The typical experience of a volunteer committee unfolds as predictably as if scripted. A table is filled with enthusiastic committee members. A gung-ho committee chair. Possibly cupcakes. Then just as predictably, members drop off one by one. Other priorities, apathy and life take over. With event day looming, the few remaining end up with lion’s share of work. Sadly, a once enthusiastic crew can succumb to dysfunction and under-performance.
Thankfully, there are volunteer committees that are getting it right. They engage their members throughout the planning process, and they deliver spectacularly successful meetings and events. They demonstrate that it is possible to achieve greatness and enjoy the process, even when the planning staff is working for free. What’s their secret?
It all starts with generous leadership.
It’s not enough to be strong’ a leader needs to be generous too. Members are giving their personal time so they had better be getting something out of the committee experience. The leader’s job is to find out what the motivations are – and it varies for each committee member. Some feel personal connections to the project. Others are looking to develop specific skills or build relationships.
Generous volunteer committee leaders invest the time with each member in the conversation about what they hope to gain on their time on the committee. Then they focus on creating meaningful experiences for their committee members and build those into the project. The investment in time pays off when the members commit for the long haul. The most successful leaders know that they have to engage the committee so that the committee can engage the attendees and drive results.
Along with being thoughtful on finding these meaningful opportunities for their committee members, great leaders provide role clarity and expectations. From the outset, they communicate how much of a time commitment is required from members, and they listen and work through concerns with their members. When members are clear on their accountabilities, drop-out rates are lowered.
Great leaders put their meeting agendas on the back-burner, temporarily.
Think about how most committee meetings begin: Round table of introductions? Call to order? Approval of meeting minutes? Blah.
Group dynamics are formed in the first three gatherings of the committee. How well the group gels can determine whether or not members will stick it out for the long-haul. The most effective committee leaders prioritize team building over agenda items in the outset. Planners often talk about that euphoric feeling of heightened bonds at the end of a great event. Those “I love you man!” moments. Why do those always need to happen at the end of the project? Wouldn’t it be great to be enjoying a tight kinship with the working committee throughout the process?
Here’s a radical idea taken from leaders of high-functioning committees: toss the agenda and devote the first committee meeting to team building. Or, instead try a social night at a coffee shop or a pub – somewhere members can create a group dynamic before getting down to business. Members that feel connected are less likely to slack off, disappoint their fellow members and will be inspired to give more of their discretionary effort.
Again, it goes to leadership focus. Focus on the team before focusing on the project. Build accountability structures that empower committee members to drive the agenda forward.
In corporate meetings however, the planner may not be the leader. What then?
Independent planners and those having to answer to a committee chair or board of directors add enormous value as influencers and architects of human experience. In sharing best practices in team building and presenting the benefits of prioritizing member engagement, the committee experience becomes a richer one for all.