In everyone’s life there are days that define who we are, and who we will become. For me, Thursday, November 29, 2012 was one such day.
On that day the normally quiet atmosphere at the International Association of Business Communicator’s (IABC) San Francisco headquarters was downright silent. There were strangers scurrying around the office, and normally open doors were shut tight. By the end of the workday ten staff had lost their jobs and another five had been given three months’ notice.
This is my story surrounding the circumstances of the layoffs and events that may have impacted the eventual resignation of IABC’s executive director, Chris Sorek.
As a professional business communicator of more than 30-years, I understand the need for transparency – this is the story that I can legally share, as well as some of my recommendations and questions intended to start the dialogue for change.
A Defining Moment
Within minutes of my return to the office from lunch, I was one of the first to be called into the executive director’s office where I was told my services were no longer needed at the organization.
Three more senior staff members then entered Sorek’s office and came out minus a job. In less than thirty minutes, half of IABC’s staff had been dismissed, with ten staff members being given their notice as a group and two being dismissed by phone.
The office mood shifted from silence to stunned. What followed the deafening quiet were tears, nervous laughter and the obvious shock at such a sweeping termination.
Shock then turned to questions.
Did you get laid off? Yes, did you? What, you got laid off too? Let’s all go to the pub around the corner to celebrate!
That’s right – celebrate.
An Uncertain Future
Even with an uncertain future facing each of us, for many it was a relief to be dismissed from an environment that in less than six months had gone from good to bad to seriously toxic.
To be fair, during that time period the staff had been told on more than one occasion that changes were on the horizon, and there would most likely be a reduction in the workforce.
We certainly weren’t aware of the sweeping nature of the layoffs which included the entire marketing and communications team. This at a time IABC needed communications expertise to engage members, answer questions and share the story with the many members who are passionate about the organization.
Nor did anyone expect that the entire IT team would be given three months’ notice – then later asked to stay when it became evident the technical network would be at considerable risk without staff.
I was surprised so many younger staff, who could have been re-trained into other jobs at IABC, were also let go. I wondered, “were they released because they might retain loyalty to their colleagues who had been dismissed or were the lay-offs of younger staff a way to avoid possible charges of ageism if only the senior staff were let go?”
To understand just how depressing IABC HQ had become, let’s step back to the months preceding the layoffs.
Sorek’s Leadership Questioned
It began at the 2012 World Conference, where Sorek was invited as a guest – not yet employed by IABC – and immediately started barking orders. The shock and confusion of the staff was palpable and played havoc with their ability to focus on the multitude of conference tasks.
In late July I attended a staff meeting where Sorek made a blatantly derogatory comment to a few of the senior staff. Those staff members later confronted him and informed him that his comments were not only intolerable, but could be in violation of various governmental regulations.
At a marketing/communication meeting during that same time period, I was visibly shaken when told by Sorek in front of others that I had no experience in marketing and communications.
Stunned would be an understatement. Me, with thirty years’ experience – three of them at IABC, numerous accolades, and a year after receiving the coveted Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) designation, being told I had no experience in marketing and communications was devastating.
Why did I spend my own time studying; using newfound knowledge to build well-rounded strategic plans, develop and implement measurement strategies and market so many programs for IABC?
While devastated and shaken, I resolved to continue a professional approach to my work.
These incidents were just the tip of the iceberg that had turned IABC’s headquarters into a “toxic culture”.
On any given day you could walk into my office, or for that matter the office of almost any senior staff, and find a young staff member seeking advice after being hurt and angered by the manner in which Sorek treated them and the continuous threat to their job security.
Why, you may wonder, did staff refuse to speak up? Many of us did.
Many were concerned their jobs were in jeopardy; others hoped that the negative environment would eventually settle down.
On the day Sorek told me I was incompetent; I did confront him. From then on, his interaction with me became increasingly limited and his tone increasingly terse.
For all of the frustration, I hoped that his attitude toward staff was just a phase, a way for him to gain control of his operation. I hoped eventually he would become the supportive leader needed to motivate and engage staff, as well as members.
I was tired. Tired of going to work in a rotten atmosphere every day. One thing was becoming clear; I was no longer welcome at IABC.
Life After Layoff
After the layoffs, I took time to gain some perspective on what had happened.
I kept asking myself, as well as others: “Do I have a moral obligation to be open about what I know?” “Do I have responsibility for the welfare of the people left behind?” “Would I be taken seriously or would it be assumed that I was acting out of revenge?”
”I have thought long and hard in making the decision to come forward on this issue,” I wrote the Board in a January 2013 email outlining my concerns. “Not only is it my legal and ethical responsibility, I believe that I have a moral obligation to the IABC staff, to the association membership and to all of you who are responsible for IABC’s reputation.”
A few days after receiving my email detailing Sorek’s actual comments and treatment of staff, IABC Chair Kerby Meyers informed me the Board would be undertaking an independent investigation into my concerns.
Six weeks later, Meyers informed me the investigation – handled by an independent investigator/attorney – confirmed my allegations. Meyers explained the Board would take steps to work with Sorek to address and correct behavioral issues.
Of course, my personal and professional curiosity was piqued and I wanted to know what those steps would be.
My original reasons for speaking up were quickly taking second place to an indignant self-righteous attitude, and all I was getting from Meyers was “steps to correct behavior.”
My perspective soon changed and I understood Meyers legally couldn’t tell me. The law protects personnel issues and details surrounding them.
The Challenge of Being Human
I understand the challenges the Board has faced managing a difficult personnel issue, respecting privacy, as well as listening and responding to issues brought forth by members and staff.
I believe that the IABC Board, for all of the challenges, has tried to do the right thing. I cannot in good conscience, question their integrity or their intentions. Each of us might think we could have done a better job, but we can only know the answer after being put to the test.
Transparency is a sticky wicket. Its value is in providing stakeholders with information, welcoming healthy dialogue and gaining trust and credibility. Its downfall can be the manipulation of truth and the ruin of reputations.
In communications there are always possible missteps.
The Board’s focus on creating change to move the association toward new territory, while exciting and pivotal for IABCs future, may have ignored the more immediate ramifications of change. During the process many people thought, as I did, time would right the immediate challenges.
Ignoring the situation, or having a desire to think it temporary, may have blinded some to the negative atmosphere that has impacted IABC’s culture, staff and members.
Each time a new staff member is hired, whether an executive director or an executive assistant, a risk is taken. No matter how good the resume, or how skillful the presentation, no one can be sure the new hire will be a good fit within the culture and expectations of an organization. The assimilation, or lack thereof, can often take months to recognize.
Leadership and Change During Turmoil
Throughout the turmoil, volunteer leadership and staff have kept the strategic plan moving forward.
CW Magazine, under the leadership of the content team, has gone digital and supports a financially sustainable future for IABC. The online library is now open to members, and a new website is in development.
The accreditation program changes are under way, and this year’s Gold Quill – even with technical problems experienced by some applicants – was brilliantly laid out.
An in-depth change-communications plan, developed by past Chair Adrian Cropley and I, with input from various volunteers, will guide the organization’s future strategic communications.
Volunteers and staff of the upcoming World Conference have put together a stellar cast of speakers and events to challenge and educate attendees.
Strong, intelligent and knowledgeable staff and volunteers have implemented these strategies. All of which were under way and reviewed and approved by the Board well before the arrival of Sorek.
IABC is now in a position to refocus on a vista of opportunities ripe for the taking.
Members and non-members must have an outlet to talk, question, criticize and learn. That is why the conversation being held on social media is so important. It is, however, time to lay down our swords and start to get on with the business of building value for the members of this incredible organization.
As the former vice president of communication and marketing for IABC, I worked closely with both staff and volunteers across all departments and gained knowledge and insights that can help the discussion move forward.
Following are my recommendations – and an invitation for dialogue – on building a better IABC:
- Accountability Across All Levels of the Organization - From the members to journalists, staff and leadership; being accountable for professional behavior, modeling appropriate work styles and leading with best practices that reflect well on the association should be front and center.
- Authenticity - “We contribute authentic results when we authentically contribute,” according to IABC member Mark Schumann. “That only happens when we focus on the truth we face, not the fiction that we can create.” Keeping legal factors in mind, we need to be as open and honest as possible to earn the respect and trust of those scrutinizing our organization.
- Critical Staffing Issues – The technology challenges IABC currently experiences are emblematic of the association’s inability to communicate digitally. A fully functional IT team is essential. The team must have the resources and the ability to implement a robust system to ensure member interaction – from welcoming new members to creating a personal web experience that aids members in reaching their career goals and provides for interested groups to join together in sharing knowledge and best practices. While this platform is currently in design, IABC cannot function without a professional IT team.
A second staffing need is the re-implementation of chapter relation’s leader. Interaction with chapter leaders creates a connection invaluable to incoming volunteers and builds IABC’s reputation and growth at the local level.
- Accreditation – I see a bright and strong future for the accreditation program. While IABC needs to continue to push forward on the new accreditation program, I would take it one step further. Open accreditation to non-members who can proudly display their ABC’s, bringing more attention and credibility to this hard won accolade. Entrance fees for exams, an annual fee for continued use and bi-annual exam fees can create a new revenue stream for the association.
- CW Magazine and the Online Library – A subscription service for non-members can be developed and geared toward the 10,000 non-members participating on LinkedIn. While LinkedIn group members may not be interested in membership, offering CW Magazine and the research available in the online library can be lucrative, and a marketing tool for non-members who can then be moved to full membership.
- Marketing and Communication – IABC must become fully committed to a sustained, multimedia marketing and public relations effort aimed outside the organization. At international and local levels, the investment in a three-year marketing strategy would impact awareness and grow membership, providing Headquarters and chapters with the credible reputation they so rightly deserve.
- Global Growth – Form partnerships with international consultants to target global growth. Too often the legwork is left with chapters whose members have little time and few resources to make actual inroads. Well-placed business communicators with marketing and public relations expertise already exist in IABC’s membership. Funding could come from commissions for each new member. Long-term gains can well outweigh the initial investment.
- New Executive Search – The search and interview team for the next executive director needs to include members with association management experience. The understanding and experience they offer will be a great benefit to the internal and external needs of IABC. At least two experienced IABC staff members should also be included on the search and interview team.
- ASAE Resources – The organization needs to take full advantage of resources offered by the American Society of Association Executives (http://www.asaecenter.org/). ASAE offers training for new executive directors and Board chairs that help lay the groundwork for a healthy future. The long-term impact could create the blueprint needed to implement the association’s mission and vision.
While all of these recommendations may cost the organization in the short term, we must focus on the longer-term. IABC is a financially viable organization, and as the saying goes – “You gotta pay to play”.
Each of us will continue to face days that define who we are, and where we are going. November 29, 2012 taught me who I want to be.
Six months later, given the passion I still have for the organization, as well as the value I find in its people and resources, I want to be a member of IABC and to be a part of its continuous success.
Paige Wesley is the former Vice President of Marketing and Communication for IABC.
Her 30-years of expertise in association management includes 10 years as the director of marketing and corporate relations and two years as a PR professional with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; five years with the National Association of State Universities and three years with the American Floral Marketing Council.
Wesley is currently pursuing consulting opportunities in leadership coaching and development, and speech-writing. She can be reached at email@example.com.