Ed Benning has bitten off a major chief executive leadership chunk: not only serving as full-time General Manager/CEO of the Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) in Flint, Michigan, but also currently providing interim CEO leadership at STARS in nearby Saginaw. Recognizing that both his boards would benefit from an opportunity to update their governing knowledge and skills, Ed and his two board chairs invited the two authorities’ board members and executive managers to participate in a half-day “high-impact governing work session.” And being a really board-savvy CEO, Ed made sure his two board chairs were involved in putting together the detailed design of the session – its objectives, structure, and blow-by-blow agenda. Two of the key design criteria Ed and his chairs were in 100 percent agreement on were, first, that the session should actively engage and energize participants and, second, that everyone should leave the session feeling like real owners of the work they’d done during their afternoon together. So it was patently obvious to Ed and his chairs that a conventional training session wouldn’t fit the bill. They well knew that merely sitting quietly, passively listening, and being told what to do to become more effective boards would be a guaranteed turnoff. And as one of the chairs observed in a planning call, treating board members as “trainees” definitely wouldn’t turn them into real “champions” for governing improvement.
As it turned out, participants left the session feeling energized and enthusiastic about taking their boards’ leadership to the next level. Four elements of the work session design ensured these outcomes:
- First, the facilitator’s introductory PowerPoint presentation describing advances in the rapidly changing field of public transportation governance lasted only an hour, including questions and discussion. So formal presentation took no more than 25 percent of the four-hour session. A conventional training session this definitely was not.
- Second the twenty-some participants were divided into four breakout groups meeting concurrently, enabling them to practice doing real-life governing work that had been described in the introductory presentation, for example: fashioning values and vision statements and identifying issues (opportunities and challenges) facing the two authorities; assessing operational and financial strengths and weaknesses and identifying ways to strengthen the boards’ performance monitoring role; identifying key elements of the authorities’ desired image, discussing key stakeholder organizations, and brainstorming ways board members could contribute to image building and stakeholder relations; and identifying practical ways to keep the board-CEO working relationship healthy over the long run.
- Third, a board member led each of the four breakout groups, and the majority of breakout group members were engaged in reporting the results of their work to all work session participants in plenary session.
- And fourth, the facilitator rotated from breakout group to breakout group during their deliberations, helping to keep them on track, and shared his observations after each breakout group report in plenary session.