The Board of METRO, the public transit authority serving metropolitan Kalamazoo, Michigan, held a tremendously consequential meeting in November 2022 – the culminating ev ent of what was known as the METRO Governance Fine-Tuning Initiative. After the Board had quickly disposed of routine business, the Board Chair, Executive Director/CEO, and the five Board members serving on the Initiative’s Governance Review Steering Committee presented a number of recommendations aimed at taking METRO governance to the next level, focusing primarily on the proposed new Board standing committee structure.
The recommendations had been born the prior July in a daylong “Governance Fine-Tuning Work Session” involving all Board and Executive Team members at which significant developments in the rapidly evolving field of transit governance were reviewed, METRO governance issues were discussed, and potential governance improvements to address the issues were brainstormed. The five Board members making up the Governance Review Steering Committee had played an active leadership role in developing the July 2022 work session agenda and leading work session deliberations, most notably chairing the breakout groups that ensured robust discussion over the course of the day together. Following up on the July session, Review Committee members provided direction to the consultant who prepared the recommendations that were presented at the November 2022 Board meeting.
Now, a year later, the new METRO Board standing committee structure – the centerpiece recommendation of the Governance Fine-Tuning Initiative – has been fully implemented. The new committees are functioning as designed, and METRO has realized a powerful return on its investment in the structure in terms of more effective Board governing decisions and a significant leap in Board member ownership and satisfaction.
The METRO experience is a classic case of the tremendous power of ownership at work. Active, meaningful, high-impact engagement of Steering Committee members in shaping the METRO Governance Fine-Tuning Initiative from the get-go and playing a leading role in the July work session turning them into OWNERS of the Initiative. And these feelings of ownership fueled the commitment that made Steering Committee members highly effective CHANGE CHAMPIONS in the turning-point November 2022 Board meeting.
The board-savviest chief executives I’ve worked with over the years, including the heads of public school districts, transit authorities, and a wide variety of nonprofit corporations, recognize that board members who feel like real owners of their governing work make for more reliable CEO partners whose backing can be counted on when the going gets tough. So they are continually on the lookout for practical ways to foster feelings of ownership among their board members. The true-life case I’ve featured in this post is at the more complex, higher-stakes end of the spectrum, involving a significant investment of time and money, but many less costly opportunities to foster ownership are available to alert CEOs, for example:
- Providing the chairs of board standing committees with the strong support needed to ensure that they succeed in leading committee deliberations, for example conducting a briefing for each committee chair at least a week before each committee meeting
- Having standing committee chairs present committee reports and action recommendations at board business meetings
- Expanding ownership by regularly, systematically rotating the chairs of board standing committees
- Designing processes to engage board members meaningfully in the strategic planning process (for example, in fashioning values and vision statements, identifying strategic issues, and brainstorming strategies to address the issues) and in the annual budget preparation process (for example, in identifying operational issues and setting operational priorities)
- Drafting a report for the board chair to present at every board business meeting
- Sharing the podium with board members at important speaking engagements
These are but a few of the many opportunities available to chief executives who are seriously committed to building close, positive, and productive relationships with their board members.