The GM, along with his top five executives, made sure the two incoming board members, neither of whom had been involved with public transportation issues, got a thorough briefing on the authority during the two-hour orientation session in the GM’s office. They learned about the authority’s services, organizational structure, revenue streams, expenditure budget, and long-range capital plan, among other things, referring frequently to the handsome notebook staff had put together. There was plenty of time to ask questions over the box lunch following the staff presentation, after which the chief operating officer took the incoming board members on a tour of the new downtown transfer station and the main maintenance facility. A lot was packed into only five hours to make sure the new members would hit the ground running.
This scenario is pretty typical of incoming board member orientation sessions I’ve seen over the years and, in fact, more thorough than many. But it’s a classic case of major missed opportunities that a more board-savvy GM would have capitalized on. To be sure, the two new board members did learn a lot about the authority’s operations, but very little about the nuts and bolts of governing the authority, which, of course, is the job they’d be taking on – not managing the authority. So there’s no way these two new board members would hit the ground running as well-prepared governors of the authority, as opposed to managers. In fact, the orientation I’ve described above is virtually guaranteed to invite the opposite of governing: micromanaging the authority, which every self-respecting transportation CEO welcomes like the plague.
A well-designed and delivered orientation program can be a powerful means to strengthen the board’s governing capacity and also to build a more cohesive board culture, fighting the inevitable centrifugal force resulting from board members’ loyalty to their appointing authorities. What am I talking about? Well, a board-savvy CEO would make sure that:
- The new board member orientation focuses on the governing function above all else: the board’s governing role and functions, the board’s governing structure, including detailed committee functional descriptions, the processes for involving board members in key governing areas such as strategic planning, and the board’s governing policies (covering such items as conflict of interest and attendance requirements).
- And the orientation should be conducted by members of the board’s governance or board operations committee, typically consisting of the board’s officers, along with the CEO, in order to reinforce the importance of board members taking accountability for their own governing performance. Making new board member orientation a purely executive function sends a different message: that it’s not important enough to merit the attention of the board’s officers, or even worse, that only staff are capable of conducting an effective orientation program.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that incoming board members don’t need a thorough orientation on the financial dynamics and operational functions of your authority. Of course they do – but only after they’ve learned the nuts and bolts of the job they’re truly accountable for: governing your authority.