Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chairing Committees, Or, Why Herd Cats When You Can Just Dangle String?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (otherwise known as my life before librarianship), I held a couple different management positions: one at a bookstore and one at a fast food restaurant. As rewarding as it can be when things go smoothly, being in charge is difficult sometimes. However, as challenging as those jobs were, chairing a committee or a work group is way harder. There's a reason why people use the phrase "herding cats" so frequently when they talk about higher ed.

The thing is, though, that it doesn't have to be like that. To extend the cat metaphor, why herd when you can just dangle string? More plainly, why be authoritarian when you can make it so that people want to participate? I've talked in the past about running meetings, so today's post is more about the other work that goes into chairing a committee - the things you do between meetings.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but here are some of the things you should do:

  1. Always express your gratitude for the work people are doing. Committee responsibilities might be part of their job descriptions, but who would you rather have? People who resent the committee as a disruption to their other responsibilities, or people who participate willingly?
  2. Follow up shortly after meetings, and then again as necessary. I'm the chair of our displays group (and some of them read my blog... *waving*), and we only have one formal meeting per year. Our work extends throughout the year, though, since the displays change at least once per month. I send emails and talk to people in person regularly. I try to make it easy for people to remember what needs to be done.
  3. Be ready to pinch hit. I hope you'll forgive me for mixing my metaphors, but this baseball term is such an apt description of what you'll need to do sometimes. Things come up, situations change, etc., and that means you'll have to fill in for people. That's what being in charge means sometimes.
  4. Don't just talk; remember to listen. Whatever the reason for you being in charge, experience or volunteering or even being volunteered, you won't get anything done without the help of people on the committee. There are all sorts of clich├ęs to describe this idea: "no man is an island" and "it takes a whole village" both leap to mind. We have so many ways to talk about this because it is so true.

If all else fails, you can always set out some tuna or cream (or donuts or pizza). You can't herd cats, but even the wiliest feral tabby is a sucker for treats.

What about you? What do you do when you're in charge of people?


  1. Some very great tips there. The other thing I learned very quickly upon entering the management world is to be ready to throw everything you know (or think you) out the window. I learned this rather fast when I had someone in an essential day to day position rage quit on me. Nothing you read or are taught can prepare you for something like that. My best advice, follow your gut and remain calm. It's really the only thing you can do.

    1. Absolutely! Recognizing that I don't know everything was hard, but so crucial.

  2. Good points! I would add to be mindful that your thanks are not unintentionally disempowering or belittling. A collegial thanks says "you and I are equals, and I appreciate working with you". Thanking people for their *best* work, not for their lesser tasks, shows that you pay attention to their contribution and know how they make a difference. In brief, make it genuine.

    1. Excellent point. Expressing your thanks too often can make you seem disingenuous.