“That doesn’t really sound very CEO-like” That was the initial reaction of a transit GM in our coaching session a couple of years ago when I suggested that he put on what I called the “Chief Governing Process Designer Hat.” We were discussing an issue he’d identified in our session a couple of weeks earlier that he’d described as “terribly worrisome.” In a nutshell, although his relationship with the 11-member board seemed generally OK as far as he could tell – with no severe tension points or other obvious problems – he had a gut feel that most if not all of his board members were feeling pretty disengaged from their governing work and, consequently, probably didn’t feel much ownership of the decisions they were making. He didn’t doubt that they’d continue to go along with the great majority of his recommendations, as they had for the three years he’d been at the helm of the authority. Most recently, for example, the annual operating plan and budget had been adopted with few questions. But he questioned whether they’d really back him up if a major performance glitch of some kind happened. In fact, he was pretty sure he’d be way out on the proverbial limb alone, and that there wouldn’t be much compunction about cutting it off.
I’d agreed in our coaching session two weeks earlier that he was quite right to be concerned about his board members’ lack of meaningful engagement in their governing work. Long experience had taught me that the feeling of ownership that meaningful engagement generates is what fuels board members’ commitment to their partnership with the CEO. I’d also learned that inadequate engagement was very likely to put the CEO at serious risk over the long run. I explained in our subsequent session that serving as the “Chief Governing Process Designer” might sound more like glorified accounting work than a high-level CEO function, but it had proved to be the key to board member engagement and, hence, commitment. The GM needed to work hand-in-hand with board standing committees in updating processes in their respective areas (for example, strategic and operating planning) for engaging board members in meaningful ways that would strengthen their ownership and commitment. I emphasized that the GM had to play an assertive role in mapping out these processes, coming to committee meetings armed with definite ideas to share about board engagement. He couldn’t risk just standing back passively and reacting to board members’ ideas. But on the other hand he had to be open to their thinking about ways their engagement might be strengthened.
In our third coaching session, the GM and I agreed that he’d don the Chief Governing Process Designer hat for a test case in a specific governing area – the coming year’s strategic plan update process – and if all went well, he’d take the lead in other governing areas. So he worked closely with the board’s planning and development committee in mapping out some practical ways to engage board members more meaningfully in next year’s strategic planning process, most notably by kicking off the annual strategic plan update process with a meticulously designed and facilitated retreat at which the authority’s values and vision statements would be updated, strategic issues – both opportunities and challenges – would be identified, and potential change initiatives would be explored. He also worked with the committee to map out its role in following up on the retreat.
By the way, the results of this test were so positive in terms of board member ownership of the strategic initiatives that were adopted that this GM has continued to wear the Chief Governing Process Designer hat in strengthening board members’ involvement in operational planning/budget development and monitoring the authority’s operational and financial performance. There’s no question in my mind that as a result he’s cemented a much more solid working relationship with his board.
We’d love to hear from you about your experience in strengthening your board members’ engagement, ownership, and commitment, so please comment!