Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Losing Phil Nelson

Losing Phil Nelson at this point in time is bad for Columbia.  The decision not to renew his contract shows either an absence of forethought or an impetus for revenge.  While the former may be forgiven, the latter cannot.

 Lost in all of this is a discussion of context.  Ask anyone in Columbia, even the most removed out-parceler, and they will describe Columbia as going through a period of growth and change.  All of our landmarks - changing.  All of our assets - growing old and being replaced.  All of our plans - in flux.  It is within this context that the leader of our $62 million HOA/Open Space Management Corporation/Recreation and Parks Department is being replaced.  In essence, we're asking the next President of the Columbia Association to board a helicopter while it is flying full speed, figure out its controls, and, while doing so, maintain altitude and direction.

I accept the proffer from CA Board members that it was precisely the dynamics of change that prompted them to go "in a different direction".  I have a much harder time with the reasons offered for not bringing Phil back.

A.  Phil was not a strong enough leader.  From the first day I sat at the Board table, I heard Phil say something that he will most likely be repeating until the day he leaves - "Tell me what you want to do and I'll get it done."  At some points, Phil practically begged for direction.  In those instances where the Board set policy (Aquatics Master Plan, Connectivity Master Plan, Lake Dredging), he executed.  But Phil was never going to be the one setting the policy.  He deferred to the Board.

The problem with this approach goes back to something I've said many times before: When the CA Board comes to a fork in the road, they pick it up...but only after four months of meetings to set the policy for selecting who will pick up the fork.

If we had a Board that could make difficult decisions in a confident, certain, and final manner, Phil Nelson would have been enabled to take Columbia to the next level.  We've already seen this with the manner in which Phil handled CA finances, a matter that may have been beyond the ken of most Board members.  As noted by Luke Lavoie: "In 2009, when Nelson took over, approximately 18 cents of every revenue dollar earned by CA was used to pay debt service. That number is projected to be reduced to 4 cents in fiscal year 2016."  (Yeah, we definitely need to get rid of this guy.)  All the while, the Board has voted to cut CPRA liens (below the rate of inflation) and expand services for lower costs.

Phil was not a bold leader, but that's not what he was hired to be.  Phil was hired to execute by a Board that appeared to be intimidated by personality-driven leadership.  For doing exactly what he was expected to do, Phil lost his shot at another term.

B.  Phil was not out in the community enough.  This one strikes me a bit like "Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?"  I truly hope that this was not a real consideration when deciding not to renew Phil Nelson's contract.  It just seems petty.

And hypocritical.  One of the benefits of being on the CA Board is that you are invited to attend all of the events that the Columbia Association sponsors.  I enjoyed this opportunity whenever available, not just as a perk, but moreso as a chance to create catalysts and do more for the community. Nevertheless, time after time, Board attendance at these events would be limited to one or two members.  The Board failed to show any interest in socializing with other community, business, and government leaders outside of the dinners hosted by CA on CA property.  Certainly, this must be some reflection of how they, personally, prioritized the need to be "out in the community" and its importance for the organization.  Yet for Phil, the Board's "employee" subject to their direction and command, these events were crucial to his job performance.

In a small town with big egos, Phil Nelson had made himself a player.  Sure, some things were done over his head between Howard Hughes and the County, but he made sure to stick his foot in the door whenever an opening was available.  All the while, when his negotiating or deal-making required Board approval, that approval would be stymied.  The County needs a utility easement?  They should pay us $100,000.  The County needs to borrow our snow equipment?  What rent are we charging them?  There's a proposed pathway that runs across our land?  Who said they could build it there?

Just as noted above, Phil's wings were clipped.  Attending the Spring Party or Wine in the Woods would not have changed that.

What now?

The CA Board needs to hire someone who will fight back.  They must hire someone with enough confidence, sophistication, and (frankly) stubbornness to create a coherent vision for CA.   I am not recommending discordance between the Board and the CEO.  Rather, I am advocating for a leader who will be comfortable leading the Board.  We can leave the discussion of whether it is a good idea to have 10 board members elected in low-turnout, off-season elections by paper ballot for another day (Electronic Voting - PLEASE), but I think we can all agree that to the extent there needs to be a change in the President, it needs to be this. 

I am optimistic that those considered for this position will read this post and have a full understanding of the challenges that await them.  The CA Board is made up of good people who care about their community.  It just lacks coherence and direction.  If the next President can offer that, the Columbia Association still has a chance.

Closing Note:  There are a number of heavy criticisms of the CA Board in this post, but I want to be clear that these criticisms are not intended for Board members individually, but rather a description of how they act as a unit.  If we're auditing the leadership of the organization, we have to look beyond the President. 

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!