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The year of the perfect storm

Several of my colleagues have characterized the 2010 BSA presidency as “the Year of the Perfect Storm” due to the convergence of several challenging events, including the worst recession in US history after the Great Depression; the controversial departure of a newly elected executive director; a near impeachment of the BSA president; and a consequential significant amending of the BSA bylaws—all coinciding with a five-year cycle to develop a new strategic plan and the search for a new home for the BSA after 30 years at 52 Broad Street. Rather than dwell on the storm, I prefer to remember the legacy of my presidency for the rainbow and fair weather that followed the squall.

Like many before me, executive director Richard Fitzgerald’s call to solicit my candidacy for president of the BSA included the legendary modal choices for presidency: Jimmy Carter Take-Control style or Ronald Reagan Hands-Off style and leave it in the capable grips of King Richard and his merry staff. The appeal and honor of the latter choice—for an opportunity to lead the august organization of 4,000 members—offered the potential to maintain my practice while enjoying large shrimp, Bloody Marys (since abolished), and lavishly laid-out monthly lunches.  

Richard left out the fact that he was planning to retire. As it turned out, POBSA 2010 was full of surprises, some intrigue, and nearly a coup.

The BSA did all the right things to find Richard’s replacement after his reputable 24 years at the helm: it developed a list of desirable professional and social attributes for the position; hired a renowned headhunter consultant to guide and manage the process; implemented a national search; considered an impressive list of applicants; researched and interviewed, even re-interviewed, each prime candidate; and oversaw a yearlong procedure conducted by an independent, diverse, and well-regarded search committee that thoughtfully and objectively executed their charge to select and recommend the best person to serve as the next executive director. The final nominee was chosen nearly unanimously, in time for the start of my presidency.  

We were excited about our new executive director. We had selected a highly qualified candidate with excellent credentials—stellar academic education, impressive professional experience, keen business acumen, regarded public service, firsthand media shrewdness, and even past service on the BSA board of directors. He was enthusiastically received and accepted as one who could help the BSA return to its once lofty position as the most influential chapter of the AIA. As anticipated, I began my presidency by balancing my attention between the BSA presidency and my practice by adapting the quarter-century custom of leaving the management of the BSA to staff.

The abrupt resignation of our new executive director on one-day’s notice after serving seven months sent a tsunami wave through the BSA. For me, it was like standing on the beach at the very moment when the towering wave reached land. I was immediately accused of firing the executive director without cause based on an unfounded suspicion that we were in conflict and had disliked each other.  

Four independent committees were immediately appointed to: 1) begin another arduous search for an executive director; 2) investigate the reason behind his sudden departure that subsequently cleared the president (me) of any misconduct or complicity; 3) continue the search for a new home for the BSA that resulted in the wonderful space that we currently occupy and enjoy; and 4) evaluate and update the BSA bylaws (that had not been done in any substantial way within any living board member’s memory) to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the BSA board, officers, and staff.  

It is relatively easy to focus on unexplained departures and the near pandemonium that followed the crisis, but I believe that the experience helped resuscitate the BSA, and strengthened and improved our organization. Rather than feeling the misfortune of being caught in a tempest, I look at how we captained through a difficult period that resulted in several rewards that followed, including (a) stronger and more engaged board meetings transformed from cordial lunches and opportunities for collegial interchange to be more focused on the financial, programming, and adjudication of BSA affairs, administration, and activities; (b) enhanced bylaws that strengthen the board by reorganizing and clarifying director responsibilities and terms of service, as well as adding new positions to better reflect member constituencies and activities, especially for emerging professionals—a major goal of the BSA and its directors during my seven years on the board; (c) a better-defined role and list of responsibilities for the executive director resulting in a more effective BSA organization, ably led by Eric White, our current executive director, and supported by a highly competent and professional staff, which proved itself during the transition period under the leadership of Eric, Ann Fienman, and Margaret Wigglesworth; and (d) a bigger, better, and more active space to engage BSA members, the general public, and the next generation of practitioners and affiliate members.

During my term, there were times that the Grateful Dead’s Truckin’ resonated through my head:
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

It was an unparalleled experience to lead the BSA and its members, greatly magnified by the unique challenges of the Year of the Perfect Storm that did not cause the BSA to flounder but compelled dramatic and lasting changes to transform the BSA into a more responsive and relevant organization. The year was deeply satisfying to me professionally and personally, especially for the lasting friendships, unsolicited encouragement, and thoughtful support that I received from regular and board members, past presidents, and fellow Fellows during some of the most difficult periods of my term. Thank you for the honor and privilege to have served as the 2010 president of the BSA.

Lawrence A. Chan FAIA, 2010 BSA president

Image: December 2009 nor'easter. Credit: NASA MODIS, creative commons license, modified.