Wednesday, August 01, 2007

CIRM, Entropy and the Presidential Search

The California stem cell agency entered its fourth month today without a permanent president, although its directors knew last December that the post would be vacant by summer.

On Monday, Robert Klein, chairman of the agency's Oversight Committee, told the California Stem Cell Report that he expected the search to move forward “in a material way” at next Wednesday's meeting of CIRM directors. However, he did not predict a decision on either a candidate or a new salary for the president.

Klein said he was “committed to getting absolutely the right person.” He said the search is not taking long when compared 12 to 18 month efforts to find top academic or university executives.

The Oversight Committee met three times in unusual, teleconference meetings between the end of June and the end of July to consider candidates and compensation. But those meetings, conducted mainly in private, ended with no public action.

The presidential search is not on the public portion of the Oversight Committee's agenda Wednesday, but the matter can be taken up during the group's scheduled personnel session, which also will be behind closed doors.

Following last week's meeting of the CIRM standards group, Jeff Sheehy, a member of the Oversight Committee, said in an interview that compensation is a significant factor in the search, which apparently involves candidates from academe. He noted that CIRM cannot provide special housing allowances that are often part of the compensation mix in academic recruitment efforts. Nor can the institute provide loans to its employees. Academic employment also can provide tenure and other financial opportunities that would not be available to a CIRM president.

Since the beginning of May, two capable CIRM staffers have picked former president Zach Hall's responsibilities on an interim basis. But earlier this year, we pointed out that organizations with lame duck CEOs and interim presidents can easily slip into drift. No one wants to make a decision that would tie the hands of a new president. Hiring new staffers can also be difficult. While it is hard to quantify the impact, it can be quite harmful. More than one director has voiced that concern.

As far back as last January, Oversight Committee member Michael Goldberg warned fellow directors against complacency. Goldberg has more than a nodding acquaintance with such issues as a venture capitalist who directs life science investments for Mohr Davidow Ventures of Menlo Park, Ca.

He said,
"There's a whole organization there that's been charged with an enormous responsibility of administering the research apparatus of the CIRM, and it's leaderless. I don't like working for an organization that's leaderless. I say leaderless, I don't mean that in the sense it doesn't have a chair engaged and vice chair engaged and (outgoing president Zach Hall's) engagement, but it's not the same as an organization that's moving forward.

"There's entropy in my experience at this stage of an organization's life with a leader who's announced his departure....That should give us actually an increased sense of urgency, if anything. so I'd like to do everything we can to fast track the process without sacrificing any of the transparency and engagement with stakeholders that I think we're all committed to."
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