Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: General Management

How would you describe your management style? Your communication style?

I feel this is a question that can most accurately be answered by others, so I asked some of my fellow volunteers how they would describe my style. The word that came up most often was “straightforward”. One of the great things about the parts of academia where I’ve spent my life is that in a scientific discussion, everyone can express themselves freely, regardless of status. As a lowly undergraduate, I could tell the professor I worked for “I don’t think the way we’re doing this is statistically valid” and be heard, since the important thing was always the work itself. Coming from that sort of environment, I vastly prefer a working atmosphere in which anyone can bring up any issue at any time without worrying that someone will take it personally or react badly, and I try to create that for the volunteers I manage.

While I do generally communicate in a straightforward and businesslike way, I don’t think that needs to mean formal or unfriendly, and I have been known to indulge in kitten pictures, bad puns, and terribly-drawn cartoons when I feelt the occasion called for it.

You all described your thoughts on “the key responsibilities of a/the Board” in your manifestos. However, with the exception of the bylaws, which are legally rather than functionally focused, there isn’t a clear publicly available list of the duties and responsibilities of the board. Would you be interested in changing that?

I think this is something vitally and urgently needed. Work on position descriptions for the Board was begun in 2013, but seems to have since stopped. I’d like to bring it back, finish it (with feedback from the Org’s volunteers), and make it widely available.

Having clear performance expectations will allow directors who don’t meet them to be held accountable, the flip side of which is that explicitly knowing their duties and responsibilities should make directors’ jobs easier, increase trust in the Board, and improve the relationship between Board and the OTW’s volunteers. In addition, a better understanding of what Board does should encourage staffers with the appropriate interests and skills to run for election.

There has been a lot of mention of Board micromanagement and workload. What are two things that you would like to see immediately shifted off of the Board agendas to both decrease micromanagement of the organization and free up Board time for focusing on more strategic issues?

Board meetings haven’t had informative agendas for some time, but from what’s there I would say that two things that would help are:

  1. Give committee chairs the power to approve new staffers for their committee instead of having Board involved each time. The chair is the person who is going to be working with the staffer and who can best judge if they are a good fit.
  2. Leave personnel conflicts to be dealt with committee chairs and the Volunteers & Recruiting committee except in extraordinary circumstances. It’s hard to know from the outside exactly what Board is doing in this regard, but intervening in conflicts seems to take an inordinate amount of agenda space. Clear guidelines for under what circumstances Board should be involved in conflicts between staffers or committees would help clear up uncertainty and reduce the chance that Board would derail committee work by stepping into a discussion halfway through.

The OTW has now spent over 3 years developing a 3-year strategic plan. This seems extremely long based on practices in other organizations and raises concerns both about the relevance of such a plan due to organizational shifts and, from the outside, raises questions about the ability to find consensus in the organization. What are your thoughts on how long it has taken to develop the strategic plan, and what steps would you take as a Board member to improve or streamline the process of both finishing up the current plan and setting up the development of the next iteration of the strategic plan?

My issue with the strategic plan is not that it has taken so long, but that it cannot be feasibly or usefully implemented. The Strategic Planning committee has obviously put in a great deal of work running surveys, taking input, and drafting, and of course it’s always easier to see in hindsight. However, the plan was drafted with an understanding of the Org based entirely on often outdated surveys and interviews, rather than with any direct input from committee chairs or staffers. It thus could contain no real goals or plans for the Org’s projects, and mainly is a list of documentation that committees will be expected to produce, with no plans for how this is going to happen without overloading both them and the Volunteers & Recruiting committee, which is expected to review all this paperwork.

As a Board member, I would recommend re-working the current plan to focus on the goals it contains for the Board, and goals for better fiscal management, which should start being implemented immediately. I think committee goals should be re-addressed later, working with the individual committees themselves.