and be via voice (or a video call if you feel fancy). In the first one, do some general introductions and learn about everyone’s expertise as it relates to your broad topic. The moderator should take notes* and the panelists should explore what they are all excited about so that a topic can be defined.
  4. Clarify Your Topic – After the first meeting, the moderator will know what the most interesting areas of expertise each panelist has. That will help them guide questions (whether prepared or from the audience) to the right people. It will also help create a panel title that is clear, concise, and marketable.
  5. Written Questions – In the second meeting, the moderator should have some questions that have already generated interesting discussions among the panelists. Ask the panelists if, since their last meeting, they’ve been wondering about something another panelist said. Write down 5-10 questions and be prepared to start the panel on the day with 2-3 of them.

Rinse and Repeat

That’s it! Five steps and most of them are talking. 🙂 The first time through it will feel strange and uncomfortable, but after that it’s like riding a bike. *A note on notes. If you’re the moderator the notes you’re taking are:
  • who has a tendency to talk the most
  • who needs encouragement to talk
  • what panelists do 
  • what panelists wish they could do
  • why they do what they do (their philosophies)
  • why their future vision is what it is (their observations)
  • etc

The Interrupting Bug

A large bug has taken up residence in my office.
It only arrives when I’m mid-meeting.
So I leave.
And it leaves.
Which means that when I return to dispatch the squatter,
it no longer is in sight.

From LiveJournal to WordPress

It’s been over three years since my grandmother passed away. She was a brilliant woman and a prolific writer. When I first started my daily blogging (in 2009) she and my mother were two of the first and most regular readers. That daily blog is all on this blog, though clearly much less frequent than daily.

Last week my sister and I were in search of one of my grandmother’s recipes. I was certain I had it in my old emails, so I went in search of everything my grandmother once sent me.

In addition to comment notifications and a few threads about literary executorship, there was one lone email she sent me from her blog on LiveJournal that she thought I would enjoy. I don’t know if I appreciated the post as much then as I do now (so many years have gone by and I surely have changed since then), but it did lead me to her old blog.

It’s been placed in memoriam status, but it seems like one of those things I should move into a platform I trust. I will start the process of moving her writing into WordPress and everything that goes with that soon, so here’s to a new digital adventure on the horizon!

Dumpling Obsessed

I have a poorly kept secret to share with you. I love dumplings. Dumplings, by my broad definition, are protein-y type things wrapped in starch-y type things. Those protein-y, starch-y things on things are then cooked somehow… boiled, steamed, fried, baked. There is probably a more technical explanation, but for my purposes this definition is just about perfect. And by “my purposes” I of course mean the express purpose of eating dumplings and trying to figure out how to make them myself.
Take for instance these dumplings here. They have a few names: gyoza, pot stickers, pork dumplings. I’m not sure about the first time I had them, but I’m pretty sure they are what started me on this path of finding/making/eating this type of food. I was so set on finding the perfect recipe and making these dumplings, that my friends hosted a dumpling making party. We probably assembled a couple hundred. We were quite proud of ourselves. After I felt like I’d perfected those, I moved on to:
  • apple dumplings
  • chicken and dumplings
  • samosas (is this a dumpling?)
  • char siu bao (I’m bad at those)
  • xiao long bao (I’m really bad at those)
  • pelmeni
  • empanadas (again, is this really a dumpling?)
  • tamales (def not a dumpling, but also don’t you touch my tamale)
So in the end what I’m wondering is this: What sort of dumpling do I need to tackle next? I know there are many many out there I haven’t heard of, but since I haven’t heard of them how can I possibly ever expect to find/eat/make them?