Several years ago (2006, if memory serves), in another life, I arranged for a couple of speakers for one of my clients’ annual conferences.  This association client needed, in my opinion, a dose of self-critical introspection. Some industry players were a little seedy and the reputation of the industry was less than stellar as a result of those few bad seeds.  Even the industry itself was not acknowledged as legitimate by some in the broader marketplace. But many of the leaders of the industry, even the very smart ones who were at the forefront of the industry’s evolution, did not seem to realize how low the ethics bar had been set and how negatively that affected the industry.

I did not have final responsibility for selecting speakers for the association’s conferences, but I was able to exercise considerable influence from time to time, especially, when looking outside the immediate “family” for speakers. For this particular conference, which was held in New York City, I successfully persuaded the decision-makers to authorize contracting two specific speakers.

One was a highly respected guy in a related discipline, a guy named Paco Underhill.  While I thought Underhill’s presentation was excellent and was highly relevant to the association’s audience, I’m not sure the majority of the members of the group were ready to make the connection between this guy’s experience and their own daily challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities they could seize if they changed their perspectives.

The other speaker, the one about whom I was equally enthused and the person whose words I thought would have a long-lasting impact, was a guy named Randy Cohen. Cohen is a writer and until just a few years ago was the author of The Ethicist, a column in The New York Times Magazine that ran for about twelve years. In advance of the conference, I spoke to Cohen about the industry, the problems facing it, the opinion leaders in the industry at the time, and the key messages I hoped he would get across to the audience.  He delivered.  I thought his presentation was outstanding.  He nailed every issue that needed nailing.  He got it!

So it was surprising to me that the importance of his words seemed to have been lost on the majority of people who attended the conference.  Many commented that they enjoyed his presentation, though some said it was utterly irrelevant.  But even those who enjoyed it did not seem to connect the dots.  He was talking about ethics to members of an industry in which (from my perspective) the bar had been set woefully low.  Did they not understand? A very few got it.  Some of the “insiders” who knew I had lobbied to get these guys on the platform thanked me and told me it made a difference.

But most of the people in attendance seemed not to think deeply enough about either presentation to spark change to the industry.  I was disappointed that those two speakers did not have the effect on the audience I had hoped.

Now that considerable time has passed, I reflect back on that experience and see it as a watershed for me.  It was the moment at which I decided the organization…the industry…was not going to respond (at least not at a pace satisfactory to me) to my nudges to change and mature.  If it would change (and I don’t know to this day whether it has), it would change from within and at its own pace.  Had I been an insider, a member of the industry rather than a “hired gun” responsible simply to manage the association, my efforts to bring about change would have been more successful and would have happened more quickly.  Or, if I had persevered, continuing to encourage the association’s members to broaden their perspectives, I might have succeeded over the long haul.

But it was a watershed moment for me because I realized I was investing too much of my time and intellectual capital in an organization that wasn’t ready for the investment. And that realization brought about others, all tied to the concept of risk and reward. I was risking my self-worth by putting all of my time and energy into urging organizations to be better. But the reward associated with that risk could never be adequate; the organizations were not sufficiently important to me, at my core, to warrant to risk.

I’m still sorting it all out in my mind, but I’m happy that I came to understand that my value was not, and had never been, tied to my clients.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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