Guiding New Board Members to Success with Orientation

Let’s say you’ve been recently appointed to a new board. You may be both excited and apprehensive. You have no idea what is expected of you or what the board does. The day arrives and you attend your first meeting. You were not provided with any advance information and now you are already feeling overwhelmed with the discussions during the very first meeting. Other than a quick introduction, no one spoke to you. You leave the meeting discouraged and already wondering ‘what have I gotten myself into’.

That feeling doesn’t lay a very good foundation for your future on the board. Unfortunately this is an all too common occurrence amongst many board members and it can be easily prevented.

During my time on numerous boards and in facilitating many governance sessions, I’m constantly amazed how many board members are simply unaware of the purpose and benefits of proper orientation. In fact, I myself never experienced any formal board orientation, especially during my earlier years on boards, and like most board members I didn’t even know that orientation was a ‘thing’.

So as a new board member, what options do you have when there is no formal board orientation process? How do you plan to carry out your board responsibilities effectively when you don’t know what you need to know?

Frankly, if there is no formal orientation process, as a newly appointed board member you may want to seriously reconsider your decision to join this board as it could very well be a symptom of other governance problems. It is a big red flag.

While this may be a harsh statement, it has been my experience that boards without orientation or any sort of governance training for that matter, tend to be deficient in their governance oversight activities, and this can ultimately lead to significant consequences that can result in irreparable reputation risk to you as a board member, to the board as a whole and to your organization.

Why Is board orientation so important?

The orientation process is the first opportunity for the board to provide guidance to new members on governance expectations. Board orientation is often considered the beginning of the continuous learning journey for board members. It is intended to provide new members with a clear understanding of governance expectations and it will set the tone for these responsibilities.

Board orientation should be looked at as a development opportunity for both new and existing members. Having an effective orientation process in place along with a continuous governance training program, is a best practice. It will help board members to better understand and carry out their responsibilities effectively on behalf of the organization.

So what exactly is board orientation?

First and foremost, board orientation is a key responsibility of the board. It should be outlined in an appropriate governing policy that provides ongoing guidance and direction to the board.

The purpose of board orientation is to introduce and familiarize new board members with:

  • Their governance role and responsibilities
  • The governance oversight practices of the board
  • The history and purpose of the organization, including the mission, vision, services offered, volunteer structure, etc.
  • The ongoing strategic activities, as well as introduction to the board and management team

Hitting on these four items will enable new board members to quickly understand their responsibilities as well as the board’s ongoing activities. This is best done by an independent facilitator, and with the use of a well developed Board Director Manual. 

New Board Members will also become much more passionate and engaged in the organization’s purpose and its support to the community. Given the critical role board members play in the success of the organization, new board members need to be properly oriented, preferably on Day 1.

Who is responsible for board orientation?

The board is ultimately responsible for good governance practices which is governed by the Governance and Ethics Committee or Executive Committee, and each board member is responsible for executing on these practices.

Every board should develop the following critical components to board orientation:

  • First, a comprehensive governing policy on board orientation that clarifies the purpose, responsibilities, process and expectations of orientation.  A copy of this policy should be made available to every board member.
  • Next is the development of a comprehensive Board Director Manual. This manual should contain all key information surrounding the organization and its governance oversight activities. Typically this manual will be used as an ongoing reference tool for all board members.
  • The orientation sessions themselves should be completed prior to the board member’s first official meeting and should be facilitated independently from the board. This ensures that the process covers all key aspects from a seasoned and knowledgeable facilitator.
  • Finally, the Board Chair, or designate, should be assigned to the new board member for a minimum of 3 months. This will ensure that the new member can address any questions that arise.

What can I do as a board member if there is no orientation process?

As a new board member, it can be a very sensitive matter when there is no orientation and you don’t know what to do about it. When starting your board journey, you are somewhat apprehensive and certainly not aware of what is expected of you. If this situation is evident in your organization, there are certain steps that you should consider.

Step 1: First, you should discuss the matter with the Board Chair. This creates an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue on creating an orientation program. At the very least, the Board Chair should consider placing this matter on the next meeting agenda for full discussion and consideration.

Step 2: In the absence of a formal orientation process, you should ask the Board Chair for the specific information you now need in order to carry out your responsibilities effectively. The Board Chair should have no issue with providing this information and will likely assign the Executive Director to gather the information.

Step 3: Also in the absence of a formal board orientation process, consider asking the Board Chair for a mentor from the board to help you with the governance processes that you need to understand. This will be especially helpful when you have questions after reviewing the information you had requested. The Board Chair will normally take on this role themselves, however they may assign to their designate.

Step 4: Consider asking the Board Chair to approve governance training opportunities that you have investigated. The Board Chair should have no issue with this and may even want to include all board members with the training.

Step 5: If the Board Chair is not responsive to any of your requests, it may be wise to consider leaving the board. If there is no support for orientation, training or provision of information, this can often lead to adverse events that will impact your reputation as a board member, the board and the organization. You may be wise to remove yourself from these possible consequences.

 

In today’s environment where boards are being scrutinized at a much higher standard than ever before, understanding the role of governance and your responsibilities is imperative. Establishing an orientation program is essential for good governance and will set the tone for the standard that your board wishes to create. This will help create a strong, effective and productive board, which will ensure consistent success.

D2 offers a variety of easy to follow, self paced courses to help run your board more effectively, including creating an onboarding process for new board members and running your orientation sessions – complete with a written guide, more video content and even sample governing policies you can start using today to get started.

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