This story originally appeared on Writing Boots, the blog of former Ragan writer David Murray. We reprint it with his permission. -ed.
Perhaps you heard that the longtime paid executive director of the International Association of Business Communicators announced her retirement last May.
But did you know that when Julie Freeman left office Dec. 31, the association had still not hired anyone to replace her? So they brought in John Clemons, a longtime IABC volunteer and association booster, who was coincidentally leaving his community relations job at Raytheon, to act as interim president.
He’ll commute from his home in Virginia to manage the San Francisco staff until a new executive can be found.
What’s taking so long to find an executive director? How was it that Clemons happened to be available at the precise moment Freeman flew the coop? Why was it necessary (and wasn’t it expensive?) to bring in an IABC member (with a communication skill set) as opposed to appointing a senior staffer (with association management experience)?
These were the obvious questions that occurred to me when I learned of this whole thing—on Facebook, where Clemons’ IABC chums congratulated him on the role.
I also felt a pang of guilt, because since I’ve been at Vital Speeches these last few years, I haven’t paid much attention to IABC. Before that, I’d covered the association for most of two decades for The Ragan Report, and I was usually the only journalist who did. The annual press conference at an IABC International Conference usually consisted the outgoing volunteer chairman, the incoming volunteer chairman, Julie Freeman and me.
I’d covered the association in fat times and in lean times—like the time, right before Freeman came on board, when IABC was on the verge of collapsing due to some utterly imbecilic management moves made possible in part by a lack of outside scrutiny.
And now to learn on Facebook that IABC can’t seem to replace Freeman and have appointed John Clemons in her stead …
So I sent a quick note to Clemons, who said he didn’t know anything about the search for a permanent executive director, because he’s not on the search committee. I asked him why he was leaving Raytheon, and he replied: “I can tell you that I left Raytheon on Jan. 2.”
Candidly, John has never been terribly candid. So I shrugged, and wrote to Freeman.
When I didn’t hear back from her, I asked another IABC stalwart, a woman I’ve known for two decades, who usually tells it like it is. She told me that IABC had actually found an executive director who the board had liked, but that the candidate’s husband had gotten a better job and she’d spit the bit. So they had to go back to square one.
No big deal—stuff that had apparently been shared in one form or another with IABC members—but she asked that I keep her comments off the record, and referred me to IABC’s current volunteer chairman, the Australian communication consultant Adrian Cropley.
I know Adrian, having met him on a trip to Melbourne a few years ago. But I know Shel Holtz better. And since he and his pal Neville Hobson did a long interview with Clemons on their FIR podcast that didn’t ask any questions surrounding the circumstances of IABC’s current leadership situation, I sent him a needling note: I asked him if he’s concerned, now that Ragan doesn’t bother covering IABC, that nobody is watching things at his professional association. I suggested that maybe he ought to “remember your journalistic roots” and ask questions and not let interview subjects “spout the moldy old platitudes and non-answers.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised when Holtz essentially told me to get my own damn podcast.
As he and I exchanged conciliatory e-mails—we’re longtime friends and our relationship has been characterized by chippy debates—I finally wrote to chairman Cropley.
By this time, I was getting agitated.
Adrian, I wandered into this with an honest question about this ungainly moment in IABC’s governance—and with a little embarrassment from having not paid enough attention to the association for awhile. (I also worry that no trade reporter is really covering the association the way we used to at Ragan.)
And the response I’m getting ranges from nervous to tight-lipped to hostile—and these are my friends!
Talk me down, Adrian. Tell me what’s going on, and let me get back to my blissful ignorance.
Cropley wrote back to me with a few pleasantries, and then:
Agree you should have come to me first. I don’t know why you feel you have had nervous or tight-lipped responses. …
For your peace of mind, let me share where we are at point in the process—and this is all very open information. IABC selected a wonderful candidate in our first round, and the candidate was very excited about the opportunity. However, circumstances changed rather quickly in the candidate’s personal life. Namely, the candidate’s spouse was also offered a new opportunity, and they were trying to make decisions in the best interest of their family. In the end, our candidate felt that the best decision for her family was stay put with spouse and not to uproot their children in a move to San Francisco. So, she reluctantly declined the offer.
So, we started the search again. And as you know, senior level searches do take time. We are balancing the desire to move quickly with the goal of finding the best person to lead IABC in this next phase of the association’s development. With John as the interim leader, we have the time to do this right.
While the process is open, we respect the confidentiality of the candidates. Just like any other job search. All of the candidates we interviewed, including the finalist, wouldn’t want their current employers to know that they’ve been looking elsewhere.
The board has responsibility for voting on the finalist for executive director. Of course, they want to meet the candidates and interview them in-person before they take a vote. Our board is truly international, and they only meet in person three times a year. The search committee is bringing the most qualified candidates before the board when they meet in person in February.
As for John Clemons and his employment with Raytheon that is completely John’s business. John is a former chair and highly respected among IABC members. When the need for an interim leader became clear, John was available and willing to support IABC in this capacity. The board has the utmost confidence in John to lead the staff until a permanent new executive director is hired.
I appreciate your interest in IABC and trust that my note addresses your concerns.
I wrote back with some follow-up questions. The obvious questions, only one of which he had even begun to answer. And then—it was a Saturday, and on weekends one doesn’t feel quite as professional as one feels during the week—I sent a follow-up e-mail with the subject line, “One more thing.”
You’re answering the questions “For your peace of mind?” Adrian, I’m not some cranky IABC member who habitually comes to you with far-out conspiracy theories. I’m a journalist who has covered IABC for two decades, who has focused his attention on other things, was surprised to find out that IABC has no permanent chairman. So I asked the people I knew. And I got ducked, dodged and kicked. And then I went to the chairman, and he condescended to me with this “peace of mind” business, and then contradicted his condescension by saying, “I appreciate your interest in IABC.”
Also, and this is just a question of manners: It’s not good form to end letter to a journalist, or anyone else you respect, by saying, “trust that my note addresses your concerns.” Instead you say, “Let me know if you have more questions.”
I know. I am an asshole. Recognizing this too, Cropley moved for a phone call. Which we had, yesterday. And of course on the phone, I was much less of an asshole. Cropley was nicer, too.
Cropley explained that the candidate turn-down happened in November and he immediately began casting around for possible interim executive directors. Paid senior staffers were among those considered, but every staffer was deemed too busy to take on the added role, and to “back-fill” their jobs would be impractical.
(Though neither party will say how) somehow Cropley ascertained that John Clemons was soon going to be leaving Raytheon (though neither party will say why he left Raytheon). Clemons was seen as a friendly IABC vet who would nurture the staff through the transition. And actually, Cropley says, the delay was a blessing in disguise, as “it allowed staff to let go” of Freeman before getting a new permanent boss.
Despite the fact that Clemons is indeed commuting to IABC’s San Francisco headquarters from his home in Virginia, the arrangement isn’t costing IABC any more than it would have cost to keep Freeman on, Cropley says. He’s not making the trip every week, and he’s only working three days a week in any case.
Meanwhile, the search committee has selected candidates for the executive director job and the board meets again in February to consider this crop. Assuming someone gets the nod, Cropley’s hoping the new chief can start in March.
From what I can tell, it’s all good—just as everybody told me all along.
“To be honest no one really cares and apart from you no one has really shown any interest,” Cropley wrote me before our call; on the phone, he told me that he hadn’t immediately understood that I was grilling him as a journalist. And I told him that I thought this whole awkward mini-fiasco occurred precisely because no one has shown any interest over the last couple of years. An organization that expects a nosy journalist to ask impertinent questions at awkward moments is more ready to answer such questions.
Cropley agreed, and he and I both looked forward to my covering the IABC International Conference here in Chicago in June (I’m speaking there too). And, depending on the time, resources and platform I have (my Writing Boots blog don’t pay my travel expenses), we agreed it would be good if I—or someone, anyway—covered IABC business more regularly in the future.
Adrian and I reckon that’ll be better for everyone.
Don’t you agree?
David Murray, a former Ragan reporter, is now editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly collection of the best speeches in the world. He also blogs regularly on communication issues at Writing Boots.