The Savvy Director - weekly insights delivered to your inbox on Sunday mornings. Click here

"Has anyone EVER had a good board orientation?"

Nov 24, 2019

I’m happy to welcome back Alice Sayant as today’s guest blogger. Alice is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of

Alice’s thoughts on board orientation

Lately, my guilty pleasure is binge-watching old episodes of Friends on Netflix. Something that happened in the first season prompted me to think about board orientation for new directors.

I know, I know. It’s quite a stretch to compare the characters in a 1990’s sitcom to board directors. And the Central Perk coffee shop is not exactly a board room. But bear with me. There’s a connection.

Early in the series, Phoebe Buffay (played by Lisa Kudrow) reveals that sometimes she feels like an outsider from the group, as the other five have a long history which she doesn’t share. Well, it occurred to me that, when I have been the newest director around the board table, I’ve felt like Phoebe. It has seemed to me - rightly or wrongly - that all the other board members are old friends, that they have a shared history, tell private jokes, and sometimes even speak in code. It can take a lot of board meetings before this feeling gradually dissipates.

Unlike the close friends on the TV show, boards get together infrequently, so getting to know each other and learning to understand what’s going on is not a quick process. To compensate, organizations often assemble a board orientation package to help the new director get up to speed. But let’s face it, some organizations don’t offer any board orientation at all and others do a perfunctory job of it. Even the best formal orientation programs can’t answer all the new director’s questions. That’s because a lot of what the new director needs to understand is not formal knowledge at all, but the informal, unwritten rules that govern the board’s conduct. In other words, the culture.

I’ve found that, to build their governance capacity, the new director needs to become comfortable with four different aspects of the board’s work.

  1. They need to understand the industry and the environment that the organization is operating in.
  2. They need to understand the organization itself – its history, its operations, its culture.
  3. They need to understand the fundamentals of good corporate governance – the board’s role and the directors’ duties.
  4. They need to understand how the board operates and the culture at the board table.

Over and above the organization’s formal orientation program (if it has one), the new director can take charge of their own onboarding process by proactively seeking out information in these four areas. These days, there are many avenues available to directors who are looking to access information and build their knowledge base.

And don’t forget the most obvious way that a new director can build their capacity - asking good questions. Well-considered, thoughtful questions are welcome at board and committee meetings, but also outside the board room when preparing for an upcoming meeting. When it comes to the less formal aspects of governance capacity, I have found that most experienced directors are more than happy to help out the newbie by sharing their insights on board dynamics and organizational culture.

If you are a new director, this Board Orientation Checklist can help you to assess where you are in the onboarding process.

Thank you.


Scott’s takeaways:

I’d like to thank Alice for offering her insights about board orientation. Here’s what I took away from today’s blog.

  • If you are a new director, don’t be surprised if it takes a year or so before you feel comfortable with your role at the board table.
  • As a director, you need to build your governance capacity in four different areas – the industry, the organization, board governance, and board culture.
  • Don’t rely solely on your organization’s board orientation program. Instead, take charge of your own onboarding program.
  • Download our Board Orientation Checklist to assess your orientation so far.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.

Share Your Insight:  What suggestions do you have for new directors to help them get up-to-speed quickly?



Welcome to the Savvy Director Blog

Stay connected with our weekly posts about what it takes to be a savvy board director