The August 6 post at this blog makes the case for transit chief executives to play what I call the “Chief Board Developer” role, building the board’s capacity to do the really high-impact governing that turns board members into satisfied owners of their governing work. As I observe in that post, your long-term success as CEO heavily depends on strong leadership from board members who own their governing role. Two of the most powerful approaches for building your board’s governing capacity while also generating the kind of board ownership that fuels commitment to implementing the capacity building recommendations, are the governance retreat and the governance task force.
The retreat approach, which many transit authorities have successfully employed in recent years, is preferable when the board chair and CEO determine that intensive, early involvement of all board members will be critical to the ultimate success of the capacity building effort. The key features of the most successful transit board-CEO retreats I’ve observed over the years include:
- Involving board officers and the CEO in a “retreat design committee” that creates a detailed design for the daylong governance retreat: its concrete objectives (for example, to familiarize themselves with the key characteristics of high-functioning transit boards; to identify issues in the form of opportunities to capitalize on these advances in strengthening the board as a governing body; its structure (for example, that it will include all board members and the whole executive team; that it will be a daylong session; that it will be professionally facilitated; and that it will use breakout groups); the blow-by-blow agenda; and the follow-through process. This critical front-end retreat design job is typically accomplished over the course of a half-day in-person meeting followed by a teleconference at which the consultant retained to assist the process presents the write-up of the retreat design, after which it is sent to all Board and executive team members who will be participating in the retreat.
- Employing breakout groups led by board members (for example, the governance issue identification group) helps to ensure active board member involvement and thus to build a line of credit consisting of board member ownership and commitment that can be drawn on in implementing board capacity building recommendations.
- Devoting the morning session to strategic planning work – such as brainstorming values and vision and identifying challenges and opportunities – can create a context for the afternoon session focusing on governing issues. Many retreat design committees I’ve worked with have felt, correctly I’m sure, that jumping right into developing the board’s governing capacity, in the absence of a broader strategic framework would likely make many board members choke up.
- Mapping out the follow-through process in detail reassures skeptical board members that the retreat will ultimately be worth all the time, effort, and money being committed to it, that the deliberations will not be written in sand. For example, the consultant retained to help plan and facilitate the retreat might be required to prepare a detailed set of action recommendations drawing on the retreat deliberations
- Requiring that the retreat design committee will review the consultant’s follow-through recommendations and subsequently present them to the board (with the consultant in a back-up role) can ensure an even higher degree of ownership on the part of the Change Champions on the board, while also making the case for adopting the recommendations stronger because of the peer-to-peer interaction.
- And, finally, the use of an experienced governance consultant with extensive facilitation experience and in-depth governing knowledge and experience can help to ensure not only that the retreat is capably facilitated, but also that the follow-through recommendations are technically sound in the sense of dealing with serious governing issues while also capitalizing on recent advances in the field of transit governance.
The governance task force-driven approach, which a growing number of transit authorities are employing as a board capacity building tool, is different from the governance retreat primarily in terms of the starting point. Typically consisting of the Board’s officers and the CEO, the governance task force usually meets four or five times over the course of six to eight weeks – with the assistance of a consultant – familiarizing themselves with the characteristics of high-impact governing bodies, identifying opportunities to strengthen the board’s governing capacity, and fashioning concrete change recommendations. As is true of the retreat approach, board members on the task force normally present carefully crafted and rehearsed recommendations to the full board in a special work session, with their consultant attending as a backup to respond to questions as appropriate.
Many transit boards and their CEOs pay close attention to implementing retreat and task force recommendations by creating a board implementation oversight committee – typically the governance task force or retreat design committee with a new name – which is responsible for:
- Working with the consultant and CEO in developing a detailed implementation plan dealing with myriad details, such as conducting orientation and training sessions for the new committees being put in place;
- Monitoring implementation;
- And dealing with issues as they arise (for example, having difficulty finding a board member willing to chair one of the new committees).