Setting up new board members for success

By Shirley Robinson, CAE, ceo Texas Healthcare Trustees

Sometimes we forget what it is like to be a new board member. Regardless of how we come to a board position, and how much we’ve prepared in the election or appointment process, there's a fair amount of uncertainty. A new board member may even be a knowledgeable community member or a former staff member of the organization. It’s still an unknown dynamic.

I recently had the privilege of joining a board as a new member. I had multiple conversations with board members starting about six months before I officially came on. I filled out a board member profile questionnaire and submitted a resume and cover letter. I went through a formal interview process and discovery meeting with the executive committee that also functions as the nominating committee. I had a ‘get to know you’ trial visit at a full board meeting. The board chair followed up afterward to let me know what the board thought of me. I enjoyed the entire acquaintance process.  And then I was elected, and the real work started.

Just a few meetings in and I already have so many questions. The board meetings are fast and most of the board members have been with the organization for many, many years. I am reading and studying when I can but I’m busy too with career, family and life.

But being a new board member is a slightly uncomfortable experience. It’s not always obvious what the dynamics are for board member involvement. This new board is large and I’m pretty sure that even though I have health care knowledge and experience, I’m probably the least experienced person in the room.

As a CEO also running an organization, I am very sensitive to demands on staff time and resources. That includes well-placed but not always fully realized hopes to follow proper on-boarding of a new board member and all that that entails.

For Texas Healthcare Trustees, I want our board to understand our current state and the history of how we got here; I want them to be able to ask informed questions about our strategic direction; and I want them to challenge me to think creatively and differently about our issues. I also want them to be comfortable with each other and to know their fellow board members so that we can collaborate well for our members. We need all these things so that THT can meet the needs of a changing (and challenging) health care environment.

To get a board member to that point on any board can sometimes take a year or two. Or more.

Board members can help each other by creating a mentoring program. Setting up a phone call after each board meeting to help give direction or answer those questions that the new member just doesn’t feel comfortable asking can be very reassuring. The CEO/board chair can help assign this mentor to make sure it’s a good fit for the organization. And of course, a good solid on-boarding program is always the best foundation – see our article here about how to start this program – but the learning never stops. At year two, five, 10 and beyond.

Regular check-ins by an experienced board chair and the CEO with board members are invaluable ways to ensure that a new board member has the continued support he or she needs for a strong start and to successfully serve the organization for many years in the future.

I would love to hear what you do on your board to ensure that new board members feel comfortable and are prepared for board service. Please email me at srobinson@tht.org

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Shirley Robinson, CAE, President/CEO, 512/465-1562.

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