Designing an Engaging Board Orientation Session

When designing a board orientation session, it is important to keep three key factors in mind. First, you must consider what a new member of the board needs to feel comfortable and to become a contributing member as soon as possible. Second, you want to instill in the new members a clear sense of their importance to the organization. Third, you want to design a program that is inviting and motivates veteran board members to attend.

An intellectually stimulating, engaging, interactive program is an imperative. Remember, first impressions count and your orientation session sets the tone for the rest of the year.

Yes, I am of the opinion that veteran board members should attend the orientation each year. In addition to imparting background information and the technical knowledge necessary for board members to hit the ground running, an orientation program should introduce the new board members to the organization’s culture. If the entire board is not present, the new members will not be able to experience the culture.

Further, the orientation session is a perfect setting for new members to get to know the veteran members and begin to build relationships; again, this can’t happen if the veterans are not present. Finally, board members don’t live the association day in and day out, so an annual refresher on polices, procedures, strategic initiatives, and mission helps keep the board focused.

Of course, key staff should also participate in the orientation session. In addition, your organization’s legal counsel should be present. Depending on the agenda, guest speakers might be considered as well.

Although the chairperson should chair the orientation session, consider using the chief executive to give the presentation that introduces the organization and its purpose; the chief executive will have more familiarity with the organization’s ins and outs. However, the majority of the time board members should be either making the presentations or talking amongst themselves in structured exercises.

The design goal is to introduce a spectrum of methodologies. If you just have a talking head up front, or a series of talking heads, the program won’t be intellectually simulating, engaging or highly interactive.

Ideally, with in the first ten minutes you will engage the members. There are various ways to accomplish this. You could have board members introduce themselves and indicate why they have enjoyed serving on the board, why they are passionate about serving, what drew them to board service or what they hope to contribute as board members. Another interesting activity that is highly interactive and builds relationships is having the board break into pairs and answer icebreaker questions.

Other methodologies that you can consider using throughout the program are large group presentations and dialogue, small group tabletop discussions, and small group breakouts. Case studies can also be introduced. In fact, you could consider using open space methodology.

I am not necessarily suggesting you use all of these. The point is: mix it up. Keep in mind while some large institutions have full day orientations, often a half-day program is ample. Let your agenda drive that decision. In other words, determine what information you want to impart, what the learning objectives are and how to best engage the board members in achieving the session objectives. From there, figure out what the best program length will be.

A sample four-hour program might look like this (times are approximate). The room would be set in rounds with 4 to 6 people per table, depending on the size of your board. Make sure you have new and veteran members at each table.

Welcome and Overview (20 minutes)

This is a great opportunity for the chairperson to welcome everyone, talk about the important role the board members play, thank them for their service and mention how board service has been rewarding for them. After the welcome, engage the board members using one of the introduction methods mentioned above.

Background / History (30 minutes)

The chief executive gives a brief history of the organization and an overview of the key programs and mission. The presentation includes a two to three year history of financial and programmatic performance.

Legal and Fiduciary Responsibilities (15 minutes)

Ask your legal council to present the legal and fiduciary responsibilities. Let them know you want them to cover the duties or care, obedience and loyalty and anti-trust issues. Also, let them know you are trying to create a stimulating orientation session and it would be helpful if they could include a case or two in their presentation.

Open Forum For Key Issues (45 minutes)

Here is another opportunity to actively engage the board in learning. At the same time, it adds a high degree of assurance that you are covering issues that matter to the board members. Have a stack of 3 X 5 cards in the center of each table. Ask each board member to write down the answer to the following question: when they think about the board in general and their role as board member, what questions or thoughts are top of mind? Ask them to jot down the top two or three questions or thoughts (one per card).

When they are all done writing down their responses, ask them to all come up and write the questions / thoughts on separate flip chart sheets. The sheets can be posted on a wall and organized into logical groups. For example, you might group the sheets with information that you know will be covered in a subsequent presentation together. Others could be grouped based on categories of subject matter.

Then engage the board members in a dialogue about the various subject categories. Ask the group how they would approach different issues. Ask the members of the group for the answers to the questions. The chairperson, chief executive and attorney can lead the discussions to ensure that the appropriate knowledge is imparted during the discussion.

Questions or topics that are not discussed can be woven into remarks made during the remainder of the session or followed up on after the session.

Governance Structure / Board Responsibilities (20 minutes)

Ask a veteran board member, possibly the vice chairperson, to provide an overview of the governance structure, highlights of the governing mission and specific board member responsibilities. This presentation could also include information on how items get on the agenda and how decisions are made.

Governance Case Studies (1 hour)

Pick one or two case studies that draw out the aspects of governance that you want to highlight. Rather than having the board members discuss the cases in the groups at their tables, create two or three new groups and assign them to breakout rooms. You could either use the same case study for all groups or a different case study for each group. Allocate about 30 minutes to discuss the case(s) in small groups and about 30 minutes to report out their conclusions to the large group.

Use the report out period to give feedback to ensure the takeaways are consistent with best practices.

For this exercise to work well, it is helpful if you preselect a facilitator for each group and provide them with a little bit of training so they understand their role as facilitator and the case study session objective(s).

Strategic Initiatives (35 minutes)

This session could begin with the chief executive presenting to the large group the organization’s key strategic initiatives. Theoretically, you should only have 3 – 5 key strategic initiatives in your strategy. Spend about 10 minutes, highlighting the initiatives and the key objectives. Then, have the board members engage in conversations with those at their tables; ask them to “fast forward” and imagine that it is at the end of the year and the initiative / strategic priority has been achieved in an amazing manner. They should then complete the following sentence: “this initiative / priority would not have been achieved had the board not...” You could assign one initiative or multiple initiatives per table. Then have the tables report out their results to the larger group. Again, it is helpful to pre-select a facilitator for each group to keep the discussion focused on “board / governance level” ideas.

Insurance / Staffing / Promoting the Message (15 minutes)

Wrap up the orientation session with a brief presentation about your directors and officers insurance coverage, staffing structure and expectations for board staff interaction, and messaging that the board can use to promote the organization.

Social Activity

It is also important to add a social function to the session. Depending on the time of day, you could begin with breakfast or end with a reception. Likewise, you could take a break for lunch. If you do have lunch, don’t make it a working lunch; remember, it is just an opportunity for the group to relax and get to know each other.

Finally, give some thought to what you want to call your board orientation, keeping in mind that veterans are expected to attend as well. Here are a few ideas to get you started: Board Leadership Development Session, Board Orientation and Briefing, Board Orientation & Leadership Session, Annual Board Orientation and Briefing, Board Orientation and Development Symposium, etc.

And, keep in mind, a good board orientation program is more than just the orientation session itself. Sign up for the blog and get next week's article on designing a comprehensive orientation program.

In the meantime, leave a comment and let me know what has worked well for you.

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