ira_gladkova ([personal profile] ira_gladkova) wrote2012-07-18 06:07 pm
Entry tags:

Adding Board Seats, Elections (in the future), and Sudden Flood of Burnout Thoughts

Heyyy so there was a pretty big announcement: the OTW Board will be expanded to 9 people and the bylaws amended. In case it is not immediately obvious from the length: yes, I had my hands all over this post, with a base outline provided by excellent Elections Officer [personal profile] jennyst and revisions and input from Board, the Elections Workgroup, and Comms. (I also did the graphics; it was a nightmare.)

So there's a lot going on here. I was Elections Officer last term, so I have a pretty keen interest in elections goings-on. I never really posted about my election works much: near the start of elections, I went on leave for a family illness, during elections it was necessary for me to remain neutral (which was simplest by staying quiet), and afterwards, I was, frankly, too exhausted and demoralized. Until recently, I was also too sick. Basically I have a backlog of elections feels thoughts.

The things I want to cover include:
  • What are you thinking with this adding seats business?

  • How did we get into this mess with the seats?

  • What happened last year?

  • How will elections work this year?

But then I realized this would be very tl;dr. I do know I have a problem. So I'm saving the last three items for later; today is going to be all about:

Adding Board Seats, Burnout, and Taking Care of Our People

Just to be clear from the start, the idea of adding Board seats does not spring solely from a need to fix the elections issue. (This is another reason I want to cover the more electiony stuff separately: it is a separate issue.) As the OTW news post linked above demonstrates, it certainly helps. But the Board does honestly struggle with workload in ways that would be ameliorated by being able to spread the work around a little. Our committees are growing; the number of committees is growing; the number, reach, and scope of our projects are growing — and that's all awesome, but it's also simply too much for seven people to cover.

However! Not all of the workload stems from this. A large part of Board's problem is that we are currently still too involved in micromanagement and/or management on a level that causes conflicts of interest. As an example, when some kind of staffing or work gap appears (say, due to a sudden retirement), we often feel like we have to be the ones to step up, either first or as backup. And in the case of filling chair positions, I think it also creates conflicts of interest. We do not do this to hog positions or work, but because we often feel like there is no one else — we are some of the most experienced people in the org with a wide range of skills. But this also gives short shrift to everyone else in the org and robs people of opportunities to grow.

There's not really a simple answer like "well Board should just stop filling these gaps themselves". A lot of the time these positions are pretty key and there is work that needs to be done urgently: we don't have time to wait for someone to train up or to recruit someone. The real issue here is a lack of personnel management and succession planning, not just for chairs — something we've been keenly aware of this year — but for key positions at every level. If we were consistently training people up and had a framework in place whereby anyone doing load-bearing work had an understudy, we wouldn't be having this problem. But one huge obstacle is that the org is collectively often too busy doing its project-based work to also do its people-based work (ETA 01): we're too busy building our projects to also build the builders. And I think that's a real loss and a true tragedy in terms of the org culture. Given the way things are, I'm not sure there is a solution besides just slowing down on projects for a while in order to build up our people. That's a hard thing to accept, both for us and, I think, for our audience: why should the users and beneficiaries of our various projects have to wait because we can't manage to keep our house in order? However, I am, have been, and am increasingly of the opinion that this is what we will have to do.

[ETA 01]: After reading [personal profile] bookshop's comment, I think this (from my response to her) would be a more precise and accurate statement: The org is collectively more concerned with producing popular and/or acceptable output (often in the form of projects) than with doing the personnel support and management necessary to make that work happen in a healthy way. Apologies for the suboptimal initial wording! [/ETA]

And it's not fair. I know it's not fair. It's not fair to our staff and volunteers, who do this work because they love it and believe in it. It's not fair to our audience, who have to wait on things that matter to them. It's not fair because in the end, we collectively screwed up and now everyone, whether part of the problem or not, has to pay for it. We made a collection of mistakes that put us in this position. There is no one person or group of people to blame; the issue is too endemic.

But the status quo, letting it continue— I think that would be even more unfair. It undermines our work. It undermines our people. People leave the org feeling sick and used. Even if people simply leave feeling tired and nothing more, their legacy is tarnished by our poor ability to preserve it: the work they left suffers from the lack of structure, because the people left to continue it don't have enough support, in one way or another, to do the work proud.

Our Volunteers & Recruiting committee does not have the resources right now to handle a huge influx of people at any level, from volunteers to high-up staff, though I know they are working their asses off to strengthen the personnel management aspects of the org (read [personal profile] renay's posts; she is Volcom chair and does mind-boggling amounts of work). But even if Volcom could handle an influx, the rest of the org, for the most part, still can't: almost everyone is already overwhelmed by project-based work, way too much to do the mentoring and nurturing necessary to handle incoming volunteers. This is one huge reason behind the endemic burnout: there's no one there to catch you.

We cannot afford to keep growing our projects without growing our people.

So what does this have to do with increasing the number of Board seats? I mean, reducing Board workload is nice, but — given everything else — so what?

I think an increase in Board seats has to be part and parcel of a movement to decrease Board micromanagement and increase Board's role in (temporarily) slowing down project growth while focusing instead of growing the core of the org: its people. Resource allocation is our call and our calling. And we need more resources in our people. Yesterday. We need Board members who can focus solely on this tremendous task, on shaping us into a more reasonable, professional space. With the number of directors we have now, we simply cannot do that.

Increasing the number of seats does not come without a cost. It'll be harder for us to meet, and all the other possible communication problems that come with any increase in number of people with their hands in the pot. If we're serious about decreasing the trend in Board members also filling other key org positions — and from Board discussions throughout the term, this is the direction we're headed — this means that whoever we draw into Board will leave behind gaps, the very problem we're already having.

But the change has to start somewhere, and I think there is no way around the need for slowdown. Slowdown would make the gaps in coverage a little less dire, as the work will perforce be less urgent. There's no way around the fact that it will still suck. If there is a pain-free solution to this problem, I cannot think of it. The pain is already here. It already hurts. If we do this, it will at least be pain that's paid towards something other than perpetuating the same system we already have.

The bottom line, for me, is this: We need this increase because we are failing our people right now. Board needs these resources so that we, in turn, can give the rest of the org the resources it needs.
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)

[personal profile] renay 2012-07-19 12:47 am (UTC)(link)
Do you know how happy I am to see an incumbent Board member say these things? I've been doing whatever the virtual form of screaming is since mid-2010 that we were going to end up where we are now, that eventually we were going to run out of people willing to take up leadership mantles because they know they won't be supported.

I am dubious about adding Board seats. My concerns rest with the ability of Board to say as a group, "We have to stop growing and focus on established projects." and "We have to learn to let go." When I requested a halt on workgroups, stressed out of my mind that we were continuing to add lead positions, when those leads are just chairs under another name, I was surprised that Board accepted it without argument. That was a step in the right direction. But it has to apply to everything.

However, I remain unconvinced that adding the seats won't simply result in exactly what we're seeing right now: Board members doing more staff work than Board work because we're already hurting for leaders and there are no people to step in and people who refuse to step in. I worry it means Board members will chair committees and then will be their own liaisons, leaving no recourse for staff members to agitate for change or feel like they have the ability to challenge decisions or the status quo. This utopia of Board members being equal enough to serve as on-the ground leaders does not yet exist. The walls are still, effectively for volunteers, up and impossible to see through (i.e. meetings are only available to staff; volunteers still have to go by only minutes). This equality and the ability for Board members to know what hat is appropriate will probably not exist for years. The way it stands now, if this happens and we fall back to the old ways of people not letting staff work go, it will continue to bottleneck growth. As has happened and continues to happen, it will lead to an unrelenting grip on the projects claimed by Board members (because those motivated to run for Board have high ownership over their projects), and it will hurt the enthusiasm and retention of our staff who want to do work and create positive changes, not be continually and repeatedly blocked because their leaders are Board members and there's no where else to turn. This behavior often isn't malicious, but the nature of our hierarchy makes it seem that way.

If we're serious about decreasing the trend in Board members also filling other key org positions — and from Board discussions throughout the term, this is the direction we're headed — this means that whoever we draw into Board will leave behind gaps, the very problem we're already having.

Emphasis mine. This would be nice, but I also think it's unrealistic. I see people who ran for Board doing the same work they were doing as staff on top of Board work. They haven't let go of the staff work because nothing requires them to. They're invested, and rightly so, because they've given energy and time, but in some cases, it's hurting us greatly. Unless what you present in this quote actually happens, I honestly don't believe it will be a positive change at all. It will just be more of the same.
julia_beck: Rectangular cake with white frosting and yellow inscription "AO3= <3" (Default)

[personal profile] julia_beck 2012-07-19 10:21 am (UTC)(link)
I worry it means Board members will chair committees and then will be their own liaisons [...]

Sharing that worry, and that's why this is the first thing I'm talking about when approaching potential candidates: if you're a chair or doing vital committee work, find you successor now, even before declaring candidacy. Because I think a candidate needs to show that they're actually able to fully commit to Board, now that those commitment issues are much more public.
jennyst: Jenny on a photo of space (Default)

[personal profile] jennyst 2012-07-19 10:50 am (UTC)(link)
It's also worth noting that we now strongly encourage board members who are chairs to have a separate liaison, as we've done with Finance, unless there are strong reasons not to. In previous terms, the default was the other way around. So that risk is also improving, though I know we do still have several committees without a separate liaison.
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)

[personal profile] renay 2012-07-19 06:17 pm (UTC)(link)
I hope it will also apply to current Board members and their projects, because from my perspective that is even more serious than the future Board members giving up their chair seats and their lead seats. We're in crisis right now.

Both have to happen for any good to come of this. I know it's a matter of willing and available hands, but start training now. Ask the the people who are there and invested and already working. And that means letting go and it's scary (I know, I've done it). It means trust and letting go and accepting that things will change and maybe not in ways you particularly like. But it will be fine and if it's not, we'll learn. Until we start trusting each other to lead in good faith, we will never have any new leaders.

When I see this happening, and see that we have a slate of candidates who will not be chairs/leads or will be giving up their chair/lead seats upon taking their Board seats, I will happily eat my words about my despair over this plan.
julia_beck: Rectangular cake with white frosting and yellow inscription "AO3= <3" (Default)

[personal profile] julia_beck 2012-07-19 07:57 pm (UTC)(link)
You're preaching to the choir. It's just, look. This is really difficult and frustrating for me, because I don't want to be doing any of this chairing and leading work. I've had hele's successor in Translation all trained up (and yeah, I didn't want to chair, but hele left, so what was I to do) -- I recruited her in November, just like I handed over I&O into Andrea's able hands. It went great, wanted to hand over in June. Then job emergency -- she went on hiatus. Exactly as The Horde hit. The other likely candidate? Disappeared on me. Survey workgroup? Ugh. Let's not talk about that, let's just say that was a grave political error on my part to think that I could just hand over the administrativa, and I'm still paying for that now. (Also, one of my most dependable people? Disappeared on me.) So I hear what you're saying, *I did it*, and so it's triply frustrating because *it still didn't work out*, and I have to be my own emergency backup. (Translation: entirely made up of people who started in *May*. Survey: everyone is at least as booked as I am.) Plus all these disappearances, it's getting me down. (It's probably me! Who knows.)

But the show must go on, right. And so I cut back on the work I do, say, in Translation except for the bare minimum (training the new people) and I feel awful. I just have to hang on and hope that my co-chair will come back and take over the reins as she said she would, and hope that I can somehow salvage survey (ha ha ha).

So you bet I'm speaking from very bitter experience when I urge candidates to, yes, start training now.

As for current Board, again, I can just say that the ones who would need to hear this most are not likely to, and for the others (say, Kristen and me) it's just so much more complicated and painful than what you write, cf. above.