By Phil La Duke
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This week I delivered to speeches at the Michigan Safety Conference to standing room only crowds at the DeVos Center in Grand Rapids, MI. This conference has been around for 80-some odd years and was founded by businessmen who decided that the number of injuries in Michigan workplaces had become unconscionable. (An interesting aside is that one of the founders was the father of the late U.S. President Gerry Ford.) For years, buoyed by the auto industry, furniture manufacturers, and other booming industry the Michigan Safety Conference thrived. But the Great Recession has really hit the safety shows hard and that is an issue for all of us.
This isn’t going to be an impassioned plea to save our poor beleaguered professional conferences. In fact—at least the Michigan Safety Conference—professional conferences are thriving (well at least as much as any not-for-profit can be said to be thriving in today’s bruised and battered economy.) Nor will this be a condemnation of the out-of-touch and bloated international organizations that justly deserve to dry up and blow away (look for that in this week’s post on the Rockford Greene International blog www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com). Instead I thought I would devote this week’s post to the need for you (yes, YOU) to get more involved in this very important, if not essential, element of the safety profession: the professional organization.
As I said, my speeches were well attended (thanks to the many of you who stopped by and introduced yourself it was truly great meeting all of you), and better attended than most. That, I believe, had more to do with my shameless self-promotion than the quality of my speeches, but that’s a discussion for another time. Because my speeches were so well attended I had many conference organizers put the bite on me to become a board member, lead a professional group, or take on some other pivotal leadership role in the organization. I turned them all down flat. Not because I am lazy. Not because I don’t have time. And certainly not because I don’t think these positions aren’t important. No, I turned them down because I have seen too many organizations that were ruined because the leadership drifted away because the leadership was taken over by vendors. While it’s true that Rockford Greene International drives the bulk of it’s income through my writing and speaking, about a third of the income still comes from “fixing broken companies” or, more correctly stated, helps companies move from good to great when it come to one or more of the SQDCME elements of business. Does that sound like a commercial? Is it irritating? Is it something you would be happy if you had to pay to hear it? Well that’s what you get when vendors are running the organizations.
What Do We Need?
There is a lot of work that goes into making a professional organization successful and many hands make light work. A good professional organization teaches the novices the tricks of the trade, alerts the veterans of new and emerging issues, and informs everyone of changes in the laws or innovations that make our jobs easier. For that these organizations need people who work in the field and struggle with the issues that are most important to their peers. Why is it so important that people with field experience take on these roles:
- Credibility. A conference planned by cross section of safety professionals from across a variety of industries can defend the choices of topics, policies, speakers, location of conferences, etc. You know what is important to you and you know what you DON’T want in a professional organization. Don’t turn that over to academics and vendors; you won’t like the result.
- Knowledge. One of the most important roles of committee members is selecting the speakers and being able to vet the ones who are experts from those who are boring, unprofessional, or full of…well…let’s go with “hot air”.
- Impartial Commitment To the Improvement Of the Profession. Sure there are some vendors out there who are sincerely trying to push the profession to new and exciting areas. I would like to think I am one of those people. But when you sell hammers the entire world looks like a nail and even the most altruistic vendor tends to succumb to a sales pitch if given the opportunity. Even though I am basically selling expertise, I doubt I could remain fair and impartial when planning events that clearly promote things that I routinely denounce as excremental drillings of mouth breathing brutes. Additionally, I am a safety journalist and my helping to plan events that I am ultimately responsible for covering as part of the safety press puts me in situations where I might face conflicts of interest.
- Practical Experience. Someone who works in the field understands what their peers will find valuable and what they will find wastrel (although I am beginning to wonder about this after the American Society of Safety Engineers sponsored a People to People Citizen’s Ambassador delegation that sent safety professionals (largely on their employer’s dimes) on the mother-of-all-boondoggles trip to Brazil in the worst part of the Great Recession. Don’t take my word for it check out the proud write up on its website http://societyupdate.asse.org/2011/12/asse-delegation-travels-to-brazil/ . ) And because you work in the field you can be a better judge of what will make sense to your constituency.
- Expertise. Many of the people who come belong to these professional organizations do so because they are struggling with a professional issue. Your expertise can help thousands by volunteering to lead your professional organization.
- Leverage. In the U.S. (and listen up Europe because this is a lesson you need to learn) the cost of attending professional conferences is kept to affordable levels in a large part because of the fees paid by vendors who exhibit at the expos that so frequently accompany the shows. The cost for exhibiting is not inconsequential, but if gently prodded by a customer that represents a substantial amount of business, even the most reluctant vendor can be swayed. Vendors, academics, and the press don’t have any leverage; you can do what the rest of us can’t.
- Pull Within Your Organization. Corporate sponsorship is another key to keeping the price of attendance down, and having an inside contact who can solicit this important patronage is invaluable and unique to someone who works in the field. Sure, it’s true that vendors are also key sources of these sponsorships they are even more likely to continue to do so if asked by their customers rather than by an employee.
I’m not letting academics, vendors, and the press off the hook. We still need to participate by making speeches, covering the events in magazines and blogs, and exhibiting, but we need to stay off the boards and committees. I have seen more than one professional organization ruined because the vendors and academics took the wheel and drove the organization into the nearest ditch; a ditch of irrelevancy, inappropriateness, condescension, pretension, and pedantic garbage.