The Strauss Blog

The Secret Sauce for Successful Virtual Committees

Despite the advances in technology for video conferencing (Skype, etc.) I continue to be a believer in the need for face to face meetings to discuss and work on key strategies. However as an association management company (AMC), managing national (and provincial) associations, I know that face to face meetings aren’t always possible. Unfortunately budget, time constraints and other factors limit the amount of face to face time that volunteer leaders have.

When working with an association on the development of a new committee or task force we always suggest that the first meeting be held in person and, where possible, in person meetings be held at key milestones. In an article for Harvard Business Review (HBR) entitled “Making Virtual Teams Work: Ten Basic Principles”, Dr. Michael Watkins, outlines principles for ensuring strong performance of virtual teams. I was pleased to see in his article that principle number one is “Get the team together physically early-on”. Watkins’ ten principles are easily adaptable to association committees and task forces.

For many of our association clients the only time that they can have in person meetings is during their annual conference. In this case it is important to make those meetings count. Use these rare in person meetings to:

• Ensure alignment to the association’s strategic plan
• Focus on the biggest issues, not the simplest items that can be easily discussed by phone or email
• Forge personal bonds amongst members and staff (get to know each other)

Do not use your one meeting a year to cover routine business!

Another article from HBR by Keith Ferrazzi entitled “How Virtual Teams Can Create Human Connections Despite Distance” outlines three behavior gaps that can keep virtual teams (read committees) from reaching their goals:

1. Setting ground rules for managing virtual connections
2. Aligning personal and professional goals
3. Strengthening relationships to ensure candor required for true collaboration

The advice from both Ferrazzi and Watkins focus on two key items:

1. Communications
2. Relationships

While the ideals of clear, open, regular communications of a board or committee working virtually (teleconferences, email, etc.) are no different than collaboration within the same room, the results of not doing this well can be so much worse. The development of relationships between volunteer leaders is equally as important. It amazes me when I walk into an association meeting to discover that many of the volunteers working together have never met! Use whatever in person meetings you can arrange to get to know each other. Often the best way to ensure that these relationships develop is to arrange for social functions (dinners, etc.) outside of the meeting room.

Finally, in another HBR article by Ferrazzi “How Successful Virtual Teams Collaborate” he says “… there’s a world of difference between merely working together and truly collaborating with one another. Collaborative activity is the ‘secret sauce’ that enables teams to come up with innovative new products…”. That ‘secret sauce’, collaborative activity, is truly the right combination of strong communication and personal relationships that have been strengthened by initial in person meetings.