As their half-day mini-retreat came to a close, the members of the board’s governance committee were feeling the kind of deep satisfaction that comes from doing an important, high-stakes governing job really well. They’d updated the profile of board member attributes and qualifications (e.g., “successful experience serving on at least one other public or nonprofit board”) that they would use in finding candidates to fill the three seats coming vacant in a couple of months, and they’d identified two stakeholder organizations that should be represented on the board: the local community hospital and largest manufacturing firm in the region.
This is a true story; I was present, wearing my facilitator hat. But, as you’ve surely guessed, we’re not talking about a public transportation authority board. Almost without exception, public transportation boards are third-party appointed – by, for example, mayors, county chief executives, city councils, councils of governments, and the like. And in many cases they’re comprised of local elected officials. In practice, this means an in-built divided loyalty (to the transportation authority and to the organization appointing me to its board) that creates a pretty powerful centrifugal force militating against the kind of teamwork that produces sound governing decisions. And it means that as a CEO you face a daunting challenge: helping your board build a cohesive-enough board team and board culture to keep this inevitable centrifugal force in check.
Board-savvy transportation CEOs like Steve Bland in Nashville, Susan Meyer in Spokane, and Nat Ford in Jacksonville, among others, have succeeded in building a pretty cohesive board culture to counterbalance this inevitable centrifugal force. One step they haven’t taken – and one I always recommend against – is what I call the teachy/preachy/touchy-feely approach: merely putting their board through one of those team building exercises that produces a warm glow that tends to last a week at best. Some practical steps that board-savvy CEOs have spearheaded with considerable success include:
- As a starting point, making sure that this in-built divided loyalty that powers the centrifugal force is recognized, rather than allowing it to be pushed under the rug where it can secretly sabotage important governing decisions. Keeping it visible makes reconciling competing loyalties much more likely during the decision making process.
- Working closely with your board in fashioning and annually updating a detailed description of the board’s governing responsibilities – what is often called a “board governing mission” (e.g., crafting and updating a crystal-clear vision for the future and long-range goals), which is formally adopted by resolution.
- Making sure your board annually meets for the better part of a day in a retreat setting for the purpose of setting detailed governing goals (e.g., to implement stronger board involvement in shaping the annual budget this coming year).
- And using well-designed board standing committees as a vehicle for keeping board members actively engaged, turning them into owners of their governing work rather than a passive audience for finished staff work.
There’s no chance of eliminating the centrifugal force that divided loyalty generates; it’s a structural feature of public transportation. But its negative impacts can definitely be lessened, as many board-savvy CEOs have demonstrated.