“America is a Paradise.”

“America is a paradise.” This was the exact quote said to me during my time speaking at the Indian Association Congress near Delhi, India this August.

Produced by the Indian Society of Association Executives and CIMGlobal, it was India’s premier congress of association leaders.

The association profession in India is in its nascent form. This was only the 7th Indian Association Congress (IAC). I had the opportunity to interact with the most excited and forward-thinking leaders of India’s association management profession.

Here are some of my quick perceptions.

New to association management is not the same as new to business and leadership.

Some might think that just because the profession of association management is new, leaders of these associations might be less knowledgeable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Representatives from some of the world’s leading associations were in attendance as well as executives from substantial and uniquely Indian organizations.

People have been doing business with each other in India and between India and the rest of world for thousands of years; you pick up some stuff over that length of time.

Association knowledge, while valuable, is not the end all be all of business leadership. I’ve spoken to US-based executives from industries ranging from healthcare to logistics who tell me association knowledge is not essential to their strategies or Mission.

It is vital in the US to understand where unique association perspectives have value and where they do not. Talking to Indian association leaders reminded me to avoid this blind spot.

Many associations are “closer to the land”.

Many US association staff and volunteer leaders forget how pivotal the association industry has been to the creation and sustainability of some of our leading professions. From healthcare and law to engineering and the physical sciences, US associations were essential in many of the industrial standards and professional practices many of us now take for granted.

At the IAC, I had the opportunity to learn how Indian association leaders in industries as diverse as car leasing to chemistry were incorporating the perspective of their associations into public discourse on Indian civil society.

In addition, I spoke with several participants who were working with people and companies at the forefront of economic or social justice. Not lobbyists. People working in northern mountain villages or southern jungle farms with individuals and families in deep poverty or facing substantial personal challenges.

My Indian friends reminded me that in the US, particularly in association centers like Chicago and DC, that associations don’t exist for Boards, to get members, or to discuss “governance”. They exist to make our communities better places to live and to give opportunities for people to make their own lives better.

Global is assumed, not learned.

The diversity of India’s people and its position in world trade have given Indian association leaders a tremendous ability to navigate global issues.

There are two official languages in India (Hindi/English) and 22 other recognized languages. The climate, dress and customs from the state of Rajasthan in the northwest to Kerala in the south are substantially different.

In addition, people in the country have been doing business with China, southeast Asia as well as Africa and Europe for  thousands of years in everything from spices to technology. I met leaders of the Chinese Society of Association Executives and the Philippine Society of Association Executives and representative from organizations in Singapore.

There is no domestic or international strategy such is common in the US. Everything is looked at from the global perspective. Everything is viewed from the lens of multicultural interaction.

This requires Indian association leaders to focus on identifying  and understanding their priority audiences.

In addition,

Indian association leaders highlighted for me how easy it is to work on a global scale if you don’t take a me vs. them perspective but look at the world as “us”. Their patience with cultural, language and other differences was critical to their success.

People are important.

It was difficult to stand by yourself at IAC. Every few minutes someone would say hi and introduce themselves and ask about you and your company. It was a priority to network and and a pleasure to meet people, not an obligation.

We’ve all stood around at conferences or seen groups, outside of our friends, who stood on the sidelines. At IAC, participants made every effort to meet everyone. I came home with more cards in 1 ½ days, than I’ve done at any 3 ASAE meetings. People actively sought each other out to make contacts.

Indian association leaders taught be how vital it is to be intentional about networking. Every person you don’t meet is a missed opportunity.

Suppliers are peers, not cash cows.

I’m the first to complain (many have heard me) that the most frequent communication I get from my association memberships is an invoice (PAC, Foundation, Membership, Annual Meeting, Etc.). In addition, in the US, I’m often prevented from attending the programs consistent with my level and responsibilities because I work for the wrong type of company.

At IAC, participants saw my role as a consultant and others in media and hospitality as simply other components of the same professional ecosystem. They sought out the perspectives of the supplier side and were genuinely happy to have our participation as peers, not vendors in the event.

Indian association leaders reminded me (and reinforced with me) how stupid such professional segregation in our profession can be. How separating people by title or employer is the opposite of a welcoming community. The opposite of inclusion.

“America is a paradise”.

To my new Indian colleague, America had solved so many problems. Associations had contributed to a social, civic and government environment allowing the US to become free, prosperous and innovative. Everyone, EVERYONE, wanted to visit the US or visit again.

While we have our professional challenges, we sometimes take for granted how well we have it. Every day is another email or webinar on a new idea, theory or successful program. So many we ignore most of them.

For an Indian association leader attempting to navigate a society stretched across nearly 1.5 billion people, he thought we made it seem easy.

In just a 30-day period in association management, I listened to world-famous singers John Legend and Brad Paisley at ASAE. I  spoke with colleagues, partners and clients from ½ dozen countries. I visited India.

I was remined by my experience to not take our profession or the opportunities our profession gives us for granted.

All work and no play makes Dean a dirty boy.

While the business lessons are always interesting, perhaps it’s the life lessons that are more meaningful to me as I travel. Due to United flight issues I had long layovers in Germany and Ethiopia (yes in Africa). Here are some takeaways.

  • The world is a huge wonderful place. Go and see it.
  • Take advantage of life’s layovers. I spend a morning in Frankfort, Germany and a day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
  • Travel is a team sport. Help out someone next to you and let them help you. Thanks to Pardeep in particular, the driver who got me safely around northern India.
  • The world is full of great people trying to make their lives better. Do what you can to help.
  • Eat local. You’ll get food poisoning. Eat local anyway. It’s worth it.
  • Marry someone who let’s you sleep for 2 days when you return (Thanks Martha).

In closing.

I grew up in State Center, a farming town of about 1,400 people in central Iowa. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would someday fly to India to speak at a conference of professionals.

Following the IAC, I traveled north by car for a few days R & R near Rishikesh in the state of Uttarakhand, along the banks of the Ganga River. The Ganga (or Ganges) is considered the most sacred river to Hindus. It begins only about 70 km above the city.

You’d see people collecting the water, considered Holy Water, to take home. The riverbank in Rishikesh was lined with steps allowing people to step into the river and bathe in the cold, fast waters which originate only 70 kilometers north of Rishikesh.

After a day of sightseeing in 90-degree heat, I had one final lesson to learn.

When you get a chance to bathe in a Holy River take it.

How many chances would I have to swim in the Ganga River?

I walked to the steps, stripped down to my underwear, and slowly entered the cold, swiftly flowing river, holding on to the safety rope to avoid any unpleasantness.

The water washed away the sweat, dirt and, frankly, some stress I’d been holding on to.

When I got out of the river, a family came over to say hi and take pictures with me.  The brother asked about the US. The youngest daughter practiced her English.

I was suddenly a local, not a stranger.

Thanks to everyone in India who made my visit so rewarding. In particular, thanks to my friend Prasant Saha, CEO of CIMGlobal who invited me.  I’m looking forward to my next visit.

From My Seat at the Bar, thanks for reading.