Whether the board chooses you or you choose the board, serving on a board of directors should be a mutually beneficial relationship. Every opportunity for board directorship may not be a good fit for a variety of reasons. When you get appointed to the right board, it’s typically an experience that has a positive impact on the board director and the corporation. It takes time to acclimate to a new board in the beginning, even for experienced board directors. A few tips will help you prepare for your first board meeting and put your best foot forward coming out of the gate.
How to Choose the Right Board Director Opportunity
Many boards have term limits, especially in today’s economy. This opens up regular opportunities to pursue board director service in the corporate and nonprofit realms. Perhaps you’ve had your eye on a director seat on a particular board. Better yet, maybe a board director approached you about a vacancy on a board that they serve on. You might be inclined to go for it, and maybe you should. Under any set of circumstances, it’s a good idea to do a little research and ask some important questions about whether it will be a good fit for you and the board.
Board nominees will want to take a few minutes to think through their reasons for wanting to serve on the board and see if their goals line up with the board position they are seeking. Consider whether it will present an opportunity for engaging and useful growth. The other members of the board may have valuable experiences from other industries to share. Perhaps the board chair is outstanding in leading the board toward its goals, which could become a worthwhile extended relationship.
Examining the possibilities of serving on a board should also include taking into account the skills, talents and abilities that the director recruit might bring to the board. Ask whether the board needs the director recruit’s perspective and whether they can offer a sense of independence.
It’s important for director recruits to ask questions about how well the board and the CEO and other executives get along and work together. Executives who value the board’s contributions will make things easier for new board directors.
If you’re already extremely busy, serving on a board will make you even busier. Board service can encompass 20 to 30 days per year, plus one to two days per meeting for travel. Unless the bylaws state that there are shorter term limits, you can expect to serve in your position for six to nine years.
In addition to the regular meetings, the board will expect you to serve on one or more committees, which will take even more time. Board directorship can bring many unexpected time constraints like opportunities to mentor others, work on issues outside of regular board time, and respond to emerging crises or solidify the details of a major deal. As you can see, board service can require much time from the workday, so it’s important to make sure that it won’t interfere with full-time executive employment.
In addition to being able to meet the board’s expectations for the time commitment, make sure the board’s work will keep you engaged and interested for many years.
What First-Time Board Members Should Know
Once you’ve gone through the recruiting, nomination and appointment process, you will probably receive an informal or formal orientation. It’s normal to feel a little nervous as the first meeting approaches, even for board members with experience. Rest assured: Everyone gets through it.
The demands of boards are increasing, so it’s important to acclimate quickly to the responsibilities of board service.
Preparing for the First Board Meeting
Be prepared to put in some extra time in learning more about the organization and its issues before the first meeting. It takes time to get up to speed with the current matters of the board. Learn as much as you can about the board’s business such as short- and long-term strategies, key issues, opportunities for growth and risks.
Also, take a look at the most recent financial reports and understand how they’re organized. If they confuse you, ask for a detailed explanation so that you can contribute knowledgeably to board discussions. Read your board packet and look for an agenda item or two where you may be able to interject a few insightful comments. Start getting to know your board handbook and the organization’s bylaws, and refer to them as needed. Learning the meanings of industry terms and jargon will help you understand the key issues and have meaningful discussions about them.
Most new board members are a little hesitant to say very much at the first meeting. The first meeting is a good time to observe the board’s dynamics to determine the board’s most influential and respected members. It’s also a good opportunity to note any negative board dynamics.
Remember that you earned your board seat because you have a valuable perspective to offer. Feel free to offer an opinion if the board chair is trying to draw them out. If board items are complex, it’s appropriate to ask for the context or clarification of the matter. Take a balanced approach when joining discussions during the first meeting. Participate without dominating.
It takes time to get acquainted with the other board members. Some new directors find it helpful to take each board member out for coffee, lunch or dinner to get better acquainted. Informal meetings help board members to establish a good working relationship and to learn more about the strengths and passions of peers. This is also a viable way to identify another board director who might serve as a mentor for the first six to 12 months.
One of the easiest ways to have an early impact on a board is to learn about the key issues and help the board to monitor them. Find out if the board is focusing on long-term goals as well as short-term goals and encourage them to stay focused on the long-term strategy.
A Few Final Tips for First-Time Board Directors
Nonprofit boards expect board directors to contribute some of their personal funds to the organization.
Do your due diligence before agreeing to become a candidate for a board position. If you think it will be a good fit, prepare as thoroughly as possible for the first board meeting. Don’t overcommit to too many committees, even if committees have notable vacancies. Arrive at your first board meeting with the confidence to be your best self and put your best foot forward.