Submitted by Melinda Moore, FCIS, Manager, Corporate Governance, OHA
New Board members are elected to the Board for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are community leaders who will enhance the organization’s visibility; maybe they have a specific expertise that will ease the Board’s oversight of a complex project; possibly they share perspective with a segment of the organization’s stakeholders and will aid the Board in better meeting the needs of that group. Regardless of why Directors join the Board, they need to quickly come to understand the organization, the Board’s role, and the expectations of a director to contribute to achieving the mission and vision.
A formal process to welcome new members to the Board is an important opportunity to ensure that all Board members have a shared foundation of knowledge about the organization, its context, its stakeholders; their responsibilities as Board members; and how the Board operates.
Traditionally, orientation sessions for new directors involve a revolving door of senior management reviewing slide decks for a couple of hours that could best be characterized as “drinking from a fire hose”. The volume of organizational information alone can be overwhelming. To that is added information on the Board’s membership, structure, policies, and practices. Then there is contextual information on finances, funders, members, stakeholders, clients, and risks. Additionally, information on the Board’s role and duties and expectations of directors is finally rounded out with information on directors’ liability.
Frequently, although Board members appreciate the information and the time spent by the organization’s leadership to prepare and present it, they are left feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared for their first Board meeting.
From Orientation to On-Boarding
To address this, some organizations are evolving their approach from orientation to on-boarding to recognize that bringing new people onto the Board of Directors is a longer process that requires different activities and supports to ensure their success.
Some things have not changed.
A Board reference manual, whether delivered on paper or posted on a Board portal, contains important reference material for Board members. The manual should contain information about the history of the organization, its clients, its values, its programs. Financial statements and other documents about the financial state of the organization, its revenue sources, and funders would also be made available. The structure of the Board, its size and composition, committee structure, and by-laws, policies, and procedures should be included to ensure directors understand the governance framework within which the Board operates. Biographies of current Board members and contact information should be easily accessible. The current strategic plan with its vision, mission, values, and strategic priorities would provide background to the budget and operating plan that would demonstrate how the organization is implementing the plan in the current year.
Some of this material may be accessible before new directors are elected to the Board but most should be made available immediately upon election to maximize the time for review, prior to the first Board meeting.
An orientation session can be hosted by the Chair and CEO to review the background material and engage in discussion to clarify the information provided. This session would likely involve senior management and would engage new directors in discussion about information reviewed by them before attending the session.
Introductions at the first meetings of the Board and Committees are an important welcoming activity. Although it may seem obvious, if the new director is the only new face around the table and is previously known to the Chair, this step may be inadvertently overlooked.
New initiatives can be added to enhance the orientation process.
A mentoring program pairs new directors with sitting directors to provide a peer who can explain the culture of the Board and respond to questions. The mentor and protégé would be introduced through email at the time of selection for the Board to allow contact prior to the first Board meeting. They could sit together for the first few Board meetings that the new director attends. The mentor could be invited to the orientation session and encouraged to contact the protégé prior to and after the first few Board meetings to answer any questions, receive feedback, and encourage participation.
Pre-meeting discussions may enhance a new Board member’s comfort level in fully engaging in Board and committee deliberations early in their tenure. The Chair or delegate could contact the new director to discuss assignments to standing committees and other expectations and opportunities. The Chair of the Committee could reach out prior to the first meeting to welcome the new member and explain committee practices.
On-going educational opportunities are increasingly seen as crucial to director development. A wide variety of activities are included under this umbrella. Presentations at Board or committee meetings can enable a deeper understanding of issues or practices. Board “lunch and learn” or dinner speakers can provide information on developments in health care or government initiatives. Attendance at conferences and courses can provide networking opportunities with directors from other organizations and deeper knowledge to enable better Board decisions. Webcasts provide a less expensive option to provide education to directors and can be viewed as a group to enable discussions about the applicability of the information to the specific organization.
Some organizations have added regular interviews with the Chair. Sometimes these are structured one-on-one in-person interviews that form part of the Board’s evaluation program. At other times, these informal conversations occur part-way through a new director’s term to provide an opportunity for two-way information sharing about their experience of the Board that can contribute to both individual growth and improvement of Board processes.
Board evaluation practices will frequently include a self-assessment component that can allow directors to identify growth opportunities that the organization could then follow-up with the director.
An evaluation survey can allow the new director to assess the various aspects of the on-boarding program. This process can be scheduled after new directors have attended a couple of Board and committee meeting cycles. This timing allows directors to evaluate the effectiveness of the on-boarding in preparing them for Board responsibilities.
Preparing new Board members for their role and responsibilities as directors of the corporation is a foundational task that will enable directors to understand and fully participate in the governance of the organization. The success of the program will depend greatly on the thoroughness of information, the appropriateness of the timing, and on-going assessment of the success of the program in integrating new directors onto the Board.