Dr Seuss makes a great point. Only you can determine where you go in life and where those you lead in life (your significant other, your kids, your family, your business associates) will follow. What happens when you don’t have your feet in your shoes? What if you’re not wearing shoes? Or what if your shoes are sandals? Which direction do you steer? Do you head to the beach or to the snowy mountains? What if you’re not only steering yourself, but an entire professional association?
I’ve watched the blog posts and comments pile up throughout the community with eyes wide and mouth hanging open in consternation. In a way, I’m thrilled to see all of the discussion. After all, prior election were rather placid affairs. An election with a lot of discussion should be a good thing, right? Normally, I’d say “Absolutely!” However, the rancor and negativity have been impossible to ignore. In response, please allow me to walk you through PASS’ history relating to elections, as well as the entire nomination and election process to give you a better understanding for this situation in its entirety.
Before I go further, I want to thank the members of the Nominations Committee (NomCom) for their steadfast dedication and self-sacrifice. NomCom members include uber-volunteer Allen Kinsel (twitter), former board member and co-founder of SQLServerCentral Brian Knight (blog), PASS EVP Rushabh Mehta (blog), PASS executive director Judy Christianson. PASS president Wayne Snyder also sat in the sessions (since he’ll be leading this effort next year) but did not vote. The committee spent many hours of time on the entire process, frequently, at the cost of family and personal time.
Historically, PASS nominations were entirely committee-driven. In many years, there were only as many candidates, good or bad, as slots. As the years advanced, the board directed that the NomCom alter the nomination vetting process in several ways. For example, for many years, the NomCom simply rubber-stamped existing board members if they wanted another term on the board. After experiencing a handful of board members that were unproductive or even counterproductive, the board wanted to make sure that returning board members were subjected to the same rigors as a newcomer. The NomCom was instructed by the board to develop a set of interview questions to assess the candidates and also to analyze the candidates’ performance as a board member or a high-level volunteer for the organization. (An unintended consequence of this change was that some candidates without much experience within the organization didn’t pass the vetting.)
As time passed and the board seated many top technical talents, the board began to see a definite pattern of technologists who couldn’t focus on the big picture, couldn’t formulate strategies, and would derail board meetings with unending discussions of deep technical details. Using a hypothetical example, if the board was considering a strategy around collecting information and feedback from chapters (to better advocate to our founders and vendors about the reach of the organization), some board members loved to spend huge amounts of board time building data models and noodling over what sort of client- and server-side code should be written to support the application, when in fact the board hadn’t even settled on what strategy to pursue. That’s like spending all your time writing an application without requirements – worse practice!
After all, these other board members had all been great technologists and had willing spirits and giving hearts, but they actually obstructed PASS’ advancement rather than helping it. There wasn’t anything intrinsically wrong with what they were doing. They were simply playing to the skills that had made them such successful technologists and key players throughout their careers. However, it was simply counterproductive. PASS simply needed more business and leadership skills and less, yes LESS, technical skills in the board room. Consequently, the board further instructed the NomCom to begin assessing incoming candidates for strategic and leadership skills. And because strategic and leadership skills were shown through many years of experience to be at least as important as SQL Server-related skills, the NomCom was also encouraged to entertain nominations from candidates outside of the traditional applicant pool in search of those business skills.
The Process Today
As the chair for 2009’s PASS Nominations Committee, it’s my job to ensure that the candidates presented to the PASS membership for the general election meet the standards and objectives set by the board, the bylaws, and the processes and procedures currently in place. The NomCom had very clear directives and processes (at least internally):
- Collect all of the “paper” applications that come in through the Call for Nominations. (We received only 11 this season.)
- Each member of the NomCom then ranks each “paper” application on a variety of criteria, including criteria like leadership experience, volunteer experience, educational experience, performance, and much more. Based on those scores, we looked for a clustered scores among the candidates. There is usually a clear break of a full point or more between the top scoring candidates and the lower scoring candidates, and this year was no different.
- Candidates who scored strongly on the “paper” ranking then advanced to phone interviews with the entire NomCom. (Only seven of this season’s candidates had scores strong enough to advance.)
- With leadership skills now as important as other overall skills and experiences, candidates needed to provide the NomCom with a vision statement for what they’d like to accomplish while on the PASS board. Then, the candidate had to answer questions like “Describe a situation where you were able to use persuasion to convince someone with an opposing view to see things your way” and “Tell us about a time when you had to much on your plate and had to reprioritize all of your projects” and “Tell us about your biggest successes in your volunteer/board work this last year”. (It is at this stage that a candidate can establish their leadership credentials. It’s also worth noting that those leadership experiences and examples could come from any aspect of the candidates’ life – not just PASS, or professional work, but examples such as the local PTA, the Girl/Boy Scouts, athletic teams, civic groups, and church activities were all acceptable and encouraged.) Each candidate was then reranked by the NomCom members with all new scores.
- Since the candidate’s volunteer track records was given equal weight to their interview and discussion with the NomCom, a candidate who was strong in both areas would definitely advance to the elections while a candidate who was weak in one area or the other might land on the fence or, in a couple situations, performed so poorly during the interview that they didn’t advance. (Once again, there was a strong clustering of scores with a top four and a bottom three by a wide margin.)
While the NomCom wanted to put forward a slate large enough to have two (or more candidates) per open slot, the simple fact is that the NomCom only felt a strong confidence in four candidates. In other words, the NomCom felt that anyone of the four would perform admirably as board members and by advancing the candidate to elections it, in effect, endorsed them. One of the candidates, Tim Ford, who went through the tough interview process commented on it here. Once all the candidates were notified, they were allowed to begin campaigning according to the rules set up early this year.
I want to point out that a lot of the criticisms of this year’s elections are, in some form or another, a declaration of what people think the elections should be rather than what they actually are. This is a lot like assessing a family sedan for racing performance, and then criticizing it when the quarter mile and zero-to-sixty numbers aren’t too strong. The fact is, you’ll always come away disappointed. (Of course, I’m TOTALLY aware that PASS is too veiled about all of these processes. To extend the analogy, it’s like a family sedan that you can’t tell is a sedan until you get inside of it.)
Much of the turmoil seemed to start with Brent Ozar’s blog post and interview with candidate Matt Morollo. Be sure to read the comments! (I’m not going to speak to the specifics of any individual candidate, btw.) In our case, the nomination process was designed in pre-collaboration days before Web2.0 capabilities were ever conceived. Transparency was not a strategic goal of the board or of the NomCom, vetting the best candidates was the main strategic goal of the NomCom. Examples of this sort of criticism, and I’m not saying that the criticisms are wrong only that they target an ideal situation rather than what is currently in place, are illustrated when Geoff Hiten declares a PASS Fail, when Chuck Boyce says It’s the Transparency, Stupid, or when Andy Leonard says that only database professionals should be board members. Again – these are not wrong per se, they’re simply personally held views about the way things should be. Marlon Ribunal’s recent blog post seemed to reflect an awareness that NomCom policies are a reflection of directives coming from the board and attempting to help drive the board’s core strategic goals. Stuart Ainsworth, on his blog entry, pointed out that all candidates should experience a high degree of scrutiny and questioning. And Joe Webb pointed out that balance is extremely important for board candidates regarding not only their skills, but also who the candidates work for, what the candidate does in their day job, and much more in his post on the PASS Board of Director elections.
Times, They Are a Changin’
Web2.0 has definitely arrived on PASS’ doorstep. The board has, traditionally, not been motivated by transparency coupled with direct collaboration with the wider community. The gyre of Twitter conversations and blog posts with long trailing conversations are a new experience to many with a seat at the board table. While it’s important to one or two of the current board members, a transparent and collaborative approach hasn’t taken root with everyone on the board. Do you want that to change? Then I am directly calling you to action! Meet with like-minded individuals at the Summit in two short weeks. Identify a champion (or two) within the board who will spearhead the effort and then work cooperatively to build the proposal(s). But beware what you wish for. Governance changes are surprisingly draining on a board, especially if they’re expected to draft the new governance policies themselves. In effect, by retooling the governance of the organization, you’ll also be asking the board NOT to accomplish something else among the major goals for the year. Perhaps the very first proposal should be for the establishment of a Governance Committee that could discuss the issues openly and collaboratively, while taking the majority of the workload off of the board?
There have been so many ideas about what needs to change for the election process, many contradicting one another. Do you want to require a director to have attended one or more past PASS Summits? Or do you want to promote diversity between North American and other countries where Summit attendance is probably prohibitively expensive? Do you want to allow the board to prescribe a certain ratio of consultants versus corporate IT versus vendors? Or do you want the most experienced candidates, even if they’re all from one sort of career path? Or, as these multitudes of conversations have asked again and again, do you want someone who can sling some great Transact-SQL code or do you want someone who has a more diverse viewpoint with more of a general business orientation in their daily job? Do you want direct open elections without a NomCom or only a cursory check on qualifications? (Be prepared for a lot of candidates to come out of the woodwork from all over the globe!) Or do you want to have a strong quality-control process in place for nominees as a prerequisite for the elections? Would you feel good seeing a candidate conduct a train-wreck of interview in which that can’t clearly articulate why they should be a board member? That gives us transparency, but discourages a lot of people from considering putting their hat in the ring. Or would you rather shelter them from possible embarrassments? You get more candidates that way, though transparency declines. The trade-offs aren’t always so easy.
Let me be direct on a second point – not enough people are answering the Call for Nominations. If you want to see elections with multiple candidates for each open slot, PASS will need many more high-quality candidates each year.
I don’t mean to put any one on the spot or make anybody feel bad. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, after all. However, I hope that I’ve helped illuminate some of the dark corners of this process and why the NomCom put forward the slate of candidates that they have. Don’t like it? I’ve given you what you need to set about bringing change to your professional association. Let me know what you think!