As with most trade shows, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) annual conference this week included a show floor of nifty products and educational sessions featuring lively debates on hot topics. But perhaps the biggest buzz during the event revolved around Brian Fontes, who was finishing his first week as NENA’s CEO.

Historically, the top staffer for a non-profit public-safety organization does not have a resume resembling the one claimed by Fontes, whose professional titles have included college professor, FCC Chief of Staff, U.S. ambassador and, most recently, AT&T’s vice president for federal relations.

No wonder NENA officials like President Jason Barbour grinned like Cheshire cats when the subject of Fontes’ hiring was mentioned. In less than two weeks, Fontes already has introduced the NENA officials to a new level of industry strategy and political contacts that might have seemed out of reach to the organization before—a fact made obvious during NENA’s “Meet the CEO” session during the show on Wednesday.

However, Fontes was noticeably uncomfortable with all the attention and plaudits bestowed on him. “Managing expectations” was his mantra for the week.

“I am not going to be the savior of NENA or anything like that,” he said. “What I’ve done in the past doesn’t matter … in this job, I haven’t done anything yet.”

Indeed, only time will tell how effective Fontes will be in his new position. But the big news is that Fontes will have a chance to make a greater impact than the top staffers in other public-safety organizations, because he is not NENA’s executive director but its chief executive officer.

What’s the difference? For the most part, executive directors are tasked to execute the will of an organization’s board, the direction of which can change with the faces and ideas of its elected leadership. As CEO, Fontes not only is in charge of execution at NENA, he is a member of the board and is expected to be the face of the organization while driving its policy objectives.

NENA opted for this model after determining the organization’s need for consistent direction and continuity, instead of potentially revolving agendas coinciding with each election of a new president, Barbour said. In hiring Fontes as CEO, NENA expects him to drive the policy agenda and be an identifiable front man for the organization, regardless of who has been elected to the board.

It’s an intriguing governance model, one that was attractive to Fontes—enough to convince him to leave the money and perks associated as a top executive for a corporate giant like AT&T. Asked if he would have accepted the top-paid NENA position as an executive director, Fontes said, “Honestly, probably not. If I were an executive director … I would just be following whoever the next president is, whatever their particular wish list or mandate was. It would not have been an effective role.”

Ron Bonneau, NENA first vice president, emphasized that hiring Fontes was not an action taken to “lay down the gauntlet for APCO [Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials].” That may be the case, but I bet APCO and other public-safety organizations will monitor NENA closely to assess whether the CEO governance model provides the desired direction and continuity without undermining the board elected by the organization’s membership.

Of course, any strategy is only as good as the people implementing it. In the NBA, longtime Phil Jackson assistant Tex Winter is famous for being the guru of the triangle offense, which has been used to win multiple championships in Chicago with Michael Jordan and in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant. However, when those sorts of impact players are not in the mix—for these teams or for the many other NBA franchises that have tried to copy it over the years—the triangle offense has looked quite pedestrian.

The same probably will hold true for the CEO governance model for public safety organizations. If NENA is unable to make significant strides with it, the model likely will be forgotten soon in the public-safety arena. However, if Fontes makes a positive impact for NENA, my guess is that other public-safety associations will seriously consider whether offering a CEO title can help them lure an impact player to their teams that help take their organizations to the next level.

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