Spotlight on Board: Julia Beck on Committee Liaising

Spotlight on Board: In this general bi-monthly series, individual OTW Board members will talk about their work, goals, and ideas from a more personal perspective.

Hi, my name is Julia Beck, and I joined the OTW Board of Directors in November 2011. I’m pleased to kick off this series, which will be more informal than our usual OTW blog posts. That also means that all views and opinions expressed in this post are subjective, not representative. Subsequent posts by Board members will help round out the picture, I’m sure.

Today, I wanted to describe my take on one central, but particularly invisible aspect of Board work: liaising. I’ll describe what this work looks like first, and will then touch on some inherent problems.

Board appoints members as liaisons to each committee and workgroup. (Here’s a short overview of our committees.) The idea is that the committee has an advocate that they can trust in their liaison, someone to back and represent the committee’s interests in Board.

The liaison for a committee is selected through a mix of personal affinity, familiarity with the committee, and chair preference. You’d assume that if a Board member is on a committee, they make a natural liaison, but I disagree; and we do try to switch things up in practice in order to prevent lock-in, to help with knowledge transfer and forge fresh alignments.

I’m currently liaison for the following: Volcom (Volunteers & Recruiting), Comms (Communications), Wiki (Fanlore), Survey Workgroup, Translation and I&O (Internationalization & Outreach). Luckily Survey Workgroup and Translation don’t need much Board involvement, and Ira will soon take over liaising I&O.

Here’s my approach to liaising in practice:

  • As a starter, I try to attend the committee’s meetings, or read transcripts when that’s not possible (Volcom’s meetings usually take place at 2am my time.)
  • I’m also usually on the committee mailing lists and try to at least skim.
  • I’m advising on any proposals or drafts, where requested. An example would be discussing the Category Change workgroup proposal with its lead Sole (it grew out of I&O, so was my purview then, but now Ira is Cat Change liaison. …yes, we seriously do call it “cat change” internally.) A counterexample would be the Code of Conduct, where Volcom need trust and space to work on this and to only present to Board and other committees when they’re ready.
  • I try to catch the chairs in particular in chat, where possible, and am generally available for all committee members – rainchecks, confidential issues, moral support, heads up, or just generally tossing around ideas.
  • I report back to Board about developments inside the committees that aren’t in the internal newsletter, and vice versa, and alert the committee of any upcoming developments that might concern them.
  • I try to procure whatever the committee needs from the Board, whether that is approval for new staffers or money for screencasting software.
  • I connect people and efforts, where I can, as a sort of communications conduit, using our internal tools. An example would be inviting interested staff to the Board’s open session to share their perspective on meta on the AO3, after Comms chair and Support staffer Lucy had flagged a chairs discussion on the topic with me by email.

It’s important to note that I understand the current liaising practice I’ve just described as a sort of stop-gap. Board members act as mentors, facilitators, and support to committees, but those are all tasks that could be externalized and delegated to a large degree in order to free up Board for more strategic and high-level work. In other words, we’re aware that our current practice is pretty micromanage-y. But the simple fact is that we largely don’t have these supportive systems and structures in place yet, and my position is that we can’t abandon chairs and staff to fend for themselves in that environment.

Relatedly, that’s why I’m so invested in Volcom’s work: they’re absolutely central to this reform effort, and Board needs to have their back while they do vital work like revising the intake process (how we sign up and assign volunteers) and drafting a Code of Conduct.

But even though I do believe that liaison work is necessary, it’s also true that six roles at once (temporary or not) is way too many. First, there’s the fact that the chain of command is muddled by my being my own superior, in a way. Then, some roles will inevitably conflict, and I have to prioritize a lot, making me feel guilty for not being as available as I should for “my” committees, nevermind that I always fall short of some essential bit of work. (And I don’t actually like feeling stressed and guilty. I’m not hero material.)

As an example, when survey workgroup negotiates a posting schedule for their Survey blog posts with Communications, I’m actually in three roles: survey lead, survey Board liaison, and Comms Board liaison. As Comms’ liaison, I should prioritize Comms’ interests. As survey liaison, I should push for survey’s interests. (If you’re German, please hum the melody of “Jein” by Fettes Brot now.)

Maybe that makes it clearer why I voted for expanding the Board by two seats. Liaising, unsustainable as it is in its current form, is still work that needs doing at the moment, and we need to be able to untangle roles. Spreading them out on more people is only one response, and neither the only nor the best one; mostly, Board members also need to stop chairing committees, but that’s a complicated topic that deserves a post of its own.

In case this post has raised more questions than it has answered, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll do my best to elaborate. I also irregularly post on OTW matters at julia-beck.dreamwidth.org.

And if you’re interested in another perspective on liaising, Ira Gladkova also talks some about this topic in her personal journal.

Thanks for reading!