Tremendous excitement always accompanies the recruitment of a new director. But many boards pay scant attention to an equally important issue: Making the making the most of their boardroom talent. Even stellar directors often fail to realize their full potential. It’s not that they’re ineffective; it’s just that they could be so much more – having more impact, adding more value, serving as role models for rising stars on the executive team. Quite frankly, that’s what most directors aspire to.
But a board needs to adopt the right infrastructure to make that happen. A lackluster orientation program, overwhelming board books and a complete absence of any meaningful professional feedback are hardly the prescription for cultivating boardroom greatness. Here are some ideas to consider if you’ve got great talent at your board table – and want to make the most of it:
- Director Orientation: Many director onboarding programs involve a series of meetings with C-suite members; each outlines their area of responsibility and discusses the major issues they’re tackling. While this is a worthwhile exercise, more often than not, it’s something of a “drinking from a firehose experience”, as the new director tries valiantly to absorb an almost dizzying download of information from top corporate brass. Many boards are now enriching their director orientation programs with some of these components:
- Site visits– the overarching purpose of director orientation is to accelerate the new director’s understanding of the company’s business. For many new board members – particularly those from outside the industry – it’s that walk through the plant, the lab or the orchard that brings the business to life for them. Some boards are getting very creative on this front – having new directors “ride along” with a sales rep, attend an industry conference or visit competitors’ websites.
- Board Buddies –a new director is assigned to an incumbent who can provide context on issues the board is addressing. But board buddy programs only work well when the pair is steadfast about connecting a day or two before each board meeting, allowing the “buddy” to provide relevant background – including some of the board politics –on the board agenda items. These discussions allow the new director to ask “the dumb questions” they might withhold in the boardroom, thereby getting a better understanding of the issues going into the meeting.
- Mastering the Governance/Management Line – this is often the most challenging issue for a first-time director: It’s only human nature, after all, to sit down in the boardroom and start asking the same types of questions raised in meetings of their own executive team. But by doing, so they’re inevitably crossing the governance/management line. “Nose in, fingers out” is hardly a bright-line test. But the “board buddy” concept can be helpful here, as well, by allowing the newbie to “test out” questions they’re thinking of raising at the upcoming meeting. Their buddy can let them know if they’re aiming at a governance level or “down in the weeds”; and if the latter, they can help t reframe the question. After a few of these sessions, the new director has nearly always mastered the governance/management line – a skill they can then take into any other board they subsequently serve on.
- Board Pre-Reading Materials: Improving your board books is the quickest way to enhance the effectiveness of your board and the contributions of your directors. I’ve found that nearly 70% of my board clients were frustrated with their board books. But with the right approach tangible improvements can be made in a matter of weeks, irrespective of digital platform. While timeliness is an issue for some boards, in most cases, the real problems involve repurposing of executive materials for the board – an entirely different audience – “data dumping” and an inability to prioritize key issues. Any board can work with management to create improvements on this front, as constructive changes require the CEO’s personal commitment. If you have a new CEO, challenge them to upgrade their board materials in their first year at the helm; it’s even easier for new CEOs to break the patterns of their predecessor.
- Director Feedback: Let’s face it: Nobody likes getting feedback. But it’s the single most potent professional development tool there is – so long as it’s constructive, balanced and actionable. Few boards provide worthwhile feedback to their directors. What passes for a director evaluation at some boards is little more than a gossipy chat about re-nomination in the Governance Committee; at others, it’s a scorecard with vague write-in’s. Confidential interviews are the best way to gather meaningful feedback because it allows the interviewer to probe until they get specific, constructive comments that can genuinely help board members raise their game and understand their key boardroom strengths, which are every bit as important in helping a director realize their full potential. If your board doesn’t conduct director evaluations, consider having your executive coach gather feedback from board colleagues on your behalf – a particularly useful approach if you’re a new director. If you’d like to see a sample of what a New Director 360 Feedback Report looks like, please email me at Beverly.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beverly Behan, President of Board Advisor (www.boardadvisor.net) has worked with nearly 200 Boards of Directors over the past 25 years on a range of board effectiveness issues. She is the author of Great Companies Deserve Great Boards (2011) and Becoming a Boardroom Star (2021).