So you've been asked to serve on a committee. You're excited about the challenge and eager to begin. But if this is your first opportunity for committee service, you're probably concerned about your ability to do a good job and meet the expectations of your fellow committee members.
Effective committee service is an art. This art calls for a set of skills very much unlike the skills you may have learned and practiced─in years gone by. When you serve on a committee, the strength of your own initiative and ideas are rarely enough to get things done. Only by working with, and through, other committee members, can you begin to achieve the goals your committee sets out to achieve.
Whether you're serving on a planning committee at the church office, a school committee, or a committee of a local civic club, you can get off to a good start with a little preparation. Here's how:
- Know the committee's parameters. As a committee member, you're expected to fulfill certain responsibilities. If these responsibilities are spelled out in writing, study that "job description" carefully before you begin your committee service. If your duties are not spelled out in writing, talk with the committee chair or the individual who recruited you; your job at this point is to understand the precise function of the committee and how you fit in.
- Understand the committee's goals. Some committees are set up to study an issue. Others are set up to coordinate a project. Still others are set up to make certain types of decisions. Understand the goals and outcomes of your committee. If the committee is set up for a limited time only, be sure you understand the nature of the report or product the committee is expected to produce before it dissolves.
- Be prepared to listen. True, you may be joining the committee because you have certain skills needed by the group. But remember: your ability to interact with the group's members─and foster group spirit─is often more important than the specific skills you bring to the table.
- Stay in tune with the tempo of the committee. Some committees are run in a very brisk, business-like manner, with decisions made quickly and efficiently. Other committees study issues for a lengthy period. Some committees place a great emphasis on conceptual development of ideas. Others strive for consensus. Learn how the committee operates and, unless the committee is experiencing major operational problems, stick with the committee's tempo.
- Remember that you're the new kid on the block. Unless the committee is just being formed, it probably has a history and life of its own, perhaps going back a number of years. Don't expect to come in and change things─or attempt to "stir up the pot"─at your first meeting. Take your duties seriously. Respect the wisdom and experience of others. And keep a low profile at first.
- Decide what you'd like to gain from your committee service. True, you're giving something to your church, your church school, or your community when you serve on a committee. But how will you grow professionally as a result of your service? Will you acquire some new skill? Meet new people? "Practice" for a job in the future? By focusing on your needs and interests─and consciously working towards them─you'll enjoy your committee service much more than if you wander through it aimlessly.
- Focus on goals. What, specifically, is the committee trying to accomplish in the next three months? Over the next year? In what specific ways will the work of the committee support the broader efforts of your church or school? Focus on these goals─and not solely on the mechanics of everyday committee activities─and you'll find your committee work successful and rewarding.
- Plan the work and work the plan. Once you understand your committee goals and responsibilities, develop a step-by-step action plan to help you achieve your goals. Develop also, a planning calendar complete with benchmarks and deadlines for key activities. And when you finish a series of activities, don't forget to evaluate. Consistent evaluation will make the job that much easier next time around.
- Become a master of detail. While you should always focus on key goals, don't forget that many committees must look after a myriad of details, such as logistics of events, telephone calls, newsletter deadlines, and a host of other needs. Details flesh out the day-today work of your committee. Ignore these details and you'll quickly find yourself becoming separated from your goals.
- Keep your colleagues abreast of the committee's work. If your committee's work affects superiors or colleagues, keep them informed. Don't be afraid to ask them for advice and encouragement as you carry out your responsibilities. Good committees include people from a variety of backgrounds who can, in turn, reach out to associates for counsel when appropriate. By seeking guidance from others, you'll enrich the work of the committee.
- Stick to agendas. Committees should have meetings, and meetings should always have agendas. A good agenda is nothing more than a guide to group discussion. It presents the group with a concrete structure for reporting and decision making. If your committee does not use agendas for meetings now, encourage the group to begin.
- Identify a key role for yourself. What unique skills do you bring to the committee? Are you a creative "idea" person? Do you have experience in the committee's area of responsibility? Do you affirm other people well? Do you offer critical advice? Once you identify your unique strengths, bring them to the committee enthusiastically. They can make a crucial difference in the success of a committee project, or even in the life of the committee itself.
- Be enthusiastic in public and complain in private. There will come a time when you disagree with the actions of your fellow committee members. Don't complain about those actions or those members to others. Find the right person─it may be the chair of the committee or a trusted associate─and talk out your disagreements in private before setting your own views forth. Effective committee members seek to maintain a sense of unity and cohesion for the committee as a whole. Through collaboration, you'll be able to persuade others to accept your viewpoints in the future.
- Support your committee's decisions. Every committee has a different decisionmaking style. Some committees use a "consensus" approach to decision making. Some take votes. Still others delegate decisions to subcommittees. Once your committee "follows the process" and makes a decision on an issue, support it.
- Get to know the other members of the committee. Don't base your judgements of other people serving on the committee solely on what they say or do at committee meetings. Get to know your fellow committee members. Learn about their professional backgrounds, and the reasons they choose to support particular courses of action. You'll broaden your own perspectives as a result.
- Look for a successor. Someday you'll leave your post on the committee. Start asking yourself, right now, who can take your place. What qualities do you want your successor to bring to the committee? In what ways can a successor help move your project or your committee work along even more effectively than you're doing right now? If you can identify a possible successor, you might even want to request that the individual join the committee now or at least let the chair of the committee know you're thinking about succession, and about the committee's future needs.
- Enjoy yourself. Juice and cookies, a simple social hour, or an opportunity for committee members to relax together, can go a long way toward building unity among the committee's members. A committee's work may involve difficult decisions and occasional frustration, but a smattering of pleasure can lighten everyone's load as the committee tackles the hard issues.
Richard G. Ensman, Jr. writes from Rochester, New York.