Joining a new board of directors is like getting on a bus – one that’s already full of people and is well on its way to its destination.
The tricky part is that the bus isn’t stationary. Even as you hop on, it’s already moving.
Whether it’s your first bus ride or you’re a veteran, you’ve got to catch your breath, find your place, and settle in for the journey.
In the same way, whether you’re a first time director or you’ve already served on a few boards, it’s normal to start a new board role feeling like everyone else is ahead of you and you’re playing catch-up.
Staying with the bus trip metaphor, let’s explore how new board directors can get up to speed.
When you hop on this particular bus, most of the seats are already taken. These are your fellow directors.
Of course, you’ll be introduced to them at your first board meeting, and you’ll have an opportunity to get to know them over the course of your first year on the board. But you’ll be more comfortable if you learn something about them even before your first meeting.
It's easy enough to do. A list of current board members is usually provided to new recruits, and short bio’s are often included in annual reports, proxy statements, or on the website. Even more helpful, you’ll probably find most of them have a LinkedIn profile. You can gain a wealth of information with just an online search.
Find out their backgrounds, skills, and areas of expertise. What other boards do they serve on? Who else is new to the board – that gives you something in common right off the bat. Understand their different roles and why they might be on the board. What connection do they have to the organization? This knowledge will give you at least some idea of the potential board dynamics you’ll encounter.
Once you’re on the board, conversations with individual directors help you get a sense of board dynamics. Get to know and understand at least a few people - you’ll be better prepared for the tensions that can arise among strong-minded directors with deeply-held opinions about controversial topics.
That’s a tricky question. Of course, there’s obviously someone in the driver’s seat. Some people think it should be the board chair, others think it’s actually the CEO. Or maybe – like in an airplane – the chair and the CEO should be co-pilots.
New directors might think of the board chair as boss, but that’s not quite right. The board chair’s role is more of a guide on the side, managing the affairs of the board and facilitating meetings. Granted, they do have a lot of influence - an effective board relies heavily on having a good chair - but when it comes down to decision-making, they still have only one vote.
What about the CEO? In many ways, the CEO is like the driver of the organizational bus. They’re selected by and accountable to the board of directors. They’re responsible for day-to-day operations, with authority to make all the driving decisions that lie within their delegated parameters.
But let’s be clear. All board members – even the brand new ones – have a say about where the bus is going and how it will get there. The full board, not just the board chair, approves the route and establishes the parameters. If the CEO wants to make a detour beyond those pre-established parameters, board approval is needed. Getting a handle on the board-CEO relationship will go along way to helping you understand the board’s culture and dynamics.
Unless you’ve joined a start-up board, you’re getting on a bus that’s already en route from somewhere. The organization has a history, and so does the board. It’s worth spending a bit of time to familiarize yourself with it.
There are two kinds of history – the official version, and the unofficial version.
You won’t find it hard to discover the official version. Spend some time on the website – many organizations publicize their founding stories and company history for all to see. Read prior annual reports and search for media stories online. Once you have access, peruse the minutes for board meetings going back a year so – these will help you understand issues that have been discussed and decisions that have been made.
Discovering the unofficial history will take you a little more time. While the minutes can tell you what decisions were made, understanding why they were made, and in what context, usually requires a discreet conversation. The sacred cows, the topics that have been debated over and over again, and the divisive issues that people haven’t forgotten – the minutes won’t help you with any of that.
That makes knowing when to raise questions and when to stay quiet difficult for a new director. It’s just not useful for you to raise a topic that the board has already hashed to death. So, look for opportunities to spend time with one or two directors who’ve been on the bus for a while, and have them share a few war stories with you. Don’t think of it as gossip – think of it as valuable research.
For your very first board meeting, you’ll want to arrive with a good sense of the organization’s current state. For context, you’ll also want to understand what’s happening in the industry or sector that the organization operates in. That means taking advantage of any orientation sessions or onboarding program that the board provides, as well as doing your own homework.
You’ll also want to know exactly what the board will deal with at the meeting – issues to be discussed, decisions to be made, and information to consider. That means spending good quality PREP time with the board package.
If you’re new to board work, you might be surprised at the amount of pre-reading material and the time needed to digest it. Take comfort from the fact that your PREP time will decrease as you get familiar with the issues.
Here’s some information you’ll find helpful in discovering the current state:
Every bus has a route – whether it’s a long haul or an express trip through the city. When it comes to your board, the route is the strategic plan. A well-crafted board agenda allows directors plenty of time to discuss strategic issues, so understanding the organization’s strategy will help set you up to participate right from the start.
Get a hold of the plan before your first board meeting and familiarize yourself with it as part of your PREP. It should tell you the organization’s goals, the milestones along the way, and how progress is measured and reported. Management reports should inform you how the plan has been going so far and whether the organization is on track to meet its goals.
Knowing why you’re on the bus means understanding two things:
If you’re a new director, remember that you’re there to contribute, using your skills, background, and know-how to understand the issues and ask the right questions. Knowing your why gives you a sense of purpose and helps instill confidence.
To understand how you’re expected to contribute, it helps to know what skills gap you’re there to fill. Know why you were recruited - it could be your expertise in a particular industry, your professional knowledge, your executive experience, or your understanding of a key function.
Here’s a tip: don’t make the mistake of assuming you’re expected to stay in your lane. You might have been recruited because of your financial (or technical, or legal) background, but once on the board, sticking within that narrow field is a problem. You’ll add more value if you venture outside of your comfort zone and use your curiosity to ask questions on other issues. After all, some of the best questions come from non-experts.
Boards are actually looking for directors with deep expertise to fill specific gaps, coupled with the ability to contribute more broadly. The Russell Reynolds article in the Resources section below calls these “T-shaped directors” – directors who have deep expertise in one domain along with the ability to engage across the board agenda. What makes these directors so valuable is their understanding of the interconnections and interdependencies across the organization.
Keeping with the metaphor, when you join a board of directors, you’re on a bus, not a train or a street car. That means the vehicle can change directions, make detours, and adjust to traffic. And because of that, directors have an opportunity to influence the route.
Most of all, new directors want to know how they can make an impact. Here’s a few pieces of advice:
Speak up. As a new director, you might assume you should just listen and observe, rather than say much, during your first few meetings. Veteran directors recommend a more balanced approach: listen more than talk, but be willing to participate, especially in your area of expertise. Remember, you’re there for a reason and remaining silent isn’t it.
Ask questions. Asking questions, even when you know the answer, is a good general approach. You’ll find other board members are more receptive if you ask questions instead of being prescriptive or making declarative statements. Your delivery is important, as is how you frame your questions. Asking “How are you thinking about …?” or “Could there be a better way to …?” works much better than “At my company, we did it this way.”
Serve on a board committee. Boards delegate much of the heavy lifting to their committees. That means committee members get to interact with management, delve into details, and really learn about the organization. Committee work allows you to add value to your board and have an impact on your organization, no matter how much experience you have.
Build trust. When you’re new to a board, you’ll be given the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. But that’s not the same thing as being trusted. Trust takes time and effort, but making the investment is worth it. Once you’ve established trust, you’ll be in a better position to raise difficult or controversial issues.
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 directors prepare for their board role.
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