I’ve probably sat on a dozen boards, as well as many more committees, over the past dozen years. I've been through the meetings from gehennom, I've doodled on innumerable pads, I've yawned through redundant reports and debates that went nowhere. But I've also seen a lot of good work, and I think I’ve picked up a few things about how to chair these entities, and how to lead organizations in general. It's pretty much common sense, but on the chance that this formulation will help someone, here are my thoughts:
I like to draw an analogy between a committee chair and the coach of a sports team.
I see three requirements for a sports coach, and a committee leader:
1) Know the game
2) Be aware of your role and your limitations
3) Respect your team
First: Know the game
The most celebrated coaches, it seems to me, are students of the game, constantly reviewing video, reading books, analyzing plays. They also plan ahead, sometimes far ahead, studying personnel and schedule and training in order to optimize their team’s function.
The same is true in committee work, I find: A committee chair who doesn’t prepare properly is not only wasting an opportunity; she isn’t coaching well. The best committee chair is the one who understands the committee’s tasks, who studies the committee’s capabilities, who trains committee members, who looks at challenges as well as opportunities and prepares for each.
Second: Be aware of your role and your limitations
Far too many coaches hang on long after they have ceased to be effective, struggle along in bad relationships with the players, and don’t make proper use of their players, or their assistant coaches and staff. The best coaches know their relationships with the players, know when a relationship isn’t working and try to fix it, and delegate properly.
Again, the committee analogy is apt: A committee chair who is disconnected from the committee members, or who does everything himself, or who lets the ball drop because of inappropriate assignment of tasks, is a poor coach. The best committee chairs know how to use their co-workers, how to lead and delegate, and how to step down as well.
Third, and perhaps most important: Respect your team
A coach must respect his team for the time they put in, for the creativity and energy they bring to the table, for the sacrifices they make for the sake of the institution.
We all know committee chairs who do this, as well as committee chairs who don't. The most frustrating chairs, for me, are the ones who don’t plan well, who schedule meetings or projects at their own convenience instead of that of the committee, and who run the actual meetings lackadaisically.
The chairs I have most enjoyed, on the other hand, keep a tight agenda at the meeting itself, do a lot of the meeting-work in between formal meetings by keeping in touch with the participants, and generally show in every communication and action that they respect the time and ideas and effort of the participants.
It’s popular for people to say, “I hate meetings,” and to groan at the announcement of a new committee. I don’t buy into that. I love meetings, and committees – as long as they are done right. Sure, committees and meetings can be a nightmare, but when committees operate well, it’s like watching the Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, or Mark Messier’s New York Rangers (that was not Keenan's team), or Bill Walsh’s 49’ers. Those are teams I want to join.