I volunteer as the treasurer for an association here in the So of Fr whose 400-strong membership is overwhelmingly retired and financially comfortable, more or less equal parts French, Dutch and British, with a sprinkling of Germans, Belgians and Scandinavians, plus two Canadians. I’ve been a member for the last ten years, and been involved on the periphery for most of that time, mostly because my now-husband was once the president and is still the webmaster and general go-to person.
When he woke me up one morning about two years saying that he’d come up with a really good idea, I thought he had a tropical holiday in mind. He needed one, since he’d just spent about 10,000 hours writing a computer programme that could handle all of the administration, registration for activities and payments for membership fees and organised trips that our club offers to its members. He came up with this little project on his own, and set to work writing code, even though he’d never done anything like it before. Eventually, he finished it and made his little presentation to the board, who embraced and implemented it almost immediately.
But he had also sweated a lot over the development of a companion accounting function to go with the programme, and wasn’t sure that any would-be treasurer with a true accounting background would be happy to leave Excel tables behind. So his idea was to sweetly suggest that I, a total nabob where numbers are concerned, should volunteer to replace the retiring treasurer, thereby ensuring that his labours on that score would not go to waste.
After swallowing my disappointment about the non-holiday, I said I’d think about, did think about it, and said yes. I’d seen it coming, anyway, and couldn’t bear to squash his eagerness. I called the president and told him I’d volunteer for the job. He snorted with laughter (not kidding), caught himself, apologised, and explained, lamely, that he’d just never thought of me as having a head for figures. I know my way around an Excel table, I lied, knowing full well I’d never have to use one. I got the job.
That was two years ago, and after a difficult apprenticeship, things are going smoothly now. The presentation I gave at the AGM last year was preceded by a Conte de Fée – a fairy tale – that I wrote about my initiation into the world of accounting, but which was also a play on words, since ‘conte’ sounds just like ‘comptes’, which is ‘accounts’ in French. I think I was the first treasurer in the history of the association who didn’t bore everybody to death with the annual report.
But anyway. The real point of this little story is that being on the board of an association means having to work with other people. This is not my forte, either. I would never describe myself as a team player unless in a desperate attempt to get a job I wasn’t suited for. I tend to be a lone wolf who doesn’t willingly take direction, is slow to compromise, and doesn’t know what inclusive means. I don’t poll other people for their opinions, don’t seek advice and as a result tend to spend a bit of time regretting some of my decisions and actions. I am also impulsive and adrenalin-driven, with a tendency for fight rather than flight. I also think everybody’s wrong except me. In short, I’m potentially really lousy at working in a group.
The treasurer’s position carries a bit of weight, fortunately, and people tend to believe that whoever has the job is up to it. My track record is good on that score, and most of the feedback I get is positive. However, I’ve got a reputation for speaking my mind, and in the last month I fear that has cost me two friendships. The first case involved a discussion between me and the president about a member who organises concert and ballet outings. She’s done this for nearly 10 years, and for most of that time has been in violation of one of the fundamental rules of the association, which is Thou Shalt Not Reap Personal Financial Benefit. As a result of the business our club brings to one of the regular venues, she’s been offered free tickets. Instead of attributing the value of these tickets to the association, she’s been taking them for herself and her friends. She got away with it for a long time because various treasurers didn’t notice or if they did, thought it was fine. I didn’t think it was fine, and said so. The 14-member committee agreed with me, rewrote the rules a little tighter, and reminded everybody, including this person, that such benefit was a no-go.
Christmas ballet season approached, and I become aware that the ballet company had once again offered free tickets. I sent a little reminder about the rules to the organiser, not before double-checking with the president that he had my back (he most assuredly did, unquote). Her response was to call him up, plead seniority, ill health, good will, and the fact that nobody ever stopped her before. His response was to renege on his support of the rules, and me.
I admit to a long-time dislike of this organiser. I have seen her modus operandi at close hand for years, and am not the only one who finds her personal intercourse to be unpleasant to the point of aggressiveness. She is, in my view, a manipulator who can switch from breathtaking rudeness to to sweetness and light in a nanosecond, when it suits her. I used to feel sorry for her; she lost a child to a drug overdose, and has been widowed for years, but there’ve been too many occasions when I and my personal computer programmer were the target of her rudeness, and she has lost my sympathy.
I asked for a meeting of the board to discuss the issue. In preparation, I wrote a timeline of the process that had started with the auditor’s red flag about freebies, the subsequent committee decision, the president’s assurance of support, the reminder, and the about face. I was seriously pissed off, although most of that was directed at the woman who felt she should be an exception to the rules. Despite all the negative aspects of my personality, of whom a very few are listed above, I am a rule-follower, in the main. Most rules exist for sensible reasons, and I don’t question those, although I don’t fall in with ones I consider ridiculous, such as always having to eat lunch at 1 o’clock. Or having to eat lunch at all.
The meeting turned tense. I laid out my case, reading from notes. I have to use notes because the meetings are conducted in French and I can’t always afford to speak off the cuff in my second language. The president was alternatively tired and combative, and with varying degrees of conviction, the rest of us were lined up against him. He flared at one point, calling me Madame le Procureur, a reference to my chronological timeline and, no doubt, my lawyerly delivery. I was firm, calm, and not a little influenced by my incomprehension of his change of tack. I could understand that he felt under attack and tried to lighten the mood several times, and thought I’d succeeded. In the end, he stunned us all by resigning. If we were not willing to let a long-time volunteer get away with her freebies, then he didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We weren’t nice.
Did I come down too hard? I don’t think so. A rule for one is a rule for all, in such an organisation. I know that I can be intimidating, mostly due to my height and my manner of speaking. But I don’t think I was overbearing or unfair. Did I let my personal feelings about this woman colour my reaction to the situation? Absolutely yes. I was like a dog with a bone; no way did I want her to worm her way out of a resolution that the entire committee had agreed upon, and that I felt was morally correct.
I would have loved to be able to impose my values on the guy. I would have loved not to have to consult him at all before I reminded the volunteer of the no-benefits policy. I would love, in a general sense, to be able to sweep any opposition to my ideas and methods off the table. I would love it if everybody recognised how right I am. But I’ve had to turn myself into a team player, and it’s not always been a comfortable road.
In actual fact, I’m not really that thick. I know I’m not always right. I know enough to hold back when others have their say, and to really try to listen. My fight response would work super well in a dark alley, but in a boardroom it’s not always productive, and damn, it’s hard to keep it on a leash.
I’m now in the uncomfortable position of having ‘won’, as the remaining board members have sent a firmly worded letter to the offending organiser, but having quite probably lost a friend in the process. The president is the guy who, as a municipal official, married us. He’s funny and generous, but I don’t know how forgiving he is. He’s had a month to lick his wounds and maybe forget how mad he was at me, and in a few days I’ll drop a hand-written letter in his mailbox. We’ll see.
But before that, I have to deal with another situation where the divide between friend and colleague got really blurry, and if I don’t handle it well, I’ll definitely have lost another relationship.
Sigh. To be continued.