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.

Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Retreat

In 2013 and 2014, the Board had in-person meetings in North America, and there will be another this October. What is your opinion on Board retreats and their outcomes so far?

The 2013 retreat was supposed to produce a number of important documents better codifying the duties and obligations of the Board. Those documents appear to have been abandoned unfinished.

The 2014 retreat was originally going to include committee chairs. This idea was scrapped, and the retreat was re-tasked to involve creating a strategic plan, based on often out-of-date surveys and interviews and with no direct input from the project committees. A year later, implementation of a plan has not begun.

There has been no report yet as to what may have been accomplished at this year’s retreat, which, once again, did not involve chairs or staffers from the OTW’s project-related committees (AO3, Fanlore, TWC). In general, the retreats have been held with extremely little transparency either as to their agendas going in, or their results.

I think there can be great value to meeting in person; as part of my real-life job in academia I organized twice-yearly meetings for all the labs that were part of our collaborative grant. However, I do not believe that the OTW Board should go forward with in-person retreats for now. The amount of money that has been spent on the retreats is a significant portion of our budget, and the results so far have been basically non-existent.

How would you as a Board member, go about choosing who and what committees are invited to the annual retreat?

As I stated in answer to the question above, I don’t favor having in-person retreats at this point. However, I do see value in having a virtual annual meeting, as described below. I’d invite the chair(s) of each of the OTW’s committees to attend or to send official representatives to speak for the committee.

Last year the board’s in person meeting cost $18,355.21, 17% amount of the OTW’s total expenses. Do you have any ideas how to do this meeting a more cost effective way going forward?

Video conferencing was developed as a way for organizations to have meetings between far-flung members with the benefit of face-to-face interaction but without the expense and hassle of travel. It seems an excellent fit for us, as an online-only organization with volunteers all around the globe. Holding meetings via video would drastically reduce the costs involved, and would allow the Board to invite chairs and/or staffers to give the perspectives necessary to have an effective meeting about the Org’s direction. Non-Board attendees wouldn’t need to tune in for parts of the meeting that weren’t relevant to them, outgoing and incoming directors could both attend without unnecessary expense, and meetings could even be held more than once a year, if they proved productive.

Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Conflict of Interest

How would you define the term “conflict of interest” and how might it apply to you while serving on the Board?

A conflict of interest occurs when someone with decision-making power is in a position to personally benefit from the results of their own decision. So, for example, if I worked for a vendor that produced a service or product, and as Board I was involved in deciding which vendor to choose, that would be a potential conflict of interest. I don’t foresee this being an issue for me, but if it came up, I would, of course, recuse myself from the decision process.

Potentially, a director could have a conflict of interest if a Board decision involved an OTW staffer or volunteer with whom the director had had personal issues. I don’t feel there is anyone in the Org I could not work with objectively, but I think it’s important to be sensitive to potential problems of this type. If a staffer or volunteer had concerns about my objectivity that I were unable to address to their satisfaction, I would remove myself from the decision in question.

Given that some of you intend to keep your other Org positions, how do you intend to deal with conflicts of interest when matters arise which impact your committee?

a. For example, if your committee wants to implement a change which requires Board approval, but is not necessarily in the OTW’s best interests, or would have an impact on another committee, how would you ensure that your contribution to the Board’s decision reflected your position as a Board member and not your personal opinion as a member of the committee?

b. Conversely, if another committee sought Board approval for something that would impact your own committee, how would you ensure that you were giving their arguments a fair hearing?

a. First of all, no committee I have ever been on would intentionally submit a proposal to Board that was not in the OTW’s best interests. Regardless of whether I were on Board or not, if I felt my committee was proposing something that would be harmful to the organization of which we are a part, I would argue strenuously against it.

In a transparent environment, committees will know when Board is considering a proposal, and if a committee has an unaddressed concern about a potential impact, the proposal should be sent back for further discussion. I feel that having additional perspectives is a positive thing for decision making. It is neither necessary nor beneficial to set up an adversarial system in which committees must advocate one-sidedly for narrow goals. Joining AD&T in addition to Support, for example, didn’t create a conflict of interest for me as a Support staffer; instead it allowed me to bring a useful new point of view to both committees.

That said, as a member of Board, my primary responsibility must always be to the Org as a whole. No matter what other hats I wear, at the end of the day that perspective must take precedence.

b. Again, I don’t think Board should be making this type of decision unless it’s absolutely necessary. Where Board may legitimately have to make choices between projects is in allocating financial resources. I believe strongly in the importance of all the OTW’s projects and feel that I could work on budget allocation without undue bias, but it is an issue I would certainly be alert for, and I would give particular care to listening to my fellow Board members’ opinions on the subject.