Making Committees Work

How to get things done--and enhance your career

5 min read

The committee meeting was supposed to start at 6 p.m. and last 2 hours. But the meeting didn't start until 6:15, and it reached the third hour before we'd gotten past the second item on the agenda. The conversation kept wandering off track, and side conversations broke out. As one colleague said to me after a similarly frustrating marathon meeting: "Well, that's three hours of my life that I won't have anymore."

Sound familiar? Clearly, this is not the way to run a committee, whether at work or when volunteering for activities in school, professional societies such as the IEEE, or the community. There must be a better way--and there is. Early in my career I was fortunate to read an article entitled "How to Run a Voluntary Committee Without Being Lynched," written by a traffic engineer named Paul Box, and since then it has framed the way I participate in and chair committees--to which I've added a few things I learned on my own. In properly run committees, you have the opportunity to learn management skills and make contacts that can boost your career, and get something done as well. Here are some ways of improving the effectiveness and satisfaction of working on a committee.

Treat committee work as real work. Why is it that committees often fail to work? One underlying reason is that people tend to regard a committee as different from work, perhaps even an opportunity to relax a bit. This is especially true with volunteer committees. But you're there to accomplish something--not to twiddle your thumbs. So be businesslike: set agendas and follow them. Get people to accept responsibility for tasks and then hold them accountable for getting them done. Follow-up is crucial: make sure action items are sent around quickly after meetings, so all members (including those who couldn't attend) know what they are supposed to do, whom to contact if there are delays, and so on. Peer pressure is a great motivator--sometimes the only motivator--since additional compensation or recognition is not always available for committee work.

The chair should manage-- and not end up doing all the work. The chair of the committee needs to manage and lead, and people will look to the chair to do that. It's not good if the chair starts taking on a lot of the work because she or he feels uncomfortable asking members to do things; he or she will soon burn out and lose the other people who joined and expected to be involved. The chair must learn to delegate.

Early in my career I led a professional society committee that had to prepare a report on various transportation issues. There were about 15 corresponding members on the committee (I never did meet any of them), so, as chair, I split up the work into about six or seven discrete tasks and assigned each task to two different members, the idea being to have a better chance of getting a response from at least one person. If both responded, then I melded their reports. This proved effective, because only about half of the members responded and I was able to fashion their responses into a publishable document.

Treat committees like teams. Make sure everyone understands the big picture--what the committee is doing and why--and identify a role for each person, if possible. If you're the chair, think about how to organize efforts and divvy up tasks so that everyone has meaningful work to do. Give people recognition for their efforts. Write thank-you notes regularly, send memos or letters to people who deserve special recognition for a job well done, and send copies to their bosses or others to share that recognition. Does this really make an impact? You bet! I learned once that a thank-you letter I sent to a committee member ended up taped to his refrigerator at home.

Write thank-you notes regularly, send memos or letters to people who deserve special recognition for a job well done, and send copies to their bosses or others to share that recognition

Get active members. Nothing is more important than having active and capable people on committees. Such people do not grow on trees; sometimes you have no control over who volunteers (or is volunteered) for the committees. But when you do have control, don't be shy in soliciting volunteers. Go up to people at professional society meetings, find them in the company cafeteria, or phone or e-mail them and ask if they want to be involved. Tell them that it will involve some real work, that it will be for a good cause, and that it will be interesting and fun (and then make it come true).

Get rid of deadwood. Keep the enthusiasm and vigor of the committee by asking unproductive or no-show members to resign. How can you do this diplomatically? If people are not showing up for meetings or responding to messages, you need to tell them: "You must be very busy these days, as you haven't been able to attend recent meetings or do what you said you would do, so I'll understand if you don't have the time to participate in the committee." This will smoke them out, and either they will resign or get energetically involved again. By the way, do not ask them if they want to stay on the committee, because they will feel guilty and say yes, which solves nothing.

Informally identify future committee leaders. If you are chairing a long-lived committee, as is common with professional societies, it's important to realize that you won't be chair forever. You need to do succession planning to keep infusing life into the committee. Don't create a forbidding amount of work so that no one will want to take over. Instead, identify current members who might be willing and able to take over and talk to them. I once headed a professional society committee of about 10 members, and here's how I orchestrated the process to select my successor: after I identified three people who were the most suitable to be future chairs, I reorganized the committee's work into three areas. After the committee agreed to this at the next meeting, I then said that there should be three cochairs, one to cover each area of activity, and asked for volunteers. Of course, the three people I had in mind volunteered. A year later I left the committee, and one of those three naturally took over as chair.

Committees can work--but only if you put in the effort to make them work. Volunteering for committees is a great way to get involved in businesses and in professional societies. You'll learn new skills and subjects and rub elbows with people you might not normally get a chance to work with. This can open the door to potential mentoring relationships and, yes, job offers. On one of my earliest professional society committees I got to work with several leaders in the field whom, as a neophyte professional, I never would have gotten the opportunity to meet otherwise. And, to my surprise, a few years later I was named chair of that committee and thus learned many leadership skills at an early age. Making committees work enables good things to happen, both in accomplishing the work of the committee and in giving your career a boost.

About the Author

Contributing editor CARL SELINGER, an aviation and transportation engineering consultant in Bloomfield, N.J., has given his seminar on the soft nontechnical skills, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," throughout the United States. His book of the same title has been published by Wiley/IEEE Press. For more information, go to

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