Building Strong Board Committees: The Devil is in the Details
We’ve always referred to committees as “the workhorses of the board.” And boards agree: in our 2023 Board Performance Assessment Benchmark Report, committees scored higher than any other performance area. Without strong standing committees – Audit, Compensation, and, of course, Nominating & Governance – board work would be a lot harder.
And that’s never been truer than today. As board work gets more complex and boards take on more responsibilities, committees shoulder much of that additional burden. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Our seminal benchmarking analysis confirms frequent anecdotal comments that boards laud their committees, and they reiterated this with some of the highest scores across their assessments. Committees are stepping up, not only doing more but meeting new standards and requirements impressively. Bottom line, strong committees are elevating board performance.
But how do you ensure that your committees are effective in their duties and that they are up to the challenge of shifting demands and dynamics? High-performing committees share several common characteristics.
Organization and a clear sense of purpose
Board committees are most effective when they have clarity around their purpose, goals, and mandate. Rarely does a board committee undertake decision making roles or responsibilities in lieu of the full board; rather, they provide critical leverage and capacity to dig deep on specific governance matters that the board, as a whole, doesn’t have the bandwidth or expertise to explore. In essence, the full board delegates the fact-finding and critical thinking analytics to the committee and looks for informed recommendations on addressing key matters. A well organized and structured committee typically results in oversight being more comprehensive and insight being better informed.
Strong, experienced leadership
Like all collaborative work teams, having an effective leader, or in this case committee chair, is paramount to success. An effective chair will know how to prioritize the goals of the committee and structure processes, committee membership, and deliverables to meet deadlines, be thorough, and provide the full board with the appropriate breadth and depth of information it needs to discharge its duties.
The committee chair also will know how to include committee members to get the most out of them. Further, this leader should have the additional skills to know when and how to involve others not on the committee (such as the board Chair or CEO) as major issues are being considered. No doubt, it’s a heavy lift to serve as a committee chair.
As for helpful experience, typically, a committee chair will have served on the committee for at least a year prior to chairing to see a full annual cycle; but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. If a committee chair brings relevant experience from a different governing body, that can also help bridge potential knowledge gaps. At the end of the day, though, the buck stops with the chair.
Dedicated and diverse committee members
Having the right talent around the committee table is critical to success. Consistent with their other board work and the culture, committee members should bring dedication to their work and high standards for their processes and deliverables. Collaboration is foundational, as are strong communications skills. Starting with some technical knowledge about the subject is often extremely valuable although not a requirement of every committee member, so long as they are willing to embrace the required learning curve. Diversity on board committees is as important as diversity on the full board to allow the group to benefit from a range of perspectives and come to fully considered recommendations.
The right support for success
Committees entail real work – and it’s all above and beyond the work being done as an active board member; a balanced workload distribution helps ensure that all members share in the lift. Additionally, allowing all voices around the committee table an equal chance to be heard and received with an open mind has multiple benefits: that behavior role-models collaboration and consensus building while getting the best from diverse perspectives. Both are invaluable.
Committee members also benefit from a comprehensive onboarding initiative to help individuals assimilate into their roles quickly and effectively. Further, it’s important to take measures to avoid overwork and stagnation. Restrict the number of committees in which members can participate and be mindful of upcoming board age or term limits when staffing and refreshing committees.
Board committees can be one of the most powerful engines for accelerating board performance and increasing strategic value to an organization. Keeping these guidelines in mind can help committees shine, in turn helping the board do its job in the best way possible.
Want to learn more about how boards see their committees performing?
Read how board members rate their committees and what that means for board performance in our 2023 Boardspan Benchmark Report. The report also features valuable analysis and insight on other board trends, challenges, and successes. And let us know what you are seeing, hearing and want to learn more about at firstname.lastname@example.org.