Since strong, creative board leadership is one of the preeminent keys to your transit authority’s long-term success in this changing, challenging world, board capacity building must be one of your top three CEO leadership priorities. Any CEO (and I hear this every now and then) who sits back bemoaning the board’s lackluster leadership without taking affirmative action to help the board become a higher-impact governing body is guilty of dereliction of duty – and of being less than a full-fledged CEO.
In my experience, as your authority’s CEO, you must be not just an active participant in – but also the prime mover of – board development, playing the leading – not just supporting – role in helping your board realize its tremendous governing promise in practice. The reasons are obvious. As part-time, unpaid volunteers who spend the bulk of their time living busy lives outside of the board, your board members couldn’t realistically be expected to muster the time and energy required to keep up with the rapidly changing field of nonprofit governance, much less attempt to get the board-development job done on their own.
Being the prime mover of board capacity building for your authority doesn’t mean that you can take command of the development process publicly, visibly leading board members by the nose through the process. On the contrary, truly “board-savvy” CEOs spend quite a bit of their time in the board-development arena leading from behind, making sure that board members themselves are visibly involved in fashioning board-development strategies and getting board members to play public leadership roles in implementing the strategies. They fully understand that board members aren’t likely to be strongly committed to the steps involved in moving toward higher-impact governing (for example, implementing a more effective standing-committee structure) unless they feel strong ownership of the process, which depends on their in-depth, visible involvement every step of the way.
Playing the Chief Board Developer role fits in well with a powerful trend in public/nonprofit leadership. As I’ve traveled around the country working with and observing hundreds of CEOs over the past 30 years, I’ve seen a new breed of CEO emerging whose leadership style makes them far more effective at building partnerships with their boards than the command-and-control bosses of yore. These modern CEOs see themselves as more than merely the top professional serving as the link between the board and professional staff. In their view, the CEO is a hybrid position, part board member and part staff member. Board members are colleagues and peers, not just the boss, of the modern transit CEO. In a sense this view of the CEO role is the product of a maturation process, as the public/nonprofit sector moves closer to its for-profit counterpart in terms of CEOship. This emerging new breed of CEO also sees himself or herself as preeminently a capacity builder, primarily responsible for helping every part of the organization to realize its leadership and management potential as fully as possible. In this regard, the modern CEO thinks like an architect and designer, devoting considerable time and attention to making sure that the individual components of the organization (e.g., the board, the executive team, such systems as strategic planning and budgeting) are well designed–taking advantage of advances in the field of leadership and management–and that they are appropriately linked (e.g., the board is creatively and proactively involved in the strategic-planning process).
My next post in this two-part series will take a look at three very practical approaches to board development that board-savvy transit CEOs have employed successfully.