Op-Ed: Little Things Mean a Lot

Kitty Kallen
Kitty Kallen

Way back in the middle of the 20th century, singer Kitty Kallen had a big hit titled “Little Things Mean a Lot.” The lyrics went:

Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I’m not
Touch my hair when you pass my chair
A line a day when you’re far away
Little Things Mean a Lot.

Kitty Kallen was right. And even though Kitty wasn’t thinking in 1954 about the 115 boards, committees and commissions currently authorized in the Virgin Islands, she nailed an important theme. It’s especially important with regard to those that have just had their memberships replenished, with 46 new members recently approved.

Updated 21st century, V.I.-specific lyrics could include:

Give me a quorum when I show up
An agenda that starts on the dot.
Give me decisions
No grandstanding or posturing
Little Things Mean a Lot

Frank Schneiger
Frank Schneiger

Volunteer boards and commissions pose challenges whenever or wherever they are assembled. But I believe that the territory is in a category by itself in this area. Whether there are too many of these boards and commissions is a matter for internal discussion, but the fact that they do not function well, often in important areas, is not a matter of debate, the frequent absence of quorums being the proverbial smoking gun.

Based on experience, both serving on and working with these kinds of entities, I can say with confidence that there are straightforward, low-cost fixes that can produce dramatic and immediate improvements in performance and outcomes. They start with a basic assumption that volunteer organizations must have solid staff support to be effective. Volunteers are rarely successful at doing the day-to-day things needed to maintain a small group or organization. They need staff support.

Beyond that foundational requirement, here is a suggestion: every person appointed to one of these commissions, boards or committees should go through a mandatory training session with a simple, very concrete agenda. That agenda should include:

– Clarity on the responsibility that the person is accepting, that this is not some honorary title, but a role with responsibilities and a commitment to faithfully attend meetings and adhere to the group’s charter or mandate.

– How to conduct and participate in high quality meetings. The effective meeting is at the heart of these entities’ responsibilities. The purpose of each meeting should be clear, i.e., routine business, tactical/decision making or strategic. Every meeting should have an agenda communicated in advance. There should be no speeches. Conflict and the airing of differences are essential, but they should focus on the issue at hand, on clearly defining and solving a problem with a focus on the future, not on blaming on who did something evil in 1995. There should be simple rules of etiquette: no interruptions and no side conversations, one person talks at a time, no personal attacks.

– Decision-making. This is a critical issue. Decisions should be “binary,” that is “yes” or “no,” and clearly understood. They should also be commitment rather than consensus based. Consensus based decision-making gives every passive aggressive and other bad person (fill in the name) a veto, producing the belief that “nothing ever changes here” or “why should I go to these meetings?” Clarity is good, and ambiguity is bad: everyone understands what we have decided, what is going to happen as a result and what “my” responsibility is.

– Delegation and accountability. Tasks, if any, should be delegated with clarity and an understanding that what is being delegated can be done by the person to whom it is assigned. If something is delegated and not completed, there needs to be accountability, including exclusion from the group if there is repeated indifference to doing what the person has committed to do.

Here is a lifetime warranty. If groups are trained in and use the approaches listed in these bullet points, it will produce a transformation. They will achieve the hallmarks of a healthy organization and take pride in being able to say: we are making real progress here. Kitty Kallen will look down from heaven (she died in 2016 at the age of 94) and be happy to know that Virgin Islanders have internalized the message that “Little Things Mean a Lot.”

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