It’s always exciting to land a new board role, but what happens next? We asked some of our members – who’ve joined a wide range of boards, from commercial to non-profits – about how to set yourself up for success.
Immerse yourself in the organisation
“Read everything you can lay your hands on,” says Davina Walter, an experienced investment trust NED and charity trustee. Start with annual reports, the accounts and previous board papers (which we’ll come back to).
But don’t stop there. Read recent media coverage to see how the organisation is seen from the outside. Read the Companies Act (or the non-UK equivalent) to remind yourself of your responsibilities. Think about the bigger picture too – “Learn about the wider environment and context in which the organisation is having to operate,” says portfolio NED Bina Rawal.
And come back to things after a few months, or a few meetings. “I might not fully understand something I read when I start new,” says Eve Henrikson, Tesco’s online trading director who recently joined the board of Lloyds Bank Corporate Markets. “Later, with a different frame of reference, things often click into place.”
Sign up to their social media feeds
“Follow the organisation on social media,” Eve says. “It tells you a lot about the brand and culture.” This isn’t just confined to what the organisation posts but how it responds to questions and comments. And if they don’t have any social media? “Well, that tells you something too,” says Eve.
Go deep into the board papers
A big part of your pre-reading will involve the board papers. Don’t just read the papers for the next meeting – it’s worth going back and reading the last few. Quintin Price, a strategic, governance and investment expert who sits on several boards, says it’s important to take your time and to reflect on what you’re reading.
“It’s too easy to skim the papers,” he says. “There is often more in the board papers than you realise. Make sure you really focus on what's going on, because there are some very intelligent people who have sleep-walked their way into disaster.
“There are a significant number of companies – even some that were in the FTSE-100 – whose share prices fell by more than 50% following some significant strategic miscalculations. Today, many former blue chip companies languish with share prices that are below where they were 20 years ago. Some of these outcomes might have been genuinely unavoidable, but the sheer number of companies with significant underperformance suggests that quite a few boards missed the key developments in their industries.
“To that end remember that some very important things don’t appear in the board papers, and one of the key responsibilities of directors is to assess and address what is really affecting the company – strategically, commercially, operationally – and come to an independent view of that.”
Build a rapport with the secretary
There will be lots of relationships to build as a new director, but start with the secretary. “They are really important because they are going to be supplying you with everything you need in good governance terms,” Davina says. Bina explains there is a technical dimension to this too – “If special software is used for dissemination of board papers, arrange a session with the secretary to learn how to use it.”
It’s good to talk
You’ll want to speak to various people depending on the type of board you’re joining, and in bigger organisations these meetings will be arranged as part of your formal induction.
From the executives, you’re looking for insights. “Find out what the challenges are and how they have come about,” Davina says.
From the other directors, it’s about the board dynamics. “Get a sense of how the board operates,” says Daniel Dayan, an experienced director, trustee and Chair. “Is there a more confrontational approach, or a more consensus building approach? And how much of the business gets done outside the formal board meetings, as opposed to in the meetings? It's important to understand the culture you are getting into in order to be effective.”
“Other board members who have joined relatively recently can be good allies,” Bina adds, “having just got up the learning curve themselves.”
Check in with the Chair
After you’ve read the board papers, it’s a good idea to have a quick conversation with the Chair before your first board meeting. This gives you a chance to clarify anything that you didn’t understand in the papers – maybe an acronym or a reference to something in the business.
For the first meeting, it’s often sensible to run your planned contributions past the Chair in advance. This stops you asking about something that’s been discussed at great length in the past, is already being worked on or has been rejected previously. “If you don't have the institutional memory, you can sometimes look quite naive,” Quintin says.
Be confident in that first meeting
“Even though you will have a lot to learn, consider yourself an equal,” Bina says. “Try and find just one issue where you can contribute meaningfully. Board colleagues won't expect you to say a lot at your first meeting, but will appreciate it if you add value from day one.”
Be clear about why the board had hired you, and what expertise they’re looking to you to add. Make the most of being new. “See where you can draw different strands together and where the interconnections are,’ says Linda Grant, Chair of Virgin StartUp. “Leverage your newsness, because you're coming in with fresh eyes. And we all know that once you've been in an organisation for a while, there's stuff that you just get used to.”
Daniel agrees. “Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid question – sometimes you'd be amazed who else doesn’t understand it. Don't go with the flow because you are embarrassed about not knowing something.”
Always take notes
Eve advises that after each of your first few meetings, write down what contributions you made. “It’s good to look back, ensure you follow up and also reflect on how you added value,” she says. “These notes are useful starting points for check-ins with the Chair, too and allow you to track your progress.”
Take your time
Depending on your experience – and how well you know the sector in which the organisation you’re joining operates – getting up to speed will take time. Be realistic about how much you need to learn and make sure you have the time, space and energy to do the work that’s needed.
“Give yourself permission not to be overwhelmed,” Linda says. Eve agrees. “Don’t be afraid of asking questions and wanting more time. Make sure you are doing your due diligence.”