Whether you’re a seasoned director, or fresh to the role, being elected to a board for the first time is a little like starting at a new school: you have plenty of potential to contribute but you don’t yet know how you fit in.
With the end of the AGM season comes the flurry of new board appointments as positions are vacated and re-filled.
Assimilating into an existing team has its challenges but there are a number of ways a newly appointed director can approach their new board so they not only slot in easily but also maximise the value and speed of their contribution.
Five tips for new directors
Listen to hear
Even if this is not your first board, approaching meetings with an attitude of mindfulness in which you are an active listener will help you identify where you can add the most value.
Active listening is the difference between listening to respond versus listening to learn.
It’s also an avenue to look for underlying messages delivered in discussions – the subtle tone of voice or nuances that identify personalities, interactions and ongoing issues.
Boards can be overly collegial and directors in those circumstances can be reticent to challenge their peers. Mindful listening helps identify this, as does looking at body language and expression.
Check your assumptions and biases
It’s a mistake of many an experienced director to have a preconceived idea of what they can contribute and what needs to happen at an organisation, before they’ve finished even the first board meeting.
Overconfidence impedes your ability to recognise issues that need addressing. Directors need to develop their complex thinking skills, including the concept of self-awareness that helps them discard biases and assumptions.
All directors – whether the newly appointed one, or the existing directors welcoming the new ones – need to work at setting aside they’re preconceived ideas of what the new appointees will or won’t be able to contribute, and work at keeping themselves open to new ideas and a new dynamic. This allows for fresh energy and more robust discussion.
For newly appointed directors with limited experience, finding a mentor or director buddy can help them find their feet quickly.
Approaching the board chair and asking who they recommend is a good starting place.
Contribute rather than advise
Given many directors come from a professional and highly educated background, there is often a misunderstanding of their role as a director.
You are their to contribute, rather than act in your professional capacity, for example as a lawyer or accountant.
As a director, you use your qualifications and knowledge to understand the issues on the agenda and to then ask the right questions.
Do your due diligence
This should be done well before accepting a board appointment, but often isn’t.
Given you are on the responsibility hook immediately you accept a directorship, it makes sense you know what you’re signing up for.
This includes seeking copies of all relevant documents, including the minutes of previous board meetings; the last three audited financial statements; and understanding the legal landscape of the organisation you will be joining.
During the Hayne royal commission, Commonwealth Bank chairman Catherine Livingstone admitted the company used to provide incoming directors with only a briefing paper of what the bank does and how it works, and that new directors were expected to work out what was happening on a broader scale from a series of meetings.
Not quite the due diligence you’d expect for new directors of Australia’s largest listed company and an important reminder for all directors to seek out and push for information on their own merits.
Adjusting to new board dynamics is an opportunity to reinvigorate your board as well as your own abilities as a director.
When a new director joins your board, try to acknowledge the positive benefits that will come from a fresh perspective and welcome them with kindness, respect and an openness to learn more about them.
It’s a time to embrace a new energy, broaden your network and expand your knowledge.
Ideally, every board with new directors starting should immediately undertake a governance workshop specifically tailored to them, to ensure the new board composition starts off on the right foot.
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