cluster f*#k

Tom Ehman gives his take on the ISAF/CEO resignation debacle

The ISAF’s volunteer President is the CEO. He can and does call the shots as long as he has the backing of his Executive Committee (also all volunteers). And the Executive Committee almost always backs the President because they all want to succeed him as President, and only those who are in “harmony” with the President have any real chance to succeed him down the road.

When Mr Sowrey was hired as chief-of-staff five months ago, he was given the title CEO. His predecessors’ title was “Secretary-General.” Even without seeing the job spec, you could see this coming. The CEO’s expectations were not aligned with those of the Executive Committee, to say nothing of his authority.

More like an American-style COO, the Secretary-General is expected to be an order taker from the President and Executive Committee — to execute policy not make it. At best, he or she can try to convince the President and Excom to adopt a particular policy. But since ISAF has dozens of committees, also staffed by volunteers, whose job it is to recommend policy in their specialist area, the Secretary-General can’t progress policy proposals without stepping on some committee’s toes, or at least without first getting the committee’s blessing. Even if he convinces the President, Excom and specialist committee, final decisions must still be approved by the “Council” — the officers plus 40 or so senior regional delegates who, in American terms, are the Board of Directors. But the Council looks, sounds and acts more like the UN Security Council than any corporate or even non-profit board you’ve ever seen.

As Dennis Conner likes to say (not about ISAF, but it’s equally applicable here), “You can always bet on self-interest because that horse is ALWAYS running.” Council members are supposed to articulate their region’s/nation’s views but in the end vote what’s best for the sport; however, more often than not they just vote their home country’s party line.

I found this particularly frustrating. In the case of the Soviet bloc, before the Wall came down, their delegates would show up and vote as they had been instructed at meetings, often months earlier, back in Moscow or East Berlin. Didn’t matter how convincing your argument was to the contrary, or that the issue under consideration had changed due to new facts or realities. They wouldn’t — indeed couldn’t — change their rhetoric or votes. Often they had no idea what we were discussing, but they always knew how to vote.

Indeed, for a period in the mid-90s the USSA (then USYRU) leadership tried to dictate positions to our delegation — tie our hands — via a meeting several weeks before the IYRU/ISAF conference. This was silly and counterproductive. Smart people (and great sailors) like Ding Schoonmaker and Andy Kostanecki, and others of our era, spent an enormous amount of time studying the issues, communicating with reps of other countries and our own, and were very good at finding solutions that were right for the sport, not just what was good for the USA or, for example, the Star Class.

My experience, almost always, was that what was good for the sport as a whole was also good for the USA, or at least we could adjust a bit and deal with it more easily than smaller countries could. When any national federation insists that its delegates go to ISAF meetings and simply regurgitate and vote the party line, it ties their hands to negotiate, to compromise, to find solutions that work for the greater good. Regardless, this still is the sense you get at Council meetings — delegates with their hands tied by mandates from from the mandarins at home. Yes, self-interest is always running.

On top of all that, there is another body, the General Assembly. With over 100 voting delegates, one per country, the GA meets once every four years to rubber stamp the President’s quadrennial report, the Treasurer’s report, approve bylaws amendments, and elect the slate of Vice Presidents and the President to serve the next four years. Yes, one vote per country to elect ISAF’s quadrennial leadership. The USA, GBR, FRA, BRA, GER, CAN, NZL, AUS, ITA, ESP, DEN, SWE, NOR and other prominent sailing nations have the same one vote at the GA as the many small countries (e.g., Venezuela, Fiji, Ukraine, Pakistan and some 75 others). Talk about political!

In another era, back in the 70s and 80s, the current President’s father — the late, great Beppe Croce (ITA) — led the organization (as President) with flair and resolve. Paul Henderson (CAN) was President from 1994 to 2004, and also did an outstanding job. A sailor’s sailor, Paul had the time, energy, and personal resources to work full time as President, and worked hand-in-glove with Arve Sundheim, his handpicked and superb Norwegian Secretary-General/COO. Paul also listened, sought advice, built a consensus, and then led. He helped the classes rather than trying to control them, and supported the pro areas of the sport (notably by protecting their TV rights) without trying to govern them.

Today the sport is entirely more professional and commercial (for better or worse, but it is), yet ISAF is essentially the same amateur/volunteer organization, and structure, set up in the early 1900s to unify racing and rating rules in Europe and North America (and dominated for decades by GBR and USA) and pick the Olympic Classes. Now that same amateur/volunteer structure, with a small paid and dedicated staff called the Secretariat, is trying to run a commercial/professional World Sailing Cup, manage a highly-commercial and TV-dominated Olympic sailing regatta, and “govern” dozens of international class associations that used to do just fine, thank you very much, governing themselves. All the while cow-towing to the IOC to keep sailing in the Olympics — because, of course, the bulk of ISAF’s budget comes from the IOC. ISAF even claims control over the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup, but we don’t need to re-hash all that here.

Over time almost every other sport has evolved separate amateur and pro governing bodies, e.g., the International Golf Federation and the PGA; International Tennis Association and the ATP; International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL. One exception is FIFA, and no doubt you know what a mess that is!

ISAF tried to “modernize” by appointing a CEO, but in title only. Good luck to Mr Sowrey’s successor, but I’ll bet the title will be Secretary-General or Managing Director. Anything but CEO — at least not until there is an entirely different governing structure, effectively separating the professional and recreational sides of our sport.