Monday, September 12, 2016

Your Approach to Working Committees Reveals Your Organizational Culture

We brought a new staff person into our organization this week. Her last position was with an association management company, so, unlike some people we've brought on board over the years, she has some real association experience to draw on as she acclimates to our organization and its culture.

But even that experience, it seems, will only take her so far. As we were discussing her work with committees in her old position and her anticipated work with our committees in her new position, a difference in style and culture became readily apparent.

"Our working committees don't determine strategy," I told her. "That's the job of our Board and our staff. The Board determines the outcomes the association will seek to achieve, the staff determines how we will pursue those outcomes with the resources we have available, and then we engage our working committees in the process of program development and execution."

In some ways, it was like I was speaking a foreign language. In the association she previously worked for, the working committees were the strategy-making bodies. They determined what needed to be achieved in their areas of responsibility, and could even control portions of the association's resources in the development and delivery of their own programs. As a staff person in that environment, she was valued more for her "arms and legs" than for her strategic thinking. The committee would decide what to do. Her role was to do it.

"That's not the way it works here," I told her. The intelligent and dedicated people who chair and populate our working committees, by and large, understand that they don't have the breadth of knowledge needed to be an effective steward of the association's resources. They look to us, the staff, to help translate the strategic decisions of the Board into concrete actions that both achieve our ends and are within our reach. Their role is to positively shape those actions by injecting their unique perspective and understanding of our industry and its marketplace.

I gave her an example. The Board determines that the association must reach out and introduce our industry's technology to middle school students. The staff decides it has the resources to launch an extra-curricular activity for middle schools, where students design and build simple machines using our technology, and compete them in a timed competition. And then we engage the industry and education professionals that serve on our "Middle and High School Education Committee" in the design, development and execution of that program. What skill-sets should be taught? What materials should be used? What role can industry members play in hosting competitions or mentoring students? How can we best connect the program to local schools?

These are all questions that staff could try an answer on their own, but getting members engaged in their investigation and resolution both results in a better program (because it is built on a much wider scaffolding of actual market knowledge) and a program the membership is more likely to embrace and promote (because they had an active hand in creating it).

"It doesn't always work that way," I told her, "but that's the way it works best." And, it's really our responsibility as staff to coach and educate our working committee members so that they can better do what the association is asking of them. Allowing a committee chair or member to start controlling the strategy piece--to say, in essence, no, let's not do that middle school competition program, let's do something else--is to put them in control of the association's resources. And that, in my experience, rarely accomplishes much for the association.

It was a revealing conversation, delving much deeper into our association's overall strategy and culture then is typical with someone four days in to their employment with us.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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