Expanding Leadership Opportunities with Committees

Expanding Leadership Opportunities with Committees

As Azavea has grown from just me working out of my apartment to 50+ people, I’ve gradually relinquished more roles to other people. We evolved from a few individual developers to teams led by Project Managers and Engineering Leads to specialized roles focused on UX Design, Business Development, Administration, GIS Analysis, and Data Science. As these specialized roles grew, they also became new teams. In 2017, I promoted four of our colleagues to various Vice President roles.

So far, so normal; as an organization grows, new roles and hierarchies are added to manage the increased complexity. However, over time, I also heard from colleagues that were not necessarily interested in managing people but were interested in greater opportunities for leadership and ownership. “Ownership mentality” is one of our company values, and I want to encourage people to operate as leaders, whatever their job title or putative location in the hierarchy. I believe leadership is an activity, not a position. 

In addition, I want to make sure we are cultivating the future leaders of the company, and I believe it’s critical for people to have a chance to practice leadership.  Azavea has long provided a number of ways in which people can develop their leadership skills in their technical domain: talks, papers, 10% time, writing blogs, mentoring, and offering volunteer opportunities. Over the past several years, we’ve also been blessed with relatively low turnover in management and executive positions. So how can I both devolve more power, authority, and autonomy to individuals as well as provide opportunities for practicing other types of leadership?  

How we got into committees

An idea from my French wife along with the catalyst of moving into a new office space, led us to develop a committee structure in 2016 with the hopes of flattening the hierarchy, providing new leadership opportunities, and, overall, improving our colleague’s quality of life.

My wife, Rachel, suggested a structure from her home country of France that might address all of these issues. The enterprise committee is a very common corporate structure in continental Europe. Under this structure, the company sets aside a budget every year for the purpose of investing in workplace improvements and other activities purely for employees’ benefit. It’s a completely employee-led group and they determine how the money is spent. This can, of course, have negative effects — the workings of the group can turn political and people can abuse their power — but on the whole, the intent is to do good things for employees, and it mostly works. We took these ideas as inspiration for developing our own committee structure.

Kids playing in park
The Enterprise Committee funded the food and permit fee for this fall’s company-wide picnic that the Fun Committee organized.

Trust (or make up) the process

We initially proposed the following committees to coincide with growth and new office space: Enterprise, Fun, Art, and Impact/Sustainability. I wrote charters for each committee to outline the mission and structure for each, the boundaries of its remit, and examples of activities each could engage in. For the enterprise and art committees, we set an annual budget. 

With the structures in place, we began soliciting volunteers. We asked everyone in the company to share what committees they were interested in joining if any. Rachel and I looked at any overlap and limited folks to serving on two committees at a time. We also tried to strike a balance between team representation, tenure, and genders in considering committee makeup. Then we assigned volunteers to committees. 

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Since then, folks have naturally stepped down from committees when they have felt they served enough time or want to focus on other professional development goals, and committees have periodically renewed members to suit the needs of the committee. As a general guideline, we asked people to record the time they spend on committee activities toward their timesheets. We want to honor this “soft” labor and not overburden folks who often take up the slack. As one colleague put it, “I appreciate that caring for plants and making coffee, for example, can go into your timesheets. Often it’s considered labor that someone (often women) should just do on top of your work. Counting it on timesheets makes it feel valuable and important.”

What we’ve learned

We haven’t yet solved all of our problems with committees. We would love to be more intentional with our goals around impact and sustainability and thought that a committee could address that, but I found it difficult to define the remit for the Sustainability Committee and a lower level of interest led me to hesitate launching the committee. But I think there’s still lots of potential here. I also think there is the potential for a committee that focuses on improving access to volunteering opportunities. 

Additionally, there are some issues that need a more narrow remit and a more limited timeframe than a committee. This year we’ve started tackling these issues using another structure, working groups. We had a Proposals Working Group in Q1 and Q2 that worked on improving our bids and proposals process. We currently have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) working group, and it’s possible this may shift to being a standing committee in the future. Stay tuned for a working group blog.

When we formally launched our committees, I wasn’t aware of models in other firms, but I’ve since run across other companies with similar systems. Through our membership in the Tugboat Institute, I recently had a chance to visit the Radio Flyer company in Chicago and learned that they have a very similar set of committees. 

When I consider the future of Azavea, I imagine that as we grow and change, so will our organizational needs. It’s possible we will need more committees (such as impact/sustainability, volunteering, or wellness) or working groups, or maybe we’ll need something else entirely. Regardless of any structural changes, I expect we’ll be committed to our value of an ownership mentality and providing opportunities for our colleagues to develop their leadership skills.

Read Part 2 for more on how each committee works and hear directly from Azaveans about their experience serving on committees.