Leadership

How'd the Board Meeting Go? Ask the New Board Members.

By / Jun 6, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Associations strive to prepare volunteer leaders before their first board meeting. But as one CEO learned, a check-in after the meeting can help too.

Board orientation is typically perceived as a one-way street. New volunteer leaders arrive at the association, and established leaders do whatever they feel is enough to give them the lay of the land and help ensure the newbies don’t feel confused or alienated.

The flaw with that process, though, is that it assumes the established hands know what’s going to keep people from feeling confused or alienated. Luckily, there’s a simple (if perhaps underused) tactic to address that: Ask them.

Charles Cohon, CAE, CEO and president of the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association, recently discussed how he addresses this issue with his board. In “Exit Interviews and Fresh Eyes Conversations,” Cohon points out that most organizations reflexively schedule interviews with staffers or volunteers who are leaving the organization. (It’s not a bad idea for longtime members who are retiring, either.) The same instinct should kick in with new board members as well, he says.

Newcomers are “more likely to notice idiosyncrasies in our standard operating procedures.”

“A new board member will see things in their first board meeting that a veteran might dismiss as routine,” he writes. “In your business a new employee or a new rep/principal relationship puts ‘fresh eyes’ on your firm and may reveal problems or opportunities that were hiding in plain sight, but only if you ask.”

A “fresh eyes” conversation doesn’t include the same questions as in an exit interview, or have the same goals, however. “Exit interviews with seasoned board veterans capture the view of someone who has repeatedly been trained on standard operating procedure and who has repeatedly observed standard operating procedure,” Cohon told me. “They have a deep, highly-textured understanding of the current state, which is valuable to capture, but years of board service and acculturation may have to some degree numbed them to possibilities outside the current state.” Newer board members are “more likely to notice idiosyncrasies in our standard operating procedures that a more veteran board member might take for granted.”

The suggestions that emerge from an entrance interview can be modest, such as a recommendation for a different room layout. But in a Collaborate post on the topic, Cohon said that respondents also had thoughts about what kinds of information would be helpful to include in board orientation in future meetings.

To that end, it can help to keep the “fresh eyes” conversation open-ended, unlike exit interviews where there are usually hot topics. “If I ask a question about the layout of the meeting room I will get an answer about the layout of the meeting room,” he writes. “And once I take the conversation in that direction I may never get the opportunity to circle back and get that member’s real top-of-mind issue, which could have something to do with being cut off during debate, a getting passed over for a committee assignment, or confusion about Nose In, Fingers Out (NIFO).”

And in moments like that, it pays to hush up for a moment: “Learn to be comfortable with uncomfortable silences,” says Cohon. “f there was something left unsaid the urge to fill that uncomfortable silence may be just enough motivation to have that person volunteer new insights that you might never have otherwise uncovered.”

In her 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “The Key to a Better Board: Team Dynamics,” Solange Charas highlights the importance of routine communication among and with board members—especially since the most effective board members are often people who aren’t seasoned “insiders.” And in a list of 11 potential trouble spots for boards, Glenn Tecker pointed to the need for regular check-ins about progress: Problems can start, he writes, when “the board process lacks opportunity for periodic discussion of levels of accomplishment so that the failure to perform or concerns about style or approach are not addressed in a timely fashion.”

The dynamic of a board is often established during that first board meeting. If people walk away from it feeling alienated, left out, or otherwise concerned about how valuable they are to the association, that’s a problem. If a conversation with those newcomers can avoid the problem, it’s worth that phone call.

What do you do at your association to connect with new board members after orientation? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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