From the April 2016 issue of The Rotarian
They came from Denmark and Spain, Thailand, the U.S., and other points around the globe. Last fall, the Rotary International Board of Directors gathered again in Evanston, Ill., not far from the office where Paul Harris hosted the first Rotary club meeting.
One hundred eleven years later, Rotary’s Board spent three days addressing dozens of issues that boiled down to one: How will the organization Harris founded thrive in its second century?
They met on the top floor of Rotary’s world headquarters, an 18-story tower with commanding views of broad-shouldered Chicago in the distance. Fifteen men and four women convened for the second of four scheduled Board meetings at 8:55 a.m. on Monday, 12 October, getting a five-minute jump on the workday.
Pundits say board meetings often take on the chairman’s personality. From the start, these proceedings reflected the style of K.R. “Ravi” Ravindran. Like him, they were convivially efficient. Previous meetings typically lasted four or five days; President Ravindran had trimmed that to three, so there was no time to waste.
A tall man with a soft voice, he chaired the meeting in shirtsleeves, his tan jacket draped over the back of his chair. Encouraging debate at all times, Ravindran noted on one report to the directors that the committees were hardworking “but not infallible.”
Each day, one director was asked to put forth the opposing view, challenging any quick consensus. Brad Howard was today’s official “devil’s advocate.” Ravindran also introduced electronic voting on issues that generated contentious debate “to preserve the independence of the directors,” he said.
Much of the heavy lifting happened behind the scenes. A cadre of Rotary staff members spent weeks preparing the Board, and the committees that report to it, for the meeting. Matt Hohmann, Rotary’s corporate governance manager, uploaded the latest data, which the directors then synced to their iPads. “Until 2011 we gave every Board member a giant paper binder 400 or 500 pages long, full of everything they’d need for the meeting,” Hohmann said. “If there was a last-minute change we’d round up all the binders, replace those pages, and send them out again. Now the directors have a secure Web portal where they can see changes. They can prepare for the meeting on a plane or in a car, making electronic notes on their iPads. It’s made meetings more efficient.”
Rotary's Board of Directors spent three days addressing dozens of issues that boiled down to one: How will the organization Harris founded thrive in its second century?
The directors dealt with housekeeping matters – the election of trustees, the 2016 schedule of Board meetings in Evanston and Seoul – before turning to issues such as an aging worldwide membership. Directors sat behind HD monitors and miniature flags of their nations, leaning forward to speak into desk-mounted microphones. When a Board member spoke Portuguese (José Ubiracy Silva of Brazil), Italian (Giuseppe Viale), or Japanese (Takanori Sugitani), his colleagues put on headphones to hear simultaneous translation by interpreters sitting in mirrored-glass booths overlooking the boardroom. Other directors, such as Frederick Lin from Taiwan, Saowalak Rattanavich from Thailand, and Eduardo San Martín Carreño from Spain, spoke in English. Few directors spoke for much more than a minute. Lest anyone drone on, another innovation timed discussions in fast-ticking green numbers on each director’s monitor. All in all, the conclave was the very model of a modern board meeting.
The Board analyzed the activities of its own individual members over the previous three months. As with any other business, each director, committee, and staff division has measurable annual goals aligned with the organizational goals, broadly referred to as KPIs (key performance indicators). At each meeting, the directors examine the progress made toward those goals. Directors learn from the best practices of the other directors. Vice President Greg Podd, an accountant from Colorado, was in charge of these presentations and had clearly done his preparatory work. Ravindran commended Manoj Desai from India on his well-structured plan to make working visits to each of his districts – while suggesting that another zone was falling behind. The president has asked directors to visit 60 percent of their districts and have personal contact with at least 80 percent of their district governors.
Between meetings, the directors chatted in the 18th-floor atrium, a sunny space under skylights that show the Rotary flag flying on the building’s roof. On the east end of the floor, with its postcard view of Lake Michigan, the photos of the 104 Rotary presidents who preceded Ravindran are displayed alongside a bust of Paul Harris. Glass cases hold a rotating exhibit from Rotary’s archives, such as sheet music for “The Rotarian,” a marching song, and letters between Rotary founder Harris and a friend, Grace Mann of Jacksonville, Fla. In 1906 she wrote to commend him on his original Rotary club constitution: “I would say you are a man of letters like Hamilton, a man capable of great things.”
Back in the boardroom, the directors took up another matter as part of a larger discussion on membership: Should employment be a requirement to join Rotary? Jennifer Jones, the director from Canada, said her sister-in-law, a highly educated woman with a family, active in her community, could be barred from membership if employment were required. American directors Julia Phelps and Karen Wentz agreed that such a rule might complicate Rotary’s long-standing gender issues.
Fifteen men and four women convened at 8:55 a.m. on Monday, 12 October, getting a five-minute jump on the workday.
The directors also agreed to allow nonmembers to attend conventions and to consider hosting conventions in cities that don’t meet the usual criteria. Robert Hall from Atlanta, who plays an important role as host committee co-chair of the 2017 convention, supported this action. Then they moved on to other matters: Member Benefits Program Manager Naish Shah gave the Board an upbeat report on the new Rotary Global Rewards program, which provides hotel, car rental, and other discounts to Rotarians. So far, the program is a success. Ravindran supports it, though he has heard from a few constituents who don’t. “They tell me they didn’t join Rotary to get something for themselves,” he said. “I tell them that’s no reason to discourage others. If they’re uncomfortable with a discount, they are free to say, ‘Oh, no, I would prefer to pay full price.’” Guiller Tumangan from the Philippines and Şafak Alpay from Turkey also voiced their support of the program. The directors called for a follow-up report on Global Rewards at another Board meeting.
In the evening, the directors met more casually in a conference room at Evanston’s Hilton Garden Inn. President-elect John Germ of Tennessee, who will chair next year’s Board meetings, said he has experienced less culture shock living in Evanston (as Rotary presidents and presidents-elect do) than his predecessor. It has been strange, Ravindran said, moving from Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, sapphire mines, and elephants to American apartment life. But he relishes the work. “I promised to drive costs down, introduce meritocracy in appointments, and add value to members, and we’re making progress on all fronts. Fortunately, I’ve got two wonderful successors far cleverer than me,” he said of Germ and Australia’s Ian Riseley (who was invited as an observer). The camaraderie and friendship among the three men is clear, one consulting the other on important matters and engaging in good-humored banter.
Jones and Wentz compared notes. “I was the first female in my club, first female president of my club, and first female governor of my district,” Wentz said. “I am proud of those achievements and am an advocate for developing women in leadership roles in Rotary. But there are many Rotary issues I’m interested in, and the last thing I want to be is a single-issue director.” She chatted with Howard, whose prime issue is keeping Rotary relevant to the under-40 set. “Right now, young people are not our demographic,” he said. “For one thing, they look at gatherings differently. The meal, the singing at meetings – we have to ask ourselves, Are these traditions central to our brand? Does fellowship have to be in a restaurant or a conference room? I don’t think so. Fellowship can be on Facebook. We’re starting to realize that the Kiwanis and Lions are not our competition. Life is. Work, family, time. Rotary’s evolving, and I like being part of that process.”
The next day, the directors worried aloud about the graying of Rotary in their zones. England’s Peter Offer told of attrition in Great Britain due to the deaths of more than 700 members. Worldwide, the largest age group of Rotarians is from 50 to 59; only 10 percent are younger than 40. A decade ago the typical club had 42 members; today the figure is down to 34. The most common club size is 20. Still, there are positive signs. Total membership is up, and more than 140,000 members joined between 1 July 2014 and 30 June 2015. Scanning numbers on their monitors, the directors saw that 20 percent of today’s Rotarians are female, a number that varies geographically. Women account for about 26 percent of U.S. members, 13 percent in Western Europe, and 5 percent in Japan.
"We're starting to realize that the Kiwanis and Lions are not our competition. Life is. Work, family, time. Rotary's evolving, and I like being part of that process."
By Wednesday, a civilian might be forgiven for getting numb to the business jargon in the boardroom. Webinar. Optimize. Prioritize. Yet the Board’s labors had been optimized. Hefty paper binders are a thing of the past. The old way of voting on sensitive issues – paper ballots dropped into a cardboard box – has been replaced by electronic voting via directors’ iPads. In the end, Ravindran’s Board reviewed 17 committee reports and made 68 decisions in three days.
Per Høyen, a director from Denmark, admitted being perplexed by his role as devil’s advocate for a day. “It’s not my nature to be negative,” he said, adjusting his bow tie. Høyen went on to debate politely during the final-day discussions.
At 5 p.m., Ravindran announced that he was pleased with the Board’s performance. Going into the meeting he had told Andrew McDonald, Rotary’s deputy general counsel who serves as secretary to the Board, “I want to spend our time on strategic and transformative issues,” instead of time-wasting administrative matters. Cutting Board meetings to three days was one step; the next was steering the Board toward cutting-edge issues that will determine Rotary’s path in the near future.
McDonald’s stopwatch revealed that the Board had spent nearly 60 percent of its time on “strategic and transformative issues.”
At 5:05, the directors gave Ravindran a round of applause.
“Well done,” he said. “See you at the International Assembly in San Diego.”
After every Board meeting, members can find decision highlights and meeting minutes at: www.rotary.org/learning-reference/about-rotary/board-decisions.