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Handing Over Offices: A Primer for SCA Officers

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Volumes have been written on how to be an officer in the SCA. Less, unfortunately, has been said about how to stop being an officer. Stepping down or retiring from an office is not as clear cut as one might think. From informal conversations with friends and others who are or have been officers, it seems quite clear that many new officers feel thrust into new situations without the tools they need to be effective. This can be a result of many factors: insufficient transition time, a lack of set procedures regarding the office, or a lack of training by the outgoing officer. Having been in both positions (as a new officer and one stepping down) several times myself in the SCA, I thought I might share my thoughts on how to initiate and survive the transition period.

When?

This is a bit of a loaded question. You first need to know whether there is already a set term. For instance, at the Principality level, Great Officers serve for two years, and can ask for a year long extension. Some branches of the SCA "civil service"--for instance, the Seneschallate--also have policies regarding length of service, as do some local groups. If you are in such a situation, the set term is your friend, not your enemy. These term lengths decrease the likelihood of burnout, ensure that "new blood" is always coming in, and decrease the likelihood that a particular office will become associated with one person (which could have tragic results if that person were to move/drop out/be hit by a meteor).

Many offices do not have set terms, however. Whether this is a problem or not depends on you and your group. However, I tend to look askance on groups who have a particular officer seemingly "for life, " although if all parties are happy, it can work (small groups, in particular, may have this dilemma). More often than not, it's either a case of a person getting "stuck" with a job because no one else wants it, or, on the other extreme, holding onto the office because it's "theirs". Occasionally, you'll hear reluctance to turn over an office because "no one else is qualified". In this case, the question to ask is "why?"

This is why, in my opinion, the first duty of any new officer (after contacting his/her superiors), is to start thinking about who might succeed him or her. Whether this is through a formal deputyship or through less formal training is up to the officer. There should be no secrets in the way SCA offices work. Never assume that when the time comes to step down, there will be a line of qualified applicants just waiting at the door. If you want qualified applicants, you've got to make them happen. How to find these people initially? Ask around. Keep your eyes open for people with good administrative skills, an interest in what the office does, and enthusiasm. Don't necessarily look for little carbon copies of yourself -- there is rarely "one true style" to being a good SCA officer. At the local level, a good place to look is amongst the newer members who have been coming around long enough to decide they want to stick around, and are now keen to really "get involved" in the group. Taking on such people as deputies -- and, most importantly, giving them duties--can really pull them in and make them feel valuable. Also, don't overlook more established members. Just because Lady Jane has been in the group for six years and never been an officer doesn't necessarily mean she's not interested. A new responsibility like an office can sometimes rejuvenate someone written off as an "Old Phart." Officers who zealously seek out potential successors have a lot less problems finding their replacement when the time comes, I have noticed.

On a more personal level, here are some warning signs that it might be time for you to pass on your office. If one or more of these applies, you should seriously consider it:

--"Real Life" concerns are causing you to neglect the duties of the office. It is far better to step down from an office early (even after only a month or two) and deal with your difficulties than to continue the charade that you can get along just fine when you really can't. Chances are, what will happen if you do not is that your successor--and depending on the office, half of the group/kingdom/entire SCA--will have to devote their term to fixing the problems, and will loudly curse your name right and left.

There is no dishonour in stepping down because you simply no longer have the time for the office--in fact, this s quite honourable and commendable.

--You've held an office so long that no one can remember anyone else doing it. "Officers for life" are generally not a good idea-- if something happens to you, your group could be left not only without an officer, but without any idea of how to run the office.

--You're starting to feel indispensable. "What would the group do without me?" "I know what's best for the group". "I'm a stabilizing influence, and I know the position inside and out". Are you starting to think this way? Be alert! It's nice to feel needed and that your group would be lost without you--but is that best for the group? I'll use a hockey analogy: If you're Wayne Gretzky, would you prefer to be on a team where you're miles better than anyone else, or on one with other great players? Sure, being the best person on a team (by far) is an ego rub, but it doesn't win you Stanley Cups.

If you really are indispensable, what often happens is that the group assumes youčll always be there, no one--even those with promise-- ever gets trained to take your place, and all of a sudden things fall apart when youčre suddenly transferred to East Armpit, take ill, or simply have to deal with job or family concerns. Only someone on a serious power trip would find this amusing, which leads to.......

--You see the position as a source of "influence" or "power" which you don't want to lose. To be quite blunt, there is no room for power trips within the SCA officers' structure, because that kind of thing generally hinders, rather than helps, the SCA as a whole. Being an officer in the SCA is a responsibility. It can be an honour, but it isn't a title and should not be the source of your self-image in the SCA. You serve an office. It does not serve you.

--You're no longer having fun in the SCA. Although there is a lot of work involved in making our hobby fun, if the SCA has become pure drudgery for you, that's probably a sign that it's time to step down.

How?

Let's assume that you've been following what I've said, and have at least a couple of potential successors in mind whom you know are interested in the office. Here's a checklist to follow:

--First, check to see if there are procedures and policies at your level regarding the selection of new officers. At the Principality level, for instance, Ealdormere has a set of procedures in place detailing what the outgoing officer must do regarding publicizing the position, taking applications, and recommending a successor. Not every level has this kind of policy. Keep in mind that generally, if the process of selecting an officer is done as openly as possible, there will likely be fewer complaints.

--If there is no policy in place, it would probably be wise to publicize the position's availability for at least a couple of months in the appropriate newsletter. If there is no newsletter, announcements at meetings may suffice. Make every opportunity to inform people of what is happening. It's up to you to determine whether, for instance, you want applicants to submit written applications or whether verbal ones are fine, but make sure you tell people.

--Officer selection (or more properly, the recommendation of a successor), in general, is the decision of the outgoing officer, although at higher levels a vote by Curia/Prince's Council (or other such body) may be required; all appointments, ultimately, are the purvey of the Crown. Your officers' handbook may offer good suggestions about the nuts and bolts of actually choosing a successor. Be alert to potential problems of favoritism and to local customs (such as voting on new officers, etc.) and especially make sure that the appointment of new officers is not done by some sort of "clique." If you are having difficulty choosing between candidates, feel free to consult with both your superiors and other officers at your level--they may be able to offer insights which you had not considered or been aware of.

--Finally, when your successor has been finally chosen and confirmed, write your superior officer(s), naming the person (SCA and modern info) and the date the changeover will occur.

Once you have a successor in place, there are several steps you need to take to formally divest yourself of the office, and to ease the transition period. Ideally, you should take some time to sit down with the new officer before he or she formally takes over and explain:

--Reporting deadlines, and who gets the reports. Don't just tell the new officer to "look it up in the newsletter".

--Duties and responsibilities of the office. Don't just give your successor the handbook to read--although the handbook for your office is an invaluable resource, every group and branch does things not covered in the handbook. You do your successor a disservice if you do not explain "how things work" as carefully as you can, and your group may suffer because of it. You may even find it helpful to commit this information to writing, and include it in the files for the office as a permanent reference. And never let your own lack of training be an excuse for not training your successor. There really is no need for folks to go through "baptisms of fire" in SCA offices.

-If your office involves financial responsibility, take steps as quickly as possible to change names and signatures at the bank. Nothing is more aggravating for a group running an event to discover that the signatories on the bank account all stepped down months ago and are now living in Tibet with Buddhist monks who don't have phones.

--Make arrangements for the new person to receive your files. (It's probably a good idea to check the files before you transfer them over, to make sure they're intelligible). The same thing goes for any properties which go with the office (books, regalia, group properties like list ropes, and the like.)

--Finally, play it up a bit. Publicly transferring an office (either at a meeting or an event) is a way of publicizing what's happened, and it makes the incoming officer feel "official, " as well as validating the new person to your group.

What next?

Now, sit back, and enjoy yourself. I mean it. I know some folks will immediately jump into another office--I'm a bit that way myself--but try to enjoy the fact that you've been freed of certain responsibilities and duties (even if you've replaced them with new ones). Don't expect things to be the same as they were when you held the office. Do resist the urge to publicly comment on the performance of your successor, unless it's to heap praise upon him or her. Nothing sounds more petty than to hear someone say, "Well, when I was Minister of Widgets we never had a late report." If your successor seems to be making mistakes, take him or her aside and offer to chat in a non-threatening way; it may do some good for you to tell him or her what mistakes you made when you were new, and how you solved them. Be a mentor and a resource, not an adversary.

Copyright 1996, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.