Board Smarts: Buddy Up
Mentoring can help new board members feel included.
By Lisa Boylan Boards are often clubby, old-school environments that sometimes segregate into cliques, apart from other volunteers and rank-and-file members. This can create challenges even within a board, when new board members feel left out and wonder how they can better integrate.
Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), noticed the trend among her own board members. So, she and her team came up with ways to diffuse the awkwardness and encourage more engagement and familiarity.
New members just learning the ropes may find approaching their new colleagues
intimidating, especially when boards move as a pack at association events. When PBSA had in-person conferences, Sorenson’s team encouraged board members to sit toward the front of the room during sessions and to bring friends with them—not other board members—to make sure board members were seen interacting with attendees and to break up any impression that the board was an inaccessible club.
They also assign board members as liaisons to some of PBSA’s active committees to improve communication throughout the association and give board members some content ownership for board meetings. PBSA has councils that operate under board leadership, and committees and advisory groups that fall into each of its geographic councils. By serving as a liaison to these committees, a board member becomes “a real face and voice to the group’s active volunteers,” Sorenson says. The liaison system also gives volunteers a direct path to a board member based on their area of interest.
More recently, Sorenson and her team have identified tenured board members and paired them up with new members to provide a kind of peer orientation into board service. The pairs connect before the new member’s first couple of board meetings. The buddy system, more formally titled the PBSA New Board Member Mentoring Program, has succeeded in bringing new members up to speed on board meeting content and flow and in ensuring they have a board peer to bond with, Sorenson says.
New board members can sometimes feel like the new person in the room and less confident about speaking up in meetings. Having someone to connect with before board meetings—to review the agenda and ask questions in advance—helps new members feel more prepared and comfortable with the content before they get on a call with 14 board members, Sorenson says.
The mentoring program has paid off, this year in particular. “Some of our newer board members were engaging more quickly out of the gate,” Sorenson says. “For several years we saw patterns of only two to four people active in conversations. Now I’ve seen a lot more of our new folks weighing in on the conversation.”
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