You are not who you were.

At the Hotel Bar

Recently, I was taking a break from thought leadering when I remembered a recent conversation at a client gig in Napa.

A person I had just met, asked me if I traveled a lot. My response began with, “Well I used to travel all the time but then, ya know, the spicy cough, but now I’m nearly back to pre-pandemic travel.”

I realized in virtually every conversation, there was a time gap that needed to be explained. Kinda like a lost time period on your resume when you didn’t have a job and were too embarrassed to put prison gap year.

It dawned on me that every conversation with a new person included a pre-pandemic, pandemic, and post pandemic narrative.

The post pandemic story always described how I and my life were different. When I listened to others, commoner, and equal alike, I heard the same thing.

“I used to be this, then the pandemic, now I’m this.”

The lesson?

The old you, the person you used to be in 2019 is as relevant as any historical artifact. Interesting but not useful.

The pandemic caused this by disrupting three things.

First, our historical behaviors were disrupted. For example, I used to belong and go to a health club in downtown Chicago. It was a beautiful club with three different bars, 2 pools and, apparently, a huge amount of space in which people could exercise.

I’ve dropped my membership, and now exercise and drink at home. I won’t be going back because my behaviors have changed. I’ve reinvented how I stay healthy.

How have your members changed their behaviors over the last two years? How have they interreacted with you differently. How have they used your association as a platform for their success? Your historical patterns are no longer a guide to future decisions.

You have been given an opportunity to re-position your association as an organization that understands and supports them given these new behaviors.

Second, our old relationships, whether vendors, family or friends were disrupted. For example, people I used to see regularly at association trade shows have not been part of my life for more than 2 years.

Think of the hotel contacts you haven’t talked with in years. Think about who you used to see frequently at conferences but haven’t seen now in years.

You have been given the opportunity to create new relationships. Identify new partnerships. Engage new people without the burden of the past.

Third, our personal and professional goals were disrupted. Prior to the pandemic, you probably had at least a notion of what you wanted to accomplish in 2020, maybe even longer-term plans like retirement. Maybe you dreamed of retirement or thought about retirement constantly. Found yourself fantasizing about how fun retirement would be. Argued with your wife about how “Why should both of us work?”.

For me, when I wasn’t thinking about delivering client value and the aforementioned thought leadership, I assumed my year in 2020 would look a lot like 2019 – clients, travel, some fancy vacations, spousal bickering, etc. Now though, the things I want are suddenly less clear. My company is different. My house is different. My life is different. Now what?

Putting my thought leader hat back on (interestingly it looks like macramé basket), let’s consider what this means.

All the things that used to define you are now up for grabs. You are no longer burdened by the past – legacy work, relationships, or notions of your future. The old you is dead – the new you is yours for the making.

You can now create, with intention, the person you want to be and the leader your organization needs.

When we work with clients on strategic planning and, often, membership value proposition, we introduce a simple question.

If you had to invent your association today, what would be similar and different to your current association?

Well here are some thoughts about what might be different.

Don’t be an asshole leader.

Prior to the pandemic, perhaps you were a “command and control type”. If you were a bit younger, maybe you “managed by walking around”. If you were even younger, nobody cared, GET BACK TO WORK!!

The pandemic reminded us that authentic, compassionate leadership isn’t just a phrase in business books. We had to trust people we couldn’t see every day to do their work effectively. They had to do their Zoom presentation while their naked 5-year-old climbed the bookshelf in their home office (true story). On every video call you saw their lives through a tiny window – the spouse, dogs, kids, paintings, etc. You saw behind the corporate and social media curtain.

Our own lives as leaders, just as chaotic, got the backburner while we tried to protect our peoples’ jobs and make work a positive eye of calm in the pandemic hurricane of their lives. #awesomemetaphor

What lessons did you learn from this and what type of leader do you want to be moving forward?

You can’t lead your organization like you did in 2019 because that organization and the people that worked for it no longer exist.

Now is the time to incorporate the best of what you learned as a leader during the pandemic into your everyday life and work. Be compassionate, flexible and lead your people with trust.

Modernize your operations.

Prior to the pandemic, maybe you thought virtual work meant not actually working. You didn’t realize that the operational, technological and HR and other organizational aspects of the virtual work environment were assets that were about to be critical to success.

Where did your operations fall short? What have you invested in that needs to be fully leveraged to make the investment worthwhile?

Let’s not pretend we’re going back to static offices and 5-day a week 45-minute (1-way) commutes. If that’s what you like, fine, but don’t expect it from the rest of us.

Now is the time to modernize your association operations to be successful in a world that will prioritize digital and online contact and relationships – despite what your 65-year-old board members say.

Rebalance your program/service portfolio.

Prior to the pandemic, you may have relied on your face-to-face events as critical to your revenue and your organization’s community. Now, though, for nearly two years, those opportunities might not have existed.

Did your profession stop working? Did your industry shut down? Did you close your doors?  Probably not. Maybe your meeting wasn’t as important as you thought. Just because your association’s revenue was built around meetings does not mean that your members relationship with you is built on meetings.

There is no end to virtual conference success stories. Associations are bragging about all the people they engaged without their traditional face-to-face event. They are bragging about how they created or expanded online learning. They researched, educated, advocated and communityed all without the “Big Event.”

So why go back?

For two years your members have created a new relationship with you. Alternatively, they may have decided the organization isn’t really that important to their lives.

Now is the time to rebalance the pathways through which you serve members and other stakeholders. This rebalancing has to take their new lives and behaviors into consideration.

Last call.

I often go to my wife, Martha for advice, she’s particularly accomplished and I’ve come to respect her viewpoints on a lot of things whether or not I want to. When discussing the blog, she likened our current situation to getting out of college.

When you’re a senior in college, she noted, you finally know how everything works. You have your friends, your rituals, and habits.

You want to leave because you’re tired of being in college. But once you leave, you need to start all over. You have to find a job. You find a place to live. You make new friends. Everything is different, harder and a bit unnerving.

That’s what the post-pandemic world feels like. Everything is different and you’re starting over in many respects.

What can’t be lost though, is how much you grew and became the person you are today in those years just after you graduated.

Thanks Martha. 😊

Well, it’s closing time.

My first R-rated movie was Cannonball Run. Released in the US in 1976, it was a comedy about an illegal cross-country car race. A whole host of famous celebrities apparently needed money that year and participated in the cast.

In one scene, at a gas station, actor Raul Julia, playing an Italian and driving a Ferrari, reaches up and tears off the rear-view mirror. He says to his navigator, “The first rule of Italian driving, what’s behind me is not important.”.

History, as we knew it, is dead. The pandemic was so disruptive that it is virtually impossible to find an aspect of our lives and work that weren’t impacted. There is no going back.

What’s behind us is not important.

But the pandemic has also given us a tremendous opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We can throw out what we didn’t like about our lives, keep what we loved, and create what we think will make us happy in our personal, family and work lives.

You have never had a better opportunity to be who you have always aspired to be. Take advantage of it.

Just some thoughts from my seat at the bar.