Board member onboarding: four tips for success

4 min read
Jun 14, 2024 1:26:49 PM

Receiving news that your application to join a board has been successful is one of the most exciting things that can happen. You have researched the organisation, read its last ten annual reports, believe in its purpose, spoken to lots of people in the industry, attended the interview/s and finally, you will have the opportunity to contribute to the organisation and to the community it serves.

So what's next? Alice Tay gives four tips for a successful board member onboarding.

1. Attend the induction programme

One induction program I attended occurred before the formal appointment. This allowed me to learn about the organisation and for the board to observe how I worked. I find these induction programs unsatisfactory as there is much to understand before decision-making. You are left pretty much to yourself to work things out.

In another organisation, I spent about half an hour with the leaders of each part of the organisation and learned about their programs. This did not prepare me to participate in board meetings fully.

A better induction program was a full-day program, which, in addition to explaining what the organisation does, its program of works importantly included topics on directors’ duties, conflicts of interest and risk. However, none of these programs have put me in a position where I could participate fully from the very start.

Induction programs are very important, but this does not equate to continuously learning about the organisation, its impact, its stakeholders, and the industry within which it operates.

2. Ask to meet with the chair

For me, this meant understanding the chair’s expectations of my contribution and my expectation of the chair, which was to be open and honest about my contribution, especially in areas I can work to improve. For example, I was not financially literate, but I worked hard to understand finance to the extent that I can now contribute meaningfully to budget discussions.

Things I would inquire about include:

  • Is the organisation meeting its strategic intent?
  • What are the chair’s ambitions for the organisation?
  • Does the chair allow time for robust discussions with humility and respect?
  • Does the chair run a strict agenda?
  • Is the chair open to regular coffee catch-ups and/or phone/email communications?
  • What are the chair’s personal views on diversity and inclusion?
  • Are there any 'leaders' (people with very strong views who tend to carry the discussions) around the board table? These 'leaders' can be champions but also disrupters, leading to factions within the board.
  • What are things which the chair is most proud about?
  • Are there anything the chair is embarrassed about?
  • What keeps the chair awake at night?

The chair is the first among equals. The chair's values and personality influence the organisation, the conduct of board meetings, and decision-making.

3. Ask the chair if you can meet with the CEO

A director’s role is to poke their noses in but keep their hands out of the organisation. Remember that the CEO works for the board, and the staff to the CEO. In practice, other than socially, I do not speak to the CEO on matters pertaining to the organisation without the chair’s knowledge and consent. Neither do I interrogate any staff without the chair and CEO’s knowledge and consent (other than when I chair a committee, when I do speak to the appropriate people).

I would want to know from the CEO, items like:

  • How is the organisation performing against its strategy and KPIs? Is it making the impact anticipated?
  • What challenges are the organisation and its industry facing now and expected to face soon?
  • What tools does the organisation use to measure staff performance and morale and what were the results? What about staff safety and work-life balance? How are staff paid—awards, enterprise agreements, individual contracts? Is the CEO satisfied that all wages (including superannuation) are correctly paid?
  • Is the CEO expecting any changes to the executive/senior staff?
  • How is the organisation tracking against its financial budget? Bonus mark for three-year rolling budgets.
  • Is the organisation a risk-aware organisation? Does the organisation have risk registers that are up to date, and are they used as a tool in day-to-day business decision-making? 
  • What keeps the CEO up at night?

The CEO has intimate knowledge of the organisation’s operations. They are in touch with stakeholders and industry.

4. Attend your first board meeting

Joining a board can be an exciting yet challenging experience, especially when you are new to the dynamics and responsibilities that come with the position.

  • Listen, learn and connect.
  • Ideally, you would have been paired with a board mentor, who can help you understand the board papers and the decisions you have to make. If you do not have a board mentor, have a conversation with the chair.
  • Do not be shy. No question is a silly question at any time.
  • Make sure you meet as many board members as possible. I make it a habit to suggest a coffee and a chat sometime soon to get to know each other. A collegiate board is a good working board. Very often, conversations at coffee and lunch breaks are illuminating and help form the nucleus of further discussions on matters before the board. 

A board is made up of people with diverse skills, talents, and views who work towards a common undertaking. Each must be treated with respect.

Stepping into a board role is both an exhilarating and daunting experience. The journey from your application to your first board meeting is filled with opportunities for learning and connection. Embrace this new role with curiosity and openness, and you will undoubtedly make a significant impact on the organisation and the community it serves.

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