Burning My Bridges

I’ve written several times before about how I got into working bout committee at USA Fencing national tournaments, about how annoying it was for both me and my daughters for me to be right there at the strip watching them compete. For them, I was a distraction; for me, watching them fence was uncomfortably stomach-churning—there was nothing I could do to help them except refill their water bottles and try not to bother them. When someone suggested that I help out with bout committee (BC), I jumped at the opportunity—it gave me something useful to do far enough away from my daughters’ strips to eliminate the stomach-churning, but still gave me access to plenty of information on how they were doing.

This is me having fun.


Next thing I knew, I was working more tournaments than the girls were competing in. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t just helping with data entry—I was running competitions and then entire tournaments, assigning strips and BC staff, and dealing with questions and problems from fencers, coaches, parents, referees, and spectators. I discovered that I love running huge fencing tournaments—the bigger, the better. I love the combination of detailed and big-picture focus required to chair a tournament. I love watching the interpersonal dynamics: fencers & referees, fencers & parents, parents & officials, coaches & officials, officials & officials. I love watching fencers work their way through an elimination tableau, managing their intensity and stamina to keep winning all the way to the gold. I love watching fencers cope with disappointment and frustration to keep coming back and trying again.

my typical concrete playground

I’ve never been one for resort-type vacations, the kind where you sit on the beach and relax in the sun. Masochist I may be, but give me the 15-hour days within concrete walls, listening to the whines of scoring boxes and the screams of Cadet saber girls. Give me the parents who haven’t yet learned that it’s their kids who are fencing and not them. Give me the coaches who believe I’ve deliberately assigned their fencers as far from each other as possible within the venue. Give me the referees who never seem to learn that they should eat lunch when they’re told they should eat or they may never get another chance. Give me the generically awful concession food, the kids who roll their eyes at their overprotective parents, and the cranky and charming veterans. Give me the fencers tickled out of their minds to have won their first DE and those for whom winning gold medals has become almost routine. Give me the ten days of chaos and 6,500 7,000+ entries that is Summer Nationals and let me play.

I love running huge fencing tournaments.

the bigger, the better

So why am I ready to walk away from fencing?

_________________

One of the first—and most important—concepts we teach new BC trainees is “You will make mistakes.” Everyone involved in fencing learns this: fencers choose wrong actions, referees blow calls, BC staff mis-transcribe scores or names. What is crucial is what happens next—do we learn from our mistakes to prevent them from happening again? On the BC stage, that means we figure out how the error happened, and do what it takes to minimize the chances that it will happen again—refocus attention, improve staff training, alter our procedures, and if it comes to that, change personnel. Our mistakes, if they are unavoidable, should be brand new mistakes we’ve never made before.

Some of my tournament peeps
(l. to r., seated: Wayne, Other Rich, Nancy, Carla; standing: Marc, Irena, me, Coffee-Joe, Linda, Rich, Tanya, Brandon)

For several reasons, we are not learning: the United States Fencing Association is making the same mistakes it’s made for the past two Olympic quadrennials. A couple of weeks ago (courtesy of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words), I came across the perfect word to describe USFA’s current straits: “omnishambles.” Apparently gleefully in vogue to describe British politics, it is a combination of tragedy and farce in politics, encapsulating “serial misjudgments and misadventures.”

Among fencing’s omnishambolic aspects:

• USFA members often receive incorrect information from national office staff who neither know nor consult the appropriate rules and policies before answering questions from members. Avoidable errors in the processing and updating of tournament entries have caused event delays of 10–30 minutes at every national tournament this season. Confusion and misunderstandings about travel and hotel arrangements for officials have also been common. As noted in the draft USOC audit report (and not specifically addressed in the executive director’s April 26 report to the board), 24 individuals have left positions in the national office since 2008; the staff of the international department alone has turned over completely twice in the past two years. Such rapid turnover certainly helps to explain the staff confusion about fencing policies and procedures, but what explains this number of departures from a staff of only 13 or 14 individuals?

• Others can speak more authoritatively about USFA finances, but I cannot help but wonder at the sloppy controls noted in the USOC audit report draft: after the USFA financial debacle of 2008, how is it that our accounting procedures are anything less than squeaky clean?

(And while we’re on the topic, I can imagine an executive director who, on receipt of a USOC audit report draft, might share it with the full board, explaining what it says, where he thinks it’s wrong, and what revisions he’ll recommend to the USOC for the final version. But that’s not the ED we have. And I can imagine a board less concerned with the “premature distribution” of a document marked neither “confidential” nor “not for public distribution,” and more concerned with the substance of its content and the frustration that led to its public release. But that’s not the board we have.)

• The bulk of the work developing USFA policies is done—in theory—by various committees appointed by the board. In practice, the four “standing committees of the board,” six “additional principal committees,” six more “committees of the board,” and four “task forces” comprise an ungainly, labyrinthine governance structure, suffering from murky delineations of responsibility, diffused authority, difficult communications, and a notable lack of direction.

Consider one relatively simple example: determination of the national tournament calendar. Let’s see—that’s to do with domestic national tournaments, so obviously that should be determined by the Tournament Committee (an “additional principal committee”). But wait, there are other interested groups, too: the National Team Oversight Committee is concerned on behalf of the high performance director, the national coaches, and the elite programs; the Athlete Council has an interest, obviously; other groups (the ROC Committee, the Youth Development Committee, the Veterans Committee) have regional calendars dependent on and potentially affected by the national calendar. Now, of course, we have the recently created Tournament Oversight Committee, composed mainly of the chairs of most of these other committees, to help coordinate matters.

So whose job is it to take the lead on creating a future season’s calendar? The TC could start, but would end up needing to get input from the NTOC. How do we do that? We committee chairs don’t get a directory with emails and phone numbers for all these committee chairs, so we’ve got to start with tracking down contact information. If our calls don’t get returned or emails answered, we might decide to talk with the appropriate people at the next NAC (if we happen to see them and if they’re not in the middle of fencing or coaching or refereeing or running an event). Or maybe we have a nice chat, and the chair promises to consult with her committee and get back within the next couple of weeks. Or maybe it’s the TOC’s job to coordinate proposals? Who’s in charge here?

The next thing you know, it’s already April and everybody’s in panic mode because there’s no calendar yet for next season, and it needs to be decided right now so it can be posted to the website within the next couple of days, and suddenly there’s a proposal floating around which the committees only just found out existed, and oops, I guess we’ve got to go with this one because we don’t have the time any longer to consider all the ramifications more thoroughly, so whatever the problems with it, this is what we’re stuck with for next year. (But we’ll fix it for the season after next—we’ve got plenty of time to start thinking about it now.)

Apply the same process for qualification paths, classifications, team selection, and other policies as needed. Repeat annually.

Last August, I was cautiously optimistic that we could break this pattern when I was among a group—tournament-related committee chairs, as well as a few board members and national office staff—invited to come to a weekend-long “Tournament Summit” in Colorado Springs to work out a competition plan for the coming Olympic quadrennial. Then I saw the agenda—we were to start by identifying problems; developing solutions was not on the schedule. During a morning break on the first day, one of the board members mentioned that he’d been to a similar meeting four years earlier. “Nothing happened after that one, either,” he said. At the end of our weekend, the executive director gave a nice pep talk about what a good start we’d made and promised that he would send out the notes from our discussions to us within the week. He has yet to do so.

• Finally, there is our board of directors, which utterly baffles me. I’ve worked with most of these individuals at tournaments for years; I consider many of them friends. Individually, they are energetic and accomplished people—coaches, club owners, athletes, successful professionals in non-fencing businesses. As a governing entity, though, the board meanders unpredictably between ridiculously detailed micromanagement (such as 45 minutes in February spent discussing whether the automatic award of classifications to members of national championship teams should be discontinued) and unwillingness to exercise appropriate oversight of USFA operations (as in “we cannot micromanage office personnel”).

Watching board meetings is painful. Some parts are routine: approving the minutes, accepting committee reports, complaining about financial reports getting to the board too late to allow for thorough review before the meeting, hearing the executive director say, “I don’t know; I’ll have to look into that and get back to you,” especially disconcerting in regard to budget line items.

The Strategic Plan is much admired—by the board, at least. But without effective leadership and mechanisms for achieving its goals and objectives, it’s just a wish list, a long, comprehensive, intimidating wish list. Every so often I look at this part, relevant to my work on the TC:

USA FENCING STRATEGIC PLAN

Goal 4: Enhance and grow the sport
• Strategy 2: Review and refine tournament purposes and program structures.

• Objective 1: By April 1, 2012, have an approved plan for tournaments at all levels for the 2012-2016 quad. Proposed schedule to accomplish this objective:

  • September: Create a Tournament Oversight Task Force (TOTF) and sub- task forces for Local, Regional, Sub-National (SYC, ROC), National events and ranking/ratings. Each task force and sub-task force must have deadlines and a specific set of objectives to complete.
  • October: Formulate questions for committee and membership surveys and research.
  • November: Go live with surveys.
  • December: Formulate proposals based on research and survey results.
    Disseminate proposals to committees and general membership.
  • January: TOTF to provide final report for BOD including recommendations.
  • February: Present to BOD.
  • March: Vote on strategic tournament plan for 2012-2016 quad.

Ambitious and worthy objectives. They sound a lot like what the TC was originally meant to do, and quite a bit like what that Tournament Summit last August was intended to work on. I’m even a bit sad that the TOTF isn’t on the current task force list—it would have made a nice addition to the committee alphabet soup, fitting in well with the TC, the NTOC, and the TOC. That strategic tournament plan for the new quad might well have been a good thing to have done, too.

Our whole governance structure seems to be best at creating committees and making lists, but we’re not good at all with the follow-through, with the accountability. What we’re missing is leadership.

And that missing leadership is why I’m going to need a lot of persuasion to vote for any incumbents at all in this year’s USFA board elections. I’ve worked through the established channels. I’ve talked with national office staff and management and with elected board members about the problems that plague us, and I’ve seen no improvement. Going public is the one option I’ve not yet tried.

I wish I could say that I am alone in my frustration, but I am not. It is not my place, however, to speak for the other volunteers who’ve reached the same point I have, where we’re ready to walk away from the tournaments and the sport we love. They must speak for themselves.

Elvis has left the building.

21 comments on “Burning My Bridges

  1. Thank you for all your hard work Mary Griffith. You have been a rock and it is always a pleasure to see you at NACs. Please know, better times are coming and the fencing world is not going to let you go that easily…

  2. Pingback: Mary Griffith Rips USA Fencing on her blog and Walks Away… « Tim Morehouse

    • Thanks, Tim. I figured maybe if I yelled loud enough, enough people would notice to help make the necessary changes (and then I’d be able to playing at NACs and SN).–mg

  3. Thank you Mary, your candidness and perception is greatly appreciated. I hope that the board of directors takes notice rather than the pattern of a large percentage of them who have proven to be simply a rubber stamp for the inept management that has been exhibited by Greg Dilworth and the egregious choice of him as Executive Director by Kalle Weeks, let alone her failed leadership. Frankly, you have only scratched the surface, there is so much more that can be elucidated. Both of them would like to take credit for the wonderful success of our elite athletes, the Gold Medal of the Epee Team at the World Championships, the bronze of the Women’s saber team, the terrific cadet and junior results, etc. They hide behind these results as the basis for their being a success; however, these results came not as a result of enlightened leadership but in spite of it, thanks to the coaches, athletes. clubs and parents that have made it possible. The current fiscal position of the USFA that will leave the organization in dire straits after the Games, perhaps even causing the USOC to decertify the organization certainly exemplifies why new leadership is desperately needed. As Tim Morehouse indicated, I too hope that you will choose to remain involved. Hopefully the membership will take notice in the election and help to right this sinking ship.
    Carl Borack

  4. Mary, it has been a pleasure! I hope everything works out for you and your family. And by the way… I’d like to think I’m one of those “charming veterans”! ;)

    On a serious note (I acknowledge I can’t throw stones at this issue), I hope: 1) the USFA takes this to heart and not personally and maybe they can better themselves; 2) you would consider working on as an “advisory” role.

    It takes people like you to challenge people’s actions to make things better.

    Best regards,
    Mike Cho

  5. I’ve been out of the sport now for several years, and your post confirms that there is some wheel spinning still going on. Lots of apparent drive, very little traction. Thanks for this post.

  6. Thank you very much for writing this article. I specifically can relate to several aspects which you have outlined.

    –’Not enough people to do job X? Let’s form a committee! Let’s put anyone optimistic enough to volunteer on that committee to do the job! Who cares if they actually have experience or direct success producing results that improve the situation? It’s a warm body!’

    Or,

    –’Optimistic Person with Actual Skills Accepts Position. Realizes that the amount of documentation/cut corners/gaps in process are tenfold larger than what was described to said person. Person gets overwhelmed with the scale of said task; and unfortunately, said person also has a Non-Fencing Day Job that must take priority over the volunteer task. Person then is confused about what jobs need to be addressed first, and in a twisted version of attempting to discern Right-of-Way over this process, gets sucked into an endless triage of tasks that are all Priority Number One, and, when forced with viewing these simultaneous actions, is forced to admit that the action was lost, that the whole thing needs to be thrown out and started over, and that there’s no time to do anything else because everything must be done all at once.’

    I work in regulatory compliance, and write policies and procedures. I stepped into my job about two months ago. In that time, I’ve discovered that documents that should have been in existence for years do not; that content has been borrowed from other companies just to meet the base requirements; and that because no one understands even the online cloud computing system, no one bothers to make documentation a priority. So tribal knowledge persists. People leave positions. That knowledge goes with them.

    I’ve also been a Division Officer. All of this happens there, too.

    So, is the solution more government, more oversight, more committees? Hire people who have solid background experience at fixing the problems?

    I say, gut it and start over. Completely over. Obtain a project manager–an actual, certified Project Management Professional (PMP). Find one whose experience is within regulatory compliance, specifically a heavily-regulated industry like biotech, pharmaceuticals, or nuclear. Have them come in, get the big-picture of what the extent of the project will be–the aforementioned Audit Report is a good start–and just have them attack these issues by scaling them over time. This whole thing, fixing everything–it needs to be a structured process carried out in phases with measurable milestones, a solid and REALISTIC timeline, and a specific and justifiable budget.

    But all of this–all of these fixes–I’m going to take a risk here and state that the group who fixes these problems–with the exception of those who are policy/procedure Subject-Matter Experts who are utilized as references for the constituent fencers to have questions and concerns addressed–the people who organize and fix this need to be non-fencers. They need to be people who have absolutely no vested interest in fencing, so that there can be a high degree of assurance that there is no *conflict of interests* when it comes to executing the solutions that will get our organization healthy. It’s no good to hire someone who understands the concept of “budget variance” if they’ve written their petty cash expenditures into said budget. So there needs to be that delineation, some definite and unquestionable separation that can provide a high degree of assurance that zero conflict of interest exists.

    The last thing–anyone involved with that process, from National Office staff to any contractors hired to even Division Officers and EC members–we need a Code of Conduct and Ethics. Granted, it is entirely possible and probable that a lot of the problems we are seeing today have occurred due to a natural evolution of the process, a whole lot of unforced but absolutely necessary self- on-the-job training, and probably a lot of well-meaning people who just got either overwhelmed or disgusted with the whole business. But SOMETHING like a Code of Conduct and Ethics needs to be established to re-establish the morale and confidence of the constituent fencers in the organization. And there need to be consequences for violating that Code. It’s one thing to *say* you won’t do something untoward, but every individual must be held to an honor code. We ask the Referees to commit to and uphold one (it’s on the FOC site). Why not ask the same of those who would lead us?

    Again, I very much appreciate your thoughts and frustrations about these issues. There are many who share your sentiments. And we are disappointed that it’s come to being encouraged to quit. My own husband, my friends, anyone who’s been involved in my Division’s leadership in the last ten years or so–they all arrived at the point where they just said “Let it burn.” As frustrated as I myself become, and as little time as I end up with against my employment, I really, really don’t want it to get that way for me. I want to make things better for fencers. I want to see fencing thrive again in not only my own Division, but in what’s left of my “Section”. I want to see rival clubs attending each others’ tournaments again. I want people to put aside their rivalries and actually have fun with each other participating in our sport. It is easy to be cynical, it is also easy to be naïve that any one person can fix these problems overnight. One does not stop the Hoover Dam from flooding the valley by sticking one’s thumb in the wall to plug the leak. But neither does it happen with the constituents standing over those who would try to do the job, tapping their feet and checking their watches, and complaining to anyone who will listen that it isn’t good enough. So we all have to be patient if a new process is enacted, and whomever initiates that process needs to communicate with the membership-at-large about the efforts underway to fix the problems. People get frustrated when they receive no information about progress, challenges, or next steps. So no matter who we are, even if we’re not remotely involved with the process at the National level–even if we just show up to practice and just to fence once or twice a year–we have to work together and be supportive of the process if we want to see positive results.

  7. Many of us have been scratching our heads at the end results of the USFA’s procedures for some time, but had no real inside knowledge of how things got to the ridiculous state that they were in. Thanks for all your hard work over the years, and for shedding some light on the incredible mess that constitutes the structure of our organization.

  8. Many of these problems are typical of all the largely volunteer organizations and Boards that I have observed. This includes organizations with a small number of paid staff. This includes my experience with Fire Departments, Water and Sewer Districts, Martial Arts Organizations, and Home Owner Associations. In these kind of organizations, persons that have time rise to the top and not all of them are the creme. Some of the problems are a result of organizations to not delegate things or let certain persons do their job. The other is every one can veto a movement toward progress and no one person has the authority to make something happen. The membership never understands all the issues and continuously picks apart leadership for their action or inaction. We seem to have survived the worse economic torments that quasigovernment organizations have ever experienced. Success may be avoided bankruptcy.

    Many good persons get burned out and quit. I have been here myself in the organization types listed above and do not think these issues are unique to fencing.

    The bottom line is that we have tournaments and we have fun fencing in them. Quit your bitching and fence.

  9. Does anyone have any suggestions or know of anyone who wants to take the ED job, and has the skill set? Same question for the President spot?
    Is the best option for either or both a sports development professional, with a degree and experience in running large sports program?
    If convinced of someone’s ability to turn things around, I would be glad to campaign to replace Kalle with a more forward-thinking person in order to emplace a professional as ED and suspect many fencers would be happy to have a viable option to choose in the election if one can be located and convinced to run. Anyone reading the above comments would have to consider the value of a professional in the ED position, regardless of their fencing experience, so how do we manage to shake loose the elected officials so a proper ED can be found?

  10. Pingback: Now That I've Got Your Attention + Burning Bridges - Posts Worth Reading

    • Oh, good grief no, Chaz–I’m nowhere near qualified! (For one thing, the ED needs serious financial expertise that I don’t have.)

  11. Thank you for your post. As a parent with a child just getting into fencing and beginning the tournament scene, this is all good information and you have given me a lot of information to think about.

  12. MG, thank you so much for all of your hard work and time to serve the fencing community. Fencing has been the avenue through which I have received a lot, including a wife and something to share with my son. I agree with the perspective of Tony Gross’s post, in that the problems you are describing are in fact prevalent in every organization in America today. The problem is not USFA or the fencing community.
    The problem is every individual American.
    We see it every day:
    *when we get cut off in traffic and scream at the windshield – but cut someone else off 10 minutes later and don’t even notice that we did it;
    *when we call someone a name under our breath for not mowing their lawn – but 10 minues ago we through a cigarette butt on the street with no thought about the mess or who cleans it;
    *when we complain endlessly about how “all” politicians are crooks and they are all the same because they are all liars – but 10 minutes later we are convincing ourselves that we really do deserve that item we put on the credit card, or we are yelling at our kids for their messy rooms while we haven’t vacuumed in months, or we don’t back into a store to pay for what was mistakenly not charged, or we say we want to be physically healthier and then stuff more cookies into the maw,
    or when we say someone ought to fix our country and then can’t be bothered to know anything about how that coutry works, don’t vote at all, or vote blindly;
    or when we tell our bosses, teachers, friends those untruths to protect our own feelings or power or stuff.
    Every American needs to take a hard look at two things: lies and accountability
    Take a challenge, find out what a lie really is. Understand both those of commission and omission. Then for one week, do not lie.
    Take a second challenge, accept no lies from anyone around you. Do not remain silent. Call him out on it – gently, don’t be mean we don’t have to be mean.

    MG, thank you for pointing out an aspect of our lives, fencing and the governing body that makes local, state, national, and global tournments possible. Without these venues in which to pit ourselves against each other, for iron to sharpen iron, we would have no growth internally. You are making a difference, by what you do, and by what you say that brings understanding to others. There are two people of value in this world, those with a commitment and those who require the commitment of others. Please be encouraged by the posts you have see here and do not be weary in well doing.

  13. Pingback: It is time for a change in USA Fencing leadership - Be sure to vote

  14. Reading what precedes this and George K’s. e-mail, one can easily conclude that we need new leadership. So we can elect new leaders, but that does not necessarily result in success. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that we need new leadership, but we must remember history. Go back to the late 1980s, a time of minimal international success for the USFA (we did not have large numbers of fencers spending long periods fencing internationallly as we do now) and much unhappiness within the USFA. My friend, Michel Mamlouk, who founded the National Office during his first term as President in the early 1980s and was well regarded in the FIE, decided that he wanted to help. He ran for President as a reformer and won handily. Michel recognized the need for us to have a better international presence and more professional approach for our fencers. At that time the idea that we could win a World or Olympic Championship was so far fetched that the USFA offerred to give $100,000 to any fencers who accomplished this. (It took ten years, but our young women’s sabre team unexpectedly did it!). Michel was a successful business man who wanted us to eliminate waste and to spend our money more wisely (sound familiar?). He foresaw what was needed for success. However, he was overly critical of the status quo. This rubbed people the wrong way. The volunteer leadership was strongly entrenched and he lacked the political skill to advance his ideas. He tried, but failed to reform the USFA. However, he called attention to the need for change and his successor, Stacey Johnson (who defeated him) and her team, finally began moving the USFA towards the success that was dreamed of. Private efforts, e.g., the brilliant Westbrook Foundation, started. The influx of great coaches from Europe, who opened new clubs, attracted new fencers, taught new coaches and inspired our wonderful athletes, helped us to get :”over the hump” and has made for accomplishments that are truly astounding. But, as flawed as it was, the USFA and an army of volunteers also played a critical role in this.

    So we need new leadership, but it has to be smart, realistic and politically savy to make the necessary changes. Less ego, more transparency and openness to acknowledging and learning from our mistakes (and successes) would be delightful. It is time for the kind of USFA leadership that is able to finally parlay the amazing international results of our fencers and coaches to fulfill a dream: dramatic growth and sponsorship that solves our financial problems and secures the future success of American fencing.

    Larry Pinkus
    Formerly Southeast Section Chair, Club Owner
    and Veterans World Champion

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