The Role of the Chairperson
Most Jewish student organisations have one person who is formally in charge. They might be elected, appointed, or the only person who wants the job. In many organisations (including WUJS) the person is called the chairperson (chair for short), although they might also be called the president, or some other title. The Jewish group's chair has ultimate responsibility for ensuring that its activities run well. Getting the right approach to this task is a difficult thing to do, and one that chairpersons’ often need help and advice with. Two of the most common problems that befall chairpersons’ are
The effective Jewish student union chairperson ought to be doing most of the activities detailed below in order to expand and improve the activity of their Jewish group on campus. The function of the following activities is not to 'control', but rather to guide. The chairperson ought to make sure that everybody on the committee knows what their job is, and that they have the skills and support to do that job. The major role of the Jewish student union chairperson can be broken down as follows:
Creating shared vision and purpose
The first things that a chairperson needs to do is make sure that the union has a reason to exist and that everybody knows what this is. If a team of people aren't clear about why they are doing what they are doing, they aren't going to do very well. The chairperson needs to make sure that there is a clear purpose (or mission) for the union, and that people know what it is, and are committed to it. By giving committee members a real sense of being involved in something important, chairpersons’ can have a big impact upon the amount that the committee does. Chairpersons’ should ensure that there is a written mission statement or unspoken agreement about what the organisation is doing.
Very broadly, strategic planning includes identifying (or updating) where the organisation wants to go and how it will get there. More detailed action planning identifies specific goals, who will reach them, how, when and what will be needed along the way. Strategic planning includes articulating the organisation's vision, or a compelling image of how the organisation wants to look at some future point.
It is quite clear that without an idea of where a Union should go to, a chairperson won't be able to lead their Union anywhere. In addition, the committee won't know what they are aiming towards. The chairperson is responsible for thinking of how the Jewish student union can improve, and how it can grow. With others from the committee the chairperson then needs to develop a plan of how the Union is going to achieve its aims in the year. Successful organisations nearly always spend more time planning than those that are merely average. Successful planning involves people, and isn't done by the chairperson alone. Be successful, plan with others.
In the process of strategic planning, the chair needs to be prepared to innovate, and also to let go of projects that aren't delivering.
The chairperson is in charge of ensuring that the committee has the right structure. Nobody can do a job unless they know what they need to do; everybody needs a clear job description. Job descriptions can't be developed in a vacuum - an overview of all the tasks needing to be done and how they fit together is necessary. This is the role of the chairperson. Once clear job descriptions exist the chairperson must ensure that they aren't out of date, and that any change in activities is reflected in a change of job descriptions.
Delegation is an approach to get things done, in conjunction with others. The ability to delegate effectively is the one skill that is needed more than any other in today's organisational environment. Once individuals are on a Committee, with clear job descriptions, they still need to know who to report back to, and to be given any appropriate guidelines. The chairperson is the person to whom others must report back, and if help is needed the chairperson gives it. This is often called 'servant leadership' - the chairperson serves the others in the organisation in order to help them get things done.
The chairperson is a figure-head. More than anyone else the chairperson can motivate others. This means that the chairperson has the job of saying 'thank you' and 'well done' to anybody in the Union who has worked to get something done, whether they are the treasurer or a first year who collected money for the charity drive. See more on Motivating people on p110.
Training and development
It is not expected that many union chairpersons’ are able themselves to run training sessions. But if others are expected to do certain things well (e.g. publicity, public speaking) then it is clear that they will need training. All professionally run organisations use training to improve performance, and there is a very strong correlation between success and the amount of training that goes on in an organisation.
The chairperson has two tasks vis-à-vis training. The first is to identify the training needs of their Union - what training should be done and who should go to what. The second task is to promote a culture of training by persuading people (by words and personal example) that training is necessary if they are to do their jobs well. If a chairperson does one thing early in their term of office, it should be to arrange training for him or herself and for the rest of the leadership committee. See more on training p100.
Feedback and appraisal
A well run union will let people know how well they are doing their job. Not only this, but they will encourage people to improve. Feedback gives people a chance to get opinions on how they are doing, and allows them to suggest ways for the Union to improve. Appraisal is a formal feedback procedure. The Chairperson is responsible for making sure that they, and others on the committee, get regular feedback on how they are doing. The advantage of providing feedback, formal or not, is that members of the committee will have an idea of how they can improve, and what they have to be proud of. Without feedback, people are left without an idea of how they are doing.
It is important for the chair of a Jewish group to form alliances with other organisations. These can include funding organisations, local community groups, Zionist groups, youth movements, and non-Jewish student groups. In every alliance the emphasis should be on mutual benefit and co-operation. It is easy for Jewish student leaders to be carried away by a sense of their own power, but this isn't a healthy approach. However powerful a chairperson feels, there is always somebody more powerful who wants to see them fail. They should try to work with others, get on with others, and let others help them, and in return help others.
The chairperson serves as a figure head for the Society. They must motivate others through their actions, and inspire people with confidence. They often need to represent the union to outside bodies such as funders or even WUJS. This isn't necessarily the most important role, but it needs to be done well, and without being embarrassing! The chairperson should dress appropriately, speak politely, and avoid being controversial except where this is organisational policy. Being a figure head also means being pro-active about representing the union - to new potential supporters, to the press, and to anybody who might be able to help.
In the better run large Jewish organisations, the chairperson won't need to actually arrange any activities themselves. The chairperson will instead co-ordinate a committee to do things, ensuring that far more gets done than would be if only one or two people were doing things. Obviously in smaller Jewish groups this might not always be feasible. Where there aren't enough people for a large committee structure, the chairperson will need to play an active role in arranging activities - however the aim of the chairperson ought to always be to delegate as much as possible.
It is very easy for a chairperson to attempt to take on most of the work within a union because they haven't delegated enough to others, this kind of chairperson is always very busy, and doesn't understand how they are expected to cope. They have the job of arranging assemblies, doing most of the publicity, liaising with external organisations, and might then also try and involve others on a Committee. This kind of Chairperson is often confused as to what the Committee is meant to do, and can become quite disappointed that when asked to do things others usually make mistakes. When things get too much this kind of chairperson might just stop, or else burn themselves out trying to do everything. Perhaps most worryingly there is no chance to expand, because the Chairperson is always too busy arranging tomorrow's activity to stop and think about improvements or innovations.
Chairpersons’ who fail in their jobs often don't think enough about the feelings of the people they are working with. So, although a chairperson does all of the things that are listed above, they do things without thinking through how they will affect others. So for example it is possible to give feedback without really listening first. Or delegation can be done too quickly and people can be left not knowing what is expected of them, but nervous that they might seem incompetent. Chairpersons’ can try to arrange training, but forget that it is possible to give the impression that committee members are incompetent if training isn't 'sold' right.