One of the topics that Dave Stackrow (long-time Chair of the Board of New York’s Capital District Transportation Authority) and I are planning to cover in our presentation on July 24 at APTA’s Board Members and Board Support Seminar in Chicago – “Building a Rock-Solid Transit Board-CEO Partnership” – is what questions board members might ask to determine if candidates for the CEO position in their authority are board-savvy enough to function at a high level as the board’s “Chief Governing Partner.” This is a really high-stakes matter since experience has amply demonstrated that truly board-savvy CEOs who embrace the Chief Governing Partner role with gusto have a tremendous impact on a transit authority’s ultimate bottom line. They are far more likely to build the kind of close, productive working relationships with their boards that result in more effective governing decision making and ultimately in more effective overall system performance.
So what do I mean by “Chief Governing Partner?” In the first place, wearing the Chief Governing Partner hat, a board-savvy CEO makes the governing function a top-tier CEO priority, which means becoming a world class expert in the complex and rapidly changing field of public transit governance and spending a large dollop of time (at least 25 percent) on governance matters. And as her board’s Chief Governing Partner, the board-savvy CEO takes the initiative in helping her board become a more effective governing body – principally by assisting the board in systematically updating its governing structure (the standing committees) and the processes for engaging board members in key governing functions like strategic and operational planning. Of course, the reason for spearheading this kind of board capacity building isn’t totally altruistic. Board-savvy CEOs well know that fully developed boards that are actively engaged in shaping key governing “products” like the annual operating plan/budget, rather than just thumbing through a staff-produced tome, tend to consist of deeply satisfied board members who make for more reliable partners when the going gets tough – and it always, sooner or later, does get tough.
So how can board members participating in a CEO search tell whether a CEO candidate is ready and able to play the Chief Board Governing Partner role to the hilt? In my experience, the best way is to ask open-ended questions, keep quiet, listen carefully, and ask probing follow-up questions. For example, one of the questions board members might ask a candidate is “What do you think you can do to help our board get better at carrying out its governing responsibilities?” If the answer is simply “I’ll arrange for board members to participate in an educational workshop so they understand their proper governing role and don’t get mired down in operational matters and lapse into micro-managing,” then board members on the search committee have good reason to question whether a candidate is capable of playing the Chief Board Governing Partner role successfully. If instead the answer is “I’ll help the board go through a process of mapping out its detailed governing objectives and updating and fine-tuning its governing structure and processes in order to strengthen its decision-making,” board members can be more confident that the candidate is capable of being their Chief Governing Partner. At the very least, she’s shown that she has given an important matter serious thought.
In my next post, I’ll share what I’ve learned from participants in next week’s program in Chicago. Meanwhile, you might do a quick self-assessment to determine how well you are doing as your board’s Chief Governing Partner and the steps you might take to become a more effective companion to your board on the never-ending governing journey.