A Community Divided

People have been screaming from rooftops for a month now about the PASS election process, ever since a beloved member of our SQL Server community was shunned in his bid to run for the PASS Board of Directors. The community has reacted vocally. PASS has reacted defensively. And unfortunately much of the back and forth has been speaking “at” each other rather than “with” each other.

Watching this has been almost as bad as watching someone burn bacon! Almost.

Kevin Kline (blog, twitter) has asked a number of leaders in the community to participate in the discussion through a series of guest posts on his blog. I believe that he’s trying is to bring the various sides together in a constructive way. With all of this passion in the community, we should be able to improve things. This is my contribution to the series.

Before going further, however, I’d like to first frame the discussion by describing the essentials of the debate as I see them. There are certainly a lot of nuances, however insomuch as the different facets can have one voice, I’ve tried to capture that. There will be, of course, deeper issues and varying opinions. And it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed the point altogether.

The Community Side

Steve Jones (blog, twitter) has proven himself time and again to be a staunch advocate for the community. His qualifications for community leadership are unmatched.

  • He’s a renowned SQL Server expert and Microsoft MVP
  • He has the media experience that PASS once coveted
  • He’s a good businessman with a proven track record of success
  • He’s a polished speaker and regular blogger
  • He frequently donates his time at conferences, SQLSaturdays, and User Group meetings
  • He’s wildly popular in the community

Steve would easily navigate the Nominating Committee (NomCom) and most certainly be elected. So I thought when I wrote a recommendation letter that accompanied his application.

Like most in the community, I was utterly shocked when I learned that he didn’t make the final cut. Many, if not most, in the community were outraged. And rightfully so. The NomCom rejected someone that the community obviously wanted, someone who would most certainly have been elected if allowed to be on the ballot.

But, this isn’t about Steve. This isn’t even about the election. This is about PASS putting itself before the community that it supposedly represents.

The PASS Side

For the past few years, PASS has taken quite a bit of heat from the community to be more transparent in its processes and decision making. The community doesn’t want a benevolent dictator; it wants peers who are willing to lead on our behalf because we don’t have the time or inclination . That message was made clear years ago.

Since then, PASS has worked really hard in this area and has made clear progress in many, many ways. Its finances are posted for all to see. Unabridged meeting minutes are published on the web just a few days after each board meeting. More of the board members and key volunteers blog about their PASS activities than ever before. We asked for transparency and we’re getting it. All we have to do is log on and look at the information as it’s made available.

The NomCom, which has bore the brunt of the community’s ire for the election controversy, is a prime example of the newfound transparency. The NomCom is charged with vetting each candidate and presenting a slate before the board. Before the NomCom was formed, the procedures and guidelines under which it was to operate were created and distributed for review. After a series of reforms and tweaks, the NomCom was given its marching orders and asked to do their job.

After weeks of work, the NomCom, a group of our peers that we’ve entrusted to do the grueling grunt work for us, reached a conclusion using the formulas and procedures given it. The NomCom members realized that their conclusion would be questioned and controversial. And they paused to reflect on that.

The question: Should the NomCom discard the quantitative results and replace them with on its own subjective feelings? Should it do what it felt the community really wanted by disposing of the pesky procedures that had been so carefully refined?

To do that would have really opened the doors to allegations of PASS being an old-boy-network . To discard the rules at its own discretion and pick the candidate it thought best would be the height arrogance.

The NomCom was in a pickle. Stick with the approved procedure and eliminate a popular candidate? Or dispense with the approved procedures and make a subjective call? You can’t win with those as your two options.

So they made the call to accept the wrath they they knew was sure to come. They stuck to the approved procedures set forth in the NomCom’s mandate. The integrity of the process is too important to toss it aside. It would be a huge step backward in the quest for transparency to do anything else.

I thank the members of NomCom for serving. I also commend them for doing what they believed to be the right thing even though they knew it may not be popular. That takes guts. It takes character. It takes integrity.

And it’s people who possess those characteristics that we want leading the community.

So Who’s Right?

To me the answer is obvious: both sides are right. On the one hand, I’m very frustrated that the candidate for whom I wanted to vote wasn’t on the ballot. I cast my ballot yesterday and it felt a bit hollow.

Yet I would have been equally, if not more, angered if the established process had been subverted to put Steve on the ballot at the expense of one of the other candidates.

The NomCom is not at fault here. The PASS Board is not at fault here.

At fault here are the procedures that governed the election process. I have every confidence that those procedures were far better than in prior years. Yet in this case, as extreme as it may be, they fell woefully short.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think that the one thing on which we can agree is that we don’t want to find ourselves in this predicament twelve or twenty-four months from now. We want to learn from this, take corrective action, and move forward.

So what do we need to do to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?

  • Acknowledge that it was the process that failed and stop pointing fingers at our peers
  • Take heart that we have a slate full of good candidates even if our preferred candidate was left out
  • Accept partial responsibility for the community and get more involved

Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater and dispense with the NomCom? I don’t think so, but it’s a conversation that should take place.

Should we refine the existing procedures to handle situations like this? We must be careful in codifying too many things since situations will arise in the future where flexibility is required.

We need to have these conversations.

A Note About Transparency

Many years ago when Kevin Kline was the VP of Finance for PASS and I was Director of Logistics, we shared a cab to the airport after a Community Summit event. During the ride, we talked. I remember telling him that as a member of Ducks Unlimited, I receive an annual financial statement from the conservancy. It contains detailed information about the group’s finances. Knowing that makes me feel good about giving to the group.

I commented that as Directors of PASS, we should provide that kind of information to our members. And if we are not comfortable delivering that level of detail, we should do something about our finances so that we are comfortable with it. It took a while, but we did. We changed management companies and implemented a lot of other changes for the better. We took the first of many steps toward better fiscal and procedural transparency.

PASS is no longer a monolith that speaks with one voice. It has truly made great strides toward being a group of our friends and colleagues who are willing to freely give of themselves for our benefit. That’s not to say that PASS has completed its journey toward transparency. It hasn’t, but it is much further down the road than it was just a few short years ago when Kevin and I had that conversation.

And this is another opportunity to further refine the way PASS works, for the better.

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16 Responses to A Community Divided

  1. Andy Warren says:

    Joe, that was well written. I agree with your evaluation of the dilemma of the NomCom, but do you think the same challenges applied to the Board accepting or modifying the final slate? Would you have voted to put some or all of the excluded candidates back on the slate?

    Andy

    • Hi Andy,

      I believe Joe said it very well – if the board was simply going to override procedures, then we would become an old-boy-network and the work of a nom com would hold no real value since the board would just draw up the slate with candidates that they know and like.

      I commend the Nom Com in following procedures even in the face of a dificult decision. I do not believe that there was one single person on the nom com who made the decision out of malice towards Steve. Even board members who supported the final proposal from the nom com did not do it out of any dislike for Steve. There were candidates that in my personal opinion were very highly qualified to help govern PASS that did not even make the initial cut – but I respect the procedures and guidlines that were vetted by the community and followed closely by the nom com and ultimately supported by a majority of the board.

      There is inherent danger to not having and following vetted procedures. It opens many more questions than it solves.

      Joe – Thanks for your post. Excellent post!

      Rushabh

    • Joe says:

      Ooh, good question, Andy. Let’s go to where the rubber meets the road. Should the PASS board have overruled or added to the recommendations of the NomCom?

      I believe that the Board has a right, nay a responsibility, to intervene at times. All things PASS fall under the purview of the Board. The buck stops at the Board, period. And it’s the Board’s responsibility to act in the best interest of the community.

      However, just because the Board can intervene in all areas doesn’t mean it should. It’s far too easy to get mired in the weeds of an issue and try to micromanage every aspect. That’s counter productive.

      Questioning and overruling the work of volunteers and committees belittles their contributions and undermines the spirit and importance of their work. Only when the work product of a committee conflicts with the best interest of the community should the Board step in. It’s similar to your recent post “defaulting to yes”.

      I don’t believe that was the case here. I don’t have to necessarily agree with the NomCom’s decision, but I don’t think it was counter to the best interest of PASS or the community.

      So if I were still on the PASS Board, I would have probably voted to accept the recommendations of the NomCom as presented. They were given a charge, executed it effectively, and I haven’t heard a good argument that their recommendation was counter to the best interest of the community. Default to yes.

      Thanks for the comment, Andy.

      • Andy Warren says:

        A fair reply and position. If the NomCom survives, then that ‘best interest of the community’ test may become an important part of our revisions before the next cycle. I think what we’ve seen as a result of not exercising the latitude has been a dark cloud over us for many weeks that strikes at the most vulnerable of areas; confidence (and we expected that). I’m not sure that met the ‘best interest of the community test’.

        I’m not trying to re-argue a miserable situation (as I describe it), but wanted to deepen the discussion about latitude and realize that the challenges we face go beyond the NomCom. If we give the Board latitude, perhaps we should have the talk of when they should use it. For a not perfect example, occasionally we do budget exceptions. I’m not fond of them, but there are times when appropriate and I consider having the choice to do that important. In the case of the election, what would have been a scenario when over riding the NomCom would have made sense, or is there one? Hard to write rules for exceptions!

        Anyway, I wanted to hear your thoughts, and encourage a discussion about the valid uses of executive power.

        • Joe says:

          You’re right, Andy. The Board needs the flexibility to intervene at times. That’s why I’d be very reluctant to codify too many rigid requirements in the bylaws. Make them policies instead.

          As for instances when the Board should overrule the NomCom? How about this as an example. Let’s say that the NomCom presented 6 candidates with remarkably similar profiles – all were from educational institutions, or worked for the government, or were consultants, or were from Fortune 500 companies, or whatever.

          PASS represents a diverse community from all of those areas and more. It’s Board should not be heavily weighted toward any one of those industries. Having too many consultants (or whatever) may skew its decisions, etc. And that wouldn’t be good for the community.

          So in that case, I’d vote against the slate and ask the NomCom to go back to work with these new parameters and present a new slate.

  2. Excellent post, Joe! I strongly agree. Follow the procedures that have been defined and if you don’t like the outcomes, then work to change the procedures for the next time.

    • Joe says:

      Thanks, Mark.

      I’m reminded of a story from “Predictably Irrational” where the author, Dan Ariely, set out to buy a car. He went to a web site that promised to recommend the best car for his needs. He answered 20 or so questions and out popped the recommendation, a Ford Taurus. He didn’t want a Ford Taurus, so we hit the back button again and again until he finally entered the right combination of answers for the web site to recommend a Mazda Miata. That’s what he wanted all along, but he wanted confirmation from the web site.

      Without procedures to follow, we can keep tweaking things in process until we get what we’d made our minds up to get before starting. Doing that belittles the contribution of the volunteers. Soon you won’t have any volunteers because they know the board will overrule it to give them the answer they want. So why bother?

  3. Andy Warren says:

    Rushabh, I get that, we each get our opinions. But given Joe has served on the Board, I was curious to see if he would apply that same standard, or if we would use the wider latitude available to the Board.

    Andy

    • Joe says:

      Andy –

      It sounds like we may have slightly differing perspectives on this. Would be glad to continue the discussion, here, in email, or over coffee in Seattle if you’d like.

      Joe

    • Andy,

      The board certainly had the latitude to recommend a change in the slate and if the majority of the board had voted down the slate, then the slate would have gone back to the Nom Com with recommendations from the board. However, a majority (albeit a slim majority) voted to approve the proposed slate. So, there was not a question of exercising that latitude. An organization has to be governed by majority decision. We have broad representation on the board bringing with it diverse viewpoints and opinions. I am not suggesting in any way that because the slate was approved this year, the election guidlines are perfect. That is a decision that our peers will make when they review the election guidlines before next year election cycle. As Joe also mentioned, I too am thrilled to see the community more engaged.

      Joe brought up a very good point relating to the work of a volunteer committee. The board has to hold itself to extremely high standards, especially when it comes to overriding the work of volunteers. In an organizaiton like PASS, where our success is dependent on the contribution and hard work of these representatives and leaders from the community, we simply cannot afford to alienate them. These volunteers are the biggest drivers of the organizations success.

      – Rushabh

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