New member of the board? Eight tips to hit the ground running

More often than not, Chairs and CEOs tell us that it takes too many board meetings before new non-executives start to add value.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Put our tips into practice and become a contributor right away!

1. Spend sufficient time on your onboarding

Onboarding effectively as a new non-executive takes more than one day of talking to senior executives. Besides engaging with selected executives and reviewing provided materials, it's crucial to identify any additional information you may need. For instance, would it be relevant to speak with the executive overseeing the largest markets? Would you like to gain insights into customer and employee churn, market shares across different geographies, etc.? Don't hesitate to request additional information. Senior executives often express the desire for new board members to quickly grasp the industry and the company's value drivers. Don't hold back—asking for relevant information demonstrates your commitment and eagerness to hit the ground running.

2. Don’t try to wing it

This should go without saying, but at the very least, you should have reviewed the board materials before the meeting (many board members also seek additional information on upcoming topics). Arriving unprepared not only hinders your colleagues but also demotivates the executives and prevents you from becoming the valuable contributor you could be. Nearly every board we work with has board members and executives who mention one or two board members who could do a better job in this regard. Did you know that tracking how much time you spend reading digital board materials is possible? Well, now you do. If you believe you're more intelligent than the other non-executives in the room and don’t need to prepare as thoroughly as others, think again.

3. Lean in

Typically, new board members spend several meetings observing the others discussing before they dare to participate actively. It's wise to gauge the board's dynamic before taking up too much airtime, but this is a delicate balance. Chairs and CEOs often tell us that it takes too many board meetings before new board members start to add value. Therefore, don't hold back; if you're uncertain, speaking your mind is usually better than remaining silent.

4. Put yourself in the shoes of the executives

The most valuable board members are not excessively positive or overly critical of the executives. Instead, they demonstrate a genuine interest in broadening the discussion framework to ensure the board, together with the leadership team, makes the best possible decisions. They dare to ask questions like, "What might we be overlooking?" "What are the alternatives?" and "How can we support you (the CEO and their team)?" Non-executives who primarily focus on finding faults or, worse, attempt to dictate or ridicule executives, are not well-received and quickly find themselves distanced by the executives.

5. Keep the discussion at the strategic level

Even the most well-intentioned non-executives occasionally fall into the trap of acting like executives. At nearly every board meeting, there are instances where board members go down rabbit holes and eagerly start discussing or asking questions about operational topics like specific customers, product lines, or whether a particular word in the quarterly announcement should be adjusted or not. Hold yourself accountable for providing stewardship and maintaining a strategic focus!

6. Know the corporate governance code that you are supposed to comply with

As a board member, adhering to laws and complying with the national corporate governance code is imperative. Ensure you have a copy of the code, have thoroughly read it, and understand its implications. It is not uncommon for us to work with boards where a few board members have not understood the code, thus inadvertently contributing to making the board non-compliant for too long. Make sure this isn’t happening under your watch! Additionally, remember that compliance doesn't necessarily mean adhering to all recommendations; instead, a board must provide a detailed and convincing explanation of any deviations and their rationale.

7. Understand the do’s and the don’ts of the board

Every board has its own dynamic and unwritten rules. Don't hesitate to ask questions to quickly gain a better understanding of these nuances. Examples of relevant questions might include, “Are we supposed to raise our hand when we want to say something?” "Can we communicate with senior executives between meetings, or should we always go through the CEO first?" "What would constitute acceptable reasons for engaging with senior executives outside of meetings?" "How are board members individually evaluated, and how do we assess the Chair?" and "Are there any areas of the corporate governance code that we've decided not to follow, and why?"

8. Enhance your value as a non-executive by learning from others

As a non-executive, you'll inevitably encounter situations where there's room for improvement and uncertainty. There will be questions that you hesitate to raise in front of the board and aspects of the board's operations that you question, wondering if there's room for improvement.

If you know non-executives on other boards that you trust and respect, use them as your sounding board. If you do not feel comfortable doing so or would like to speed up your journey of becoming a significant value-adding board member, consider signing up for a “board-director in-practice program.”

At Leadership Advisor Group, we facilitate groups of 4-6 non-executives who meet digitally regularly. In consultation with participants, we define topics for discussions in advance. We bring in experts to kick off the discussions. “Chatham rules apply,” and you will have plenty of opportunities to tap into other non-executives, ideas, experiences, and best practices.

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, please get in touch with us or read more here.

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Interested in self-evaluation? Try Online Board Evaluations

Well-aligned with national corporate- and foundation/charity governance recommendations, our board clients usually conduct an external board evaluation every three years. However, most national governance recommendations recommend that boards perform a self-evaluation in the years between an external board evaluation. Therefore, we have developed which is a tool enabling boards to self-evaluate effectively and effortlessly every year.