FIR Interview: IABC 2015-16 Chair Michael Ambjorn


The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) held its 2015 World Conference in San Francisco this week.

Amidst the keynote talks, breakout sessions, receptions, and a host of other events, 2014-15 Chair Russell Grossman passed the gavel to 2015-16 Chair Michael Ambjorn. Ambjorn takes over the lead volunteer role as the association continues to recover from some turbulence.

In the picture above, Ambjorn (right) discusses his vision for his term during the Annual General Meeting in San Francisco on June 17. Outgoing Chair Russell Grossman (left) and Executive Director Carlos Fulcher listen.

In this FIR interview, conducted moments after the conference officially wrapped up, FIR co-host Shel Holtz chats with Ambjorn about the state of IABC, his goals for the next year, how the association can remain relevant, how communicators can benefit from membership, and how IABC can serve non-members.

Michael has captured his primary goals for his term in three hashtags:

  1. #globalprofession
  2. #insightsandresults
  3. #createconnection

He discusses the ideas behind these hashtags in the interview.

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About our Conversation Partner

Michael AmbjornMichael Ambjorn is founder of Align Your Org, and passionate about helping changemakers – whether corporate, public sector or non-profit – achieve purpose-driven impact. With a participation- centric approach he and his colleagues enable effective strategic planning, communication – and clarity of execution.

Ambjorn has served as chair of IABC’s Europe and Middle East Region and is the facilitator for IABC’s 2014–17 strategy. He has worked in various management roles at IBM, Motorola and, most recently, the 260–year–old Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA) in London, where he remains an active Fellow.

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(Cross-posted from The FIR Podcast Network.)

How high is the reboot bar for IABC?

Every time I hear about IABC these days, I suffer a continuing feeling of sadness.

The news this past week about the professional association for communicators does little to change that feeling where that news is all about financial loss (again), leadership issues, and an unclear future.

On June 4, long-time IABC commentator David Murray – often seen by IABC’s leadership as its nemesis by asking questions the leadership don’t like being asked, never mind answering – published a guest post by former IABC Executive Director Julie Freeman on the state of IABC’s financial affairs as revealed in its 2013 financial statement that Murray says was leaked to him a month ago.

Freeman took the helm at IABC in 2001 in the wake of a previous financial crisis. She left IABC in 2011.

And IABC critic Jack O’Dwyer posted a stark report on June 5:

International Association of Business Communicators lost $529,073 in 2013 as revenues dipped $692,486. A loan of $250,000 was taken to fund a new website.

[…] Revenues declined 10.8% to $5,666,483 from $6,350,927 in 2012. Net assets declined 43.7% to $680,013 from $1,209,086. Its deferred dues account, representing services owed to members over the course of the dues year, was $1,499,364 or about half of dues income of $2,917,858.

Julie Freeman’s post summarizes the key financial metrics in the financial statement and continues by setting out eleven specific questions she says IABC members ought to be asking at the association’s AGM on Tuesday June 10 during the 2014 IABC World Conference taking place in Toronto, Canada:

    1. Where did revenues fall short of budget and why?
    2. What were IABC’s major expenditures in 2013? How did these expenses serve members?
    3. General and administrative expenses increased 56% in 2013. What was the reason for this huge increase in expenses in this area?
    4. Board expenses increased 25%. Faced with declining revenues, how can the Board justify this increase?
    5. At the end of 2013, IABC’s cash and cash equivalents were $42,172, a decline of $495,117 from 2012. Does IABC have sufficient cash to make its debt payments and pay ordinary operating expenses in 2014? How will it do so?
    6. The Consolidated Statements of Financial Position (the Balance Sheet) includes Intangible Assets of $552,067. What does that include? How was that determination made?
    7. Several years ago the IEB approved establishment of an operating reserve and a special project reserve. How much should be in each of those funds? How much is currently there?
    8. What is the contract dispute related to the website development? How can members be assured that new web developer will not have the same issues? When can members expect a new website?
    9. What impact will the association’s current financial position have on its ability to recruit a qualified Executive Director? What is the status of that search?
    10. What is the current IABC membership? How does that compare to prior years?
    11. What is IABC’s current financial situation? What is the IEB doing to ensure that IABC will finish 2014 with a positive net? And will it keep members updated about finances before June 2015?

In my view, these are reasonable questions under the circumstance, ones I would expect members to receive credible answers on without obfuscation, fudge or dodging, and in a spirit of genuine openness and transparency.

Will that happen? Well, we’ll see on Tuesday although incoming IABC chair Russell Grossman offers a sense of optimism about this and what the new Executive Board will be doing in the nature of his response to Freeman’s guest post on David Murray’s blog in a comment to it, even if that response contains a few thinly-veiled barbs directed at Julie Freeman.

A key comment in that response:

[…] IABC’s International Executive Board is focused on creating alternate business models as part of our 2014 – 2017 Strategy (which has been open to member consultation during the last year) and our new Executive Director, when onboarded, will also be required to focus on short-term revenue generation as a primary objective, to help us make up the difference on lower income from membership dues and conference income.

Finally, the one thing we continue to need to get better at is, ironically, communication.

Our member communication is now much better than it was – and thanks to our hard working staff for that. The journey continues however – there is way more to go – and I personally am committed to further and rapid improvement.

Ah, yes, a search for a new Executive Director – the role Freeman had – in the wake of the awful debacle surrounding Chris Sorek whose short-lived tenure ended when he quit that role in May 2013. The good news is that one has been found and hired – Carlos Fulcher’s appointment will be announced at the Toronto conference.

Given that I’m not an IABC member, you may wonder why I’m writing this post.

I used to be an IABC member. Indeed, I was a member for 23 years – an accredited member (ABC) for 19 of those years – until November 2012, and served the association and the profession in a wide range of volunteerism roles during this time.

You don’t just dismiss a 23-year association, a belonging, with a group of people whose values you believed in and whose professionalism and friendships you admired, no matter what’s currently going on. I still care enough to devote some time and thought to writing this post which, if nothing else, will serve as a personal bookmark on my website along with the other things I’ve written about IABC over the past decade.

Organizations can (and do) go through crises – just read the business pages on any day. I recall the part I played for IABC in a crisis in Europe when I took on a rebuilding role as Director of the then Europe/Africa Region in 2002, a role I fulfilled until 2004. It’s the kind of task that requires you to have a  pretty thick skin, frankly, a clear belief in the heart of something (IABC in this case), and clear vision if you work with similar believers as I did at that time (notably, IABC members like Barbara Gibson, Marcus Ferrar and Allan Jenkins; and staff leaders like Julie Freeman and the team at the San Francisco headquarters).

So I trust that the AGM on Tuesday also serves the higher essential purpose of uniting voices – unlike last year’s  town hall meeting, although I believe the circumstance aren’t exactly the same today – perhaps taking a literal embrace of the slogan of this year’s conference:

  • Engage
  • Transform
  • Ignite

I hope that reboot bar I mentioned isn’t set too high.

FIR Live: The 2014 class of IABC Fellows

The Google+ Hangout on Air hosted by FIR co-host Shel Holtz, with four of the five IABC Fellows.

The new Fellows participating in the conversation include include John Deveney, ABC; George McGrath; Mark Schumann, ABC; and Jennifer Wah, ABC. Brad Whitworth, ABC – a long-time Fellow who had the idea for this session – also joined us.

(If you don’t see the video embedded above, view it on the FIR YouTube Channel.)

Get the audio recording as an FIR podcast:

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FIR Community on Google+Share your comments or questions about this podcast, or suggestions for future podcasts, in the online FIR Podcast Community on Google+.

You can also send us instant voicemail via SpeakPipe, right from the FIR website. Or, call the Comment Line at +1 415 895 2971 (North America), +44 20 3239 9082 (Europe), or Skype: fircomments. You can tweet us: @FIRpodcast. And you can email us at If you wish, you can email your comments, questions and suggestions as MP3 file attachments (max. 3 minutes / 5Mb attachment, please!). We’ll be happy to see how we can include your audio contribution in a show.

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FIR Live returns with IABC’s 2014 class of Fellows


The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) has announced that five members will join the class of Fellows, the highest honour the association bestows on its members. Today, May 9, all five will join FIR co-host Shel Holtz for a session of FIR Live.

The 2014 class of Fellows includes:

  • John Deveney, ABC, Sr. Counsel, Deveney Communication
  • Tamara Gillis, ABC, Ph.D, Professor, Elizabethtown College
  • George McGrath, Principal, McGrath Business Communications
  • D. Mark Schumann, ABC, Senior Vice President, The Segal Group
  • Jennifer Wah, ABC, Principal, Forwords Communication

Brad Whitworth, ABC, IABC Fellow, will also participate in the free-ranging conversation about the state of communication and the meaning of the Fellow designation.

The conversation will be held on a Google+ Hangout on Air, which you can view live on the FIR YouTube channel starting at 11am Pacific | 2pm Eastern | 7pm UK time today. Afterwards, the session will be available as a YouTube video (which we’ll post to the FIR website) and as an audio file distributed via the usual FIR feeds.

The new Fellows will be recognized at next month’s IABC World Conference in Toronto.

(Cross-posted from For Immediate Release, Shel’s and my podcast blog.)

Courage and the future of communication


It’s interesting how the word ‘courage‘ crops up a great deal when I talk about communication.

I frequently use it when considering what I believe communicators must do in organizations – the ones they work in or those of their clients – when trying to persuade others to a particular course of action, or persuade others to change behaviours.

It’s a word that has great significance when we talk about the future of communication as that future involves a great deal of change and will require courage of communicators who must take a leading strategic role in ensuring the successful outcomes of such change.

It’s a word that I believe is central to a primary role of a communicator in the foreseeable future – that of calculating risk in the context of digital transformation in the workplace.

It underpinned much of my thinking last week when I gave a presentation jointly with Silvia Cambié about the future of communication at the IABC EMENA Leadership Institute 2013 conference in London on November 4.

It was a pleasure working with Silvia as we share much thinking about organizational communication, its evolution and the changing role of the communicator. And it was a pleasure to be part of an IABC event again.

In a post she published prior to the conference, Silvia speaks of how corporate communication is changing thanks to social media and new ways of working that collaborative technologies are bringing to organizations.

A new era is dawning, she declares, a view I believe in as well.

So we shared some metrics with leaders from across IABC’s Europe, Middle East and North Africa region about trends, changes and events that we see all around us in business, in people’s behaviours and desires, in technology developments and the contexts of many of those developments.

Behaviours, Mindset, Technology

We painted a picture of a landscape that is rapidly evolving and transforming, presenting significant opportunities and major challenges to organizations, their leaders and communicators – a landscape where people’s behaviours and their mindsets are huge drivers of change, and where technology is the enabler of change.

In my part of our session (the presentation deck I used is available for view or download from Slideshare), I outlined my belief on that risk assessment role I mentioned earlier:

The Communicator’s Role is to Calculate Risk

  1. Recognise and understand change
    – In the workplace
    – In stakeholder behaviours
    – In your overall landscape, internal and external
  2. Be attuned to trends and be able to interpret them
  3. Take a proactive and credible lead to educate and counsel
  4. Listen, learn, recommend

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet it’s complex and requires deep understanding of the organization of which the communicator is part, its vision and mission, its leadership personalities, and much more.

It requires courage to navigate the organization and effect change. When you examine the scope and scale of the opportunity and challenge awaiting the communicator in this new era that Silvia speaks about, it becomes very clear to see that courage really is the requirement of the communicator in the future we talked about.

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Goodbye IABC and good luck

IABCLast week, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) held its international conference in New York. By all accounts I’ve read, some 1,400 members went and took part.

I’ve heard, too, that the professional development, networking and social events over the three days of the conference were as compelling and enjoyable as they ever have been at IABC conferences.

A different picture emerges, however, when it comes to the business of IABC itself.

You may know that I was an active member of IABC for 23 years, until I let my membership lapse in November 2012. I was dismayed by what was happening to IABC under Chris Sorek, the executive director hired in mid 2012 and who resigned earlier this month. I was no less dismayed by the lack of effective communication during a period of controversial change and what looked like arrogance and ignorance from some of the volunteer leaders on the International Executive Board  if the gossipy discussion threads in IABC’s private LinkedIn groups are any indicator.

I’ve remained a lapsed member since then  – you can read my previous posts about this to get a sense of why. And I described myself thus, ie, I wasn’t calling myself a ‘former member,’ leaving the door open just a crack so I could look for the point to tip me back in again.

Seeing the antics at the AGM on June 26 changed that. In particular, reading David Murray’s account made me realize that this is now a professional association in dysfunction – with a genuine and immediate risk of becoming completely irrelevant to the profession of organizational communication – and one that I don’t recognize now at all. The behaviour of some of IABC’s volunteer leaders and some staff towards a vocal critic was disgraceful. And see the comments to David’s post.

This is not the IABC I believed in for so many years, for which I devoted days and weeks of my time in a wide range of volunteerism and leadership roles. This is not the IABC I would advocate for as the absolute best and most influential voice to speak on behalf of the communication profession, and one whose professional development and accreditation programmes were the best in the world.

I am deeply saddened by all of this. I see no salvation for the IABC I knew. And maybe that’s okay for the folks in charge now who – to quote David Murray – “want to run IABC their way, I guess there’s no stopping them from having it.”

And one final point, one that shows that maybe there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Yesterday, IABC announced on its Facebook page – but no announcement on its public website – that they’ve hired an interim Executive Director to run the association from July 1 while the Board searches for a permanent replacement for Chris Sorek.

The interim role will be held by Ann Lazurus, whose best credential for the job is described in IABC’s statement as “Lazarus specializes in working as an interim executive for nonprofits in transition.” Even better is this from a more detailed announcement on the IABC Austin Chapter’s website:

[…] The organization’s executive board believes her extensive change management experience during this time of transition will prove to be a tremendous asset. The hope she will help in stabilizing the organization while keeping it focused on building value for members and enhancing its value in the challenging marketplace.

Big hope there and very attractive-looking qualities. I wish Ann Lazarus all the best in this role.

But for me, I’m done with IABC and so I now describe myself as “a former member.” I’ll keep my many happy memories of times past.

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