Our previous post, “Don’t Get Caught in the Board Self-Assessment Trap,” tells the true story of a GM who’d been talked into having his board members fill in a questionnaire assessing their governing performance. He’d been told by a local nonprofit resource center that this was the “indispensable” first step in launching an initiative to strengthen the board’s governing capacity. To the GM’s dismay, the input he received from the self-assessment process turned out to be virtually useless in the capacity building effort. The reason was simple: the questionnaire input largely consisted of highly subjective opinions that weren’t based on board members’ in-depth understanding of current best practices in the rapidly changing field of public/nonprofit governance. Without having clear standards as a guide, board members filling out the questionnaire had had to rely on their feelings rather than a reasonably objective assessment of governance strengths and weaknesses.
The lesson isn’t to avoid involving your board members in assessing their governing performance, but, rather, to do it right so that you end of with information that you can use in mapping out practical ways to strengthen your board’s leadership. In my experience, one of the most effective approaches – which has been successfully tested by such transportation authorities as CDTA in Albany, PAAC in Pittsburgh, UTA in Salt Lake City and VTA in San Jose, among others – is to engage your board members, along with you and your executive managers, in an intensive half-day work session at which:
- Participants are first familiarized with recent developments and best practices in the field of public transportation governance.
- Armed with this set of standards, participants then divide into breakout groups that surface key issues by comparing actual to best practices in key governing areas (for example, the board’s processes for setting board member performance targets and monitoring performance; the committee structure the board employs and committee operating guidelines; the processes for involving board members in shaping the annual operating plan; etc.).
- Then in a second round of breakout groups, participants can discuss the issues and brainstorm possible solutions (for example, putting in place a process for monitoring board performance; updating the committee structure; etc.).
At the conclusion of a work session like this, you and your board will be armed with useful information (rather than subjective opinions from a questionnaire) that you can use in moving to the next phase: firming up a strategy to implement needed governance improvements. And, as many transportation CEOs have learned, an added benefit of this kind of kick-off work session is the transformation of board members at the get-go into strong owners of the governance improvements that will ultimately be implemented.