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IBMA Board Hemorrhaging Continues with Three More Resignations

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IBMAThree more board members of the International Bluegrass Music Association have tendered their resignations. Brian Smith, Henri Deschamps and Elizabeth Wightman joined others who have earlier submitted letters of resignation including Executive Director Nancy Cardwell, Craig Ferguson and Dwight Worden. Board Chairman Jon Weisberger had also offered to resign however the recent board vote was to not accept that resignation.

Resigning members have offered differing reasons but all follow on the heels of the resignation of Executive Director Nancy Cardwell following a "no-confidence" board vote after she pulled off the most successful World of Bluegrass event in the Association's history and, restored its image to members and non-members alike. Once again, the common element that keeps popping up is the Chair, Jon Weisberger. Weisberger's strategy to have a board of his friends make the resignation decision, instead of himself, has once again worked in his favor and effectively shifted the blame of his retention on the board to others. What he should have done was just resign. He was also the focus in the previous board uprising episode when the IBMA lost David Crow.

After the massively successful World of Bluegrass including the move to Raleigh, support from Raleigh's business community, rave reviews from one end to the other, and a financial success for both the organization and the community, a positive new image for IBMA, the board somehow found it necessary to hold a closed board meeting that resulted in the no confidence vote for their Executive Director. This shocked the membership, community, businesses, fans and apparently some on the board. How so many could see the positive impact of Cardwell's leadership, while some on the board could not, remains a mystery. Was this another buddy-buddy board decision? We will probably never know.

The IBMA board has been way too big for many years. An association of this structure should have a board of no more than 9 members (odd numbers desired to avoid tie votes). The board could probably function very well with seven. The current structure is for 19 members -- way too many. Also board members should be business oriented and not necessarily function oriented. The board's goal is to drive the entire association forward as a business -- as a whole. Having a board comprised of narrow interests within the association may not be serving the board the way it should. While based on good intentions and good ideals, the reality is that it may not be functioning as intended.

A board comprised of a sponsorship, contracts and grant writer, treasurer and budgeting, business development/outreach, and other business functions would probably be preferential to one designed for songwriters, labels, artists, etc. Each board member should represent all of the members and serve the entire association as a whole. Selective interests in specific areas can create a tug-of-war for the recognition and also, over the limited resources available, as each tries to gain as much as possible for their respective constituents. A board of 7 or 9 is all that is necessary. Any more adds too much confusion and noise to the picture.

A significant part of the membership has indicated a distrust of the board, or at least some members of the board, for many years. Cardwell did much to turn that perception around and to regain a lot of that lost trust back. The association saw real and positive change under her watch. Trust returned. Image improved. Excitement and energy were restored into the feel of IBMA. Then came the board's reaction to Cardwell's performance, two more resignations and now three more. If that doesn't send up a bright flare that there is trouble in the core of the board, then probably nothing will. Apparently, to some, their remaining on the board is more important than the survival of the association and its board.

Elizabeth Wightman seemed to sum it up best when she wrote, "I cannot continue to serve on a board which I feel blatantly disregards the wishes and requests of the members it serves. The board has taken no true action to address the membership’s lack of faith in our current leadership and I cannot support that lack of action. There are significant issues that are essentially (in my opinion) being swept under the rug."

This is a topic which, over the years, I've mentioned in these columns many times before. The association seems to address internal issues with silence. Shut up and the issue will go away. They hope that in time, people will just quit talking about the problem and life will settle down and go on as it has before. Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was. The problem is that the poison doesn't go away -- only the discussion about it vanishes, for a while anyway. That poison continues to ferment and grow until it resurfaces again and again with the same silent treatment as the cure. Each time the board has erupted, the eruptions have become greater in scope. The silent treatment solution has repeatedly proven not to work for over a decade. I believe this is what Henri is referring to when he says he is still waiting to see fundamental change that never seems to occur.

Brian Smith echoed this when he wrote, "I share neither the chair nor the majority of the board’s assessment of our current situation, of the changes needed, of the significant challenges we face, style, logic or order in which change must occur; all required to move forward in the all-important areas the IBMA needs to improve in."

Smith also noted, "I deeply believe the organization is quickly in need of introspective review and experienced senior leadership, not only at the Executive Directors position but other positions as well and do not feel I can offer acceptable guidance under the current model. I do not wish to be a distraction to the board, which is made of up esteemed colleagues and friends and in order that they move forward I felt this was the only prudent option remaining."

All three commented around the topics of leadership, the chair, and the necessity for change. There has been a world of discussion about change within the IBMA and its direction but, not a lot of communication indicating the desired destination or route to get there. Without knowing where you want to go, it is difficult to plan a navigation route in that direction. To that end, it isn't clear what the change is that these board members were seeking. We have a chair and his supporters on the board. Whatever the chair desires, the chair gets. This is not the way a healthy and functional board operates. Where even the appearance of a conflict of interest exists, trust will be lost. That appearance is a strong image today.

To make the necessary changes will be a difficult but, not insurmountable, task for the association. It will be a structural change with a new paradigm necessary to change how things are done. I don't see any current board members remaining if this is to happen. They can't and expect the trust element to be healed. Moving from a representative board to a business functional board would be a good thing. This way, every board member represents the entire membership -- not just their peer sub-group. Every functional board position serves to improve the entire association -- not just a small faction of it. And, finally, the functional board treats the association as a real business with functions defined by real business need. It would be a good and healthy change.

The membership sincerely questioned the move to Nashville. The topic has really never settled down. Raleigh was an ideal new venue for the annual trade show and convention, World of Bluegrass, and its associated functions. The members liked it. The Raleigh community liked it. The businesses supported it. The image of the IBMA improved an order of magnitude. It looked, for awhile anyway, that the association was finally going to give the membership and the fans what they wanted. The only thing that remained a problem, in the eyes of many, was that the association was still rooted in Nashville. Deep down in the bowels of the association something is still smoldering and building up steam. We are seeing that repeat eruption, that has happened before, occurring once again.

The association needs to stop, take a step back and, as Smith noted, take a deep review and inspection of where they are, how they managed to get into this situation. Without knowing that, they can't find their way out. Much of this all started with the decision to relocate the IBMA to Nashville a decade ago. A large amount of discontent with that decision has been on the back burner for a very long time. In fact, that was a significant factor in the decision to move World of Bluegrass out of Nashville.

The association is hemorrhaging its top leadership board members and its Executive Director. The focal point keeps indicating the Chair and his friend board members. If the IBMA is to survive long-term, it needs to actively address the root of its problem and not go silent once again. It is possible that a reorganization of the board structure is now required. It may even be necessary to sever the ties to Nashville. If the association is to survive, it will need a professional board that can work together addressing business needs, revenues and image. They were almost there. They were close. Raleigh 2014 is proof of that.

They seemed to be on the right track but the left rail. There is nothing wrong with starting over with all fresh people, ideas and experiences. Just don't do it as knee-jerk reaction. If the association decides to take this approach, it will need to be an reasoned, architected and planned migration. It won't be an instant change. Patience and tolerance will need to coexist with the reality of the here and now. If the board and its chair decide to go quiet again and sweep the problem under the carpet in hopes that it will just go away, as they have done in the past, it will come back as an even bigger problem down the road. I sincerely believe the IBMA is fixable. It is a good organization but, I also believe that the entire board needs to be replaced in order to regain the trust of the board.

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