Board transitions are a great opportunity to renew and invigorate a board. New board members can bring enthusiasm, a fresh perspective and new ideas to the table. Yet joining a board can be a daunting experience and transitions are most successful when boards properly orientate their new directors to the cultures and practices of their organization.
The difficulties of attracting new board members has been widely written and spoken about in non-profit governance discourse but securing a desirable candidate is only the first step in the process of renewing a board’s membership. Whether they are first-time directors or governance veterans, the newcomer needs to be familiarised with the workings of the organization and board as well as with its values and culture. Joining a board is like assuming any new role; it takes time to settle in even if you have previously held a similar position. This transition period may be exacerbated further in a board position where several weeks or months can pass without a great deal of contact. As David Fishel puts it in The Book of the Board, putting new board members through an effective board induction program “increases their value to the organization, and minimises the risk of feeling like an outsider for months after they have joined”.
This article will explore the issue of orientating new board members from both the perspective of the board and that of new board members. It will demonstrate the importance of getting orientation right and outline some of the best ways to go about it.
A new board member’s perspective
Better Boards spoke to a young professional on the eve of her first board meeting. She addressed her reasons for accepting the position, the challenges she faces as a new board member and the ways in which the board helped to orientate her in the role.
Erin is a financial accounting analyst with several years’ experience working for a large accounting firm. She was recently invited onto the board of a small children’s health support charity. Erin was enthusiastic about joining the board. She has always had an interest in governance and recently completed a Graduate Diploma in Applied Corporate Governance. Erin feels that her professional expertise puts her in good stead to perform well in the role.
Erin’s orientation consisted of accessing a general induction presentation relating to the organization as well as the receipt of a governance manual from the General Manager. However, Erin found that the best introduction came from reading the board papers in preparation for their upcoming meeting. Because the papers were focused and practical, rather than general and theoretical, they allowed her to really get a feeling for what happens in meetings and what the board really does.
After the first board meeting, Erin reported that it had run relatively smoothly. There were some items discussed that she did not fully understand and the meeting was very fast but she did not feel out of her depth. She chose to simply observe for the first meeting, but said she was ready to hit the ground running. She did remark, however, that without her accounting background and preparation she would have felt lost.
The key insight of Erin’s story is that without key skills and a sufficient introduction to the organization the boardroom could have been an intimidating place. New board members will not be up to speed with the rest of the board within a day but a proper induction and support from the rest of the board will go a long way to help them to learn quickly.
New board members: what they need to know first
Finding and orientating suitable board member is a process that should be considered from multiple perspectives. For a new board member to be successfully initiated they must be confident that they have found an organization and a board that is the right fit for them. Prospective board members should also be confident that they will be able to work productively with the existing board.
Better Boards sought some insight on this matter from Shaheen Evans and Brian Herd.
Evans identified three things that prospective board members should consider before they accept a position on a board:
Culture and fit for you and the proposed board
Conduct good due diligence
Trial before you commit.
Herd recommends considering these three questions before joining a board:
Why would I want to serve on this Board?
Do I know what commitment is required to serve on this Board?
Do I have the time and passion to give that ongoing commitment?
Both Evans and Herd support the need for new board members to carefully consider their suitability for the role and ensure that they are prepared for its roles and responsibilities.
: Frequently Asked Questions
Tips and tricks for preparing new board members:
If your board is currently seeking new directors, or will be soon, there’s no time like the present to be proactive and start preparing to welcome and initiate future board members. Below are some quick tips on how to go about it:
Have an induction process in place. This process should involve one-on-one meetings with the Chair, CEO and any other key executives. It should also include a tour of the organization on the ground and the chance to meet staff and observe their work in action. Encourage the newcomer to ask questions at every stage.
Assemble an induction pack. This should include important documents with current information on your organization, its finances and board policies. These should include strategic plans, financial reports and recent board papers. David Fishel says that with this information “most board members will feel far more confident about the context within which they will be contributing, and about the current issues facing the organization.
Encourage social interaction. Allow some time for new board members to get to know the rest of the board. Knowing the rest of the board personally can provide extra confidence at the board table. It will also provide newcomers with the chance to become familiar with the personalities and relationships that have a bearing on the board’s culture. This could simply be a morning or afternoon tea either side of a board meeting or event.
Assign a mentor to the new board member. This will provide them with a personal connection they can call on to ask specific questions. Remember that each new board members will have different needs so the induction process should to be flexible and allow the new recruit to ask questions one-on-one.
Provide first-time board members with training. This might mean access to resources, attending seminars or conferences, or sitting down with the financial advisor or Chief Financial Officer to discuss the accounts in detail. Remember also that board members can benefit from training throughout their career. Even those who have served for a number of years will appreciate refreshers or exposure to new ideas or practices.