Steering Committee: Definition, Challenges & Best Practices

Jessica Donohue

Large and ongoing projects don’t stay on track on their own. A steering committee guides a body on a project from start to finish. The project may be an operational project or a committee that steers a board of directors

Here, we examine what a steering committee is, what it does and how to develop an effective steering committee with the help of board management solutions.


What is a Steering Committee?

Steering committees are comprised of various people, including board officers, senior stakeholders, experts, executives, department employees and client representatives. 

Members of steering committees meet and collaborate to define, prioritize and control projects. They also provide guidance to the project manager on various issues. 

The statistics on project completion aren’t strong — less than 3% of companies complete 100% of their projects. The average company exceeds its budget by 27% — about half of all projects budgeted for over $1 million fail. 

Steering committees oversee project management, keeping projects on budget and on time and preventing associated risks.


What Does a Steering Committee Do?

Steering committees oversee and manage the progress of a specific activity within the organization. This might be a special project, compensation or even overseeing the board itself. 

Though steering committees are heavily involved in these activities, they aren’t the ones doing the work. Instead, they work with a project manager to ensure a designated team can complete all tasks on time and budget, often using a board portal software to manage corporate governance, documents, communications and reporting. 

Each standing committee will have a committee charter, which details the committee’s mission, roles and responsibilities, composition and more. 

Types of Steering Committees

Steering committees can vary from organization to organization since all businesses have different needs. Here are the five most common steering committees in both non-profits and private corporations: 

Executive Committee

An executive committee is usually composed of the board’s officers and sometimes the executive director. 

In this capacity, the executive committee acts as a steering committee because it steers the direction of the entire board and prioritizes the board’s issues. They also often lead executive board meetings, set agendas, and collect reports from other committees and board members.

Project Steering Committee

Another example of a steering committee is a group of people who collaborate on projects. In this situation, steering committees support project managers to ensure that projects align with business objectives. 

They identify and monitor risks, ensure the quality of the project and monitor progress and timelines. The committee can approve changes in the project scope, budget and strategy.

Privacy Committee

This committee ensures that the organization complies with privacy and security regulations, specifically GDPR. The privacy committee will collaborate with other stakeholders and subject matter experts to verify that the organization has adequate data privacy — a critical part of enterprise risk management.  

Compensation Committee

Both corporate boards and non-profits typically create a compensation committee. This committee is the authority on executive compensation and benefits packages. Members of this committee should represent a diverse set of business and industry skills. 

Non-Profit Board Committee

Since non-profits often have to do a lot with a little, they can significantly benefit from board committees since they can streamline processes. Non-profit board committees generally support their boards of directors through strategic planning, budgeting, project management and more.  


Project Steering Committees

A project steering committee is part of a larger project governance structure. Companies that schedule large projects that require interaction across several departments and involve many stakeholders benefit from a steering committee that can oversee project management. In this capacity, the committee manages the team’s progress toward meeting benchmarks and goals. 

The committee is responsible for advancing project management, analyzing the budget and identifying any changes affecting the project’s original scope. In addition, the project steering committee ensures that all viewpoints are heard and manages any conflicts between stakeholders or departments.


Challenges for Steering Committees

Challenges are bound to surface during steering committee work. Being the chair of a steering committee presents trials of many kinds because it requires attuning to people and handling various tasks.

  • The committee chair must manage many people, including those at various levels of the company hierarchy, with very different personalities and varying levels of interest in the project.
  • Finding the right balance concerning the number of meetings can be difficult. Too many meetings take time away from working on the project. At the same time, not enough can hold projects up while employees await decisions from the steering committee.
  • With so many people working on a project, there is always the threat that someone will put their own interests before those of the project or the company.
  • Still another challenge is defining the roles of the project manager, the people working on the project and the committee members, which may be different roles than they have in the normal course of their employment. Another issue that makes defining roles difficult is that roles may overlap in large groups.


Groupthink in Steering Committees

No matter the size of the group, there’s always the risk of groupthink. “Groupthink” refers to a group of people in which one or more people are afraid to express an opinion that varies from that of the majority. 

As a result, they vote along the same lines as others in the group, even though they disagree internally. When committee members give in to groupthink, it defeats the purpose of bringing members together to gather diverse opinions and perspectives.


Best Practices for Developing a Steering Committee

As with most types of meetings, steering committees function best when they adhere to best practices for board committees. 

This includes ensuring the committee is the right size and has the appropriate processes and technology to support committee activities during and outside executive meetings. 

Train New Steering Committee Members

Unless all steering committee members have experience on such a committee, it’s best to provide them with some training and coaching. The rest of the committee can’t know what no one has told them.

Keep the Size of Your Steering Committee Manageable

It’s a good idea to keep steering committees to a manageable size. About six committee members is a large enough size to represent all of the appropriate parties. Steering committees will also find that this size group is small enough to be efficient.

Prepare for Steering Committee Meetings

The steering committee chair sets the agenda and should provide a copy of it to all committee members at least seven to 10 days before the steering committee meeting. This timeframe gives committee members plenty of time to plan to attend the meeting, be ready to ask questions and participate actively. 

Along with the agenda, committee chairs should attach the minutes of the last meeting, including an updated action list for completed actions and actions that are still in progress. 

The chair may also add a general progress report from the project manager and drafts of relevant documents that are being developed.


Ongoing Communication for Steering Committees

Before email technology became commonplace, project steering committees typically held meetings monthly, which wasn’t always the most efficient way to monitor progress. With the development of email accounts, best practices for steering committee meetings have changed.

Steering committees now set benchmarks for meetings and communicate progress monthly via email. Steering committee chairs must balance making decisions quickly and with the appropriate forethought, not rushing them too hastily. 

They need to make decisions efficiently to avoid having to push back deadlines. It also helps to liaise between the project manager and the steering committee.

Communication Solutions for Steering Committees

A steering committee is a hive of activity. Though email can help keep committees and their teams on track, it’s board portal software that makes committees more efficient and productive during and in between meetings. 

Board management technology gives boards and committees instant access to the necessary information. This keeps teams efficient since they can securely communicate, collaborate on documents and store files, which is critical to keeping committees on track.


A Streamlined Steering Committee Ensures Good Governance

A well-thought-out charter, effective meetings and board portal software are all characteristics of a good steering committee. But it’s these same characteristics that make for good corporate governance. 

Governance ensures that the right people have a good grasp of their responsibilities and a clear understanding of the parameters for decision-making. This paves the path toward meeting organizational goals with efficiency and productivity, something all committees need to be effective. 

With rising stakeholder demands, organizations must consider how they can accommodate their expectations — one way is through secure board and executive communication. To find out more, download the 2022 Governance Checklist from Diligent to build a more efficient framework that drives steering committee performance. 

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