One of the things a provost does frequently is to meet with outside groups who advise us on Georgetown schools, programs, departments, and other units. These consist of experts from outside the university who are members of advisory boards, review panels, and steering committees of various activities on campus.
It’s common that the ongoing committees have a fall meeting. So, over the past few days, I’ve met with a large set of such groups.
I’ve learned a few things about such groups that I didn’t discern earlier in my career.
First, the members of the group want to contribute. In that regard, one of the common sins of a committee agenda is to pack it with presentations by the unit being advised, updating the committee on recent events and accomplishments. The threat is that all the time is spent talking “at” the members, with no time left for them to ask questions, give advice, etc. Instead, leaving more time for discussion than presentation is a wise move.
Second, and a corollary to the first, since the committee members want to be helpful, glossing over problems is unwise. Wise leaders of a unit meeting with an advisory group will give clear descriptions of challenges that they face and honestly seek input on alternative paths forward. No advisory panel member believes that any unit he/she is observing is without problem. Talking about the problems often is the best part of committee meetings and often leads to the most value.
Third, it’s important to restate visions and strategic directions to a committee that meets only periodically. We can’t assume the committee has remembered initial briefings and can easily link current activities to larger strategic visions.
Fourth, those running the unit need to study what the last committee meeting discussed. The committee members will access their memories of prior meetings in forming impressions of current problems. If there have been large changes in the unit, the committee members have to be led from where they “left off” to where the unit is currently situated.
Fifth, it’s wise to create committees with members from diverse backgrounds. Some of the best advice I’ve heard over the last few weeks came from members who did not possess direct knowledge of the focus of the unit, but who did have wide experience in designing organizations, incentivizing innovation, and building strong teams. Having different members forward different recommendations should not be discouraged. Often their interchanges will offer new insights into the issue at hand.
Sixth, good committee members understand that not all of their advice will or even should be taken. Our role should be to understand why they forward particular ideas, to verify that we can fully assess their value to us.
Seventh, we need to remember that the strength of an outside group is to help us take a different perspective on what we are doing. When a member makes statements that initially seem off the mark, we need to make sure that we really understand how they see their remarks fitting with the issues facing the unit. Sometimes, these comments allow us to solve problems through new combinations of actions.
Lastly, in the final analysis, the responsibility for the success of units belongs to those who work within them. Advisory committees should not be held responsible for any problems of the unit. Only those running the unit are accountable for its success.
We all need external input on what we do. It makes us better and challenges us to move beyond our comfort level to reach heights greater than we would achieve on our own.