How To Be A Great Committee Chair

Like orchestra conductors, Committee Chairs own the full score—and their job is to bring out the best in their team without ever losing sight of the common goal.

Like musicians in an orchestra, board members bring unique skills to their work that can create a successful harmony – or calamitous discord. Without effective leadership, even the most talented musicians will be unable to see how their melody fits into the larger tune. Conductors, like Committee Chairs, own the full score. Their job is to bring out the best in their team without ever losing sight of the common goal: generating quality work that, by truly combining everyone’s talents, transcends individual contributions.

But the responsibilities don’t stop there. To be successful, Committee Chairs must perform many duties, including:

• Serving as the Committee’s key point of contact for the Board, CEO, and senior executives

• Developing a plan in partnership with management/staff liaison, that allows the Committee to discharge its responsibilities effectively and efficiently throughout the year

• Ensuring the actions taken by the Committee are consistent with the Committee Charter and that the Committee’s goals are aligned with the company’s mission and strategic plan

• Planning and preparing agendas for Committee meetings, preferably with member input

• Motivating Committee members to actively participate in meetings

• Mediating personality conflicts and disputes between board members

• Distilling conversations into key issues and ensuring they are accurately reflected in the meeting minutes

• Reviewing meeting minutes before they are distributed to Committee members

• Assisting in and welcoming and onboarding new Committee members

• Reporting the highlights and key decisions from Committee meetings to the full board

• Keeping Committee members, the CEO, and appropriate staff fully informed of Committee activities and decisions

• Evaluating the Committee’s efforts annually

Navigating the duties of a Committee Chair requires possessing skills beyond effective project management. Outstanding communication and collaboration skills are a must—as are empathy, impartiality and trustworthiness. Successful Committee Chairs can also read people well, adjusting their behavior in response to body language and tone.

But there is one “it” factor, one trait that is by far the most important: strong emotional intelligence. The ability to understand, use and manage your own emotions in positive ways to communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome adversity and defuse conflict is a crucial skill of high-performing Committee Chairs.

As is knowing your place. One of my key learnings from being a Committee Chair—or, for that matter, any board member—is that you shouldn’t interfere with the day-to-day management of the business. Your role is to provide oversight, insight and foresight—not management.

Effective Committee Chairs must have sound knowledge of the company’s vision, mission, core values and strategy as well as a clear understanding of where their contributions to those elements start and end. The chart below lists several dos and don’ts of effective Committee Chairs.

Being a successful Committee Chair often requires you to be innovative, solving deficiencies with creative solutions while not straying from your lane. When I became Compensation Committee Chair, I discovered that the company did not have a formal written plan to evaluate the CEO and the senior management team. In response, we quickly created the strategy and structure for a performance-based management incentive plan including developing appropriate financial and non-financial metrics to evaluate and compensate the CEO and other NEOs.

As a former Nominating Committee Chair, I worked with committee members on the implementation of a board skills matrix to assess skills and attributes of current directors, comparing them to those that were deemed critical to the company’s strategy to ensure long-term alignment and address any skill gaps with future director appointments. I viewed board assessments as a continuous improvement exercise and set expectations that re-nominations were not automatic and would be based on individual director contributions.

In both instances, success wouldn’t have been possible without the active engagement of board members. Yes, I proactively identified problems that fell under my purview, but I ultimately relied on the expertise of board members to make improvements. Just like a conductor doesn’t create music, I didn’t single-handedly create solutions—I helped guide board members towards their creation.

There is a wide set of skills needed to be an effective Committee Chair not because a Committee Chair needs to do everything themselves, but because drawing out the best of others is an incredible challenge. Successful Committee Chairs, like conductors, see the sum of all parts, leading others to make contributions that elevate solutions and improve overall performance. Through strong leadership, they develop a harmonious environment that allows board members to truly sing.

They may not perform at Carnegie Hall, but Committee Chairs make music all the same.

Maryann Bruce is an accomplished corporate director and former Fortune 100 Division President and CEO. Over the past decade, she has served on a dozen public, private, mutual fund, advisory and nonprofit boards in different industries. She currently serves on the Audit and Enterprise Risk Oversight Committees of the Board Directors of Amalgamated Bank, and previously served as an independent director of MBIA and Atlanta Life Financial Group, as well as a Trustee of both the Allianz Global Investors and PNC Funds.