“Board mentors” – a strategy for engaging new board members

Joining a new board can feel at first as if you’ve joined a private club. While you are struggling to figure out where to sit and what to do, everyone else seems to know each other and to have a shared history and vocabulary (which often includes an assortment of baffling acronyms). Despite whatever amount of orientation you may have received before your first meeting, it is not unusual to feel like a bit of an outsider.

Facing a steep learning curve and a board that already has a lot of history together, it is not unusual for new board members to sit back, observe, and cautiously venture into discussions as they try to figure out where they might make a contribution. This is unfortunate, however; few boards can afford to have board members who are not fully engaged or, worse, continue to regard themselves as outsiders. The first few months of board service (and the first few board meetings) are critical.

That is why some boards supplement their board orientation with a formal “board mentor program” that is designed to help integrate and engage new board members from the very start of their board service. As the name suggests, the program pairs an incoming board member with an experienced board member who is asked to serve as a “mentor.” The responsibilities to be fulfilled by the mentor vary from board to board, as does the length of the mentoring relationship, but my experience suggests that the most successful programs are those that focus on the first few months, and the first few meetings, and have some very concrete tasks for the mentor to perform:

Potential assignments for board mentors

• Participate in the orientation – Having experienced board members participate in the orientation session is always a good idea, and even if you don’t have a formal role in the session, you can help to fill-in gaps, offer context when necessary, and translate any acronyms or terms that are used.

• Meet with the new board member BEFORE the first board meeting – Go to lunch or find some other opportunity to meet and get to know the new board member. Help him or her know what to expect at the first board meeting (including what to wear, how the meeting flows, and any practices that may be unique to your board). Also use this as a time to gather information to use in introducing the new board member (this should be more than getting a copy of his or her bio).

• Get to their first board meeting ahead of the new board member – Be the first friendly face the new board member sees upon arrival, save a seat next to your own at the board table, and make sure he or she gets introduced as people come in.

• Provide a formal, but informative, introduction – Work with the board chair to ensure that the board agenda allows time at the start for a formal introduction. While board members may have seen the new board member’s bio, this is an opportunity for you to fill-in the blanks and offer something along the lines of: “One thing I learned that her bio doesn’t tell you is…” Make sure there is also time for the rest of the board to offer their own introductions too so your new board member knows who is sitting at the table.

• Serve as a coach during the meetings – If you sit next to the new board member, you can quietly provide additional background information, translate terms and acronyms, and help him or her navigate through the board materials.

• Follow-up between meetings – Debriefing after meetings is especially important for new board members who may be looking for some additional information, a bit of history, or the perspective that a long-time board member can bring. Have the meeting agenda in front of you when you call, and ask specific questions that will prompt discussion: “What additional information would be helpful to you regarding the discussion we had about the new program we are about to launch?”

• If he or she misses a meeting, call – You want to send the message that attendance is important and that his or her participation was missed. Take the time to call and walk him or her through some of the key discussion items. Think about this carefully in advance so that you don’t inadvertently send the message, “You didn’t miss much.”

• Check-in regarding committee assignments – Board members will tell you that they feel most engaged when they are doing committee work—but only if they are on the right committee and the work feels meaningful. Find an opportunity to check-in on how his or her committee service is going, and don’t hesitate to talk to the board chair or the committee chair if you identify any problems.

• Communicate with the board chair and chief executive – After the first meeting and your follow-up call, be sure to let the board chair and the chief executive know how things seem to be going. If there are steps they can take to help engage the new board member, let them know. This should be a team effort.

Depending upon the level of activity of your board and the frequency of meetings, being a mentor might be a short-term assignment of just a few months, or you may want to create an expectation and a “to do” list that stretches throughout the first year of board service. In my experience, if the mentor completes a specific list of tasks (similar to those described above), it will be a very short time before the mentor says: “I don’t think she needs me anymore.”

A board mentor program should have multiple benefits: an experienced board member makes a new friend, a new board member is successfully integrated into the board, and you are much more likely to have fostered a level of board engagement that will benefit the organization for years to come.

If you are looking for additional board governance advice, go to www.starboardleadership.com and see our blog. Or call Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4400, or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].