How Transit CEO-Aspirants Can Demonstrate Board-Savviness to Search Committees

by | May 30, 2023 | Articles, Board Savvy Transit CEO Blog Archive, Board-CEO Relationship

A major ongoing theme of has been preparing executive team members who are what we call CEO-aspirants to build productive, enduring partnerships with their new board.  As our readers well know, a shaky board-CEO working relationship is virtually certain to dramatically shorten a CEO’s tenure if it persists.  Well-designed training programs can be helpful in preparing CEO-aspirants  to meet the partnership building challenge once they take the helm.  However. in my professional opinion no one is better positioned to transform  executives into board-savvy CEO-aspirants than the CEO herself, wearing her mentoring hat.   You’ll recall that our November 4 post at this blog, “Boosting the Governing IQ of the CEO-aspirants on Your Executive Team,” describes how Steve Bland of WeGo Public Transit in Nashville and other transit CEOs carry out this weighty mentoring responsibility:

Turning to the board side of the partnership equation, I am seeing a rapidly growing number of transit board members who expect their CEO search committees to assess the board-savviness of candidates for the top spot.  In this regard, it’s not enough for CEO-aspirants to be really knowledgeable about the governance function and the nuts and  bolts of board-CEO partnership building.  A CEO-aspirant who doesn’t clearly communicate his robust governance IQ to search committee members is unlikely to be afforded the opportunity to put his governing knowledge and skills to work in the search committee’s authority.

One obvious, very direct way a CEO-aspirant can demonstrate her board-savviness is to develop really thoughtful responses to governance-related questions that search committee members are likely to ask, such as:

  • How would you describe the work of governing in a nutshell?
  • What do you see as really important developments in the field of transit governance in recent years?
  • What guidelines for board-CEO communication and interaction are likely to strengthen the board-CEO working relationship?
  • What are the most important strengths and weaknesses of the board in your current authority?
  • How would you go about helping our board become a more effective governing body that makes a greater difference in our authority’s affairs?
  • What kind of board behavior do you think constitutes micromanagement?
  • What do you see as the key characteristics of a really solid board-CEO partnership?
  • How do you see yourself working with our board chair?
  • It’s time to update our authority’s strategic plan.  What are some practical ways our board might be involved in shaping the plan?
  • What’s your take on board standing committees?
  • What do you think are the critical elements of a really effective process for our board to evaluate CEO performance?

Preparing thoughtful responses to these and other likely questions will entail a fair amount of research in the rapidly evolving field of transit governance.  I strongly recommend aspirants’ paying closest attention to reports of recent, real-life, transit-specific experience rather than theoretical treatises on abstract governance principles.  CEO-aspirants will also be well advised to dig deeply enough to understand various stances on governance practices that are being hotly debated – not to choose a side, but to demonstrate that she has made a serious effort to understand all sides.  An example would be board  engagement in shaping such important governing “products” as an updated strategic plan or the annual operating plan and budget.  You’ll find a wide range of opinions, from merely reviewing a finished plan or budget at one end of the spectrum to active engagement in providing policy guidance early in the planning process  at the other.

In my work with transit authorities over the years, I’ve come across enough CEO searches that pay little if any attention to candidates’ board-savviness to assume that a search committee will ask probing questions about governance matters in the interview process.  So CEO-aspirants should be prepared to employ a less direct but nonetheless effective way to demonstrate their governance IQ:  preparing a set of questions to ASK the search committee, aimed at demonstrating their interest in – and knowledge about – the governance function and board-CEO partnership.  For example:  What do you consider the most important governance issues your new CEO should help your board address?  How would you describe a really solid board-CEO partnership?  What kind of board-CEO communication and interaction protocols have you put in place?  Are you using board standing committees as a governance tool?  How are they working? Etc.

I’ll close with a caveat.  CEO-aspirants should beware of even inadvertently indicating their positions on controversial issues, such as the usefulness of standing committees.  Of course, if asked, they must respond, but aspirants will want to do so in a way that demonstrates their flexibility and openness, rather than staking out hard and fast positions.



About the Author: Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists CEOs in building rock-solid partnerships with their transit boards.

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