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Example: Interview with Margaret Schmidt

Margaret "CeCe" Schmidt is the past president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, the oldest organization of laboratory professionals in the country. We thank Dr. Schmidt for sharing her time and expertise.

CTB: Talk a little about the setup of your Board.

Dr. Schmidt: Our Board is 15 members total; they are all volunteers. The continental and non-continental United States are divided into 10 sections called regions. Each one of those 10 sections has a regional director, and their composite states are their responsibility. Then each of those directors is one of the 15 people on the Board together with the four officers. There is also a student representative on the Board. Regional directors are three years in term, officers are basically three years in term, [and the] student is one year.

The meetings are four a year: one by conference call, three face-to-face. The office staff in Washington, D.C. handles the databank, so it's a typical volunteer professional association setup. Our by-laws are governed by Robert's Rules of Order. So, all order of business has to be in reference to and according to Robert's Rules. Most of the volunteers on the Board are aware of that, however... they basically depend on the officers and the executive vice-president to keep them on the clean and straight with respect to handling business.

And as far as what make [Boards] work, it is directly related to the talent or lack of same that you have on the Board. Probably the worst failure of Boards is understanding the judiciary financial and legal responsibility of the officers. So you have a personnel role, you have a financial role, you have a legal and a liable role, and those are things that people...don't think about that when they get elected. So, there is a very strong need for a good Board orientation.

In experience with Board meetings, the biggest tangle you can get into are those revolving around contentious issues. Under those circumstances your strongest suit is your ability to keep the conversation flowing, keep the tempers at a minimum, and get real business transacted as opposed to having people get on their soapbox.

CTB: How do you do that?

Dr. Schmidt: You do that by following Robert's Rules and just pulling it down on their heads when you have to when you hear the conversation going into a 360. You also do it by setting time limits. You do it by setting number of times people can speak on the issue. You do it by a lot of politicking before you ever get to the Board meeting, because you need to know what is the range of emotion on a given subject. It gets out of hand very, very quickly otherwise and goes circular on you.

Alternately, then, you have to let it spin. As the chair, you have no vote except to break a tie, and your role is to keep a process moving, not to take part. It's very hard to keep your mouth shut, particularly if you have a strong feeling one way or the other. If you do need to speak, then you need to turn the meeting chairmanship over to somebody else and go below your line and speak and then take back up. So, a certain amount of orderliness is really critical. Having a firm agenda before you go into the meeting is critical, because if it's not on the agenda, you do not have to allow it in. So that's another maneuver that you can use to keep contentious subject matter out when it's not ready to be discussed or it has no role in the meeting.

CTB: What do you do in between meetings?

Dr. Schmidt: In between meetings we drive each other crazy by e-mail, because a lot of the 'What do we do about this?' 'Who do we need to get to do that?' is constant interplay between our organization, and we have report people to go to meetings, send people here, work with projects, work with the industry and the vendors in the laboratory arena. That's constantly done between the officers and the whole Board electronically. So it's really saved our muffins with respect to the dollars in calls and post-its, and it's immediate feedback. We changed the by-laws about three or four years ago to allow for electronic voting.

It's fairly smooth as long as people do what they're expected to do. That's the trick.

CTB: What happens when they don't?

Dr. Schmidt: When they don't, well, then there are all those sorts of possibilities from the very minimal which would be to urge them to please report and try to embarrass them into doing what they're supposed to do...right up to sanction and expulsion, and that's very clear in the by-laws and the standard operating procedures and policies. We've not had to do that, although there have been moments where we came close.

CTB: What advice can you give to new Board members?

Dr. Schmidt: Get organized. Do your homework before you get there. Read what it is you're supposed to read, talk with the people you're supposed to talk to, and be prepared to present pro/con right there in succinct terms so we don't go into a flipping 360. If the report's in the agenda book, all accurate, thorough, complete, presenting all the signs necessary, the discussion is there, and we've read them before we get there, the Board meeting could be 20 minutes long, theoretically. And there have been some of our meetings that have been very short because they were well done. But the whole organization depends on whether all 15 people (in our case) arrive ready to do it and ready to answer and ask the appropriate questions. If that doesn't happen, it's an absolute sloppy zoo.