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Why Staggering Paper Deadlines Works

One of my clients produces a remarkable collection of papers as part of an annual CPD program. Although the end result is so impressive that it in some ways probably looks easy, there is a staggering amount of work that goes into the materials by the program chairs and authors, each of whom contribute at least two papers.

Last year, the program chairs had the inspired idea to stagger paper deadlines so that authors would have two deadlines, six weeks apart, instead of the previous one deadline for both papers. On an administrative level, the staggered deadlines make materials compilation much more manageable so have worked beautifully. However, I didn’t appreciate the full genius behind the change until I read an article last week in Harvard Business Review entitled “Here’s What Really Happens When You Extend a Deadline”.

According to author Heidi Grant Halvorson, three problematic dynamics are at play in the human unconscious that make managing deadlines difficult for most people:

1. The “Goal Looms Larger Effect” meaning the closer you get to the deadline, the more it dominates your thinking, and the more intensely you pursue it.

2. Procrastinators work because there is pressure. Without consistent pressure, they don’t work.

3. We underestimate how long it will take us to do pretty much anything aka “the planning fallacy”.

In the case of a program where faculty have multiple written contributions, staggering deadlines can help to combat these problems by keeping motivation high, keeping the pressure on procrastinators, and taking action to avoid people overestimating their own time management abilities. The author points to a study in which students who had three papers due by the end of the term were given the option of setting a single deadline or staggered deadlines. Only a small minority chose to submit all three papers on one day. Instead most students spaced their papers out evenly, and interestingly, those students earned higher marks.

So next time you’re planning a program where faculty have multiple contributions, try staggering deadlines. You may just save them and you a lot of frustration.

Why Volunteers Leave

I administer one of Canada’s biggest law conferences. Yesterday, in response to an email I sent on behalf of that client, I received a great reply:

Hello Jessica, thanks for the email. I appreciate it. Last year was my first year at the conference and I quite enjoyed it. I came with several friends. However, this year, most people that I attended with are not able to attend. Are there any volunteer opportunities at this year’s conference? I would still like to attend but perhaps use it as an opportunity to help out if there is any help required or needed anywhere. Let me know at your convenience.

How awesome is that? It took me about 30 seconds to reply, and I was talking with my new volunteer an hour later to figure out how we can best help each other.

One of my pet peeves about some CLE providers is that they don’t do right by their volunteers, especially faculty members. Good volunteers are gifts – they advance the organization’s mission in countless ways (see my past post on Three PD Metrics All Associations Should Know). Unfortunately, too many staff don’t receive enough training in how to attract and – more importantly –  keep volunteers.

Most lawyers volunteer as faculty members for one of the following reasons:

  • they were asked
  • they see it as an achievement or form of recognition
  • personal growth
  • they want to give something back to the profession
  • networking, collegiality, support (a feeling of belonging)

And the number 1 reason most volunteer faculty “break-up” with CLE providers? Poor management by staff. This includes:

  • lack of support
  • poor training and orientation
  • burnout
  • underutilization
  • lack of recognition
  • inadequate feedback
  • perks that are withdrawn
  • it isn’t fun

These aren’t the result of any scientific or industry study – just my own observations and lessons from over a decade in PD. I hope they help make you a better volunteer manager.

The Best Gift of All

Gift giving in the PD world usually happens at one of three times – immediately after a program, the end of the programming year, and during the holidays. Given that the festive season is officially upon us, I thought I’d weigh in on the speaker gift giving discussion.

Ask any veteran volunteer presenter and he or she will tell you that they have enough paperweights, pens, ties, coffee cups, umbrellas, luggage tags, and padfolios to last a lifetime. Not that you’ll find many presenters complain about the gifts they receive; in my experience they are an overwhelmingly appreciative group. And if a client I’m working with insists on offering a gift, I’ll usually recommend a high end USB flash drive (for example Hermes) or a bookstore gift card (like Indigo/Chapters); I’ve never known a presenter to not like these items. But in most cases these fall into the “must spend the surplus” category for me.

After over a decade in PD, I can say without hesitation that what most presenters truly appreciate – far more than a gift – is recognition for a job well done, and acknowledgement of the value they bring to your organization. Regardless of the time of year, the best gift an organization can give a presenter is a meaningful thank you. Most good PD professionals are in the habit of thanking a presenter verbally the day of the event, followed by a written thank you and personalized feedback a week or two later. A first or second thank you note in December, packaged in a holiday theme, is a nice gesture and will likely attract a 5 out of 5 rating from faculty for thoughtfulness.

Other meaningful gestures include inviting the person back to present again next year, and/or referring them to a colleague in another organization. Where an organization has the budget, I also encourage recognizing and thanking presenters in a public way – through advertisements in industry publications, for example. This can easily be done as part of holiday ads during the festive season.

Ultimately, showing presenters how much you value them doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated or align with a particular season. A simple thank you – and maybe a free drink when you happen to be in the same bar – is all most faculty want any time of year. Happy gift giving!


Mobilizing Volunteer Faculty, Part 2: After a Program

Mobilizing Volunteer Faculty

Your program was a great success, due in large part to your volunteer faculty. This is where most organizations fall short in retaining good faculty members. Here are the last six of twelve tips for mobilizing volunteer faculty members – this time after the program is over.

1. Assess. Collect and summarize participant feedback from programs. Sanitize it for inappropriate, spiteful or ill intentioned comments, then share it with faculty so they can see what they did well and where they can improve. You would be surprised how many faculty I work with say “I really appreciate that you sent me participant comments. Most organizations don’t do that.”

2. Applaud. Express your appreciation every chance you get. These people have full time jobs, families, and a host of other commitments and still make time to wave the flag for your organization. Thank them privately in person at the program, by email immediately afterwards, and promptly after the program through a personalized letter. Thank them publicly at board and committee meetings, in your organization’s publications, in trade and other legal publications, through gifts and faculty awards, and by inviting them to celebrate with other faculty throughout the year.

3. Ask again. The best way to show volunteer faculty know how much you value their contribution is to invite them back to participate in a future program. Just don’t outwear your welcome with too many invitations. If the relationship isn’t one that you want to continue, don’t make an issue of it; simply don’t invite the person back.

4. Reward. Invite outstanding faculty and proven worker bees to increase their leadership or level of participation in future programs. Provide entry points for varying levels of experience so that you can build a future roster. Consider introducing faculty awards.

5. Cut a cheque. Always cover travel, parking, hotel and other expenses that make a volunteer’s participation in your program possible. Ask for a statement and copies of receipts, and reimburse quickly. Better yet, pay expenses up front so your people are not out of pocket.

6. Be courteous. Remember the most basic rule your parents taught you – treat people the way you want to be treated. Say please and thank you, and always put faculty ahead of you. Faculty members are like anyone else – they forget things, stumble unexpectedly, have bad days, etc. These may be inconveniences to you but don’t burn bridges over them – smile, take it in stride, and follow-up after the program to check in, and let them know you look forward to working together again.

Truly good faculty members are easy to get but hard to keep. Don’t underestimate how many organizations are competing with you for their time. Motivate them to stay involved with you by creating something they want to be part of. Make accomplishment, respect and collegiality your currency, and you’ll find that your speakers and instructors not only stay, but that the group grows every year.