Jessica Steiner – Elections Q&A (Part 4)

12) There has been a lot of discussion and confusion both within and outside the OTW related to the concept of ‘transparency’ and what that means in relation to the work of the Board and the work of the organization as a whole. How would you define transparency in these contexts and what steps would you take both to ensure everyone is clear on what transparency means and to hold the Board and the organization accountable to that definition?

The issue of transparency has been a matter for a great deal of discussion during my time with Strategic Planning. My personal take is that the issue isn’t really a lack of transparency on the part of either the Board or the Committees. I’ve found that everyone is pretty much willing to be open and engage in communication about what they’re doing and why. The Board publishes minutes of their meetings and has taken specific steps to try to address the issue of transparency with regard to their own procedures, such as instituting office hours and open Board sessions. Certain aspects of what the Board does are by necessity confidential, and I hope that everyone can understand and recognize why that is. That doesn’t mean that the Board is not transparent. If there’s a specific area where people feel they are not being transparent, however, I’m more than open to being corrected.

I think the real issue here is a lack of trust that the Board (and perhaps some Chairs as well, to a lesser extent) is going to always act in accordance with the best interest of the OTW, and that they have the ability – the skills and level of judgment – necessary to make good decisions in furtherance of that goal. Some of the reasons for that lack of trust are historical, and some of it is due to the reality that there really is nothing about the process of selecting Board members that ensures that they’re any more qualified to make such decisions than anyone else in the org.

I hope that much of this mistrust can be alleviated over time as the Board demonstrates integrity and good leadership skills. Leadership and management training for the Board is critical in furtherance of this goal.

13) The OTW has had issues with regards to clashing perceptions of authority and hierarchy between the Board and committees. Staffers and volunteers vocally resist both steps that are perceived as attempts to verticalize the org’s structure and any Board decisions that are understood as top-down orders. What is your perspective on this issue?

On some level I can understand this (it goes back to the issue of trust I talked about in the last question), but to be honest I’m somewhat baffled by the resistance to any kind of hierarchy and decisions being made by the Board.

In my view, the autonomy and incredible skill and dedication shown by our Committees needs to be respected. We have some very skilled Chairs and a huge number of staff and volunteers doing a great deal of amazing work. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need a hierarchy of some kind, even if it is quite flat compared to the average offline for-profit corporation of a similar size. In an organization composed of over 400 individuals, we cannot run by total consensus. Obviously if everyone agrees, that’s awesome! And the Board should not take decisions which are within the purview of a committee and impose their own view except in extreme circumstances. We need to trust the committees, just as the committees need to trust the Board. But even in an ideal situation, sometimes a decision needs to be made even if not every person agrees with it. Sometimes there is no one “right” decision and one “wrong” decision, yet someone has to pull the trigger and be the one to decide what happens next, after all of the discussion has happened and all the feedback has been gathered and listened to.

The Board should not be meddling in the day to day running of Committees. But there does need to be a group of someones (though ideally I would like that group to include the chairs in a more active way) whose job it is to focus on the bigger picture and the overall mission of the org. A body who has the ability and authority to identify gaps and fill those gaps, and ensure that, in a general sense, the individual working pieces of the org are forming a whole that moves us in a direction we want to go, rather than just working away in isolation and at cross-purposes. If the Board didn’t have the authority to act, then they couldn’t fill that role.

14) How do you see your role on the Board in relation to OTW staffers and volunteers and OTW members? How do you plan to reconcile different staffers’ visions for the org? How do you think a Board member should act when staffers disagree with decisions that are under Board purview?

I think to some degree I answered this question in my last response. I don’t think that a Board member is inherently better or more qualified than anyone else, and they should respect the opinion and listen with great care to the feedback being received from the rest of the org. That doesn’t mean, though, that every single decision made must be agreed with by every individual person in the org. I don’t think that any time disagreement is heard that it should be dismissed as a “vocal minority”. If there is disagreement, it could mean that something has been missed, and that should be considered overtly. As I said, though, people can disagree and yet both be right to some degree. No decision will satisfy every single person. Some level of trust needs to be built on the part of staffers and volunteers that, even though the Board might make a decision that one might personally disagree with,they are doing their best to make the best decision they can, and they are listening.

15) What do you think are the unique challenges in interacting with a staff comprised entirely of volunteers as opposed to paid staff? How do you plan to navigate this?

Volunteers are not employees. It’s critical to be aware at all times that a volunteer is donating their time out of their own passion and the goodness of their hearts. The staff are not getting a salary for this (and I would point out that neither am I) and have no incentive to stay or even to do satisfactory work, except for their own internal desire to do so. As a result, one must not have the same expectations of a volunteer compared to an employee.

This is one of the reasons I’ve talked so much about support in my responses. Each person in the org should feel that their work is valued and important, but also that they can take some time off to do what needs to be done in their real life if they need to. Real life jobs and school have to take precedence, because the org is never going to pay our rent, so systems need to be in place to make sure that our very important work continues no matter what any individual person needs to do to care for themselves. We should all care for and support one another and be prepared to take up slack if we can when it’s needed. We should also never take one another for granted.

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