On August 27, the Game Manufacturer’s Association announced that it was not renewing the contract of Executive Director John Ward and was calling a special membership meeting to discuss the decision (see "GAMA Board Calls Membership Meeting") Board member Jeff Tidball posted an essay on the decision on his site on August 29, and gave us permission to reprint it ("Jeff Tidball of the GAMA Board of Directors:  It Is Wise for GAMA to Seek a New Executive Director").  Ward responded with a post in the GAMA Facebook group (see "GAMA Executive Director John Ward Responds").  And board member and organization Secretary Brian Dalrymple has also shared written comments originally published in the GAMA Facebook Group, which we reproduce with permission below.

As part of the board that hired John Ward 10 years ago, and serving as far back as the end of Lee Cerny's tenure as ED in the late 1990s, it's self-evident and easy for me to say that John has been the best and most effective ED GAMA has ever had.

John was chosen from a field of candidates that included some familiar industry faces, and some well-suited individuals, but his background, preparedness, and final interview showed him to be so highly qualified (maybe over-qualified) that many of us on the board felt we would not be able to land him, as his resume could have easily commanded much more than GAMA could afford to pay.

As it was, John already had enough vested employment time with the military and the state government to qualify for pensions from both, so income wasn't as high a consideration for him.  He and Angela had just married, and felt he needed to get out of his position administering the Ohio juvenile prison systems, as the stresses and weekly horror stories he had to deal with were taking their toll.  It was Angela who saw the posting for ED of GAMA and suggested that John put in for the position, since he was a regular Origins attendee, and loved games so much.

After he was hired and began to sort through the association's finances, John discovered GAMA was in much worse financial condition than he (and the board) thought we were in.  He could have quit then.  He could have sued GAMA for hiring him under false pretenses, but he didn't.  He started the hard (described to us, years later, by GAMA's accountant as "impossible") work of getting GAMA out of an incredibly deep hole, making adjustments to staff and processes, tightening up and cutting expenses, all while trying to grow the shows.  GAMA lost existing staff and turned over new employees who could not adjust to the new office culture.  John used his own personal credit to help buoy the association, and negotiated a large bridge loan when things got dire.

John worked to repair and establish new relationships with GAMA members who had become disillusioned with Origins over the preceding years, restructuring sponsorship packages and creating programs that would benefit them.  He reached out directly to the larger and more influential members of the industry, many of which had served on GAMA boards in the past but no longer did, to inform them what GAMA was doing with Origins, and get some ideas of what had worked for them at other shows.  This led to an eventual near complete return to Origins of companies who had not exhibited or run events in years, resulting in increased value for players, higher attendance, and better results in the exhibit hall.

John divided the increases in GAMA's revenues between debt service and additional programming at GAMA Trade Show and Origins, managing growth at both shows while at the same time bringing GAMA out of the financial abyss.  It was a long process that came to an end last year when GAMA finally retired the last of its negative fund balance, after paying off the bridge loan a few years prior.  This left GAMA with money in the bank and no debt to service for the first time in John's tenure, just this year.

At the strategic planning meeting in 2017, which was the first to happen in a few years and held at the urging of John and several board members, the board identified a set of strategic goals these funds could be put to use to accomplish. The goals are:

  • Collect, and Become a Repository for Data About the Games Industry
  • Enhance Communication and Engagement With the Membership
  • Expand Platforms that Support Market Growth and Influence
  • Increase the Value of GAMA Trade Show and Origins

Action steps for these goals were outlined and presented to the board in a doc in March, with Communications plans coming from Communications Committee that was formed last year, and Data Collection from a workgroup, which led to the survey of attendees at Origins.  Increasing value of the shows is an ongoing mission, and John has asked for board guidance with all of these goals, particularly with market growth.

Some have said that John was the right ED to bring us out of the dark times we were in, but expressed doubts that he could be right person going forward.  I don't necessarily believe that we have seen everything that John can do.  We've only been free from debt service, with money available for extensive non-show related programs, for a year, and in that time we've developed goals that still need input from the board, identified some staff needs that haven't yet been filled, and we have been mired in issues that have hindered some progress.

Executive Directors with John Ward's abilities are not easy to find. GAMA went through seven in my time on the board, some lasting only weeks.  In every case, the board thought they had the right person for the job. John has surpassed all of them.  Like all people, he comes with his warts and thorns.  He's human. He has blind spots, shortcomings, and areas where he is lacking expertise, just like we all do. He has had issues, at times, working with some members of the board - personality conflicts, orders of priority, and operational disagreements (operations being specifically the ED's job).  There are places where he could improve, sure.  But John has not failed GAMA. Quite the opposite - he should be credited with its success.  He has proven himself to be capable and effective.

Is now the time to seek new leadership?  Have we reached the limit of what John can do for GAMA?  A member recently said to me that "every time you make a decision you make someone happy and someone mad.  Make enough decisions and you eventually make everyone mad."  Are we at that point where everyone is mad?  I have a hard time believing the answers to the first two questions is a definite yes.  I have no idea on the third, but I'm hoping the Special Membership Meeting will provide some idea.

Does one get rid of someone who is good at their job based on the hope of finding someone better, especially when you have no idea who the applicants might be, or if the hoped-for better candidate is among them?

As things are right now, the current ED contract won't be renewed.  It is possible John Ward could apply for the position after it's posted.  I'd have to think, just on the basis of the list of desired qualifications, that he'd be a strong candidate.  I don't know that he would apply.  The board could just offer him a new contract, but we seem committed to a search, and maybe it's worth searching.  I wonder, though, if the people who think John Ward is no longer essential to GAMA recognize how much is due to John's effectiveness that we are in a position to seek a potential new ED.  The old expression that "you dance with the one who brought you" comes to mind.  What crisis are we in, what issues have arisen that are so insurmountable that only a new, unknown and unnamed ED could fix?  Maybe none.  I absolutely agree we are in a position of opportunity.  If that means a crossroads, then that's where we find ourselves.

Perhaps the time when a contract is set to expire is the right time to test the waters and see what else is out there.  Maybe an ideal candidate will emerge.  Experience tells me that's unlikely, but we are in the position we are in. We have an Executive Director that has proven he can do the job well.  I hope he'll apply for the position.  I look forward to seeing the other applicants as well.  I have faith in GAMA's ability to construct a new contract that will balance the concerns of the board and the needs of the membership, while allowing the Executive Director, whoever that may be, the necessary power to do their job well.

Brian Dalrymple
Game Manufacturers Association
(again, these are my personal thoughts, and not an official communication or position of GAMA)

The opinions expressed in this Talk Back are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.