Once you’ve hired a new board member, how can you help them hit the ground running? Whether your organisation has a detailed onboarding programme or a more informal process, here are some key ideas to consider, sourced from the Nurole network.
Tailor your onboarding to the person
Induction is not one-size fits all. Even if you have a defined onboarding process, every director is different. The level of support you need to provide will depend on various factors, including their board-level experience, their sector experience, their personality and their other time commitments.
Have open conversations about how you expect them to contribute, and suggest specific areas they should be looking at. Listen to their ideas and their expectations, and make a plan together.
“The main thing is to make them feel welcome and wanted,” says Daniel Dayan, an experienced director, trustee and chair. “You want to positively encourage a new board member to feel relevant.”
Make the right information available
Good onboarding starts with access to all the information that will help them contribute their expertise to the board. Steer them towards annual reports, accounts, past board papers, and recent media coverage. Some organisations have internal training programmes that can be very useful, especially if a director is new to the sector.
Don’t overlook the obvious things that have become second nature to seasoned board members. “You need to understand how the business runs,” says Eve Henrikson, Tesco’s online trading director who recently joined the board of Lloyds Bank Corporate Markets. “Basic things like when is the budget set or when does the financial year end are important. Are there other set timelines, deadlines and milestones in the year that you should be aware of?”
Encourage them to learn about the wider context in which the organisation operates. And remind them of their legal duties, says strategic, governance and investment expert Quintin Price. “Make sure they've read their responsibilities under the Companies Act” (or non UK equivalent), he says.
Paint a picture of the board’s culture
Onboarding a new director isn't just about their knowledge and understanding. It’s also important to give them a sense of how the board operates and the personalities involved. Discuss how you see them fitting into the collective. If there are subjects that dominate proceedings at the expense of others, point these out and help them contribute to the new dynamic you are trying to build.
Set them up to succeed in the first meeting
Before their first meeting, set up a call with your new director. Firstly, this will give them the chance in a one-to-one environment to ask questions about the board papers or check they have understood things properly (this might be a plan, or an acronym that crops up in the documents).
Secondly, you can help them avoid raising something without realising it has previously been discussed ad nauseam, or decided on. “Help them avoid repetition,” Quintin says. “If you don't have the institutional memory, you can sometimes look quite naive.”
Help them through the first meeting(s)
This applies to all new directors, but is especially important if they’re a first-timer. “Make sure that they feel comfortable, they get a voice and can contribute,” says Davina Walter, an experienced investment trust NED and charity trustee. “It’s important they don’t sit there silently, or get talked over by other directors.”
Check in with them afterwards to see how they felt about the meeting and ask for their observations. “Make the most of their fresh eyes,” Davina says.
Give them permission to take their time
When she joined the RSPB as a trustee, Linda Grant was struck by how much there was to learn. She had to quickly get her head around – among other things – the organisation’s membership strategy, volunteering arm, its conservation and property, commercial revenues, government and policy concerns, international partners, inclusion and diversity goals.
But she found her feet, she explains, “because my expectations were managed. I was made aware – in the recruitment process – that I would have to make time for the induction, in addition to normal board time and time allocation. I went in with my eyes open to that, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
It’s really important that new directors know how long it takes to complete a proper induction. And while you want them to contribute immediately, there should also be ongoing support to bring them up to speed. This is particularly important if your director is new to the sector your organisation works in. Give them time and space to discover what they don’t know and encourage them to do as much due diligence as they need to be able to make their mark.
Diversity doesn’t end with the hire
Most boards will now consider diversity when making a new hire, but that should continue through the induction process too. In the 2020 update to the Parker Review into Ethnic Diversity on Boards, the authors set out three key questions organisations should be asking themselves as they design their onboarding approach.
1. Has consideration been given to the package of support /sponsorship required to fill any capability gap which may exist for BAME new-joiners?
2. Are BAME networks helping to develop the onboarding process?
3. Do messages portray an inclusive culture which understands the diverse background of its employees?