WITH ANY ORGANIZATIONAL change, strategic implementation is critical to
success. It is also often the most challenging step of the process.
Policy Governance is no exception. To be a success, the Policy
Governance model requires a great deal of bipartisan commitment between
the governing board and chief executive officer (CEO). These essential
participants must begin their Policy Governance journey with an acute
understanding of their roles and responsibilities as defined by the
governance model. However, in our fervency to advance board and CEO
competency, we are inclined to overlook the importance of sustaining the
system through ongoing tactical application and the support required to
manage such systems.
twenty years ago, Rockford Park District Commissioner Bruce Atwood
(board member) and a senior administrator simultaneously encountered
John Carver's Policy Governance model. They were both greatly intrigued.
The administrator introduced then CEO (for whom we use the term
Executive Director as seen in policy extracts below) Webbs Norman to
this proposed utopian board-CEO governance paradigm. Shortly after that,
Commissioner Atwood led the board to implement policy governance. If
the model had not been introduced to the board by a peer, at that time
the notion that the board should stay out of operations might have been
laughable, if not irreverent. Moreover, if the CEO had not known of the
model, he may have been suspicious of the board's motives for moving
toward this seemingly somewhat liberal system of accountability.
Instead, because of peer leadership on the part of the board, and
participative management on the part of the CEO, the District pursued
Policy Governance with the counsel of a trained consultant.
decades of courageous leadership and faithful discipline have led to an
organizational culture deeply rooted in Policy Governance today. As
elected officials, the board is focused on governing through policy to
fulfill the purpose of the organization for the benefit of citizens.
Their policies define the results to achieve, prioritize to whom
services are to be provided, direct the allocation of resources, and
establish boundaries of prudence and ethics within which the
organization must operate. The CEO is empowered to achieve the specified
outcomes, with little ambiguity as to his authority or limitations. In
the experience of Rockford Park District, there have been enormous
advantages provided by this clarity, which extends through the CEO into
the ranks of the organization.
Consistent with board policy, the
CEO is the only employee directly accountable to the board. Necessitated
by the sheer size of the organization and motivated by a collaborative
leadership style, the CEO delegates certain functions to staff just as
the board delegates operations to the CEO. The District's CEO relies on a
host of team members to facilitate decisions that impact the
organization and its stakeholders. This approach is exemplified by
Executive Tim Dimke, who “gives managers opportunities to operate
independently while still being dependent on the same value system that
drives the entire organization.”1
This is effective because staff also embrace and understand their
responsibilities as they relate to Policy Governance, ensuring
achievement of priority results (Ends) and compliance with prudential
and ethical boundaries (Management Limitations) throughout the
It is not surprising that such a participative
leadership style lends itself well to Policy Governance, which itself
emphasizes servant-leadership. While the CEO works on high-level
initiatives and collaborations to move the organization toward
achievement of the vision, mission, and priorities, staff implements
tactics to achieve their corresponding objectives in the operations of
daily programs and services.
Rockford Park District takes a
multifaceted approach to sustaining Policy Governance by engaging all
levels of the organization. The board president serves as the chief
governance officer, assuring the integrity of and adherence to its
governance process policies. The board president and CEO together are
dedicated to maintaining communicative relationships with each of the
board members. This establishes the relational avenue necessary for
discussing Policy Governance roles, responsibilities, and when necessary
dealing with issues of encroachment.
board requires in its policies that “the Executive Director shall not
permit the Board to be uninformed or unsupported in its work.” The CEO
interprets good communication as being essential to compliance with this
policy, with the understanding that the District needs a well-informed
and supportive board and that being well informed requires the CEO to
provide thorough, relevant, and timely information necessary for the
board to govern with knowledge, integrity, and assurance.
executive director is the main conduit for such communication between
the board and the organization, with essential support provided by a
variety of staff members, especially the recording secretary (clerk),
Policy Governance manager (administrator), and executive leadership
Public relations issues, major projects or decisions,
general updates, meeting calendars, and community engagement commitments
are streamlined as a part of a weekly memo that serves as an official
record of CEO communication to the board. This requires staff to be
alert to information and forward anything to the CEO that may be
strategically or relationally advantageous to share with the board.
Certain subject matters may be elevated to periodic one-on-one meeting
discussions between the CEO and each of the board members, or as formal
board presentations, typically conducted by Executive Team members.
Items that require the formal approval of the board are identified in
governing policies and are preliminarily introduced to the board through
the weekly memo, individual meetings, or full presentations.
Recommendations for board action may be prepared by staff at any level
and advanced through the ranks to the CEO.
A strong board-CEO
relationship is enhanced by a strong team of executive managers. This
team has an acute awareness of the board-established priorities and
limitations as they exercise their responsibilities to advance their
respective divisions of the organization toward achievement of the
priorities in harmony with the whole. Board members gain familiarity
with staff members by participating in staff committees when mutually
agreed upon by the board and CEO. In such instances, Board policy makes
clear that board members shall refrain from attempting to exercise
individual control over the committee or staff. This allows the
organization to capitalize on board member professional expertise,
satisfy board members‘ related personal interests, and maintain peer
accountability for participation with respect to governance.
Rockford Park District, while the recording secretary (clerk) supports
the CEO with board meetings, schedules, recommendations, administration,
and records, the Policy Governance manager (administrator) serves at
the will of the CEO as the in-house Policy Governance consultant,
maintaining and aligning the governance and operational leadership
system. The responsibilities include board policy maintenance and
recommendations, including the annual review and approval of all board
policies and regulations. The manager works as part of the executive
team developing the strategic plan and CEO interpretations to align to
board priorities (Ends), and coordinates more than thirty Ends and
Management Limitations monitoring reports yearly. The reporting process
includes input from no less than three other staff members in each
division of the organization, as seen in the swim lane chart provided as
Monitoring Report Collection Process
part of the national accreditation readiness program, the Policy
Governance manager leads a team that maintains an all-inclusive system
to automate and align all operational standards, procedures, and
administrative policies, to the board's governing policies as they are
updated. Comprehensive approaches such as this keep the priorities
(Ends) at the forefront for every employee, enhance compliance with
established limitations, and establish the framework for organizational
culture. A clear target, explicit boundaries, and latitude for
stakeholder input and responsiveness make it simple for staff throughout
the organization to make decisions, achieve milestones, and enjoy their
work. The field of latitude is depicted in Figure 2
as the administrative empowerment zone, a space that cultivates
innovation, growth, responsiveness, culture, and many other
characteristics and activities that define the most notable
organizations—those who also experience few uncalculated laments and
have much to celebrate.
The Administrative Empowerment Zone
I believe that boards that endeavor to lead their organizations to new heights of achievement need to consider the following:
If the answer is no, this uncertainty comes at a
significant cost to the success, resources, and sustainability of your
organization. Allowing the greatest possible degree of latitude within
safe boundaries will not only improve the alignment of resources to
achieve your organizational goals but also allow the CEO to empower the
entire workforce to serve your customers in new, exciting ways. It all
starts with the board, leading by example with empowering policies in
balance with monitoring and accountability.
Julia Steiner Halsted can be contacted at JuliaHalsted@RockfordParkDistrict.org.
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