This article and the accompanying podcast featuring Trudy Bartley, Chair of the COTA Board of Trustees, and Joanna Pinkerton, COTA President/CEO, was originally published in 2018. Since CEO leadership and structuring the CEO function are really hot topics among public transit leaders and this post and podcast have attracted tremendous attention, it seemed appropriate to bring them to the attention of our readers a year later. Doug Eadie
Traditionally, at the top of the list of qualifications public transit boards specify when recruiting candidates for the CEO position is in-depth operational experience. So it’s no surprise that over the years the great majority of vacant CEO positions have been filled with executives who have worked their way up the operational ladder in one or more transit authorities. This operational bias is easily understandable. Even small to medium-sized transit authorities are incredibly complex organizations – both operationally and technically – and it’s only natural to want an executive in the top spot who can keep the buses and trains in good repair and running on time. It’s what the customers, non-riding taxpayers, and local elected officials want above all else.
But the Central Ohio Transit Authority Board broke the traditional CEO mold when it recruited a new President/CEO, as COTA Board Chair Trudy Bartley and President/CEO Joanna Pinkerton explain in the podcast they recently recorded for this blog. The six-month CEO search process that culminated in Joanna’s appointment to the top spot was driven by a truly visionary Board of Trustees. Looking well ahead, COTA’s Trustees, recognizing that developing and delivering mobility solutions to meet evolving customer needs was the name of the transportation game of the future, established two preeminent qualifications for their new CEO: first, the capacity to foster and lead large-scale innovation in meeting evolving transportation needs in the Central Ohio Region; second, the capacity to reach out and build collaborative partnerships. COTA’s Trustees also explicitly decided that making in-depth operational experience a key CEO qualification wouldn’t make sense. And it’s worth noting that Trudy and her Board colleagues were keenly aware that large-scale innovation depends more than any other factor on a chief executive officer who is willing and able to play the Innovator-in-Chief role with gusto.
As you’ll learn from Trudy and Joanna’s podcast, the COTA Board wisely decided that if Joanna was to succeed in playing the Innovator-in-Chief and Partnership Builder-in-Chief roles, she would need strong operational backup. So they created a Deputy CEO position, thus putting in place a classic CEO-COO structure, and appointed a senior executive with an impressive operational track record to the new position. Over the years I’ve observed a number of CEO-COO structures break down, principally because of CEOs who have been unable to disengage themselves from hands-on operational management. But COTA will almost certainly beat the odds. According to Trudy and Joanna, the new CEO-COO structure is well-established and functioning quite well, in no small part because both Joanna and her Deputy, Emille Williams, are completely comfortable with their division of leadership labor and are 100 percent committed to making it work.