A transit CEO called me not long ago, asking if I’d be interested in presenting a governance training workshop for his transit board. He explained that several board members were coming dangerously close to “micro-managing,” and he wanted them to understand the boundaries between “executive” and “governing” work. The example he gave involved a discussion at the most recent board meeting about travel expenditures over the past six months, including how decisions were made about who would be taking what trips and what kinds of reports were required about travel.
I agreed that there did appear to be some micro-managing going on, but I cautioned him that preaching to board members about not breaching the “firewall” between governing and executive/administrative work probably wouldn’t have much, if any impact. Quick fixes like training tend not to accomplish much in such situations, I observed. Anyway, I said, there isn’t really a solid line dividing the two kinds of work, and even if there were, board members, being grownups, don’t take kindly to being lectured about being good little boys and girls and coloring within the lines.
So what, he asked, should he do about the apparently growing problem? I suggested taking a close look at whether his board was actually being invited to micro-manage by two very common phenomena that I’ve encountered over and over again. One is poorly designed board “silo” committees that have more to do with administration than governing. Classic examples in the public transit sector would be human resources, transit-oriented development, finance, rail operations, bus operations, maintenance, safety, etc. None of these committees correspond to a broad governing function such as strategic and operational planning or performance monitoring. Rather, they are highly technical in nature, and involving board members in such committees is a blatant invitation to micro-manage, saying “Come on in and help us manage the rail operation” or “Help us figure out how to run the maintenance function more efficiently,” and the like. In other words, be our technical advisors rather than a full-fledged governing body.
Another common problem is the absence of well-designed processes for engaging board members in a meaningful fashion in shaping key governing decisions, such as adoption of the annual operating plan and budget. The absence of well-designed engagement processes results in a vacuum that board members – typically being high-achievers who want to make a difference – tend to fill, even if that involves getting into some nitty-gritty work. The great majority of transit board members I’ve dealt with over the years would almost certainly prefer walking in the weeds to merely passively thumbing through a finished budget tome they haven’t helped shape in a meaningful way. Imagine, as an alternative, your board’s planning committee (a true governing, rather than technical advisory, committee) works with your CEO and her top lieutenants in designing an annual operational planning/budget development process that engages board members before any dollars are considered in identifying major operational issues deserving serious attention in developing next year’s operating plan/budget/budget. And the board planning committee might even host a board retreat aimed at surfacing and examining potential operational issues and reaching agreement on the top 10 meriting serious attention in the process of budget development.
In my experience, the overwhelming majority of transit board members are passionately committed to their authority’s transportation mission. They really do aspire to govern at a high level and to make a significant positive difference in the affairs of their authorities, especially in terms of customer service, but they are all-too-often the unwitting victims of poorly designed structure and process. Truly board-savvy transit CEOs don’t allow their board members to be victimized – by taking the lead in designing effective structure and process – and not wasting time preaching to their boards about micro-management.