Keys to Successful Board Orientation

Training new board members on fiduciary duties and bylaws is important. But a new research report encourages boards to think bigger.

Few association leaders need to be told about the importance of board orientation. But that doesn’t mean there’s clarity on what that orientation looks like. Videos or binders? Half-day or full-day? Hybrid, remote, or in-person? All board members or just new members?

The specific modalities of board orientation may matter less than remembering what board orientation is for: To build a coherent governance culture where board members can hit the ground running the moment their tenures begin. To that end, the consultancy Vista Cova recently published a handbook to association board orientation, Board Preparedness: Ready to Lead From Day 1 [PDF]. Based on interviews with leaders from 35 associations and with plenty of sample documents and decks, it’s a robust resource for organizations looking to stand up or refresh an effective orientation policy.

We hear from plenty of board members who express frustration at having spent six months on the board before they understood what they were supposed to do.

Vista Cova CEO Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE

“What we’ve heard from organizations, whether their trade or individual membership, big, small, global, what have you, is that the process of getting board members ready for service and having them function as a team still has gaps,” says Vista Cova CEO Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE. “We hear from plenty of board members who express frustration at having spent six months on the board before they understood what they were supposed to do.”

The handbook covers a lot of ground around nuts-and-bolts orientation—fiduciary duties and so one—but expands its material into a four-part concept called “The FOCUs Framework for Board Success.” The “f” stands for foundation, meaning establishing board roles and overall structure and mission of the organization; “o” covers orientation proper, meaning acquainting (or reacquainting) board members with core documents and procedures, and mentoring newcomers; “c” refers to confirmation, or better establishing seasoned board members in their roles and improving board culture and communication; and “u” stands for unification, or doing the work to ensure that the board addresses matters of trust, bias, and acting with purpose.

A notable element of the framework is that orientation proper is just one element of a larger process of getting board members working in sync. “That orientation frame is limited to just one part of what’s really the larger goal, which is how do we prepare our board as individuals to serve at excellence during their term of service?” Aplebaum says. “I hope organizations look at the four phases we’ve outlined and say, what are we doing in each of these?”

To that end, the framework isn’t strictly prescriptive, though it does have some bedrock pillars—inclusivity, innovation, individual engagement, feedback, strategic thinking. Every organization is invited to consider how its own processes and structure serve those pillars. The report notes that it’s essential that “associations do not simply react to the arrival of new members; they proactively cultivate them, ensuring the transition into board service is seamless and every director’s tenure begins with confidence and clarity.”

That attention to change—truly a constant in effective boards—is a central principle to orientation, Aplebaum says. “There needs to be an intentional design of processes that don’t assume that just because a majority of the people in the room have fluency and function and culture, that everyone does. Every time you have new people coming in, there has to be a reconstitution of that.”

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