Avoiding the Camel

iStock_000040266338_smallA club that gets poor direction from its committees will end up with something far worse than a
funny-looking horse. Here are some best practices for building effective committee structures.

Sir Alec Issigonis was a designer of cars, and his lasting contribution to the automotive industry was the creation of the Mini Cooper in 1959, which is now undergoing a resurgence in popularity through models manufactured by BMW.

Issigonis is also credited with first uttering the memorable put-down of bad management practices when he said, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”

GavelDramatic change in the private club landscape over the past ten years has brought a shift from golf-oriented operations to broader, family-focused organizations, along with stern lessons from the recession about what it will now take to attract members and have them make full use of club facilities and amenities.This change has caused even the most traditional and established private clubs to reexamine their governance structures, to make sure their organizations are properly aligned with the new demands of the club business, both for efficient day-to-day operations and effective long-range strategic planning.

Throughout 2015, C&RB is presenting a four-part “Governance Best Practices” series that will highlight how private clubs are now positioning their Boards, committees and general membership to work with the professional management team for maximum effectiveness and successful pursuit of both short- and long-term objectives.

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Part One, in the February 2015 issue (“Rethinking the ‘Bucket’ Lists”), looked at how membership classifications and structures are changing to reflect new directions in club operations, and how those new approaches are affecting Board makeup and club governance.

This second installment of the series looks at best practices for effective Board and committee structure and direction.

Future installments of the Governance series will highlight current best practices in these key areas:
• Board and membership involvement in management succession planning and hiring (August 2015)
• Long-range strategic and master planning (November 2015)

Issigonis died in 1988, and it’s not known if he ever participated in the governance of any private clubs that he may have belonged to. But if he had, it’s a good bet he might have left behind a few more acerbic comments about the ineffectiveness of many committee structures in club settings.

As the club industry struggled through the recession, there was nothing funny about how poor committee operations hampered the ability of many properties to properly respond and adapt to the new realities of the business. In some cases this even led to long-standing private clubs having to declare bankruptcy, be sold, or close for good. And as the industry reemerges from such a trying period and recollects itself, a new spotlight is being shined on how club committees should be formed, populated and operated, to ensure that they are in the best position to help properties move forward in pursuit of their strategic objectives.

Finding the Right Chemistry
For over 25 years, Dan Farrell, CCM, was involved in senior management with platinum-level private clubs, culminating with his tenure as General Manager of Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., where he led the property’s successful hosting of the 2013 PGA Championship (“Major Mastery,” C&RB, September 2013).

Now a Senior Associate with GSI Executive Search, Farrell was recently asked to conduct a webinar for the National Club Association on “Building Effective Club Committees.” He agrees that the topic has taken on new timeliness, after the recession-induced trauma shook many private clubs to their core.

In his 25-plus years as a club GM, Dan Farrell learned that the formula for committee effectiveness will always hinge first and foremost on the chemistry created among the personalities involved.
In his 25-plus years as a club GM, Dan Farrell learned that the formula for committee effectiveness will always hinge first and foremost on the chemistry created among the personalities involved.

“Now that clubs have started to stabilize after the recession, and Boards have some breathing room again, many are clearly seeing the need to take a new look at their leadership structures and how they can better relate to their clubs’ future and goals,” Farrell says. “That’s opened the door to rethinking all aspects of governance, and especially to how committees should be formed and run.”

In his webinar presentation, Farrell emphasized that the formula for committee effectiveness will always hinge first and foremost on the chemistry created among the personalities involved—and on how club managers can avoid disasters caused by what can too often become a volatile mix.

Understanding the characteristics of those who volunteer to be on committees, Farrell said, is critical to having the proper ingredients for effective committee performance. The formula should be heavy on volunteers who have deep affection and appreciation for the club’s culture and what it means to individual members, and who want to serve on committees as a way to give back and strengthen the organization. At the same time, those who appear to be most interested in advancing personal agendas about club policies or programming should be kept out of the mix as much as possible.

Best Practices: Getting the Most Out of Your Committees• Define the committee’s level of authority
• Set clear goals and expectations
• Build effective teams within the committee
• Develop accountability metrics, and report progress to leadership
• Celebrate your successes, and analyze and prescribe corrective measures for shortcomingsSource: Dan Farrell, Senior Associate, GSI Executive Search, “Building Effective Club Committees” webinar for National Club Association

The reality, though, is that “contrarians” will still often find a way to occupy committee seats, Farrell acknowledged. And that’s where the club manager’s ability to control agendas and discussions becomes critical. In addition to the best practices he prescribes for getting the most out of committees (see box, opposite page), Farrell also stressed these points to his webinar audience for how individual committee meetings should be conducted:
• Communicate issues to be discussed prior to each meeting.
• Develop clear and mutually agreed-upon agenda items and discussion points.
• Include all research and reports prior to each meeting and request comments and feedback in advance, to help prepare for issues that are likely to arise.
• Make sure it’s clear that either the club manager, or the committee chair, is in charge of running the meeting and keeping it on track. “The manager should always seek to drive the discussion, and not just be a reactive ‘keeper of the stuff,’ “ Farrell said.

Data from the Club  Benchmarking platform show that an alarmingly large percentage of clubs still take a loose approach to committee operations .
Chart courtesy Club Benchmarking. Click to enlarge.

Even with the most careful preparation, Farrell added, attempts at divisive disruptions may still arise. When they do, the club manager must strive to preserve the committee’s effectiveness by respectfully allowing all points of view to be heard and acknowledged, but also by being firm in emphasizing the importance of having the committee, in the end, reflect one majority voice and pursue one unified vision.

Equally critical, Farrell said, is distinguishing, and informing the group about, the difference between “grapevine” information and gossip as influencing factors. “You should only rely on real, traceable facts that have been transmitted and are transparent through company channels,” he said. “Anything that’s non-fact-based conjecture should be inadmissible.”