Stone Cold Steering Committee?  Maybe It’s You!


fingers pointing at startled business person

Though steering committees play a critical role in any transformation program, they sometimes get a bad rap and are often underutilized.  To get the most value from your committee, it is important for all project leadership members to understand the disposition of the transformation steering committee as a whole and understand the members in it.  If you don’t, you will miss out on a huge opportunity.

Project managers have shared many awkward statements with me about their program steering committees, many of which you have probably heard.  Here are just a few:

  • The steering committee continues to delay on a decision on a critical item for “n” months.
  • A steering committee member introduced a competing project/alternate timeline/business-specific scope change.
  • The committee members are in conflict of approving/releasing use of PLANNED company resources.
  • I can’t share (fill in the blank) in my next update.

In these discussions, I am often told that the steering committee can be difficult, nonengaged, and sometimes cold.  While I can understand the frustration, there are countless reasons that the problem may not be in the committee itself but instead has more to do with you – the project manager.

Here are two considerations for evaluating the program’s steering committee effectiveness:

  • Relationship – Do you know your steering committee?
  • Leadership – Are there blinders to your role in the effectiveness of the steering committee?

Relationship Investment

As the program manager, you should have some knowledge of the committee’s members and have a perception of their management style even though you might not have selected them.  However, your personal perceptions will likely need an update given the members’ elevated roles as steering committee members.

If you simply try to manage the steering committee, you will fail.  You would be wiser to invest in the relationship.  It is never too late to invest “one-on-one” time with individual committee members.  Use the below topics to learn and validate each member’s understanding of the program and perhaps identify areas that need to be addressed.

  • Transformation business case knowledge (operational and financial) – Do not assume all members have the same knowledge level of the program’s business case. Be prepared to level-set as needed.
  • Member’s program participation level – Acknowledge (or inform) members of their business unit’s expected level of participation and scope (time, resources, and assigned risk).
  • Other enterprise or business unit priorities – Ask each member about any competing programs and other known or potential conflicts within the enterprise or their respective business/operational unit.

Lastly, understand the management style of the committee members.  How would you categorize the team member’s management style?

  • Passive aggressive or assertive
  • Conflict avoiding or confronting
  • Analytical or unsystematic

If you invested in developing a relationship with the members, then you have invested in developing a deeper relationship with the committee.  Barriers to member engagement and participation is lowered when there is a common understanding across the committee and the project leader knows where potential knowledge gaps or conflicts exist.

Awareness of management styles within the committee will provide the project manager the capability to leverage strengths or anticipate and address expected behaviors of committee members throughout the course of the program.

Leadership

Your leadership abilities are on full display for the steering committee.  As the program leader, you probably consider the entire committee to be your boss.  The steering committee views their role as the program “board of directors”, and they may see you as the embodiment of the program.

Keep the committee’s expected leadership criteria and expectations of your role in mind, including:

  • Truth and transparency – The committee expects truth and transparency from the project manager. Unintended transparency issues can always be improved.  Trust is harder to re-establish.
  • Awareness of the program’s financial health and operational status – The transformation business case has two major components – the investment and the expected outcome. If the program investment is mismanaged, the expected value of the transformation can be easily and significantly eroded, and in some instances, totally destroyed.
  • Proactive identification and management of risk – Identification of risk (e.g., “I see a tiger in the road”) has limited value if it is not accompanied with management of the risk including mitigation tactics and action (e.g., “take a different road”). Share the appropriate risk issues with the committee, accompanied with at least two risk mitigation plans for comment or consideration.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EI) – There is so much to be said on this one. You have progressed through your career in part because of your demonstrated emotional intelligence.  However, the scale of the transformation program is beyond anything you have experienced.  Your EI will be under scrutiny by the steering committee members, company leadership, program team members, and other transformation stakeholders.

The same level of truthfulness and transparency expected from the committee and its members is expected of the project manager.  The project manager that does not compromise on truth and transparency will also hold others accountable for truth and transparency in the program governance and management of the program.

The program manager that is knowledgeable of the financial and operational health of the program demonstrates their understanding of various factors that can adversely affect the financial and operational health of the program.  The project manager’s ready recollection of the program health is also an indicator of the strength of the program management and leadership within the program.

The program manager that is self-aware of their emotional intelligence will also be cognizant of the EI of the committee and will compensate where needed.  This same manager will better serve the committee and members when the EI of the committee and the members are incorporated in discussions and problem solving.

Why This Matters

The first 90 days of any program is hectic when you consider activities like resource onboarding, operational and functional baselining, assumption realization, PMO startup, etc.  Because of this, the steering committee is sometimes viewed as a third-party or audit function that you will get to later.

I recommend you do not wait for the first steering committee meeting to get to know the members.  Now is the time to build bridges and understand the members of the steering committee – and for them to understand you.  Make the investment in the steering committee so those awkward statements do not take root in your program.

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Ted Rogers

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