And now for one last session at the dining room table .... I am, finally, going to kill off my very long-held ICCFA email address in a few hours. It will be weird, because I have been “joeb” - @iccfa.com and @icfa.org before that - for almost 15 years. This event is what actually occasioned writing this last blog post. An email address really becomes a marker of identity in the modern age. For those of you who want to stay in touch and don't already know: I do write elsewhere on the Web. Unfortunately, I can't really link to any of that stuff because it is at best irrelevant and often inappropriate, sometimes wildly so, for this corporate forum; but if you do a search on my name you will find you can hardly swing a dead cat on the Internet without hitting something I've spouted off ridiculously about.
When I began working here I was a far bigger idiot than one might expect at 29 years old. This sad fact can probably be traced to developmental issues such as having my first beer at the age of 10 - I recall my grandmother telling my parents “he has to learn to hold his liquor someday” and let me just say, America in 1970: Was this a great country or what? Anyway, as far as I can tell I got hired on the basis of my body of work as a “freelance writer” which, I believe, will be included in the 2012 edition of Roget's as an accepted synonym for “waiter.” Quite fortunately, I also had a hobby of working with those newfangled devices known as “desktop computers” of which the first one had recently landed in the association's offices. Always having a keen survival instinct, I quickly figured out the practical definition of “indispensability” with regard to the office environment. I can recall my first boss here telling me “no one is indispensable” and thinking to myself “except for the only guy who knows how everything works.” Twenty-one years later, after numerous downsizings, I am here to tell you I was right.
But, alas, that which ensures survival does not always bring us happiness. Becoming Mr. Fixit had its downsides, such as the many occasions I was greeted with “I know you don't want to hear this first thing in the morning, but ...” and then being told what was broken. If you, the reader, can only take away one lesson from my entire career with this association, let it be that, by definition, the phrase “I know you don't want to hear this first thing in the morning” should never be spoken out loud. The reason is that if you actually happen to “know” there is a certain fact that someone indeed does not “want to hear” upon arrival at the office, then you should not state that fact because all it will accomplish is to make the person wonder about your entering the afterlife sooner rather than later. If the network is down, for instance, all you need to say is “the network is down” or, if you are in the mood for embellishment, you can say “You know what really sucks about today? The network is down.” This will put everyone on the same page and eliminate the need for metaphysical contemplation before the first cup of coffee.
Even though I once fancied myself a man of letters, technology has played a pivotal role in the various phases of my life. I am sure many of you could say the same thing. For example, just this morning I realized I had lost my copy of The Everlasting Man, which annoyed the heck out of me because I have something like 50,000 books here and the prospect of re-purchasing one I already supposedly own does not enchant me. Within two minutes, though, I found there is a text version on the Internet which I downloaded to my Blackberry and can now read while standing in line at the supermarket. How unbelievably cool is that? From irritated to pleased in 120 seconds or less: If the machines indeed are destined to control us, then I for one welcome our new mechanical overlords.
I would recount all the things I have learned since I started working for ACA/ICFA/ICCFA, but the list would be so long that you would stop reading as soon as you saw the size of it; so it would be more efficient to simply note the things I already knew in January of 1990, and you can surmise that everything else came during this job. When I got hired here, I knew:
- how to cook, drive and read;
- how to write sentences using unnecessary words one does not quite know the meaning of;
- that “bodily function” jokes truly are not funny;
- that one could wear bright blue socks and a red tie to a business meeting;
- that standing at a podium in a room full of people evokes the exact same emotional reaction as standing in front of a firing squad; and
- that one should never mix romance with one's place of employment.
Obviously, to develop fully as a professional I needed to unlearn certain things and learn a whole bunch of others, although I am proud to say my sense of humor has not changed one iota over the years.
A downside of extreme tenure is that the number of people I would want to thank publicly is too large to thank publicly. I can't list all the friends because there are so many. From the committees to the conference programs and all of you whom I've met at the events … just reminiscing about the office holders would be a long post in itself. Although 21 years is considered a single generation in people years it is actually precisely three generations in association years. (There is a metaphor in there somewhere but I am not going to dig it out because you never know where those things are going to lead.) Entire waves of leadership at all levels have come and gone.
I do need to make a few short acknowledgements for some recent events and some in the distant past. My friend Nancy Lohman compiled the most incredible collection of letters to me from people all around our industry. It is one of the highlights of my time here but also of my life in general. Paul Elvig spent hours pulling photographs from his extensive personal catalogue and getting them printed off, and Ernie Heffner and Mark Krause spread the word about the project and helped collect the submissions. The book was handed to me right before the Christmas break and I still can't get over it. Thanks to all of you who were involved. In the coming months I will be in touch with those I have not corresponded with already.
ICCFA President Kevin Daniels has handled this entire situation better than I could have possibly scripted it. For all of the business elements of the separation it has been friendly and without drama, and personally Kevin has been wonderful. I deeply appreciate that my career here was able to end with such a fond farewell, including the Board resolution and magazine coverage.
Those with whom we stand when staring oblivion in the face are those with whom the bonds will never be broken. We've been through some changes in this association over the past 10-15 years, many of them hard. We've been to the edge of the abyss and back more than once. Major programs had to be resuscitated. That we were able to revive the Sales Conference and the Convention is a testament to the creativity and intelligence of our committee members and leaders, and also a tribute to a group of paid staff who stayed engaged and were willing to go beyond their comfort zones to make something new happen.
Laboring for survival is noble but also pretty thankless in the grand scheme of things. So to my fellow employees let me say thank you once again. I especially want to mention those who worked closely with me on so many projects over the past decade: Nadira, Linda B., Sheila, Karen and Susan. You all deserve more credit and certainly more money. You all made the toughest times manageable. Of course, I also need to thank my brother-in-arms, Bob Fells, for his friendship and collegiality. When the “power-sharing” arrangement was proposed to us that morning almost eleven years ago, the entire discussion of how it would work began and concluded that same morning. We went forward and never looked back, and never had a single dispute over who calls which particular shots. Not one single impasse, stand-off or need for outside adjudication.
Going back a little further, I must acknowledge and thank my original mentor here, Steve Morgan. It would be hard to find two people with more different personality types than Steve and I, but we shared an abiding concern for the welfare of the association and a keen interest in the practical steps required to bring a project from conception to fruition. During the relatively brief time we worked together he taught me more about how the organization functions than I would have figured out for myself. And in case you were wondering if the fact that I worked here for almost 14 years after Steve left makes me feel old, the answer would be “yes.”
Regrets? Of course I have regrets. There have been management issues over the years that could have been handled better. Isn't it interesting how certain basic rules like “honesty is the best policy,” which at times seem to scream out to be bent in the business environment - for the greater good, of course - turn out to be so very, simply, true, after some situation that you cleverly tried to “finesse” comes back and bites you in the backside? There were times when a few frank, though hurtful, words at the outset could have eliminated so much confusion and futzing around later on. Then there were stretches of time where I should have paid more attention to the activity around me than to my tasks at hand: We had good people leave because of my tunnel vision and had the opposite, equally negative thing happen for the same reason. My first few hires were stupendously lucky, giving me a false sense of security which would be revealed in time.
There are a few pieces of unfinished business that still bugged me when I decided to leave. This Web site, for one. Don't get me wrong: There is a lot to like about iccfa.com and it was an honor to have my own blog hosted in the same general vicinity as that of my friend Todd Van Beck, who truly is a master of this medium (and I don't mean just in our industry, but in the entire blogging universe). But I was never able to get this site further than 70 percent completed in terms of functionality, and less than 50 percent in total content, before reality intruded, we had to cut expenses and it was time to switch hats once again. That was a disappointment. Yet in the grand scheme of things and the global economic meltdown who among us can claim to be above the shared sacrifice and privation?
To my countrymen, I say: You're welcome.
Now that things seem to be turning around financially, there should come a time when the staff can dedicate resources to strategic expansion of the association's Web presence. All kidding aside, that is going to be a key part of the future, even in this industry.
Some people have been asking me if I know what I will be doing next. The short answer is “no” because I need to take a few weeks off to get the full unemployment experience. There is, after all, more to life than money. Then, as my checking account balance starts to dip, I expect my perspective will shift ever so slightly toward recognizing the hypothetical importance of money, followed by reaching that inevitable point of desperation when I realize that “there is more to life than money” only for “those who have a lot of money.”
I have to navigate a number of possible career path forks, including in this industry vs. outside the industry; executive management vs. a more specific focus like marketing, IT or communications; accounting/finance management vs. lying down in a pile of broken glass; and possibly even self-employment if I can think of an appropriate niche. I have done, literally, every single job at this association except for government relations, which is one thing I have done a lot of in my personal life as a certified troublemaker, so I do have firm ideas about what constitutes good work in non-profit management, and what merits punishment according to the Code of Hammurabi. But I will do some reading and writing to get my head clear and decide what comes next.
The most amazing aspect of working for this organization has been the sheer amount of labor people are willing to perform to move everything forward. In my final address to the staff I compared it to the adage that according to the laws of physics a bumblebee supposedly should not be able to fly. With an employee count that has fluctuated between 12 and 18 (with my absence, currently at 13), the association should not be able to accomplish all that it does. What makes it happen are a number of extremely bright and dedicated volunteers, and employees willing to leave blood on the tracks for modest compensation. Because of the effort needed to put on an association program it has been my philosophy “why bother doing it if you are not going to change your audience's lives?” Those on the front lines can look at what they do with ICCFA and know that it makes a positive difference in the world. That is the sole reason so many of us stayed involved for so long.
I consider so many of you lifelong friends and I know we'll be seeing each other again, albeit not working side by side on the association's business. The plus side of finality is it freezes the picture so we can see the whole piece. Having become something of a student of the ICCFA's history, I have enormous respect for the work and ideas of the previous century; in this stage comprised of the last two decades we, together, continued the progress and expanded the concept. The memories carry me from Indianapolis to Orlando to Cincinnati, from Denver to San Antonio, from Dallas to New Orleans to Las Vegas, from San Diego to Houston, from Marrakesh to Maui, from Greeley to Memphis, from Pittsburgh to Key West, from College Park to Cleopatra's Barge and from Falls Church to Sterling. I treasure it all and I will miss all of you.