Someone once said: An effective committee consists of three people of whom two are absent. In other words, if you want to ensure a task is executed successfully, rather give it to an individual. A similar cynical view is that if you want to fail in executing a task, give to a committee! While there may be some truth in these negative perspectives about the role and impact of committees, the reality is that there are many things you can do to improve the relevance and impact of committees. In essence, committees play important roles in ensuring good governance, joint decision-making and leveraging contributions from different people, often representing different departments, stakeholders and interest groups.
Having worked as part of committees for almost three decades, and also being dependent on the contribution and outputs of committees in most aspects of our work as a professional body working closely with business, government institutions and other non-profit organisations, I reflected on the successes and failures of committees. I asked myself the question why some committees are more effective than others, and essentially three key factors emerged: Leadership, talent and teamwork. Building on these critical success factors for effective committees, in reality the best committees are really active, in other words they are able to make decisions and drive clear actions in making a difference in their area of impact. I formed the word active as an acronym illustrating what good committees are all about:
A = Action: Good committees are not talkshops, but active workshops delivering outputs based on clear actions.
C = Commitment: All (or most) committee members are committed to contributing to the committee and achieving the desired results.
T = Teamwork: Good committees achieve success by means of good teamwork in which most members work together in attaining the goals of the committee.
I = Innovation: While committees are often required to play a risk, compliance or governance role, the best committees are by its very nature innovative in the sense that they are able to convert good ideas into tangible actions and improvements.
V = Value: Effective committees should focus on their purpose and ensure that they deliver value in accordance with their remit and key functions. The most important question to be answered by committee members is: What difference are we making to the organisation and our key stakeholders?
E = Excellence: Lastly, good committees achieve excellence. When a committee develops a track-record of good progress based on clear and tangible outputs, people will not question the existence and impact of the committee.
In conclusion, good committees are active teams of committed people driving clear outputs. The role of the chairperson as leader is key in steering the committee in the right direction and to focus discussions on adding value to the organisation and its stakeholders. However, having the right talent at the table is a key factor in driving sustainable outcomes. Ultimately, effective committee work is about good teamwork, but it is the role of the chairperson to foster a climate of good teamwork in achieving the goals of the committee. Managing an effective meeting, and then steering the committee towards agreed actions is a unique skill that all good committee chairpersons has mastered. Moreover, staying in touch between meetings to keep the committee members engaged and focused is key in ensuring momentum and follow-through on decisions taken, in particular regarding the execution of key actions. Hence, the work and success of effective committees is all about good leadership, talent and teamwork.
Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) and Vice-chairperson of the Talent Advisory Board of the University of South Africa.