I spent a couple of hours with Board and Executive Team members of the Chatham Area Transit Authority (CAT, headquartered in Savannah, Georgia) in a special work session earlier this week. We were reviewing the functional descriptions of four new Board standing committees being recommended by the Board’s “High-Impact Governing Steering Committee,” following up on a daylong retreat in February: Strategic and Operational Planning; Performance Monitoring/Audit; External/Stakeholder Relations; and Governance.
At the February retreat we’d discussed the benefits of well-designed committees, including:
- Dividing the highly complex and demanding work of governing into “chewable chunks,” making more in-depth deliberations possible and building board members’ governing knowledge and expertise.
- More productive – and often shorter – full board meetings through the preparation of action recommendations and for-information reports.
- Transforming board members into satisfied and committed owners of their governing work, who make for more reliable partners for the CEO.
- Serving as a bulwark against board members’ getting immersed in micro-managing at the expense of serious governing.
Without a doubt, standing committees can tremendously enhance a transit authority’s governing capacity, but – and this is one of those really big buts – only if they are well-designed, which means they are aligned with the actual governing functions of the board. By contrast, traditional “silo” committees are a slippery slope to board underperformance and the erosion of the board-CEO working relationship. So-called “silo” committees reflect your authority’s administrative and operational structure, rather than the board’s broad governing functions (planning; monitoring; external relations). Typical silo committees include personnel or human resources, finance, marketing, maintenance, bus operations, rail operations, paratransit, and the like. These narrowly-focused committees that are disconnected from your board’s governing work can easily turn board members, CEOs, and executive team members into unwitting victims of poor structural design, because they tend to:
- Lack “horizontal discipline,” chopping the governing work into narrow slices of organizational life that draw committee members’ attention to parts of the transit authority, rather than the whole, not unlike the proverbial blind man’s defining an elephant as an ear, a trunk, a foot, or a leg. No single committee in this kind of board structure can attain the perspective of the whole authority, and so full board meetings are the only place where the total picture can be seen, if at all.
- Turn board committees into operational or technical advisory committees rather than broad governing engines, virtually ensuring that critical governing judgments and decisions are not made in a full and timely fashion, at the cost of your authority’s underperforming and failing to fully satisfy customer needs.
- Build ownership of particular operational units and functions, thereby turning board members into advocates for particular operations and functions and breeding competition for resources at the board level, at the expense of the kind of broad governing decisions that take the authority’s overall best interests into account.
- Invite micromanagement and meddling in administrative detail – eliciting a predictable defensive reaction from the CEO and executive team members.
The next post at this blog will describe what a well-designed committee structure looks like.