Stepping Out: Preparing For The First Board Meeting

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Listen well, speak your mind and if you don't know something, don't bluff. Advice for that first foray into the boardroom.

A new public company board member’s debut is not for the faint of heart. Even seasoned executives who have made dozens of high-wire decisions find the experience stressful. “Much of my career was spent as a CFO working for big companies,” says Mark Blaufuss, a board member at publicly traded biotechnology company Blue Bird. “It’s a natural thing when you become a board member to feel like you’re supposed to know a lot, because you’ve been hired to provide senior-level guidance. The stress is significant.”

Like an actor making a first stage appearance, the hardest part is saying the first few lines. Some new board members hold back, thinking it is not their place to offer input—yet. “If you stay silent your first year [of board service], and some do, it only cements in the board’s mind that you’re a ‘young and unsophisticated person on your first board,’” says Celia Huber, McKinsey & Company senior partner and leader of the management consultancy’s North American board services sector. “It’s important to speak up, to ask about issues and not dictate answers. You’re on the board for a reason, chosen for your experience and perspective. Nevertheless, I’d be careful about your airtime.”

 Blaufuss offers similar guidance. “Try to contribute, absolutely, but take a slower walk,” he says. “It’s best to understand the dynamics between the board and the management team first. It’s also important to stay in your lane. If your expertise is in project engineering and the topic is a high-tech investment, let the members who understand the technology lead the discussion.”

He also comments on the need to balance the urge to participate in constructive dialogue with the respect required to build rapport with the other board members. “It’s not always easy to strike this balance when so many accomplished and opinionated people gather in a room,” he says. “Members have unique personalities, backgrounds, experiences and ideas on how companies should and should not be run.”

One further bit of advice: “If you’re asked a question you can’t answer,” Blaufuss says, “back off on the grounds that you just don’t know. Better to do that than to try and act like you know what you’re talking about.”

Board Prep 101

Today’s new class of board members has different expectations than their peers a generation ago, as evidenced by the copious due diligence future directors now put forward in finding the perfect public company board match. “Boards expect a lot from new members, but the same can be said in reverse,” says Kathryn Kaminsky, vice chair and trust solutions co-leader at audit and advisory firm PwC.

Here’s what today’s director candidates consider crucial in providing board service:

• First and foremost, prospective board directors want to be sure their skill set serves a specified need, adding knowledge, experience and a new perspective that is presently lacking.

• They’re also hoping to learn from the diverse expertise and competencies of the present board members.

• It is paramount that a company have a mission and a culture that corresponds with their personal beliefs.

• They expect absolute transparency about the organization’s financial stability, especially if present conditions are underwhelming. Ditto the board’s oversight of past legal issues.

• The personalities of board members figure prominently in their analyses, particularly incumbent members who consume all the air in the room, tend toward disputation or seem not to fully understand the vision and strategy.

• They’re especially interested in a company’s proactive approach to diversity, equity and inclusion principles.

• Since they have performed extensive due diligence, reading most everything they can find on the company, they will ask about past scandals that have been made public and why, for example, a former board member appeared to leave in a cloud.

• Once they’ve narrowed down their expectations, they expect to meet the entire board of directors, preferably one-by-one or in small groups, and in the flesh.

• Last, they will ask for someone on the board to serve as a mentor, whom they can rely on to help prep them for their first board meeting and to shepherd them through their first year of service.

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