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

Shifting into High Gear

Apr 24, 2022
This article is the second of two dealing with board engagement. Click here for our first article – Getting in Gear.
In the first Savvy Director article on board engagement, Getting in Gear, we explored the meaning of board engagement, some of the signs of engaged or disengaged boards, and how to measure board engagement. The title “getting in gear” implied moving from a neutral position  – with gears disengaged – to low gear to start dealing with board matters in an effective way.
In this second article, we’re talking about shifting into a higher gear to attain more speed and power. High gear enables us to do our board work more energetically, vigorously, and effectively.
A high level of board engagement doesn’t just happen. Like anything worthwhile, it takes intention and effort. Let’s explore some ways that a board of directors can get into high gear by upping its board engagement.


Set the Tone from the Start

 “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” – Will Rogers
Onboarding a new director sets the tone for the entire relationship. It’s the time for providing information, clarifying roles, and setting expectations. (Read our blog Hit the Ground Running for more about onboarding.)
Give new directors access to the information they need. Help them get a clear picture of the organization and how it creates value. Include practicalities like meeting schedules, contact information, and where to go for support. You might consider implementing a mentor system, or an informal buddy system, to help them understand how the board functions. That personal connection can go a long way to strengthen their relationship with their new board.
Onboarding is also an opportunity to get a new director’s first impressions – an outside perspective of the board as seen with fresh eyes. And asking a new director for feedback on the onboarding process tells them their contribution is valued from the get-go.

Put Out the Welcome Mat

“A smile is the universal welcome.” – Max Eastman
A warm welcome at their first board meeting gets new directors started on the right foot. A good board chair helps the newcomer feel comfortable by making introductions, and checking in with them to explain jargon, acronyms, and idiosyncrasies as the meeting progresses.
On an ongoing basis, the chair also makes sure to include relevant background in meeting material, keeping in mind that not every director shares in the institutional memory.
Ensuring that the boardroom (real or virtual) is a safe, inclusive place where everyone is comfortable speaking up will make that welcome feeling last. When some directors hesitate to speak because they don’t feel comfortable, a few individuals end up dominating the conversation. That’s a recipe for diminishing engagement.
The board demonstrates that everyone’s contributions are welcome by treating each other with respect, listening carefully, valuing different viewpoints, expressing appreciation, and giving constructive feedback. You can read more on this topic in our blog Kindness in the Boardroom.


Make Meetings Meaningful

“You have a meeting to make a decision, not to decide on the question.” - Bill Gates
I hear it all the time – directors complaining that they don’t have enough time for meaningful discussion during board meetings. There are all sorts of reasons that meeting format and structure are important – achieving higher levels of board engagement is just one of them.
Sure, oversight and compliance are key board responsibilities, but by no stretch of the imagination can they be considered engaging! Directors are engaged by board meetings that provide ample opportunity for collaborative discussions about the future and robust debates on important decisions.
Board meetings like that don’t just happen, they’re planned. Read our blog The Strategic Board Agenda for ideas about re-structuring the board agenda to maximize engagement by providing plenty of opportunities for participation and collaboration. Ensure it’s working well by periodically sending out a meeting evaluation, inviting directors to share any ideas they have about future topics or guest speakers.
And don’t forget about the modern tools that make preparing for and participating in meetings easier and more efficient. Let’s be honest - sending out emails with a dozen PDF files attached is not the best way to distribute board materials (not to mention that it’s not very secure.) There’s some great board portal software out there for boards of all shapes and sizes, as well as user-friendly platforms for virtual meetings.

Communicate Between Meetings

“In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly.” - Mark Sanborn
Meetings get the lion’s share of attention, but communication between meetings is just as important. A lot can happen between meetings, and directors may be completely out of the picture. It’s a good idea to provide updates on financials and project progress, and other items that impact board business.
But more than that, this kind of communication is also an opportunity to bring the organization to life for the board, sharing stories of success, employee achievements, and company initiatives. Whether for-profit or non-profit, giving directors insight into the organization’s personality, people, culture, and mission strengthens the relationship.
Modern tools such as shared libraries and secure messaging can facilitate communication and information-sharing among directors, and between the board and management, allowing them to work smarter, access files any time, and continuously collaborate instead of waiting until the next time they’re together.

Focus on the Future

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” – Peter Drucker
Most boards would like to spend more time helping shape company strategy, rather than just signing off on it. When directors shift their focus to strategy – beyond governance, compliance, and oversight – their engagement level starts to rise.
Directors’ diverse experiences enable them to add real value to strategy development. They have a unique perspective on the organization and its future challenges and opportunities. They may not be able to predict the future, but they have the advantage of – and the responsibility for – thinking long term.
But that can only happen if the board is able to participate in creating the strategy, rather than being asked to review and approve one that’s already fully baked. Directors can ask the bold “What if?” questions that help their organizations navigate our VUCA world, and the board can benefit from a higher level of engagement in the process.


Give Them a Job to Do

“There is no great fun, satisfaction, or joy derived from doing something that’s easy.” – John Wooden
The feeling of having a purpose – having meaningful work to do, and then getting it done – is very powerful. Sometimes, board work doesn’t feel like that at all – there can be a disconnect between what the board does and the impact the organization makes.
One way of building board engagement is to provide directors with work that they can really sink their teeth into – work with concrete, tangible, visible outcomes.
Committees are a great way to get board members closer to the action. Ad hoc committees or task forces work even better than standing committees because they have a well-defined deliverable to work on and create a sense of satisfaction when the work is completed. Check out our blog Getting the Most Out of Committees for ideas on maximizing the value of board committees.
Another idea is for directors to engage on specific initiatives, such as cybersecurity, clean technologies, risk, or talent development, making sure not to intrude on management’s role, but adding value in areas where individual directors have specific skills.


Show Appreciation

 “Silent gratitude isn’t much to anyone.” – Gertrude Stein
A little appreciation goes a long way. This is especially true on non-profit boards, where director fatigue is common, and perks are few and far between. Occasions that allow board members to gather socially offer a perfect opportunity to acknowledge their hard work, dedication, and accomplishments.
What’s appropriate for individual directors? That depends. One might love a shoutout on social media, while someone else might prefer something more private. Public recognition might be appreciated, but sometimes a heartfelt, personal thank you is enough.


Learn from Those Who Leave

The only mistake in life is the lesson not learned.” – Albert Einstein
Directors are likely to be honest about their board experience when they’re about to leave. Whether they’re resigning or their term is up, it’s a great idea to obtain their feedback with an exit interview. Doing so offers the opportunity to learn and the chance to keep the person connected to the organization. It’s also a graceful way to thank them and end their involvement on a positive note.
Include questions such as these:
  • How would you describe your board experience?
  • What would have made the experience better?
  • What would it be important to tell director candidates about the board?
  • Were you surprised by anything?
  • Did you feel your contributions were appreciated?
  • Do you feel you were able to make a difference?


A Shared Responsibility

The board chair and the CEO share responsibility for taking the actions needed to boost engagement and shift their board into high gear. It’s important that the lines of communication remain open, and that they keep board engagement top of mind in dividing up the tasks.
For instance, since the chair plans and runs board meetings, they have the opportunity to make sure new board members feel welcome and that time is allotted for meaningful discussions about the future. The CEO, in turn, can focus on ensuring a good flow of communication between meetings, planning events to acknowledge directors, and conducting exit interviews.
And every director, regardless of their role on the board, can play their part by reaching out to new directors, demonstrating kindness in the boardroom, acknowledging their peers’ contributions, and being respectful of the board’s time by refraining  from going off on a tangent or plunging down a rabbit hole.
Be sure to check out the Resources section below for more practical ideas on strengthening board engagement.


Your takeaways:

  1. Set the tone from the start.
  2. Put out the welcome mat.
  3. Make meetings meaningful.
  4. Communicate between meetings.
  5. Focus on the future.
  6. Give them a job to do.
  7. Show appreciation.
  8. Learn from those who leave.
  9. Whether you’re the chair, the CEO, or an individual director, you have a part to play.



 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 hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: What methods does your board use to strengthen board engagement?



Welcome to the Savvy Director Blog

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