5 myths about chairing committees - Jo Alcock Consulting
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5 myths about chairing committees

5 myths about chairing committees

My three year term on the CILIP West Midlands committee has come to an end (two years as Marketing Officer, one year as Chair), and I only have a few months left chairing the ALA NMRT Online Discussion Forum committee, so I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my experiences and dispel some myths about chairing committees I’ve come across during my time as chair.

Only men over 50 can join committees

Only businessmen over 50 can join committees

Myth 1: You have to have X years of experience within the profession to chair a committee

Until I joined a committee I had assumed that everyone on the committee, and particularly the chair, secretary and treasurer, must have worked in the profession for a long time in order to know things inside out. What I have since realised is that though there is definitely value in having people on the committee who do have this extensive knowledge and experience, it’s not essential for each individual member to have that. In fact, those new to the profession have just as much to contribute as they are likely to have fresh ideas and suggestions for new ways of doing things – and they can take on roles such as chair, secretary and treasurer to possibly challenge the way things are done and make some changes. And that’s most definitely a good thing.

Myth 2: You have to know the committee and wider organisation inside out to chair a committee

Again, not necessarily true. All you need is a willingness to learn – coming to a committee afresh is of course likely to mean more time invested at the beginning to understand how things work. Experiences here may well differ depending on the organisation and committee, but there is often guidance for new committee members. In ALA New Members Round Table (NMRT) for example, there is a handbook wiki which contains all the information each committee needs. It includes details on the remit of the committee, key responsibilities and milestones for the year, reporting mechanisms, and who to go to for help. In addition, each committee is overseen by a member of the NMRT board so you always have people to turn to if you need further help.

Both CILIP and ALA are complex organisations and I’m willing to bet that the majority of committee members and chairs only know about a very small section of the organisation. A willingness to learn is again all that is needed here, and both organisations have council members who are incredibly helpful if you have any questions. They’ll also welcome new ideas so if it seems strange that something is done a certain way, ask the question and see if it can be improved.

This was the top image search for committee - not like any I've ever been on

This was the top result for a stock image search for committee – it’s not like any I’ve ever been on!

Myth 3: You have to be in a management role (or have held one previously) to chair a committee

Chairing a committee is a form of managing people, so any experience in this area helps, but it’s not essential – everyone has to start somewhere! I’m told it’s a very different experience to line management and I can definitely see that would be the case. It’s not a daily demand (for most committees anyway!), and committee members are usually volunteers so it’s a different type of situation, which of course has its pros and cons. Chairing a committee could be a useful way to get experience managing people if you don’t get the opportunity to do so in your job but would like to in future. As long as you’re willing to chair meetings and provide support for managing the work of your committee members, that’s all you really need.

Myth 4: You have to hold and attend a lot of face-to-face meetings to chair a committee

The number of meetings will vary depending on the remit and responsibilities of the committee, but sometimes these can be held virtually and for some committees no meetings are necessary at all. For most CILIP committees there seems to be a general acceptance that committees should meet face to face at least 4 times per year, however according to the current branch rules it is recommended that the committee meets as many times as is deemed necessary (which could of course be only once for the Annual General Meeting). Some committees never meet in person (this is the case for the NMRT committee I chair), whilst others meet regularly but rely mainly on virtual rather than physical meetings. Of course it’s still important for the chair to be comfortable to chair the meeting(s) and conversations however they occur, but I wanted to highlight the fact that his doesn’t necessarily mean numerous physical meetings. If you can’t commit to that, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t chair a committee.

Myth 5: You have to dedicate your life to a committee to act as chair

Well I didn’t, though I confess there were busy periods where a lot of my time was taken up with committee work (though I was on three committees, two of which I chaired). It doesn’t have to be a massive commitment though. You’re there to help steer and direct the committee, not do all the work. This was initially a difficult lesson to learn for me, but essential both for my well-being and for the sustainability of the committees. Clearly, you need to care about the core values of the committee to enable it to succeed, but if you can only give a limited amount of time, that’s absolutely fine – just choose a committee that suits. I would estimate that chairing CILIP West Midlands took on average around 1-2hrs of my time per week, whereas chairing the NMRT Online Discussion Forum Committee takes around 1-2hrs of my time per month. Committees vary hugely in this and depend on the type of committee – those with a specific purpose often have key periods of time that are particularly busy (e.g. conference organising committees) so you’ll need to take that into consideration.

So, that doesn’t sound so bad really does it? I’ve really enjoyed my time on both committees (and the CILIP Career Development Group West Midlands division committee which I was part of from 2009 to 2012). I can’t quite believe how much I’ve learnt in that time – about the organisations, about other people, and about myself. There have been highs, there have been lows, there have been lots of discussions and emails, and some fun and silliness thrown in too. Overall, it’s been a great experience and one I’d encourage people to participate in to help develop their skills and support their professional organisations (being involved in making it happen is one of the best ways to make sure the organisation is meeting your needs).

For both ALA and CILIP most chair roles are one year terms, with general committee terms for CILIP lasting three years. I recommend finding committees that interest you and seeing if you can get involved. Unless there are confidentiality issues, most meetings will be open so you can go along and see what the committee does – or just reach out to the current chair to get information. If you’re an ALA member, many of the divisions and round tables have volunteer forms for getting involved in committees (such as the NMRT volunteer form which I believe is still currently accepting applications). If you do become a committee chair, you might be interested in my earlier blog post on tips for chairing meetings.

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