Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Casting A Shadow

The retirement announcement for a friend of mine last week brought back a flood of memories and the realization that this is a perilous time for Durham, North Carolina, where I live.

Bill Kalkhof was hired to run an organization called Downtown Durham Inc. four years after I was appointed to jump-start Durham’s official community-destination marketing organization, the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.  He will step down in April after 20 years.

I recall a time shortly before or after he was hired, when an annual meeting of his soon-to-be fledgling organization drew seven of us who gathered around a counter for coffee and Danish.

While the respective organizations had very different scaffolding and missions and required different skill sets from its executives, the issue when Bill was hired --- just as it was when I came on board four years earlier, came down to a willingness of our respective governing boards to understand and accept the costs involved.

When probed indirectly for my opinion via community leaders with knowledge of each organization, I encouraged founders of DDI not to fret over the cost of hiring a full-time executive or to worry about running an extensive search if they already had a local candidate in mind who loved Durham and could do the job.  And that is what Bill turned out to be.

Bill has proven invaluable over the course of his soon-to-be twenty-year career.  It was my honor and pleasure to work closely with him across a wide range of partnerships whenever our missions coincided, more than we were acknowledged for,  perhaps due to an instance or two when our respective governing boards differed not about an objective but about process.

However, that never dampened our ability to collaborate jointly in tackling obstacles to Durham progress.

One of the challenges of running community organizations, such as I did over my now-concluded 40-year career spanning three cities, was answering to a constantly rotating board of seven to fifteen volunteers.

Boards such as this morph each year into a different personality as terms begin or expire and members come and go.  My longevity and success was a credit to my having worked in various communities with some of the most incredible board members for which any executive could hope to work.

But an experience early in my career, which was repeated four different times in three cities, resulted in my experiencing an annual performance evaluation which always seemed like the low point of every year.

In the third or fourth year of my career, during my performance review, I encountered a scenario that unbeknownst to me at the time would be replicated periodically over the succeeding four decades.

In these instances, what happened is that, instead of being used as an opportunity to give feedback and reconcile perceptions and expectations about my performance, an individual board member or two turned it into a gripe session about the level of compensation I received.

As it was that first time, it always began with one board member, never more than two, who for some reason, appeared to resent my compensation, regardless of how far I exceeded expectations and performance goals.

Never mind that the board contracted with me at a specific salary when I was hired, or that the individuals never addressed it with me directly, nor did the individuals involved base their opinions on any kind of relevant benchmark.

One of the first signs that such things were occurring was usually an attempt to “game” the scale which was used on an anonymous survey of my performance given to each board member.

This happened in my first destination when one reviewer gave me a “2” on each measure for which the scale was 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) while noting in the comment section that my performance had been extraordinary.

The second sign was that after “gaming” the review process, these board members would then attempt to sway other board members into disregarding their scores as they were being discussed and reconciled into an average.

During these instances, the proceedings would often consume all of the time meant for a constructive review process and it sometimes delayed the process by a month or two.

When you answer to a board, you answer to the will of the board as a whole, never to individual members.  The boards for which I worked would valiantly assert collective will over individuals with these issues in order to reach consensus, but the four or five times it occurred cast a shadow over review time each year.

Money wasn’t a motivator during my career, even back then.  So I usually took it as a compliment, although somewhat backhanded and in jest, whenever someone would say, “We don’t need to worry, he loves it here too much to leave.”

Fortunately, more enlightened members would immediately interject that the overarching strategy was not only to hire and retain the best possible talent and then to not only be equitable but to keep the organization in a position to be competitive whenever succession would inevitably occur.

After that first occurrence I was probably more receptive than I might otherwise have been when a few years later another destination sought me out, terminated its search for a new President, offered me the position at more than double my salary, and eventually tripling and quadrupling the amount to which that board member had objected in second or third year of my career.

Hopefully Bill was spared any of this during his career, but I know from boards on which I’ve served myself as well as comments raised at numerous conferences over the years that my experience was not unique.

All of this is to say that both Bill and I were fortunate to have great success on behalf of Durham and, while based on respective benchmarks for these types of organizations, we were certainly never overpaid, it may tempting for some to assert that maybe now is a time to dial back and try to get by on the “cheap.”

That would be a huge mistake and I am sure Bill’s soon-to-be-former board will resist that kind of thinking.  Because of the succession groundwork my former governing board did a decade before I retired, the organization appears to be soaring to much greater heights.

My advice to boards governing organizations tasked with creating change such as the one I led or the one from which Bill is retiring is to recognize that work like this must never be taken for granted even when the individual at the helm demonstrates the passion, determination and grit to make to look easy or because someone loves the community they represent – which in my opinion, is an essential ingredient regardless.

The years ahead will be even more challenging for Durham than those during which Bill and I teamed.  Durham deserves the best, but more importantly it must always seek and retain the best talent in order to preserve its distinctiveness in the face of forces who unwitting would make it generic or seek to marginalize and/or subjugate it once again.

Now is not the time to fall back.  Durham has overcome and transcended many obstacles that were holding it back, but it will need even more dynamic leadership to take it to the next level while preserving its incredible sense of place.

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