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Getting in Gear

I like the metaphor of “getting in gear” to refer to the topic of board engagement. It’s a familiar phrase that means “starting to deal with something in an effective way.” When a board of directors gets in gear, it starts to deal with the issues and concerns in front of it in an effective way. In other words, it makes an impact. 

To stretch the metaphor just a bit further, let’s think of individual directors as the gears. When directors are appropriately engaged, they work together to change the speed and direction of the board – just as gears can change the speed and direction of a machine. 

Every board wants engaged directors, and every director wants to serve on a board with a high level of engagement.
It stands to reason. Engaged directors are motivated to invest their time and effort into their board work, bringing their best selves to every meeting, putting their skills to work, and collaborating to overcome challenges. And as a result, the boards they sit on tend to be forward-thinking, collaborative teams that put their members’ expertise to good use.
A high level of board engagement benefits the health of any organization – for-profit or non-profit, private company or publicly traded, large or small. But creating and maintaining that engagement is typically more problematic for non-profit boards. (To learn more about some of the challenges unique to non-profit governance, read the Savvy Director article, Giving Back with Good Governance.)

Board Engagement Basics

What do we mean by “board engagement?” I like Charles Dahan’s definition from Defining and Measuring Board Engagement.
“Engagement is the relationship between the organization and individual directors, measured by the investment individuals make to strengthen the organization, ensure its long-term viability, increase positive sentiment, and progressively increase future investments.”
So, engagement starts with a relationship – knowing the organization, connecting with it, and caring about its people and its mission – and converts that relationship into a personal investment of time and effort in support of the organization and its work. We can borrow the concept of “head, heart and hands” from the field of employee engagement. Intellectual alignment (head) plus emotional involvement (heart) adds up to discretionary effort (hands.)
Engaged boards are more impactful because of that discretionary effort, providing guidance and support for new opportunities and helping to attract and retain topnotch board members and employees.
Don’t confuse board engagement with interference. Directors must maintain their independence and respect management’s role. Engaged boards must balance independent thinking with active engagement to give management the benefit of directors’ insight. (To learn more about the distinction between board and management, check out the Savvy Director post The Fading Bright Line.)

Laying the Groundwork

Wondering what conditions contribute to an engaged board? If you can honestly answer “yes” to these questions adapted from the Private Company article Is Your Board Truly Engaged?, your board is on its way. 
  • Are the CEO and board aligned in wanting an engaged board? If the board chair and the CEO don’t share the view that an engaged board is a strategic asset rather than a necessary evil, friction will result. The CEO has an important role in board engagement, especially in the non-profit world. (Check out the Forbes article Nonprofit Board Engagement: Whose Job Is It? for an interesting take on the CEO’s role.)
  • Are our directors prepared for engagement? Engagement requires courage, thoughtful reflection, and strong communication. If board seats are occupied by people who won’t do the work, don’t care enough to contribute, or can’t bring up difficult topics, the prospects for engagement are not good.
  • Do we emphasize substance over form? Insisting on a “perfect process” can be the enemy of engagement. An over-emphasis on standardized procedures, presentations that overshadow discussion, overwhelming volumes of data, and cutting off important discussions to stay on schedule – all of these practices hinder engagement.
  • Are we working on topics that really matter? Engaged boards spend their time on discussion of vital issues where the CEO wants perspective - topics like strategy, customer demand, competitor initiatives, or industry disruption.
  • Do we have a handle on constructive debate? Constructive debate is based on facts, critical thinking, insightful analysis, and clear articulation of viewpoints. Engaged boards enable that kind of interaction with a culture of inquiry, clear ground rules, and a climate of trust.
  • Do we leverage the skills of individual directors? Directors can be a valuable resource to the CEO and management team, contributing on specific topics where they have expertise, such as mergers and acquisitions, talent development, IT, or risk.
  • Do we display curiosity? Boards that are curious tend to be deeply invested in their organizations. They create rewarding experiences, partner with management, and challenge assumptions. (To learn more about curiosity in the boardroom, check out the Savvy Director blog Curiosity Makes the Director.)


What If Your Board’s Not Engaged?

Disengaged directors tend to display some typical behaviours. They miss meetings or arrive late and leave early. When they do attend, they’re not prepared, and they don’t participate in the discussion. Between meetings, they forget about their assigned tasks and fail to respond to emails and phone calls. In the case of non-profits, they reduce their donations and miss fundraising events.
If you’re observing these behaviours, there’s a reason, although it may not be obvious. After all, directors usually join with good intentions to be the ideal board member – then something happens. What might cause this change?
There might be a disconnect between their expectations and the reality of board work. Whatever their expectations may have been when they joined, when the reality doesn’t match up, it’s easy for directors to lose patience and participate less.
Frustration with the speed of progress. Board work can be slow, especially for non-profits. It can take time to enact change, and board members might not be accustomed to this pace.
Little-to-no recognition for their contributions. Directors don’t expect a parade in their honor, but everyone likes to be appreciated. This is a particular concern on non-profit boards, where directors can start to feel disengaged without at least a simple thank you.
Board discord. Conflict, discord, and a general lack of teamwork in the boardroom can lead to many directors starting to tune out. (For more about the effects of boardroom conflict, read The Savvy Director blog Resolving Inevitable Conflicts.)
Lack of role clarity. Directors might feel disconnected from or uncomfortable in their roles, especially if they haven’t received proper training or direction.

Measuring Board Engagement

When boards want to work on engagement, they often start with assessing their current state using direct observation and feedback from surveys, interviews, or focus groups. A thorough assessment measures both cause (drivers of engagement) and effect (director behaviours).

Director behaviours are the observable effects of engagement. Typically, boards measure meeting attendance, punctuality, participation in committees, volunteering for ad hoc work, turnover, referrals for board recruitment, and, for non-profits, donations and participation in events.
All of these behaviours are observable and can be tracked. Boards can even use their board portal software to measure how much time directors invest in reading board material. Tracking these behaviours is a non-invasive way to measure engagement.
When it comes to non-observable measures, boards tend to use surveys – embedding relevant questions in a board evaluation survey or developing a specific survey that focuses on engagement.
Surveys are especially useful for measuring the drivers of engagement – the values, beliefs, and opinions that contribute to discretionary effort. Drivers reflect the individual director’s thoughts and feelings about the board and the organization. Survey questions can be designed to measure these common drivers:
  • Personal alignment with and belief in the organization’s mission.
  • Belief that one’s own skills and talents are being effectively used.
  • Satisfaction in one’s own contribution to the board.
  • Belief that the board’s expectations of individual directors are reasonable.
  • View that board information is easy to use and is shared openly and transparently.
  • View that the board is structured for maximum effectiveness.
When conducting a survey, it’s a good idea to include the opportunity for directors to respond to open-ended questions, such as:
  • What was our most important accomplishment in the past year?
  • What are the most important priorities for next year?
  • What could we do to improve our board’s effectiveness?
  • What training or development would be useful to you as a board member?
  • What would you change about board meetings?
  • What should board members do more of?
Survey results can help to refocus and revitalize the board. Once the data is collected – whether through observation or survey – and analyzed, then the board has a basis for discussing strengths, weaknesses, issues, and opportunities.
The next step is to develop an action plan. And that’s the subject of our next blog!


Shifting into High Gear

Read our follow-up blog, Shifting into High Gear, where we kick the discussion up a notch by exploring practical ways the board can strengthen engagement, and how the board chair, the CEO, and individual directors can contribute.

Your takeaways:

  • When it comes to director engagement, intellectual alignment (head) plus emotional involvement (heart) adds up to discretionary effort (hands.).
  • Because of their directors’ discretionary effort, engaged boards tend to be forward-thinking, collaborative, and able to make a positive impact on their organizations.
  • If the CEO views the board as a necessary evil rather than a strategic asset, it will be difficult to improve the board’s engagement.
  • Look for clues about disengaged directors, such as poor attendance and lack of participation.
  • Before putting together a plan to improve board engagement, it’s best to conduct an assessment of the current state.



Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online membership with practical tools for board directors who choose a growth mindset. 
Originally published on April 10, 2022
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