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Onboarding the board: How three groups do orientation

Providing context and promoting personal connections—along with nuts and bolts—can help board members be more effective

March 6, 2015
By Lori Sharn

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Start with new-member orientation to build a more effective board

From minimal to marathon, associations vary widely in how much time and preparation is devoted to getting new board members on track and up to speed. Though every board’s needs are different, some ideas and strategies can work for many trade groups and professional societies. CEO Update takes a look at the orientation process at three associations.

Mixing it up


The Specialty Food Association tried something different at its most recent orientation for new board members—a board-staff mixer. The event was a pleasant break during the afternoon-long session at SFA’s New York City headquarters, said CEO Ann Daw.

Much of the Nov. 5 orientation was spent reviewing SFA’s bylaws, policies, structure, financial information and the roles and responsibilities of board members. A more complete and comprehensive policies and procedures manual has helped facilitate good governance, Daw said, including how board members have roles focused on strategy rather than execution.

A key part of the afternoon was talking about the vision, mission and strategies of SFA. “Those things having been well-defined, it keeps everyone focused on what we are trying to accomplish and how we are going to get there from here,” she said. In addition to seven new board members, most of the nine others also attended the orientation.

Then it was time for a lighthearted two-minute video introducing the association’s departments and staffers. After watching the video, board members headed into the adjacent chef kitchen, which had been set up with balloons and refreshments. Members of each department were stationed in particular areas of the kitchen, so board members could meet them and chat. Everyone had nametags, and those worn by staffers also included a personal interest to help stimulate conversation. (Ask me about swing dancing, said one.)

“You can imagine going through a lot of information can be a bit tiring,” Daw said. The meet-and-greet was something, “the whole staff enjoyed doing … and I think the board enjoyed it.”

Bringing competitors to the table


Fierce competitors—CEOs of the nations’ largest public auditing firms—hold eight of the 12 governing board seats at the Center for Audit Quality. These positions don’t turn over frequently, so orientation takes a more individualized approach.

After shipping ahead a briefing binder, Executive Director Cindy Fornelli meets with incoming board members in their offices, whether that’s New York City, Chicago or Boston.

“I really try to understand what they’re concerned about, what issues do they want me to understand and address at CAQ,” Fornelli said. “It helps them feel a sense of ownership and engagement right from the start.” As part of these meetings, Fornelli will share information about the other board members, and their issues and concerns.

On occasion, she has had to assure a new CEO that there is no need to be concerned about sitting at the same table with competitors, because CAQ focuses on policies and issues across the profession.

Fornelli said her board doesn’t hold dinners or other more social events, partly because they already meet six times a year. The board does have a retreat every other year for a day and a half.

“That really helps people get to know one another and understand personalities,” she said. “A board is very dynamic. It’s important for the effectiveness of a board that the group work well together.”

CAQ is affiliated with the American Institute of CPAs, and AICPA CEO Barry Melancon is on the CAQ board. Two new board members will join CAQ this year. In February, Deloitte named a new CEO and one of the board’s three public members died: Harvey Goldschmid, a former Securities and Exchange commissioner and expert in securities law.

Practicing for the Bar


Incoming board members for the American Bar Association spend months preparing for their new roles. In addition to a formal orientation, they attend two board meetings before officially assuming their duties.

The ABA has 40 board members most years, and most members serve a three-year term. Since about a third turns over annually, more than a dozen new members need to get up to speed each year.

One highlight of the daylong orientation session: A departing board member talks about what would have been good to know when first joining the board, but he or she didn’t learn until later.

“It’s very interesting what you hear. Some have very definite things to say about what they wish they had known, some talk more generally about the interactions they had, their liaison assignments,” said Alpha Brady, associate executive director of the public services group, and director of policy.

“Others are quick to say, ‘I now know what I should have known, and now you’re kicking me off!’” said Marina Jacks, senior associate executive director and chief governance officer.

New board members are nominated in February. They receive their handbook in May.

In June, they gather for the first time at a dinner, and then have a full day of orientation. “The handbook they can review more at a later day. The orientation is meant to give them a context for that,” Brady said.

The president-elect signs off on the agenda for the orientation. He or she also welcomes incoming board members, and talks about priorities for the year, expectations of board members and how they will interact. The executive director also gives an overview from the staff side.

Sessions include walking through how the board operates, how committee assignments are made, liaison duties and their fiduciary responsibilities—their legal responsibility to act in the best interest of the association.

“Depending on your organization, people come with different views of what their responsibilities are, what their roles are, what they are supposed to do,” Brady said. “It’s important that everyone hears the same message.”

The orientation is a packed day, and incoming board members are pretty “wrung out” by all the information they receive, Brady said. But some years ago, the ABA tried an orientation of just two hours.

“Everybody said to us, ‘I didn’t have enough time to ask questions. I didn’t have enough time to absorb complex materials,’” Jacks said.

After the ABA’s House of Delegates votes in August to approve their nominations, the new board members are finally ready to lead.