Every time I suspect that I’ve learned all there is to know regarding a specific topic, reality comes along and presents me with another learning opportunity. My most recent learning opportunity presented itself when I volunteered to serve on an event planning committee of a local club. The decision to serve on this committee seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I was a member of the club; I possessed a lot of firsthand knowledge about the type of event the committee was to plan; plus, I’d served on a lot of committees in my lifetime – business, political, philanthropic and social.
I cut my business and social networking teeth on committee work. I’ve connected with wonderful mentors and made lifelong friends through my committee activity. Committee activity has taken me places and given me opportunities that I would otherwise never have received. I can trace much of my best work, my greatest learning experiences and my most spectacular successes to committee activity.
I began to work on this committee with high expectations; I hoped that serving on this committee would help my community, relieve my loneliness and give me the chance to bond with a larger circle of fun, active people. Unfortunately, these expectations fizzled; I soon found myself dealing with situations that were more challenging and less enjoyable than they needed to be. Nonetheless, I hung in there and gave my best effort to the group.
Sadly, I ended up feeling so depressed and frustrated that, on the eve of what should have been a fun and exciting evening (an evening spent raising money for local charities - the pay-off for all the effort that committee members extended) I found myself sitting on my patio fighting back tears of frustration and praying, “Dear Lord, protect me from myself; if I’m ever again tempted to serve on a committee, please, do whatever it takes to stop me from doing so.”
Serving on this committee wasn’t a complete waste of time. I did manage to cement a couple of very enjoyable friendships and the experience presented me with a unique learning experience. So what did I learn?
First, the experience reinforced my belief that, with very few exceptions, organizations need to use a zero-based structure for their committees. Zero-based structuring means each year you start with zero. In the case of committees, this means once a year an organization’s board:
Disbands/eliminates all committees
Goes back to the drawing board and re-evaluates the organization’s needs, basing them on current financial situation, strategy, and member priorities.
Uses this data to determine what committees are required to meet the needs for the coming year.
Forms committees based on that actual need, not on hypothetical situations or past practices. As committees are formed, all members of the organization need reminding that when the work of a committee is completed (or at the end of the year - which ever occurs first) the committee will disband.
Zero-based structure reduces the number of committees that have no work to do; avoids having meetings just for the sake of meeting, and discontinues having the same people do the same thing, the same way, for so long that nobody remembers why it is done that way. Zero-based committee structure encourages member excitement, generates specific goals, and real time deadlines.
The second, and most important, thing I learned is that an organization’s board must not be allowed to trump committee decisions. Trumping committee decisions is the ultimate unprofessional and demeaning action. The time for board member suggestions, challenges, disagreement, discussion, vetoing, and plain old bitching is during the formation and/or planning phase of the committee – at a time when the committee is seeking input. Any member of the organization or the board that doesn’t step forward at this time should forfeit the right to trump decisions made by the committee. Once a committee has agreed on a course of action or, worse yet, implemented the action, board members should support that decision, even when they wish the decision had gone differently. An effective board doesn’t second guess, over-rule, or belittle the work of a committee.