Culture: Encouraging Community

Seth is a motivational speaker and keynote speaker. He uses storytelling and communication exercises to help build strong business communities and ignite positive organizational change.

Article first published in Executive Update, January 2004

Community is about collective intelligence. It brings people together in productive ways to share what they cannot learn alone. Community is at the center of the association world. It has long been a core competency for associations, and for some, it is the very reason for their existence. Community creates a place of belonging where connections, contributions, and the cutting edge of learning come together to profit members. Participants give and receive, shaping events, periodicals, and bodies of knowledge they can call their own. A flourishing community is generative, giving birth to new worlds as professions unfold.

Making community work meeting after meeting, year after year requires an approach that overarches and informs every activity. It requires attention to the details that make or break each event. Ken Doyle, executive vice president of the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America (SIGMA) has been building the community of SIGMA’s members since 1980. He understands his role in making community work. In this article he shares insights and techniques that have contributed to the success of SIGMA meetings.

Members of SIGMA own chains of gasoline stations and other distribution systems that buy motor fuel from manufacturers and sell it to end consumers. SIGMA membership ranges from individuals who own ten gasoline stations in rural America to 7-Eleven, with 37,000 gasoline stations nationwide. On average, SIGMA members sell more than 200 million gallons a year, and together, all members sell 57 billion gallons of motor fuel a year.

The Book of Doyle

Human interaction at meetings is central to Doyle’s philosophy. He says, “It’s all social networking. There’s an expectation when you go to a SIGMA meeting that you’re going to have an opportunity to meet with your fellow wizards — other people who do the same thing you do but with whom you don’t compete. Everything we do at our conventions is geared toward providing an opportunity for our members to interact.”

Doyle came to this philosophy from his experience in college as social chairman in a fraternity house. “I realized having a good party was really important. If everybody had a good time, it was great; if people had a bad time, they told you about it for weeks! I have to laugh, because you know in a fraternity house, you have the same group of guys, and you have one party one week and it’s absolutely fabulous. Everyone is up dancing and talking about what a fabulous time they had. And the next week you have the same party, the same people, the same group, the same band, the same everything, and it’s a real snoozer. Everybody’s gone by 10:30 and complaining all week. I got interested in how you create an environment where people have fun. When people have fun, they learn, and they want to come back and do it all over again.”

SIGMA has three meetings per year, fall and spring conventions with attendance of about 600, and a winter management conference with 250-300 in attendance. Doyle works closely with his staff to ensure that each and every meeting is a social success, bringing together his members in a productive learning environment that relies as much on fun as it does on strategic learning. “Everybody on my staff is involved,” says Doyle. “For example, Mary Alice Kutyn, the person on our staff who sells sponsorships, has been around for 10 years and knows our members personally. She does all golf arrangements, putting together the pairings. My director of membership, Marilyn Selvitelle, makes sure new members are welcomed. She oversees registration so she knows who is registered and who is not. She knows people well enough that she can call them up and comfortably say, ‘Bob, why haven’t you registered? What’s wrong?’ My meeting planner, Lori Wolking, is great. She came from a big mill where they did a lot of meetings. She was used to 50 concurrent sessions, so she thought working at SIGMA would be a snap because we have only three concurrent sessions. At the end of her first meeting she said, ‘I’ve never been so exhausted in my entire life. This is twice as hard as doing those big meetings.'”

In His Own Words

When Doyle speaks of setting his events up for success, he has specifics in mind. Here are some of his techniques in detail, in his own words .

On limited attendance

“We don’t provide membership to most suppliers. The only suppliers that are really members of SIGMA are people who manufacture or resell motor fuel — which our members need to stay in business — or those who provide money: loans, money, and credit card processing. Many associations auction their members’ time in return for supplier dollars. We have chosen the opposite: We make it very difficult for suppliers to come and take our members’ time. When our members come to a meeting, they know the people sitting around their table are either peers or fuel suppliers. We don’t have a trade show. No vendor booths. Our people expect that they are not going to b e hit with a lot of people trying to sell them stuff when they go to our meetings. We’ve made it an exclusive club.”

On opportunities to chat

“On a typical day, we have a buffet breakfast. The room is set tight. There are no empty chairs. Everyone who comes in can stand in line and talk. They can go to the waffle machine and talk. They can go to the omelette station and talk. They can go to the coffee station and talk. They can sit at the table and talk. If you’ve been to three SIGMA meetings, you know everyone in the room when you walk in, and you know you will get to catch up with friends and meet new people.”

On participatory decision making

“After breakfast we have a legislative meeting, a giant meeting in which all of our members have a chance to speak upon legislation. We talk about what the government is doing and what we need to do to comply. There is a real opennessand a feeling that they are actually participating in making the decisions, because they are.”

On tables of eight

“We have an informal buffet lunch. We always do tables of eight because 10 is too big to get a conversation going. People sit at the tables and talk. You may not know everyone at the table when you sit down, but after lunch you do. And this happens over and over again at every meal. By the end of the convention, you’ve sat with almost half the people, and this makes business happen.”

On workshops… or not!

“We have afternoon workshop sessions. More than half the people never go. They sit in the foyer and talk. So our registration area is placed adjacent to these meetings, and it’s set up as a hospitality area. We bring in sofas and chairs. We make it look as much like a living room as we can. We set up coffee. We set up soda. We set up a bar. I’ve seen people who go to our meetings pull up to one of those tables and sit there for two days and never move. Their suppliers come and talk to them. They buy millions of gallons of motor fuel. That’s how they do business. Everyone they need to meet with will be there. People make appointments. If I don’t put on these educational sessions, no one comes to the meetings, because they don’t think there’s any value. But when I put on these sessions I see they never go to them; they sit in the hallway and talk business.”

On the cocktail hour

“We don’t do dinners, but we have a cocktail party designed to bring people back together sothey can talk and have fun. My philosophy of the cocktail party is that they are designed for the spouses who have beendragged to every God-forsaken petroleum meeting you could ever go to. After awhile, they are just plain boring. I wantto make these cocktail parties such a ‘wow’ event that the spouses say, ‘You make me go to a bunch of these meetings,but this is the one I want to go to.’ We set it up so everyone can see the food being prepared. It is eye appealing andvery sensual. That’s the touch I like to see; you can make the room feel cozy and warm even when you have 550 or600 people. We provide the opportunity where a member can bump into another and say, ‘Wow. I never saw anyone makepasta like that before!’ It breaks down the barriers, and people start talking.”

On golf as a social

“At our spring convention, we have golf. Mary Alice Kutyn hand selects the pairings. We make sure there are at least two marketers and one fuel supplier in every pairing. We know who gets along and who doesn’t get along. We know who not toput in a group. People call us up and say, ‘You know, I’d really like to get to know so-and-so, can I get in his group?’ We tryto take care of that if we can. I’ve had more members come back to me and say, ‘You know, I met so-and-so and weplayed golf. I never thought I’d do business with his company. Now we’re doing 90 million gallons a year with them.'”

On reaching out to new members

“We work really hard for all the new people who come into SIGMA. Our staff introduces them around. We find fuel supplierswho are interested in their business; we fix them up. We find the people who are non-competitors but who are similar size andtypes of business. We give them big brothers. We get them involved on committees.”

On setting up chairs

“If we think there are going to be 40 people in a session, we put 30 chairs in the room and have somebody from the hotel standing around outside with 20 more chairs. When we hit thirty the room looks full. We’ll let some people stand and then we’ll slowly start to bring more chairs in. We make sure there are no empty chairs in the room. There’s nothing worse than 40 people in a room with a hundred chairs. If you’re the 31st person and someone brings in a chair just for you, it feels really good. We make sure that every room is always full. We don’t ever, ever want to have a room that’s empty. That’s part of the whole system.”

On instigating talk

“I am always thinking about how we get people to talk. When there’s a new issue in the industry, I begin asking myself, ‘How do we get people talking about that?’ Our members are at the cutting edge of their business. They’re trying stuff that nobodyelse has ever done before. They learn from each other. Everything we do is just to get them there to sit around and talk. Isit there some mornings, watching them drink coffee together, and I am just amazed at the amount of business that Isee getting done.”

Run With It

Clearly, SIGMA has found a successful formula for its meetings and membership, but is their model transferable to other associations? Of course not everything will be reproducible in other circumstances, and any copying of ideasinvolves tailoring the ideas to the situation at hand. But unless you believe gas marketers are for some reason innatelymore inclined to learn from others and use personal interactions as a way to build business, then looking at ways tobuild community within your membership can only help. All you have to do is find the right seed to plant. Doyle notesthat the success SIGMA has at meetings “happens naturally if you instigate it right. You have to create a culture so thatwhen people show up, they know this isn’t a presentation. There has to be something for people to talk about. Welook for leaders of our sessions who are animated and can get the conversation started. If you get people talking aboutwhat’s of concern to them, they just get so much out of it.”


Seth Kahan is a specialist in collective intelligence and business acceleration. He can be reached at Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com.