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Vol. 32, No. 6

Clear expectations make committees more effective

by Marilyn Cavicchia

When it comes to committees, how important is strong leadership? Important enough to be a deciding factor in whether to even have a particular committee, said Marc Smiley, principal at Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm Decisions, Decisions.

“If you only have five great leaders, don’t have six committees,” Smiley advised attendees at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute this March in Chicago.

If leadership is that important, it must be better for a committee to have two co-chairs rather than a single leader, right? Actually, no, Smiley said. He prefers for there to be a single chair and a backup person called assistant chair rather than co-chair. If the assumption is that two people are sharing responsibility equally, he explained, this can create “cracks in the sofa cushions”—situations where each assumes the other has handled a particular duty.

If there’s important work to be done but no strong leader to head a committee, Smiley said, it can be far more effective to give staff the official authority and oversight, rather than setting up a committee anyway and then expecting staff to do most of the work.

Other than making sure you have enough top-notch leaders for the committees you’re considering, Smiley said there’s no set formula for determining how many committees you need. There are two types of committees that he considers a must for every bar, whatever its size: finance and leadership development. The latter, he said, is often overlooked at non-profits but is crucial to their ongoing vitality as current leaders cycle out and new ones must be identified and nurtured. Some associations also have a marketing committee, Smiley added, while others make marketing a staff function.

A strategic planning committee is great to have, but, in an illustration of the saying that “form follows function,” Smiley noted that it works better as an ad hoc committee than a standing one. Most organizations that do strategic planning do so every three to five years, he explained, so it doesn’t make sense to have a planning committee that meets every year, all year long.

Keys to committee success

Besides strong leadership, Smiley identified the following factors as critical to the success of any committee:

| Mandate. What is the committee’s stated purpose, and who established that purpose? The more specific the mandate, Smiley said, the more likely the committee will be able to meet it. For example, he explained, the mandate can’t be “money”—is the committee’s purpose to bring in money, or manage it?

| Membership. Some associations leave committee membership largely open to whim, Smiley said—whoever wants to come to a meeting does so, and if it’s a completely different group next time, so be it. Smiley doesn’t like this informal approach, which he refers to as “y’all come.” Instead, he said, a committee needs a consistent core group on hand for every meeting; the shared knowledge they develop is simply too important to risk losing. If someone’s interested in sitting in on a meeting, that’s fine, he added—but it should be understood that this doesn’t mean they’ve joined the committee.

| Work plan. Once each committee has its mandate, Smiley said, it needs a work plan, which breaks that big job down into a few broad tasks for each quarter. It’s important to assign specific tasks to specific people and hold them accountable, he noted: “If people don’t have a job to do, they’ll either go away or get in the way.” The benefit to laying out tasks quarter by quarter, he said, is that this way, “everything isn’t a priority all at once.” This also makes it easier to develop leaders, he added: If someone does a small task well one quarter, perhaps he or she can take on more responsibility as the year progresses.

Encouraging active participation

Underlying the assigning of tasks is the need to create what Smiley called “a culture of accountability.” Define the committee’s expected results or outcomes at the beginning, Smiley advised, and set the clear expectation that everyone will actively participate in meeting those goals. “People care about what other people think,” he said, and no one wants to be branded as the nonparticipant in the group. For this reason, Smiley likes to have committee members go around the room and have each one announce out loud what he or she will accomplish before the next meeting.

One thing Smiley hears a lot is, “Everybody is so busy.” True enough, he said, but that’s no excuse to sit on the side-lines after joining a committee. When members are asked to join a committee, he advised, they should be given a clear picture of the work that will be involved and be asked if they are able to do that work. If the answer is yes, then that’s what the group will expect. If it’s no, then it’s better to be honest and not join than to say yes and then not do the work.

But Smiley is also a realist when it comes to the time pressures and conflicting commitments people often face. He’s not a fan of rules that specify that if a committee member misses, say, three meetings, he or she is out. Instead, he said, missing three meetings should be a sign that there needs to be a conversation. Send a letter to such a member, he suggested, simply saying that his or her absence has been noticed and that the group wonders if that person is still interested in participating.

The letter should also give the person a graceful way out if he or she truly is too swamped to take a meaningful role, he added; the purpose is not to shame the member, but to ascertain whether there are extenuating, temporary circumstances or whether the person bit off more than he or she could chew by joining the committee.

… But not too active

Sometimes a committee begins to achieve too much, overstepping its original mandate and doing work that its members perceive isn’t being effectively done by other groups or by staff. This is another area where it helps to have clear expectations and boundaries at the outset, Smiley said; it’s also one reason he’s a fan of executive committees.

This group helps coordinate the other committees and make sure they’re working well, Smiley said, and also provides valuable feedback to the executive director. This can be especially helpful, he noted, if there are questions about board and staff responsibilities. In the case of a “rogue committee” that is taking on more work than intended, the executive committee can help assess why this might be happening—are other committees not doing the work they’re supposed to?—and can gently encourage the overachieving group to focus anew on its fundamental purpose, while also praising its obvious drive and efficiency.

But sometimes, an executive committee can overstep its own bounds, Smiley cautioned: “The surest way to a weak board is a strong executive committee.” Board members who aren’t on the executive committee can feel disconnected because all the real decisions are made without them. Smiley said that while the executive committee manages the board’s decision making, the committee’s actually making a decision on behalf of the whole board should be a very rare occurrence—maybe once every year or two—in cases of real emergency.

What about those entrenched chairs who love participating so much, they don’t want to leave? Again, it helps to have clear expectations at the outset. “That’s why term limits were invented,” Smiley said. If your bar doesn’t have and doesn’t want term limits for committee chairs, he added, then someone will need to have “the conversation” with the chair who won’t leave.

It’s important that the chair be approached by someone he or she considers to be a peer, not a subordinate, Smiley said. The message should be that it’s time for the committee to tap new leadership, and it’s also time for the chair to take on a new leadership role. What would he or she like to do next? This gives the chair a way to save face, Smiley explained; he or she is not being fired but is simply transitioning to a new role.