It definitely wasn’t your traditional reporting-back session on June 6 in Cleveland. Board President George Dixon and Trustees Valarie McCall and Georgine Welo of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority were seated at a table facing other GCRTA Trustees, CEO Joseph Calabrese, and his top executives. A couple of months earlier, GCRTA Trustees had spent a day in a retreat setting, familiarizing themselves with developments in the rapidly changing field of public transit governance, identifying governance issues, and exploring possible steps to strengthen the Board’s governing capacity. The facilitator of the earlier retreat had prepared a follow-up action report, which George, Valarie, Georgine and Trustee Gary Norton – who’d comprised the planning committee that worked with the facilitator in designing the retreat – had reviewed and tweaked. The purpose of the June 6 session was to walk through the report’s six action recommendations, making sure all members of the GCRTA Strategic Governing Team – the Board, CEO, and top executives – understood the rationale for, and the technical content of, each of the recommendations.
Many if not most of you have no doubt sat through several similar reporting-back sessions after retreats over the years. What made the June 6 meeting in Cleveland a dramatic departure from traditional practice is that the outside facilitator who’d drafted the action report didn’t stand at a podium in a pin stripe suit and power tie going through the recommendations. Instead, he attended the meeting as backup to George, Valarie, and Georgine, who took the lead – using PowerPoint slides – in walking through the recommendations and responding to participants’ questions. The facilitator was called on a couple of times to clarify technical points in the report, but it was patently obvious that the three Trustee presenters were in full command of the technical content they were presenting and were quite capable of carrying the presentation ball.
Although you might now and then see outside experts presenting recommendations to boards these days, I think it’s safe to say that what happened in Cleveland on June 6 is the coming thing – indeed a powerful trend – in the public/nonprofit governance arena. The reason is simple: peers presenting to peers is far more effective in building consensus for change among board members than an outsider making the case alone. However, I’ve learned over the years that three things are essential for the peer-to-peer approach to work as well as it did in Cleveland on June 6: the board members involved in presentation must have a deep understanding of the content they’re presenting; they must be provided with slides summarizing the key points being presented; and they must have an opportunity to rehearse before standing up before their peers.
And, by the way, there’s no question that the June 6 presentation benefited from the substantial leadership experience of the three Trustees carrying the ball. George was APTA’s national chair in 2003, Valarie is now Immediate Past Chair of APTA and a member of its Executive Committee, and Georgine has been the highly regarded Mayor of the City of South Euclid since 2003.