Some Thoughts on How to Prepare to Serve on the PASS Board of Directors

From time to time I’m asked for advice and insight on running for and serving on the PASS Board. I feel like the answer to that might fill a small book! I don’t have time to write that and I don’t think it would sell a lot of copies anyway, so maybe a medium length blog post will be of some value.

Maybe a good starting point is to reflect on my time serving:

  • It was absolutely a time of growth that enabled me to do some next level stuff later on (no small part of that was the other people that served at the same time)
  • Transparency worked for me, I wrote a lot about my thoughts and activities.
  • I didn’t accomplish all of my goals (speaker bureau, SQLRally)
  • I picked a strategy of being an agent of change and that is not easy or comfortable. I can’t say I executed on it well in all cases.
  • Then and now the org struggles to balance for-profit vs non-profit activities
  • I expected it to be hard and it was harder than that. I didn’t see anyone join the Board that was fully prepared (and not sure you can be).
  • I was exhausted at the end of the third year.

In summary, I’m glad I did it. Would I do it again? Probably not. I think there are other ways for me to participate that play to my skills and interests.

So you’re thinking about running. Before you invest a lot of time, seek out people you trust and ask them – am I ready for this, can I be good at this?

Next is to think about preparation. While I think you’re never fully prepared, you should do all you can:

  • Have read the by-laws, the financial statements, the budget, and the minutes for the last 24 months, plus any blog posts. You should be able to fully discuss the business of PASS, not just the parts you care about or want to change. In particular you need to think about what ratio of doing business to doing good the org should have.
  • Build a serious network. Part of that is about having enough of a brand to get elected, but you need influence and a sounding board. Define serious? 1000+ on LinkedIn, plus a blog or Twitter or something else where you engage.
  • Serve a volunteer on any Board or board like situation. The dynamic is a lot different than the hierarchy at work. The officers are elected by the Board – the Board doesn’t work for the officers. Think about how that changes things.
  • Had discussions with multiple current or former Board members. Part of that is networking, part is seeking mentors, part is just trying to get a balanced view of how things work.
  • Understand the role of HQ. Ideally spend a day or more in Vancouver to see them work and build the relationships.
  • Talk to former members of the NomCom. What do they look for? Where do candidates go wrong?
  • Participated as widely as you can in the org and the community. Blogger, author, speaker, group leader, pizza orderer, SQLSaturday organizer. Do you know how to lead volunteers? What sponsors care about? Speakers? What it’s like to try to hold a group together in a small city?
  • Write down – yes, write – what you want to accomplish and why. Talk to people that can help you do that or tell you why your plan won’t work and needs to be better or different. [I find this to be the place that leads to the most disillusionment – have to either set realistic goals or know that its a moonshot]
  • Have some experience as a manager (or at least a leader)
  • Think hard about how you see risk. Data people tend to be risk averse. Being on the Board means sometimes taking some risks to see if ideas will work (and yes, you might end up wasting $100k or more if something doesn’t work out)
  • Learn how to have hard conversations.

The NomCom process is straight forward if you prepared as above. Take the time to fill out the application well (spend more than 15 minutes on it).

Campaigning. Do what works for you. Name recognition matters. It’s not the only thing, but if you haven’t invested in building your network it’s a lot harder to win.
  • Show up ready to work on Day 1. You’re not the newbie that can sit quiet for 90 days to figure it out, you have to get in the game from the start. Absolutely look to those already there to explain how things work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions or go a different way.
  • Understand that there are a bunch of smart people there, so there are 12 different views of everything. If you want to get an idea going, you have to build the foundation one person at a time. Politics? In the best sense, yes! Relationships matter.
  • Also understand that you’re joining in mid budget year. Your great idea won’t get funded until July, if then!
  • We – those that voted for you and those that didn’t – would like to know what you’re doing and why. There are things you can say and things you can’t, but most err on the side of saying nothing. Dare to edge up to the line in whatever way works for you. Not to buck the system, but because we need to hear from you and you need to hear from us.
  • Tell us the problem and your idea(s) for the solution before you implement them. Few things require action now. Maybe you’ll get a better idea, or something that makes your idea better. Maybe you’ll spark an uprising that makes you understand why your idea is not good (or not explained well)!
  • Vote how you will, but support the decision/implementation. Don’t feel obligated to vote yes for the sake of solidarity.
  • Don’t play small ball. It’s ok to pass on requests to fix this or add that, but don’t get into tuning the SQLSaturday database or counting how many paperclips HQ uses. Your value isn’t your technical skills, at all.

Maybe a different example will help you think about your readiness. Can you talk to your CIO/CEO on their level when needed? Can you follow how they set goals, assess risks, the kinds of conversations they want to have – big picture stuff, diving in if there are pieces they don’t understand or that worry them? Or, have you ever worked for a CIO that wants to tell you how to write code/queries, wants to use the flavor of the month tech, that can’t let go of being the alpha geek?

I hope none of that will discourage you from being a candidate. It’s not easy, nor should it be, but it’s worth doing. When you’re done after one term or more I hope you can look back on that time as being well spent in terms of serving the community and in personal growth.


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