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Committees don’t have the best reputation. It’s quite common to hear higher ed professionals (including me) bemoaning the perceived lack of pace, inefficient decision-making, diluted outcomes, unqualified opinions or plenty of other critiques. Yet, we use them, and, with many schools embracing shared governance to drive academic and administrative decision making, committees are a higher ed inevitability. Why? Because when they do work, committees can foster meaningful collaboration across the administrative and academic divide, precipitate excellent decisions, create a shared sense of purpose, help get things done and reap the countless benefits of blending different voices, ideas and expertise. But it’s hard work. It takes commitment, persistence and belief that working together will lead to a better outcome. The work can be frustrating, challenging, exhausting and often uncomfortable, especially when it’s focused on marketing and communications, because, well, everyone is a marketer (or could be).

Picture this: administrators, elected faculty, tenured faculty, staff and trustees working together on committees to make critical, time-sensitive, difficult decisions about the direction and future of the college, including a committee devoted to “telling our story.” Yikes.

Despite approaching this exact initiative with the skepticism befitting a higher ed pro such as myself, I was wrong. It worked. Called “Beloit Forward” and designed to tackle interrelated challenges with budget, recruitment, retention, marketing and the future of Beloit College, the work turned pessimism into optimism. The experience revealed a few things that I hope can help others navigating the complexity of committee and shared governance without losing hope.

Know Your Purpose

Every committee, work group or task force needs clarity of purpose before much else can happen. A topic as broad as “telling our story,” or marketing, or internal communications needs clear focal points for members to direct ideas toward and avoid sprawling, circular conversations. But, defining purpose needs to go beyond developing a formal charge with a few bullets describing what you hope to accomplish. You need a work plan that outlines milestones, timelines, deliverables, decisions, roles and responsibilities. Part of what will allow a committee to get beyond the throat clearing and decades-old grudges that will surely emerge early on is a concrete work plan. Are you developing a brand position? Auditing publications? Developing content for social media? Creating policies? Without a plan, scope creep will likely render a committee useless.

Share Your Work

Perhaps the most rewarding outcomes from a successful committee engagement is the deepened knowledge of what other people do. Faculty do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to retention, recruiting and marketing. So do administrators. Use the committee to celebrate this, and spend time getting to know the work that’s already being done by others. Recognizing existing work, ongoing work, identifying work that needs improvement and work that doesn’t yet exist is a critical step toward realizing the benefits of diverse perspectives, experiences and expertise. This is especially important when administrators, faculty and staff work together. Avoid both uninformed criticism and defensiveness. The goal here is to discover how you can fully embrace the collected talent of the committee, not convince everyone you don’t need their help or that others don’t know what they’re doing. A little empathy goes a long way, and will improve outcomes.

Unify Ideas

The hardest, most gratifying part of any committee work is uncovering the things that every committee member believes. It’s not always pretty getting there. Disagreements on tactics, strategic direction, language, visuals, mascots, logos, resources, roles and responsibilities can dominate the discussion. Listen for what’s motivating those opinions. Often it's all coming from the same place. In the case of Beloit Forward, our committee discussions (across multiple committees too) quickly revealed that, despite different roles and responsibilities represented by the membership, every single person believed that every decision must be in service of delivering an exceptional student experience. Finding a fundamentally unifying idea dramatically reshaped discussions, and moved the group toward decision and action with much more pace and shared sense of purpose.

Embrace Accountability

Even for the most collegial of committees, decisions are difficult and consensus is rare. But committees bring with them a degree of authority and shared responsibility for outcomes that can be exceptionally empowering. Don’t shy away from decisions. Use the trust and shared sense of purpose you’ve established to push toward decisions that support your purpose and speak to the unifying ideas you’ve identified. Look beyond the formal committee structure and hold yourself and your colleagues accountable, lobby for each other, and never lose sight of what you’re working for. That’s the only way outcomes will stick.

Tim Jones in the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

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