“Look, our hands are tied. We’ve got to make do with the people they send us.” This is what the CEO of a transportation authority said in a workshop on board capability building I was conducting a couple of years ago. I’d made the pretty obvious point early in the meeting that boards of directors weren’t an abstract organizational entity; rather, they were living, breathing people, and that the quality of a board’s governing decisions were heavily dependent on the particular people making up the board at any given time. Sure, I acknowledged, there were other important factors, like a clearly-defined governing role and well-designed standing committees, but the people themselves – their experience, expertise, attitudes, etc. – topped the list of factors determining the board’s long-term governing effectiveness.
We’d gotten into a lengthy discussion of practical ways to strengthen board members’ governing knowledge and skills – for example, by providing a thorough orientation for incoming board members and sending board members to APTA conferences. Everyone agreed that those simple, low-cost steps made the best of sense. But when I suggested that the board and CEO consider going a step further – attempting to strengthen the composition of the board by influencing appointing authorities, the CEO shared the bleak “our hands are tied” assessment I quoted above. I acknowledged that the board and CEO recommending the appointment of particular people to fill board vacancies almost certainly wouldn’t fly politically. But, I asked, what about taking a more indirect approach: having the board’s governance committee put together a profile of desirable board member attributes and qualifications (for example, being knowledgeable about public transportation issues, having experience on other boards, being well connected in the community, having the time to devote to governing, and the like) and sharing it with the wider public in forums like monthly Rotary and chamber of commerce luncheon meetings and more directly with the appointing authorities themselves?
In this particular case we ultimately decided that taking this indirect approach might do some good in terms of strengthening the board’s composition over the long run by making the appointing authorities more aware of the characteristics of effective board members, and we also agreed that taking such a soft approach was unlikely to seriously jangle any nerves or stir up a hornet’s nest at the city or county. So far as I know, that has been the case up to now.
I’ll close by posing this question to you dear reader: Are our hands really tied so tightly that we can’t do anything to influence appointments to our board, or can we safely experiment with the indirect approach that has apparently worked well for the transportation authority whose story I’ve shared? Before you answer, at least give the matter some serious thought. The easy answer – no way we can do anything like what you’ve described – isn’t necessarily the right one.