Sharpening your director on-boarding program

Boards understand the value in recruiting great new directors, but it also takes an effective on-boarding program to make the most of their talents and to do it in the shortest possible time
By Beverly Behan

Nearly every company has an orientation program for its new board members—and most follow the same general format: The new director meets one-on-one with a series of corporate executives over a day or two and tries to ingest as much knowledge from this “drinking from a fire hose experience” as he or she can muster. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice, and it certainly beats simply handing a new board recruit a large binder. But there are many ways in which director orientation can be improved.

Site visits: Site visits aren’t a new idea—but they’re a great idea. If your board hasn’t yet developed a way to engage new board members in a hands-on experience with the business, you’ve clearly got some work to do. Whether it’s “ride alongs” in a delivery truck (Snap-On Tools), two days at “pizza university” (Domino’s), or a trip to the company’s new wind farm (Allete)—giving new board members the chance to experience an important facet of the company’s operations firsthand is essential to effective on-boarding. One site visit is worth 1,000 PowerPoint slides.

Admittedly, some businesses lend themselves to site visits more readily than others. However, even in more challenging scenarios, site visits can often be developed with a little creativity. In one B2B situation, for example, new directors visit a key customer’s operations to see how they use the company’s software in their business. Many boards with both domestic and international operations schedule two site visits during the new director’s first year on the board—one to a North American site and another overseas.

Board history/politics: New directors need someone to tell them, for example: “Here’s the history of this agenda item. It comes up every year and this is how we dealt with it last time. But one board member is uncomfortable with this approach and here’s why.” This gives a new director valuable context about what’s gone on before that can be very useful in understanding of issues likely to emerge in the meeting itself. However, issues of board history and politics don’t lend themselves to a director orientation program.

To address this challenge, some boards adopt the concept of providing a “board buddy” for the newcomer. Typically, the new director has a conversation with his/her “buddy” a few days prior to each board meeting to discuss any history around the agenda items. This can also be a useful practice to assist new directors who lack prior board experience. Navigating “the line between governance and management” is nearly always the biggest challenge first-timers face as they transition from a lifetime of executive positions to an oversight role. The pre-meeting conversation enables the newbie to test out some questions he/she may have been planning to ask on certain agenda items with the buddy, who can advise whether those questions appear to be at a governance level or down in the weeds.

Orientation 2.0: Board composition is typically designed to bring a variety of relevant perspectives to the table. Yet many director orientation programs take a “one size fits all” approach. Some boards are now designing their orientation programs differently for directors with an industry background and those without. Others are incorporating an “Orientation Phase 2.0” into their on-boarding programs, typically held six to nine months after the new recruit’s first board meeting. The second session often has two objectives: (i) to explore an area not covered in the initial orientation that the new director wants to learn more about; and (ii) to do a “deep dive” in an area that draws on the new director’s specific expertise.

A good example of the latter is a session one board designed for a new director with deep human resources expertise; her Phase 2.0 involved meetings with the company’s HR team and the board’s compensation consultants. Another board did something similar for a new director who was the CEO of a technology company; his Phase 2.0 involved a meeting with company’s the chief technology officer and her team to discuss a major IT initiative. These sessions not only serve an educational purpose for the new director, they typically provide tremendous value for management, as well.

In conclusion, many governance committees are exploring new ideas to make their director orientation programs even better. The faster new board members get up to speed, the sooner they’ll be able to capitalize on the strengths they were recruited to bring into boardroom dialogue and decision-making.

Beverly Behan is a New York-based board consultant who has worked with more than 140 boards of directors in the U.S., Canada and internationally in the past 19 years. E-mail: beverly.behan@boardadvisor.net.

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