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5 Facts of Life in the Rapidly Evolving “Field” of Public Transit Governance

January 26, 2018 0 Comments

Doug Eadie

Actually, governance – the leadership work of governing boards in close collaboration with their chief executive officers – isn’t yet a full-fledged field. It’s getting there, but still can’t claim the set of universally accepted core principles and thoroughly tested best practices that you expect a fully developed field to have.  Instead, principles and practices are heatedly debated, and oodles of really dangerous advice – what I think of as “insidious foes” – can damage board performance and erode the board-CEO working relationship.  I call these dangerous bits of advice “insidious” because they can sound quite plausible – and might even be strongly recommended by one self-proclaimed governance guru or another.

For example, I’m sure many of you have heard that the best way to build a really solid board-CEO partnership is to develop a set of “policies” – basically rules – that differentiate the board’s and CEO’s roles, responsibilities, and spheres of authority. Truly board-savvy transit CEOs well know that rules of the governing game, while essential, don’t enable you to play the game well.  They’re keenly aware that  if they naively relied on what is popularly known as “policy governance” in building their partnership with the board, they’d be skating on perilously thin ice.  By the way, an earlier post at this blog, “Don’t Fall Into the Policy Governance Trap,” explores this particularly insidious bit of dangerous advice in some detail: Sad to say, there are many other insidious foes out there capable of doing real damage if they’re not detected.

I was thinking about the state of affairs in the almost-field of public transit governance earlier this week while preparing for an upcoming speaking engagement, “Hit the Ground Running With Your New Board.” I thought it would be useful to put together some PowerPoint slides on a few governance “facts of life” that have found wide acceptance over the past decade or so.  Here are five of the most significant that I plan to talk about in some depth in my presentation:

  1. I’m coming across an increasing number of board members who demand that their governing decisions and judgments make a real difference in the affairs of the transit authority they’re charged to oversee – to have significant concrete impact. These board members’ satisfaction and commitment depend heavily on knowing that they’re making truly important, high-impact decisions.
  2. And more and more board members are telling me in interviews that they expect to be actively engaged in SHAPING the governing decisions they make, not merely thumbing through and blessing staff-produced documents. In other words, they want to be OWNERS of their governing work, not just an audience for finished staff work.
  3. It is now widely accepted that board members who feel like satisfied owners of their governing work – as a result of #1 and #2 above – make for much more reliable partners for the CEO than less engaged, more passive board members, who often love to sit back and merely “watch the critters so they don’t steal the store.”
  4. The CEO is now increasingly seen as a hybrid position – neither wholly staff nor board, but some of both. Of course, in the for-profit corporate sector, the CEO is always a board member and more often than not chairs the board, and more and more nonprofit boards include the CEO. This makes good sense since governing work always requires close board-CEO collaboration.  Although we shouldn’t expect transit CEOs to become members of their boards – at least not in our lifetimes – it’s valuable in practice for them to see themselves as part staff/part board member.  The old time we-they approach is deservedly dying.
  5. And CEOs are now widely seen as what I call the “Chief Board Capacity Builder,” responsible for taking the lead in updating the board’s role, structure, and governing processes in the interest of higher-impact governing. Of course, board members must be involved in board capacity building, but only the CEO has the time and expertise to drive the process – often leading from behind (for example, providing executive support for a board governance improvement task force).

Well, these are five of the most important emerging facts of life in the wild and wonderful world of transit governance that I’ll be talking about in my upcoming presentation. There are others, of course, and I would love to hear from you in that regard.  And – please – share your comments and questions about the five I’ve described above.

Doug Eadie

Doug Eadie

Doug Eadie, president & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc. ( helps clients build high-impact board-CEO partnerships.
Doug Eadie
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