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Start Right: Effective On-Boarding of New Board Members

· Board of Directors,Council

This is the fifth in a series of posts on effective Board of Directors work (or Board of Trustees, Council, etc.) Some of these posts will be primarily for those new to board work while others will be for those who are trying to improve and professionalize their organization's board. If you’d like to receive them in your inbox as they are published, sign up at the end of this post.

Determining the diverse talents and perspectives you want on your Board or Council, combined with identifying and recruiting prospective members takes a great deal of thought, time and energy if done right. And, as you bring new members into your existing group there are risks. There are risks for the group itself because newcomers always change the group dynamics. There are risks for the newcomers because they may be a bit nervous as they meet new people and try to figure out how they fit into the board. They are also likely to be on a steep learning curve not only with understanding the governance, strategy, risks and budgets, but also with figuring out the nuances of the meeting protocols, power and culture that may not be apparent at first.

You want your new board members to bring their gifts to the table as soon as possible; that’s why you recruited them! In order to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible, I recommend developing a solid on-boarding plan. Here are some ideas to consider and adapt to your organization.

  • As soon as someone new is elected to your board, the Chair of the Board should send the newcomer a “welcome” email. It should not only express appreciation for their willingness to serve, but also provide some basic information about access to the board’s secure website, future meeting dates, and contact information for the Chair, their board mentor (see item #3 below), and, if appropriate for your organization, a staff person who works on board meeting arrangements. Some organizations also send a “welcome packet” to new board members that may include token gifts such as organizational logo items (coffee mug, notebook, paperweight, backpack, etc.); a book or two that is pertinent to the work of the board, etc.  If your board members receive business cards for their work on behalf of the board, this is a nice “welcome” touch, as well.
  • Develop (or update) your board handbook and make certain that it is sent to your new board member but is also accessible to all board members. Because this is pertinent to all board members, my next blog post will include details regarding what types of documents should be included in a board handbook. And, of course, “handbook” implies that it is a printed collection of materials, but I recommend that it primarily be stored in a digital format on your secure board documents platform for ease of updating and access to everyone on your board.
  • The board chair should assign a board mentor to each new board member. This should be someone who has served on the board for at least a year and who understands the work of the board. Ideally, this person will also be on the same committee as the new board member. Upon the new board member’s election, the board mentor should immediately reach out to welcome the newcomer and schedule a meeting, either in person or teleconference, to walk through the materials in the board handbook, detail how to access the board’s digital platform, review the forthcoming meeting dates, agendas, and key priorities facing the board in the short-term. At the first meeting (and in fact I recommend for the meetings for the first year), the mentor and newcomer should be seated together so that it is easy for them to have quiet explanatory conversations, as needed, throughout the meeting(s).
  • Both the person who recruited the new board member and the mentor should explicitly encourage the newcomer to ask questions and to fully participate in the first board meeting. Often, newcomers sit back thinking “everyone else knows what is being talked about” or “I should just listen for my first few meetings” but that attitude squanders one of the greatest gifts of a newcomer; his or her naïve questions and fresh point-of-view! In fact, often more experienced board members have the same questions, but because they have been on the board for several months or even years, they don’t want to ask and appear out of touch. This is especially true when boards only meet a few times per year. In addition, you have selected this new board member because of their unique perspectives and talents, so hearing their comments and questions may shed light on a topic in a new way. This is especially helpful before the newcomer becomes embedded in the board’s culture.
  • In addition to the board mentor providing an overview of the work of the board prior to the newcomer’s first board meeting, the very best way to orient a new board member is to conduct an in-person board orientation meeting. When I have led these, we have asked newcomers to come to their first meeting one day early and we have spent almost all day on helping to bring them up to speed. If you are on-boarding several new people at the same time, this gathering is an ideal opportunity for them to bond as a small group. If possible, in addition to the newcomers, other attendees should include the board chair, the mentors for each new person, the organization’s CEO and CFO.  Your agenda will be unique to your organization, but here is a basic outline to get you started:
  • Board Orientation Outline
  • Welcome and introductions
  • Board Chair reviews who is on the board and how the board functions, the fiduciary and strategic duties, the expectations of time and levels of commitment to the board, a review of the board ethics and conflict of interest statements, board covenant, the D&O policy, information regarding the key issues facing the board.
  • The Chief Executive Officer reviews the organization’s mission, vision, and values statements, the current strategic plan, the key short and long-term priorities and annual goals/scorecard and YTD performance and how the board engages with these items. If appropriate, the CEO may also want to provide an overview of key products/services, business cycles, market sector/industry, the competitive environment, etc.
  • The Chief Financial Officer should provide a review of the current year’s operating and capital budgets and, if pertinent, the organization’s financial history, the audit status, an overview of the fiscal health of the organization and how the board engages with the financials and audit process. Either the CEO or the CFO may want to address any particular risks facing the industry or organization.
  • If the meeting is being held at or near the organization’s headquarters or some other office/facility, you may want to add on a brief tour for the new board member(s).

This overview meeting will feel a bit like the proverbial “drinking from the firehose” to most new board members. Be sure to encourage questions, take enough breaks, and throughout the day remind the newcomers that their mentors, the board chair and key staff will be available to answer questions on an on-going basis during and between meetings; they aren’t expected to retain everything from this onslaught of information. But, they should know where to find information and who to contact when they have questions. This orientation meeting is also an excellent time to model the culture of your board meetings. Are they formal or informal? Do you use Robert’s Rules of Order? Do you start and end meetings on time? Is there a social aspect to the board meetings such as coffee breaks, cocktails and/or dinner together?

  • Gracious hospitality is always important, but especially at the new board member’s first meeting. Be sure to take time at the beginning for each person present to introduce him or herself. It is also helpful to have name badges for each person (board members and staff) to wear throughout the meeting as well as tent cards with each person’s name in front of each participant in the meeting. And, just because the other board members know where to find the coffee, restrooms, WIFI access, etc. doesn’t mean that the new board member knows these basic pieces of information. So, a quick review of these things at the beginning of the meeting will be helpful for everyone. Throughout the newcomer’s first meeting, encourage the mentor to “check in” during breaks, over meals, etc. to answer any questions or concerns. 
  • A few days after the first board meeting, encourage the mentor to schedule a brief chat by phone to debrief the meeting. This mentor communication pattern should continue before, during and after the first several meetings.

Do some planning and careful implementation of your on-boarding process and it will pay dividends for years to come, both for your new board members and how quickly they are actively engaged and for the board as a whole. You are setting a tone of welcome and of professionalism.


Beth A. Lewis

© Getting2Transformation 2019