Secrets of Successful Committees Clarity is Key

Secrets of Successful Committees

 Being on a committee is not always an easy task. In fact, sometimes it can be  downright frustrating. A three-month commitment can stretch into six months;  meetings can go on forever; committee members may drift off topic; and  precious, limited time can be hijacked by strong personalities. After a while,  the old saw about too many cooks spoiling the broth starts to feel all too  true.  

 On the other hand, committee work can also be one of the most rewarding “extracurricular activities" for HOA board members and non-board residents alike.  It can be a true community-building endeavor, drawing different residents into  the fold and pairing up individuals with common interests who might not meet  otherwise.  

 When committees work well, they serve as a vital and important tool in aiding  the board. After all, a committee’s intended mission is to support and assist the board in carrying out its  responsibilities to the association. Dysfunctional committees, however, can  have the opposite effect, creating long-lasting negative issues for both the  board and the community at large.  

 Reasons for Failure

 “Committees are fantastic structures; they serve to include the broader  community,” states Jasmine Martirossian, author of the best-selling book Decision-Making in  Communities: Why Groups of Smart People Sometimes Make Bad Decisions. “Unfortunately, there exist a lot of anemic committees: they're lost, limping  along and just existing, serving no purpose and having no clear goal,” she says. There are many ways to describe these foundering committees, but most  fall under three main categories.  

 Lack of Commitment

 Erin Barnhart, director of volunteers at Idealist (an international non-profit  organization that connects individuals with nonprofit jobs, volunteer  opportunities, and organizations around the world) believes that when committee  members lack a commitment to the common goal, “disillusionment with the process arises, and the goal will fall apart.” According to Barnhart, this lack of commitment can often be attributed to  committee members being appointed for the wrong reasons. “When individuals are put on committees as a favor to a friend or for political  reasons, they don’t necessarily have a vested interest in the cause or purpose of the committee,” she says. Martirossian agrees, and suggests that when recruiting or replacing  committee members, “It’s important to communicate the purpose of the committee clearly to participants,  [and explain] how the process will benefit them and what they will get out of  the experience.” This will help to ensure a better-invested group of committee members.  

 Ill-Defined Goals

 As the saying goes, “You can’t get what you want till you know what you want.” Committees with shaky mission statements or vague goals are setting themselves  up for failure and frustration. “Unless the committee was put in place to serve a political purpose, committees  with no clear mission should be disbanded,” states Julie Adamen, president of Adamen Inc., a Seattle-based property  management consulting firm that advises HOAs all across the country. “Committees need appropriate mission statements, structure, instructions and  guidelines. They really cannot function properly without these things in place.”  

 Weak Leadership

 In any well-functioning committee, the committee chair sets the tone and drives  the group's goal forward, and in the process wears many hats including task  master (setting agendas, calling meetings), presenter (preparing and presenting  committee reports) and mediator (facilitating conflict resolution). In an ineffective committee one or all these responsibilities may be lacking in  leadership.  

 However, perhaps the most important quality lacking in a strong committee leader  is what Barnhart describes as the “step-up and step-back” practice. She believes a committee leader needs to know when to step in and resolve and  when to step back and listen. “A good facilitator or leader knows they cannot commandeer the meeting and cannot  allow others to do so,” explains Barnhart. “The leader senses where the group is at odds and keeps people in check and on  track.” Martirossian believes that a leader who unites and motivates a group is equally  important. “Strong leaders always produce better results—but inclusive leadership works even better,” she says. “An individual who can motivate and move people to perform to the best of their  ability is extremely powerful.”  

 Every committee should have a spokesperson, says Ken Afarian of ARK Management  in North Bergen, and “it’s wise for that person to not be on the board. You want the committee chair to  be neutral from the board’s point of view.”  

 Traits of Good Committees

 There is a balancing act between committees being value-added entities or added  burdens to an association. Effective committees tend to encompass similar characteristics and qualities  that go a long way in adding significantly to the community mission.  


 No two committees are alike, and depending on a community's dynamics there can  be a great deal of leeway as far as structure and procedure are concerned, but  successful committees typically have an assigned chairperson and just a handful  of members. “You really only need three members,” says Afarian. “Depending on the scope of the committee, you might have up to seven—but you only need three to make decisions.” Having a small pool of additional members helps, he notes, in case a particular  issue requires a committee member to excuse himself from the discussion or  decision. “For example, if there’s a dispute that involves a neighbor, a committee member might not want to be  involved,” so it’s good to have enough members that decisions can still be made when one member  is sitting on the sidelines.  

 And structure is important. Adamen believes “a written report should be expected from committees every board meeting. That  way there is ownership of the process and mission.” At the conclusion of each committee meeting, action items should be assigned  with timelines and deadlines for completion, and a report summarizing next  steps and progress to date should be submitted regularly to the board between  meetings.  

 Member Selection and Replacement

 The burden of responsibility for recruiting committee members falls to the board  and management. Smart HOA administrators realize that today's committee members  are often tomorrow's board members, and are always on the lookout for potential  candidates.  

 Effective committees are not solely composed of future board candidates,  however.  

 Afarian suggests that at every annual meeting, a pitch be made for committee  volunteers. “People need to be asked to volunteer,” he says.  

 As mentioned earlier, successful committees are made up of individuals with an  expertise in a given area, commitment to the cause, and interested in  fulfilling their community responsibilities. “A lot of times the expectation of the condo community does not incorporate  volunteerism and committee participation," says Martirossian. "This needs to be  communicated and addressed to set expectations and allow for increased  commitment and easier recruitment."  


 Effective committees have a strong commitment to the goal at hand and have  strong communication and organization skills. Good committees also see the  bigger picture and move toward that goal with an analytical eye. “Typically, committees are set up to find something out,” Martirossian points out. “The ability to conduct research and analysis—to be an investigator—is critical for committees to work well.”  

 An introverted analysis also contributes to the creation of an effective  committee. “Committees need to constantly reassess their work and goals and everyone needs  to share in the ownership of the process in a positive way,” adds Barnhart.  


 It is hard enough to achieve consensus, assign tasks and provide productive  movement forward in our own lives, let alone in a divergent group of friends  and neighbors that make up association committees. Successful committees,  however, do achieve these goals by way of clearly spelled out rules and  regulations. Adamen stresses the importance of reviewing at the onset clearly  written out and defined guidelines for committees (see sidebar) to abide by. Barnhart agrees, saying, “If there is a code of conduct, that alleviates a majority of problems because it  is written and it has been agreed upon.” In his experience, Afarian says, committees don’t often run into ethics problems. “It’s something you have to be aware of, but we don’t see a lot of patronage situations,” he notes. “Sometimes, people will think they’re helping” by recommending a relative for a particular job, but with guidance, can  understand that “you compromise yourself if it turns out that the vendor isn’t so great.”  

 Both Barnhart and Adamen suggest total transparency with deadlines, procedures  and the mission spelled out in writing. Barnhart also suggests creating a rule  to “agree and move on.” She explains, “If the majority of members are in favor of an issue, you need to agree to that  item and move on. It is about respect for the individual but also the group.”  

 When Good Committees Go Bad

 Be it the summer social committee or the budgetary task force, even the best-run  committee will inevitably have conflicts. Functional, well-run committees will  overcome these, but others will founder and fall into pointless bickering and  ineffectiveness. One issue that causes more conflict and pushes more  individuals' buttons than any other is lack of equality. “Equality; equal share, equal work and equal voice,” says Barnhart. “It can be cyclical, but in the end, everyone needs to feel they are being dealt  with equally.” When individuals perceive their input as unappreciated or that they are  shouldering an unfair balance of work they become disenchanted with the process  and the mission, she elaborates. Open and clear communication, smaller  committee size and clearly defined rules and guidelines will go a long way in  helping everyone feel they are playing an important and equal part.  

 When conflicts do arise, Martirossian suggests “not practicing the ‘ostrich principle’ and burying your head in the sand. Resolve issues before conflicts arise and  work with people.”  

 If committee group dynamics are causing problems, Barnhart recommends an open  discussion on the issues and problems to get it all out on the table. “Direct the conversation to how we can work better with each other,” Barnhart advises. “If the issue is about an individual, the leader needs to talk [with the person]  one on one.” In both instances, it may be helpful to have an outside facilitator come in to  address the problem through mediation.  

 Committees overseeing building and grounds, finances and social programming are  well-established fixtures in most communities, and despite the occasional  problem or conflict, most function well and serve their communities admirably.  The same goes for committees set up on an as-needed basis when issues arise or  when the time commitment would interfere with general board business. “The two most prevalent committees,” Afarian says, “are the Covenant Committee, dealing with the Alternative Dispute Resolution  required by state statute, and the Buildings and Grounds Committee. In an urban  setting, the ‘grounds’ part of that is a little less important, but in a large part of New Jersey,  there are more ‘grounds’ and people are pretty passionate about it.”  

 Any committee topic is fair game as long as its creation does not tread on the  specific domain of the board, such as issues dealing with governing rules and  regulations or behavioral, which are better left to the board.  

 There are also no “set in stone” guidelines as to how many committees are too many or not enough. “The personality of the community defines the number of committees and what will  be best for the community at large.” says Adamen. “It differs by community. One way may work for one community, another way should  work for another.”  

 Not all committees end up being successful in the long run, Afarian notes. “Communication-type committees—committees that are going to maintain a website or produce a newsletter — can be well-spirited, but eventually, no one has time to keep it up” and interest dwindles, he says.  

 Committees can either be an answer to a prayer or an association’s worst nightmare, considering that association committees are made up of  individuals working long hours with no pay—but also working toward a common goal for the betterment of their home and  community. A committee with a clearly stated mission and goal, which enlists a  small set of committed and equally empowered individuals, is an effective and  powerful tool for any board.  

 Hillary Pember is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England  Condominium magazine, a Yale Robbins' publication. Additional research by Pat  Gale.

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