Strengthening Leadership

Wheeler North, Chair, Relations with Local Senates Committee

Have you ever wondered if a proactive approach to committee membership is possible? For many involved in leadership and in developing leaders, it seems to be the norm to rely upon the expression of interest as the sole means of picking committee members with some back room arm twisting in those cases where no one wants to serve.

It is possible to make our strategy more sophisticated while hopefully discovering ways to move the culture from one of resistance to one of engaged participation. Central to developing good committees is the need to develop good members, and circularly, such development usually is the result of extensive committee participation, both good and bad.

Process Credibility

Functional groups achieve credibility by producing useful results. The role of the chair is to balance flexibility with a structure that both produces results while also providing the participants with a meaningful experience. Any committee that takes no action or moves no activities forward serves only to function as a social enterprise. Conversely, good leadership requires groups to have some social elements, some means by which members connect to mutually value each other's participation. In the end though, to be credible the committee must produce results that effectively lead to something useful.

Any healthy team has to be able to debate, to disagree (even vehemently), but in ways that allow progress, and if really effective, that provide solutions which resolve the disagreements. Membership buy-in to the process allows for such solutions, and at the very least leads to consensus, which is usually better than a status quo stalemate. Consequently, developing a leadership culture that values both unity and pluralism above the wants of the individual is fundamental to group capability.

Developing Leaders

Leadership has to empower leaders both vertically and laterally for consultation to work well. Focusing a few events, such as a Chairs' lunch or coffee, on the elements of running good meetings misses the other end of what needs to happen: empowering our committee chair leaders to develop their members' leadership abilities. Few of us are exposed to coordinated leadership training in the basics of running productive meetings which can develop effective and autonomous members.

While many faculty avoid leadership roles because they've never developed these skills, one way to acquire them is to participate in functional working committees.

Another way is to empower committees and chairs to be up front about assessing and evaluating committee effectiveness, which will also increase member ownership of the committee and its work.

Committee Role, Functionality and Representation

The purpose or mission of the committee needs to be very clear and focused. The calendar, size, and structure need to appropriately reflect the tasks before the committee. A common complaint about committees is excessive meetings or unending dialog with unclear purpose. To counter this, the committee workload should be strategically planned around an annual cycle so that members can accommodate their schedules accordingly. Thus effective committee chairs are always one meeting ahead of their committees where possible.

The other element of functionality is the committee's work product. Most committee work is about planning, and implementation is handed to smaller groups or individuals. Oddly, many colleges have great governance structures but are weak in the area of process charting, so it pays to spend some time focusing on what input the committee gets, what it does with the input, and what it then passes on to the next level. While committees vary in scope and role, in general this kind of decision-making can be reduced to one or more of the following three foci: 1) prioritizing elements based upon criteria, 2) creating standards, and 3) activity implementation.

Irrespective of governance structure, all committees need to reflect the diversity of colleges' human resources in a multitude of ways so that effective representation exists for everyone, be they staff, students, faculty or administration. Committee diversity across discipline cohorts such as basic skills, transfer, general or career technical education is a must. Student services, business services, and instructional services also need representation. However, this all needs to be accommodated reasonably lest the committee size becomes unmanageable. Finding a common meeting time becomes impossible as committee size increases.

Other representation elements are college-based structures, like departments, divisions, or schools. There are occasionally negotiated requirements for membership, such as from schools or divisions, as well as requirements for tenure. In this case it's useful to find folks that wear many hats. Inherent to selecting committee members, though, is the need to avoid burning out those few who really seem to carry the load. It is also important to recognize we accomplish many tasks that are never seen. Before taking those rarely found on committees to task, take care to find out what they are actually doing. You might be surprised to find out they are working very hard on many things, with none of them being high on the public radar.

Basic Tips

Meeting basics require using an agenda and staying on track when possible while still being flexible. There are times when folks need to vent or go social and network a bit. There is nothing like a nice bout of commiserative bonding. But too much of this sets an undesirable tone to the overall culture of consultation. Be on time, and allow for all three parts of a meeting: before the meeting, the meeting, and after the meeting. These include timely agendas and minutes as well as those discussions that occur while leaning against the wall, as it were. Those who are having challenges in attending, when given a phone call will often reconnect and reengage where an email would have failed. A chair who effect genuine care for committee members and member ownership of the committee will usually be successful.

Always be professional. This doesn't mean you can't relax and let some fun happen. But use this wisely; excess comes across as wasting time. On the other end of the spectrum, the scope for some of our work is very tense or downright scary at times. Keeping civil is a must. Slow things down or take a break when you think it may not be possible for the proceedings to remain professional.

To summarize this discussion, having strategic committee membership conversations among constituency leaders is a must.

A Title 5 requirement exists for consultation to occur between the local academic senate and the college president prior to appointing faculty to committees. Take this requirement one or two steps further. Strategically develop strong committees with membership that perceives their respective roles as both credible and productive.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.