A staple of my one-on-one governance coaching sessions and educational workshops for transit CEOs and CEO-aspirants in recent years has been the critical role that what I call “Mindset” plays in building and maintaining a close, positive, productive and enduring board-CEO partnership. What am I talking about? In a nutshell, Mindset is how you, as your authority’s chief executive officer, picture yourself vis a vis your transit board. Experience has taught me that if you bring the wrong mindset to the relationship with your board, it probably won’t matter what other partnership building steps you take (for example, reaching agreement with board members on guidelines for your communication with the board). The relationship with your board will be in jeopardy.
To take a negative example, over the years I’ve frequently encountered what I think of as the “We-They” Mindset. Actually, it has proved to be so deadly from a relationship building perspective that it might be seen as a syndrome. A CEO embracing the We-They syndrome sees herself as essentially representing the employees and executive team (making up, with the CEO, the We) to the They: the board. The syndrome is even deadlier when the CEO goes beyond the notion of representation to protection: seeing one of her preeminent responsibilities as defending her We partners from the (to her) clear and present danger of board – the They – “micro-management.” The problem with this negative Mindset is that it tends to prevent the CEO from seeing the governing function from the perspective of board members and, hence, from really understanding the needs that board members bring to the governing arena that the CEO is in a position to satisfy (for example, to feel like satisfied owners of their governing decisions and judgments; to experience ego satisfaction; and the like). All too many transit CEOs, in my experience, are so busy playing defense they fail to take the offense in fashioning and executing offensive partnership building strategies.
I’ve learned that transit CEOs who bring the following Mindset to the work with their board tend to build positive and productive partnerships with real staying power. These truly “board-savvy” transit CEOs see themselves as:
- Occupying a hybrid position as chief executive officer of their authority: part board member-part staff member and neither entirely.
- Specializing in the nuts and bolts of governing, understanding what practices work and what don’t.
- Accountable for playing the leading role in helping their board develop its governing capability – not standing back and waiting for board members to take the lead.
- Close colleagues of their board members, whom they get to know in-depth as individuals.
- Unworried by, much less obsessed with, the threat of board members’ tentacles grabbing hold of administrative details.
- And a close partner with their board chair, accountable for their chair’s success as “CEO” of the board.