Stephanie Asher: Unpicking the tangle or untangling the pickle
August 2, 2017 12:00am
ARRIVING from Melbourne nearly 20 years ago, I was intrigued by all the groups trying to drive Geelong forward.
Particularly the one in which people seemed to pay upwards of $20,000 to be on the board.
What was this? Where I’d come from, one was paid to be on a board.
The prominent names were Committee for Geelong, G21, Geelong Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing Council and the City of Greater Geelong. Central Geelong Marketing and Geelong Otway Tourism were, somewhat oddly, but apparently unquestionably, defined power groups within council.
And council sat comfortably, smugly even, in the middle of everyone’s universe. The City.
I initially thought people were talking about Melbourne, where “going to the city” meant a trip to the CBD. But I quickly realised that in Geelong, we “go into town” so the City was of course Greater Geelong.
More amusing than confusing was also hearing the term City Hall with great regularity. I felt like I was in an episode of Batman.
I’d never given a second thought to how people reference the cities of Yarra, Stonnington or Boroondara, despite living in all three at various times.
Conversely, Geelong is a tad fixated with local government.
For relative newcomers, it’s confusing. The various names are peppered across discussions and news stories, typically attached to a long list of potential and real improvement projects. And a few individuals seem to cross-fertilise with joyful abandon.
It didn’t take me long to appreciate that the conversation about the plethora of committees, groups, chambers and alliances in Geelong is as old as it is unproductive.
It took more time and effort to find out about the structures and the personalities, particularly to investigate that board for which people seemed to pay substantial amounts to join.
I was distracted along the way by a document showing the planned evolution of the region.
There was a huge transparent hemisphere over our local beach. Hang on a minute, who was putting Ocean Grove in a bubble?
I pointed out the picture to my partner, Robin. Holy smoke, our beach is domed!
Sufficiently outraged to call the newly-appointed G21 CEO for an explanation, I learned the purpose of G21.
By 2012, I’d joined G21, the Chamber of Commerce and the Committee for Geelong. Four short but intense years later, I found myself on the board of the Committee for Geelong and chair of its leadership subcommittee. I didn’t pay $20,000.
Just like our local surf club, I pay standard membership fees and donate time to an executive board role because I believe in what the organisation does and try to put my skills to good use.
My original confusion with the committee stemmed from a corporate membership level with a higher fee for expanded services. That is not the board. As for the accusations of members luxuriating in free lunches and self-importance, it’s mostly 7am meetings and the lunches are not free. The membership fees are very real and the amount of voluntary time contributed by members can be more than 20 hours a week.
There’s not much time for self-importance. Or lunch.
Something I’ve observed over the years is conversation about who’s ‘in the tent’ and who isn’t.
Many people tell me they feel they are not in ‘the clique’. I’ve felt it myself and wondered what, who and where the tent is. Epiphany moment: there is no tent.
It’s simply human nature to want to feel included and comfortable around our fellow homo sapiens. What a relief.
Operating in close quarters is like being part of a family. There are foibles, factions, favourites and fallouts. I’d say that’s true for all the various committees and clubs in the region and elsewhere.
I’ve long said all Geelong’s advocacy groups have a clear individual purpose.
They complement each other — as long as they don’t shoot across each other’s bows. But in jostling to be acknowledged, sometimes things get testy.
I don’t agree with everything the committee does, but I always put my views forward and challenge anything with which I disagree. Sometimes I’m in the majority, other times not. Member-based organisations typically support a majority view.
No group is perfect, few decisions are truly unanimous, but picking the right battles is a skill. It’s part of contributing to a healthy community.
— Stephanie Asher is a management consultant, professional writer and speaker. Twitter: @stephanieasher1