When we join a board, whether or not we have prior experience as a director, we all hope to ‘hit the ground running.'
We want to make a difference sooner rather than later.
And our boards share that wish. They want to set up their new directors for success – feeling comfortable and able to make a contribution early on. That’s why many boards hold an orientation session – a few hours devoted to helping new directors get on their feet.
I set out to find out what a new director can do to ensure they hit the ground running. I found a lot of advice out there for boards. But for individual directors who want to ensure they hit the ground running? Not so much.
Let’s explore what boards can do, then consider how an individual director can leverage that information.
A single orientation session doesn’t really cut it these days – if it ever did. The board may feel that its part is complete, but there’s lots more that can be done to support new directors. Think of it as an onboarding process – or program – rather than a single orientation session. It may begin with an orientation, but it doesn’t stop there.
The term ‘onboarding’ implies a broader approach to integrating new directors into the work and the culture of the board and the organization. This kind of an approach involves distributing the director’s learning across a number of activities and over a longer time frame.
“… the best induction programs go beyond and are intentionally ongoing, designed to support and strengthen a new director during at least the first 12 months on the board.” - Spencer Stuart, New Director Onboarding: 5 Recommendations for Enhancing Your Program
When viewed as a program that unfolds over time, there’s an opportunity to include a number of different components that will benefit new directors:
Board recruitment: Onboarding is actually a logical extension of the recruitment process. When considering potential candidates for board vacancies, there’s an opportunity to provide a basic information package as well as answer candidates’ questions during the interview.
Orientation workshop: The traditional orientation session has its uses. It usually covers basic information like the board calendar and a list of directors and background on a few important initiatives. Often this is the opportunity for a new director to sign required documents and learn how to use the board portal, submit expense forms, etc.
Pre-reading: Providing new directors with reading material prior to their first board meeting is very helpful. Typically, this includes minutes of prior meetings, relevant policies, the strategic plan, financial statements, etc.
Tours: A facility tour includes the opportunity to make introductions and meet some key staff members.
Meetings: Meetings with key people, starting with the board chair and the CEO, are an important component. Additional meetings with the executive team, key senior management, and other board directors help new directors get a handle on boardroom dynamics, board culture, and individual board member perspectives.
Virtual one-on-ones: This is an interesting new approach that has arisen during the pandemic – video chats between current directors and new ones. The fact that they take place against the backdrop of people’s homes seems to add a personal touch and lessens some of the awkwardness that happens when a new director gets in front of the board for the first time.
Mentoring: New directors find value in being assigned a more experienced director mentor to provide coaching and feedback and offer insights on board culture and dynamics.
Committees: Some boards invite new directors to sit in on all committee meetings during their first year. This helps them gain a full understanding of the range of issues facing the company. Sitting in on the audit committee can be an excellent introduction to the company and the risks it faces, even for directors without a financial background.
Board education session: A mid-year board education session, which actually benefits the entire board, is an excellent opportunity to provide new directors with a deep dive into one or two relevant topics.
By the way, leveraging technology to improve the onboarding process makes total sense. As with board and committee meetings, virtual orientation sessions and other onboarding meetings are easier to schedule, more efficient and less costly than in-person ones. Just keep in mind that video chats can’t entirely replace the face-to-face experience. These days, there are new directors who have never been in the same room with their fellow board members. Their level of familiarity and sense of being comfortable won’t be the same until their boards resume in-person meetings – even if that only happens once in a while.
To make sure that the onboarding program actually unfolds as it should, the board can appoint a director to oversee the program. It could be the board chair, chair of the governance committee, or an interested director suited to the role – one who understands board dynamics and will arrange the process in a way that sets the right tone from the outset. The board can also track the new directors’ progress through the program to ensure they receive the information they need and establish necessary contacts within the company and board.
Whether you’re going through an onboarding program or you’re designing one, what should you think about?
The first thing to consider is that the program should be tailored. It should take into account the unique background and experience of each individual. After all, if you’re already an industry expert, you don’t need to spend valuable onboarding time on that topic. Or if you’ve got lots of experience serving on other boards, do you really need another session explaining your fiduciary duty?
What else? The best onboarding programs can be described as:
“The result of successful onboarding is that a new director becomes a meaningful contributor to the work of the board from the beginning of his or her term, even while learning about the company and its business. This is important not only to enable the company to benefit from the new director’s efforts as soon as possible, but also to set the right tone in the boardroom.” – Director Onboarding and the Foundations of Respect, Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance
Research shows there’s a glaring discrepancy between the onboarding practices of non-profit and for-profit boards. Non-profit organizations are far more likely to have a less than robust onboarding program, or even none at all.
For those of us serving on non-profit boards, this means we just may have to take the process into our own hands.
And even on corporate boards, new directors have responsibilities. They include studying publicly available information; becoming familiar with industry trends; understanding key governance issues; and identifying programs to supplement their understanding.
“Similar to any educational effort, onboarding is a two-way street. While the board has responsibility for overseeing a robust onboarding program, in all cases new directors should ‘own’ their onboarding experience and request the information and insights they need to quickly get up to speed in the boardroom.” - Spencer Stuart
On the plus side, you can create your own program – a road map that identifies where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
Consider it a natural extension of the recruitment process, where you set out to find information that would help you know whether or not there is a fit between you and your prospective board.
A good place to start is to define your learning objectives. Below is a list of potential learning objectives adapted from Board Orientation Rejigged, posted in Governinggood.
Through the onboarding process, I will be able to:
With your learning objectives in mind, and the best practices listed in this blog post, you can design an onboarding program that’s absolutely tailored to your needs. Our DirectorPrep online course, A DIY Onboarding Program for Board Directors, can help you fill in all the details.
A checklist is really useful tool to assist you along your onboarding journey. Here are links to a few that I found, including, of course, our DirectorPrep Checklist.
And finally, use technology to your advantage. Why not arrange quick 15-minute virtual meetings with individual board members, just to introduce yourself?
Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: In your experience, what has worked well when it comes to director onboarding?