Executive Committee? No thank you.

Horse & BuggyLast week at Creating the Future, something happened that couldn’t wait till the board’s next meeting. Stuff like this just happens sometimes, at every organization, everywhere.

So we did what boards do when stuff happens. We chatted on the listserv, texted and direct messaged to arrange a conference call, chatted on the phone for a bit until we had a game plan, then followed up with each other via the listserv.

Nothing unusual, right?

Except that 100 years ago, this would have been impossible. The only available approach back then would have been a standing committee, whose job was to convene to deal with these sorts of things as needed.

Yup – the Executive Committee.

In 2011, we have so many ways to connect that people wish they could find a place to hide. And yet the Executive Committee lives on.

Yes, they still deal with issues that arise between meetings. But when so much of that work can be handled by a group-cc’ed email, Executive Committees are now the place where agendas are developed, issues are hashed out prior to the meeting, problems are solved, relationships with the ED are strengthened. These days, Executive Committees tend to be highly engaged places where the good stuff of being a board takes place.

The problem is that that’s the stuff the whole board should be doing – governing, getting excited about issues, planning what to talk about next.  And it is absolutely the stuff for which the board as a whole is accountable, not just several select members.

It is therefore no surprise that there is a highly predictable inverse correlation: the more engaged and energized the Executive Committee, the less engaged and energized is the board as a whole. And it makes perfect sense – the Executive Committee gets to the do the good stuff, and the rest of the board is pretty much expected to rubber stamp whatever the Exec Committee says.

The Stuff Happens Committee
Regardless of all the problems it causes, many boards still insist they need an Executive Committee.

So here’s what I’m thinking. If your board still believes it needs an Executive Committee to “handle stuff,” let’s just rename the committee. Let’s call it the Stuff Happens Committee.

Calling it the Stuff Happens Committee will instantly let folks know its role. “No, it’s not about determining the agenda or hashing out all the issues. It’s just the group that deals with stuff that happens between meetings.”

And to those who say, “Yes, but the Executive Committee is part of our leadership ladder,” let’s use the Stuff Happens Committee to REALLY develop leadership – in everyone. Membership in the Stuff Happens Committee can rotate every six months, ensuring that all board members get to deal with the stuff that happens between meetings.

Getting Real
Once we even jokingly call it the Stuff Happens Committee, we quickly see the real reason boards don’t want to let go of their Executive Committees. It is not a matter of function; it is a matter of image.

Being on the Executive Committee is a reward to those who chose to be leaders. They get their own special meetings – fun meetings, engaged meetings. They get to call themselves by an esteemed name – Executive Committee. (Or as many groups call it, simply “Exec,” as in “The board meets the 3rd Tuesday of every month, and Exec meets the week prior.)

Even when boards realize it is an antiquated construct; even when they understand that having this committee is actually harming the level of engagement and active accountability for the board as a whole – even with all of that, many boards insist that this is a committee they still need.

So let’s make it easier for boards to break free of the chains of self-image and prestige. Let’s make it clear, by calling it what it is, that this is a committee whose time has passed.

And maybe, just maybe, board members will agree to finally put this buggy whip where it belongs – in a museum of days gone by. Because the one place this committee does not belong is in a modern organization, led by a modern board, doing its best to stay energized and focused on making a difference in a its community.

Photo: Courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia – via Wikimedia Commons

One Response to Executive Committee? No thank you.

  1. One of the problems with the Executive Committee is that they, the hard working fully focused members of that committee, can’t understand why they can’t “get” the rest of the board to step up. To do what, exactly? The juicy jobs are all taken already by “Exec”. And the rest of the board is sitting in a waiting room, the most deadly place ever (when was the last time you sat in a waiting room and didn’t feel your energy seeping out of you?)

    I agree, we don’t need that Executive Committee to run a parallel life to the board. For huge, unwieldy boards it may be necessary, but hello, why have a huge unwieldy board to begin with? I serve on one board with over 100 members, 32 voting. And their quorum is – get this! 8 people. Guess why? They aren’t realistically expecting many people to show up, and the Executive Committee runs everything anyway. Wouldn’t a voting board of 12 serve just as well, in terms of decision making? That’s what’s really happening there anyway.