Board Orientation: A Development Framework

If you are considering developing a board orientation program for the first time, it is important to begin with the understanding that a sound board orientation program is more than just an orientation session. If you already conduct a board orientation program and are looking for ways to improve the orientation process, think beyond the orientation session.

The board orientation process begins with the first board recruitment call to the prospective board member and ends with a formal evaluation of the process. In between, there are many steps and opportunities to familiarize the board member with the organization and board operations.

The first step is to understand the reasoning behind the need for your orientation program. In doing so, articulate why you have or are designing a program. In short, why do we have or need an orientation program? Keep the answer in front of you as you design the program; it will guide you deciding who should participate, what should be included in the curriculum, the identification of orientation program components and the design of an orientation session.

So, why do organizations have board orientation programs? The reasons are many and include everything from introducing the new board members to the board culture to providing a thorough understanding of board member responsibilities and the role of the board. Other reasons can include a desire to ensure that new members hit the road running and the creation of an opportunity for the new members to meet other members.

Next, develop a clear set of learning objectives for the program. Having a clear set of learning objectives provides a framework for designing your program. Further, the objectives provide a basis for evaluating the program. To create learning objectives, complete the following sentence: at the end of the evaluation process, board members will know…

Typical learning objectives include knowing the: mission and core ideology (core values and core purpose); history of the organization and key milestones; key strategic initiatives and challenges; recent trends, both financial and programmatic; and, fiduciary and legal obligations. Of course, you also want the new members to have a full understanding of how the board works and how decisions are made, as well as what is expected of them as a board member.

Now that you have a clear understanding of why you are creating the program and have clearly articulated the orientation program learning objectives, the question becomes: how can I best achieve the objectives? In answering this question, as mentioned above, think beyond the typical board orientation session. Think about all the “touch points” where you can insert components of your orientation program for the purpose of achieving your objectives.

Learning opportunities are many. And, orienting new board members is a process, not an event.

As mentioned above, the orientation process begins with the first call to recruit the board member. During this call, it is imperative that you discuss the specific role of the board and board member responsibilities. Likewise, you will want to communicate the time commitment expected of board members and some high level background on how the board operates. If the candidate expresses interest in pursuing a board seat, you have an opportunity to send the candidate a brief overview of the organization and a list of roles and responsibilities of board members.

Once the candidate is elected and prior to a board orientation session, each board member should receive a board handbook, which includes all orientation materials and governing polices. Then, of course, there is the orientation session itself. But, your orientation program shouldn’t end there.

After the orientation session, the CEO and board chairman should each follow up with each of the new members. The goal of the follow up calls is two fold: get feedback from the member on their impression of the session and determine what additional clarification the new board member might need.

There are many other important opportunities to continue the orientation, including reaching out to the new members after they receive the briefing book for their first board meeting; you can answer any questions they may have about the materials and provide an overview of how the board meeting will be run. This is also an excellent opportunity to encourage the new member to engage in dialogue at the meeting and remind the new member that your organization encourages the introduction of contrary opinions. I always stressed the important role that the new member played in bringing expanded diversity (diverse perspective) to the group.

Likewise, it is important that the CEO and board chair both follow up with the new members after the first board meeting. Not only is this a great opportunity to provide feed back to the board member and reinforce some of the key orientation learning objectives, it is your only opportunity to get unadulterated feedback on what the meeting was like for a new board member. Similarly, you can identify what changes the organization might want to make to the orientation program to ensure that new members are fully prepared to contribute at their first meeting. You may even want to follow up after the second board meeting the new member attends.

Many organizations have also found it helpful to assign a veteran board member as mentor for each new board member. Ideally, the mentor will reach out to the new member before the orientation session and, certainly, attend the session with the new member. Mentors often serve for a year, with the prime responsibilities of answering questions, and providing insight on how the board functions and makes decisions.

One critical component that I often see missing from orientation programs is the formal evaluation. All participants, new members and veteran members, at the orientation session should be asked to complete a written evaluation immediately after the orientation session. In addition, at the end of the first year new members should be asked to complete an evaluation tool with questions specific to their experience as a new board member; this survey should be in addition to the regular annual performance survey / tool that all board members complete. When tallying the board annual performance survey results, I also separate out the first year member results and compare that to the veteran member findings.

The good news is: you don’t have to create the orientation program yourself. In fact, I suggest you don’t create it in a vacuum. Engage your governance committee in the design of the overall orientation program, as well as the identification of content. Also, get input from “last year’s” new board members. As you go forward, each year, use the feedback from the formal evaluation tools to continue building your program.

What innovative practices have you introduced into your board orientation program?

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