On Tuesday, January 10, 2012, a press release from Equine Canada announced that CEO Akaash Maharaj was resigning from his post, effective that same day. The news came as a shock to the EC office staff, who were informed shortly before the press release was issued. By the end of the day Maharaj had already cleaned out his desk and was gone.
Meanwhile, word of the resignation had reached every corner of the Canadian equestrian community and beyond, thanks to the lightning speed of the internet. Websites from the United States to New Zealand posted links to the press release, as well as to a letter Maharaj had posted on his own website in which he shared his own reflections on his departure.
The public reactions to the resignation were overwhelmingly the same. Maharaj’s departure was regarded as a loss for EC, for Canada, and for the equestrian world. “In some sad news this afternoon,” began a post by EventingNation.com’s John Thier; he went on to say, “Akaash has been, and I am sure will continue to be, a great friend to horse enthusiasts around the world and particularly in Canada. I have always admired Akaash’s enthusiastic battle for democratic and egalitarian equestrian governance.” Within 24 hours, FEI Secretary General, Ingmar de Vos, had sent a personal letter to Maharaj. “It was with regret that I learnt in today’s communication that you are standing down as CEO of Equine Canada,” he wrote. “I am writing to thank you for your commitment to our sport and organization, particularly your work on the Constitutional Task Force.”
The EC press release announcing Maharaj’s resignation referred to the fact that he had never intended to stay longer than four years in his position as CEO. But Maharaj left almost six months short of his fourth anniversary in late June. His original intention had been to stay in his position until after the London Olympics. The departure, which took place only hours after EC’s staff, committees and members had learned of it, raises questions of timing – and of motivation. Why would he resign when he did, and with no notice?
Maharaj’s online letter expressed sentiments that did not line up with the tone of the EC press release, particularly in regard to the non-existent transition period between announcement and departure. “Although the timing and timelines the [Executive Recruitment, Retention and Review (ERRR)] committee has chosen are certainly eccentric and astonishingly compressed, [committee members] assure me of their confidence that they have matters well in hand,” he wrote. The suddenness of the resignation has inevitably caused people to question the real reason for it; the failure of the Equine Canada Board of Directors to comment beyond that initial press release has done nothing to allay suspicions that all is not as it seems.
No one is perfect in any professional role. Strengths and weaknesses will always both appear in an individual’s work record, and an annual performance review is the place one’s employer is expected to identify both the good and the bad. The EC governance outlines specific roles for the EC Board in this regard. A policy outlining the terms of reference for the ERRR committee states that an annual review of the CEO’s performance is to begin in October of each year and result in a formal performance review and written report. The current ERRR committee, as per the governance, consists of EC president Mike Gallagher (chair of the committee), the board’s treasurer and secretary, Bob Thompson and John Harris, and two other members: past president Al Patterson and Corlin Bordeaux. The terms of reference (which, it is interesting to note, are worded in places like a proposal, rather than an actual policy) give the ERRR Committee responsibility for the CEO; the terms are vague in respect to the ERRR’s reporting duties to the board: “The reports to the Board will be variously detailed. Some Boards will demand more, some less.” All board committees operate only as sub-committees of the board, however, and the section in the terms of reference called ‘Executive Review’ makes it clear that the ERRR committee is expected to keep the board informed of their interactions with the CEO.
The details of a CEO’s performance review are necessarily confidential, so neither the members of the ERRR committee nor Maharaj are at liberty to comment on the specifics of a meeting between Maharaj and some (not all) members of the ERRR committee in November, 2011. However, Maharaj has said that the contents of that meeting were “what prompted my departure.” Some days after the meeting, Maharaj told the ERRR committee that he felt compelled to resign from his role as CEO. “I had always planned to remain at Equine Canada for a quadrennial, but I made my decision to leave now because of a meeting initiated by representatives of the ERRR Committee in November,” he says. “They informed me that they were speaking with me not only with the knowledge of the EC Board of Directors, but also with the authority and at the express direction of the Board, an assertion that I later confirmed with them in writing, and that they stood by almost until the end. In essence, that conversation persuaded me that there was a fundamental chasm between the Board as governors of the federation and myself as the professional leader of the federation.” It was only two days before his departure on January 10th that Maharaj learned that the EC Board as a whole was not even aware of his impending resignation, never mind the contents of the meeting in November.
According to Gallagher, the structure of the ERRR committee as per the EC governance gives it “total responsibility. The Board can’t change anything, so there is absolutely no benefit to telling them that this has happened.” The board may have been unaware of what had been taking place over the previous seven weeks, but the fact that Maharaj had made his decision based on the belief that the board was not only aware of, but in favour of, his departure casts his resignation in an entirely different light to the official story.
When Maharaj was hired in June of 2008, the EC president at the time was Patterson. Gallagher was not a member of the EC Board at the time, although he was chair of the Sport Council. He says that the ERRR committee will be responsible for recruiting Maharaj’s replacement – something he acknowledges will not be easy to do. “It took some time to find someone that could do this job,” he says. “And I suspect it’s going to be the same again. It’s not something that terribly involves the Board. The ERRR Committee is now charged with hiring a new CEO. It is left solely to that committee to make that decision.” These statements run somewhat counter to the governance document, which clearly includes oversight of the CEO position as one of the board’s primary functions.
The timing of Maharaj’s departure is another point where the positions of the president and the ex-CEO diverge. The first question is one of why he would leave six months before the 2012 Olympics, the most important sporting event for any sport federation. “What the CEO does for the training, preparation and management of our Olympic teams is almost insignificant,” says Gallagher. “Therefore I am not concerned that his resignation will affect team performance at the Olympics.”
The Canadian Equestrian Team has, since the 2008 Olympics, received the biggest injection of public funding in its history, thanks to the program Own The Podium. OTP sets benchmarks for each sport to achieve in order to continue receiving support. Gallagher says the CEO doesn’t usually go to OTP meetings, and that this is done by a staff member and the team coach. “EC’s presentations for funding in 2012 already took place in December, further reducing the potential for negative impact arising from Maharaj’s departure,” he says. In fact, OTP has not historically made its final decisions for the funding allocated to each sport until the new year. “The Own the Podium staff had only developed a ‘preliminary funding recommendation to the OTP Board’ as of 09 January,” says Maharaj, who was still CEO at that point. “OTP will be sending a line-by-line allocation draft proposal to Equine Canada by 18 January, and EC will have until 23 January to request changes.”
As for the role of a national sport organization’s CEO in the negotiations with OTP, Anne Merklinger, director of Summer Sport for OTP says, “They have a critical role. The CEO is the highest-ranking professional authority within the organization and as such works closely with the high performance program. Any CEO would provide oversight, guidance and strategic input.” Merklinger expressed regret at Maharaj’s resignation. “This is a tremendous loss for high performance sport in Canada. Our colleagues in Summer Sport looked to Akaash as a role model, for his background, his intelligence and eloquence.” Merklinger describes Maharaj’s interaction with OTP on behalf of EC as that of a “model CEO. He was always there to support the technical leaders and to reinforce the commitment of Equine Canada to high performance objectives.”
Maharaj regarded the work he did with OTP on behalf of Equine Canada as one of the “main focuses” of his effort for the Canadian team. The letters Maharaj received from high performance-related members of EC committees speak to his leadership role in that part of his job. “Canadian Eventing joins Sport Council in thanking Akaash for leading us to our greatest success in history. Your dedication and eloquence along with amazing diplomacy have given us all so much to strive for and be proud of,” wrote Canadian Eventing chair Peggy Hambly. Kerri McGregor, chair of EC Sport Council, sent a letter to Maharaj to thank him for his contributions to EC and to express deep regret on behalf of her committee that he had resigned.
Maharaj says his intention when he initially made the decision to resign was always to give ample notice so that a transition period would enable him to bring his next-in-commands – CFO Mike Arbour and COO Craig Andreas – up to speed during the indefinite period that the jobs of three executive staff members would be done by two. “This timing meant that there could be absolutely no transition planning with EC committees, office staff, or external partners,” he says of the ERRR Committee’s insistence that he vacate his position the very day of his resignation. “A CEO of a corporation that is retiring does not stay on,” says Gallagher. “This is more of a philosophical statement, but you don’t leave him there.”
Gallagher says that the reason for January 10th as Maharaj’s departure date was because Arbour, who had been on medical leave to have hip replacement surgery, would be returning that day. “Mike and Craig were told about this in December and had been working on transition stuff,” says Gallagher, although Arbour was not at his desk even once during that period. He had gone on leave on November 18th, and had been told by doctors at the outset that it would be eight weeks before he could drive and return to work. Eight weeks from November 18th, accounting for the fact that it was a Friday, would have him returning to the office on January 16th, the day he did indeed return. Now that he is back at work, Arbour is the interim CEO, a position he can probably expect to fill for some time.
Gallagher says that before the recruiting process will even begin for Maharaj’s replacement, he intends to talk to the EC Board about a review of the CEO’s job description. “This is a huge organization,” he says. “It’s almost mind-boggling. There are 86 committees in EC. Managing the Olympic team is only 15% of the work.”
The complete story of what transpired – and the question of who did and knew what, when – is unlikely ever to be known to any but a very few individuals. EC’s only official communication to its members about the resignation conveys none of the underlying issues raised in this investigative article. The public expressions of disappointment at Maharaj’s resignation have come primarily from individuals, committees and organizations that are involved with high performance sport. There is no doubt there are people who are happy that Maharaj is gone. But it’s interesting to note that not one of those people has made a public statement or expressed a desire to have their thoughts shared publicly. Also missing from the public record is any concrete example of how Maharaj failed in his role as CEO. Private email messages and phone conversations conveyed beliefs that he had not done enough in his job, others complained he had done too much – meddling in issues such as the ongoing woes of Dressage Canada, for example. One individual criticized him in both ways, which suggests the issue was less that Maharaj was doing a poor job than that some people disagreed with the decisions he made.
Whether people approved of Maharaj’s performance as CEO or not, there is a bigger question, and that is one of responsibility and accountability within the EC Board. Beneath the mild tone of EC’s January 10th press release is the suggestion of a disproportionate degree of control exercised by members of one EC committee, and either negligence or willful ignorance on the part of some EC Board members. Given the board’s utter silence on the matter, it is clear that if deceit played a role and an injustice was done, it behooves the clients of EC, its members, to ask questions – and not to be satisfied with anything less than the transparency that has been decidedly lacking throughout this latest crisis in Canada’s national equestrian organization.