What Is the Role of a Committee Chair?

Nicholas J Price
A committee chair is a leadership position that requires specific skills as well as a sense of diplomacy and democracy. The role of a committee chair can be a time-consuming venture that requires extra time for the chair to plan and prepare for meetings. Committee chairs are responsible for facilitating committee meetings and reporting the committee's findings to the board. It's essential for those who serve in the position of board chair to have a clear voice and good presentation skills. Good facilitation skills are important for committee chairs so that all committee members participate and meetings run smoothly.

Role of the Committee Chair

An important skill for those who serve in the role of committee chair is effective planning. While the board provides the committee with a charter and specific duties, the committee chair must keep the organization's purpose, mission and strategic direction in mind as the committee pursues its course. A committee chair must carefully plan an agenda and send it out to the committee members in sufficient time for committee members to attend the meeting and to participate thoughtfully. Careful preparation on the committee chair's part will streamline the committee's work as they conduct investigations and perform research on the issues they need to tackle.

The Role of Committee Chair Requires Excellent Facilitation Skills

The role of the committee chair requires having excellent facilitation skills. For some people, facilitation comes naturally. For others, training in facilitating meetings can be very helpful.

It's vital for committee chairs to remember that they are responsible to the board for the group and for the work that the group does. This is an important consideration when facilitating a committee that has one or more members who are overbearing or who continually offer strong opinions. It's also crucial for committee chairs to be willing to address a committee member who fails to protect confidentiality or who has a known conflict of interest.

With this in mind, a committee chair should not be afraid to address a committee member who takes the group off-topic or who merely regurgitates another member's opinion. The committee chair must be in charge. It's important to address such issues early and to be consistent with how they're handled. For example, a good response to use when someone is off-topic is, 'How does that apply to our agenda?' If the issue is indeed off-topic, but important to discuss, a chair may want to table it to later in the meeting.

A good facilitator uses phrases and tools to help the group move forward. A committee chair should never make decisions for the group or steer the group toward the chair's personal opinions.

The point of having group discussions is to make decisions or recommendations that are thoroughly vetted and well-rounded. This only happens when a group of people allows everyone to participate so that varying perspectives come into the discussion. An effective facilitator doesn't let one person monopolize the conversation and can encourage quieter committee members to share their opinions and perspectives.

Committee members may be more inclined to participate when the chair calls on them by name. If you're one of those people who has trouble remembering people's names, don't feel guilty about using a tool such as name tags or a seating chart. It's better than getting a name wrong or passing over someone because you can't remember their name.

In most cases, committee members appreciate order as much as the committee chair does. A good meeting facilitator makes notes of the order in which members raise their hands. Again, write the names down if you have trouble remembering the order of hands in the air. Acknowledge the order of speakers by verbalizing it. 'Let's hear from John first, and then Nancy and then Charles.'

Make eye contact with committee members as you call on each person to speak because it establishes a relationship between you and them. When you make eye contact, you can also pick up on a member's facial expressions and body language. Take note of members who appear to be confused, annoyed or anxious to speak. Frequent eye contact sends a message to your committee members that you're alert and attuned to the meeting.

As the discussion winds down and committee members have nothing more to contribute, it's time for the committee chair to steer the group toward decision-making. The best way to approach this is for the chair to summarize what's been said and either suggest a proposal or ask a committee member to formulate a proposal. For example, offer up a statement such as, 'The group seems to be saying...'

This type of statement should open up a discussion to tweak the wording of the proposal until all committee members are in agreement and happy with it.

With few exceptions, committees have little or no power or authority. In the role of the committee chair, it's vital that committees don't overstep their authority. If it becomes apparent that an issue falls outside the committee's charge, it's the committee chair's responsibility to take it back to the board and ask them to refer the issue to a more appropriate committee or body.

It's becoming common practice for boards to take advantage of the benefits of board portal software to ensure good corporate governance at the board and committee levels. A board portal offers a secure platform for communications, planning and documentation.

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Presenting Findings and Recommendations to the Board

The role of the committee chair requires reporting the committee's findings to the board. Depending on the preference of the board, chairs may present their report orally or in writing. It's the responsibility of the chair to ensure that the committee's report is clear and unambiguous, and that they're specific on the committee's recommendations for next steps and implementation. The final report should be reflective of the collective views of the committee as represented by the majority perspective. Chairs should also make note if the committee wasn't able to reach a consensus.

Finally, the committee chair may call a special meeting to address urgent matters as necessary. Throughout the committee's work, the chair should review the functioning and development of the committee to ensure that the work is still needed and is aligned with the organization's mission and direction. As the committee chair steps down or rotates off the chair position, it's prudent for the outgoing chair to support the incoming chair by debriefing the new chair and offering advice.
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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.