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Board Development by Design: A Board-Savvy CEO Role

BY DOUG EADIE, Doug Eadie & Company

A couple of months ago, I was privileged to facilitate a “high-impact governing” work session for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, CA, at which VTA General Manager and CEO Nuria Fernandez, her board of directors, and the executive team discussed ­significant advances in the rapidly changing field of public transportation governance and considered possible steps to strengthen the VTA board’s governing capacity. The session was aimed at taking an already excellent board to the next level of leadership.

This most recent experience traveling the board development road with a ­public transportation authority was fresh in my mind when I presented a program, “Board Development By Design,” at the APTA Transit Board Members Seminar in Cleveland on July 20. I’d like to share some thoughts with you based on these two recent experiences.

Before we get into the subject of board development in some detail, I’d like you to keep in mind a very important lesson I learned early in my career: A public transportation authority’s GM or CEO must be a leading participant—indeed, the prime mover—in fashioning a comprehensive plan for developing the board’s governing capacity. The reason why is pretty obvious. As part-time, unpaid volunteers who usually hold demanding full-time positions in the public or for-profit sectors in addition to their board role, public transportation board members are highly unlikely to have either the time or the in-depth knowledge to spearhead systematic board development.

I’ve learned this firsthand over the years in my work with a number of tremendously “board-savvy” public transportation CEOs, such as Mike Allegra of the Utah Transit Authority, Carm Basile of the Capital District Transportation Authority, Nuria Fernandez, and Susan Meyer at the Spokane Transit Authority, among others. There’s no question in my mind that the boards of these and many other authorities could not have gotten nearly as far without the leadership and support of CEOs who were strongly committed to strong board leadership and real experts in the rapidly changing field of public transportation governance.

A Word on Board Development
Beyond policy making, when a board governs—in partnership with its GM or CEO and executive team—it makes decisions about what you might call governing “products” (for example, adopting an updated values and vision statement or the annual operating plan and budget) and judgments about how the authority is doing—operationally and financially. So the fundamental purpose of board development is to strengthen your board’s capacity to make these decisions and judgments. At APTA’s Transit Board Members Seminar, I described three main components of a comprehensive board development plan:

1.  Developing the people serving on the board, primarily by taking a systematic approach to strengthening their governing knowledge and skills;

2.  Clarifying and updating the board’s governing role and ­functions; and

3.  Fine-tuning the board’s governing structure (its standing committees).

A Powerful Planning Vehicle
One of the most powerful vehicles for fashioning a comprehensive board development plan, while also generating the kind of board ownership that fuels commitment to implementing the recommendations in the plan, is the retreat-driven design approach.

It makes good sense when an authority’s GM or CEO and board chair determine that intensive, early involvement of all board members will be critical to the ultimate success of the planning effort.

At the Transit Board Members Seminar, I described certain features that ensure the success of the retreat: Using a “retreat design committee” headed by the board chair and consisting of three to five other board members and the GM or CEO to develop the detailed retreat design: its concrete objectives (for example, to familiarize themselves with the key characteristics of high-functioning nonprofit boards; to identify issues in the form of opportunities to capitalize on these advances in strengthening the boards as a governing body); its structure (for example, that it is to include all board members and the whole executive team; that it will be a day-long session; that it will be professionally facilitated; and that it will use breakout groups); the full agenda; and the follow-through process;

* Employing breakout groups led by board members to ensure active board member involvement and thus to build a line of credit consisting of board member ownership and commitment; and

* Mapping out the follow-through process in detail to reassure skeptical board members that the retreat will ultimately be worth the time, effort, and money being committed to it. Drawing on the retreat, the facilitator typically prepares the comprehensive board development plan, which is reviewed, revised, and presented to the full board by the members of the retreat design committee.

Doug Eadie is author of The Board-Savvy CEO: Building a High-Impact Partnership With Your Board. He is also the author of a blog specifically for public transportation leaders.

This “Commentary” section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.
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