Welcoming New Board Members: 15 Tips for Better Orientations

By Stephen G. Pelletier    //    Volume 21,  Number 1   //    January/February 2013

When top administrators at Augustana College first organized “unfiltered” discussions for new board members with both faculty and students—meaning that no administrator would be present—they worried that experimental part of board orientation might backfire. But the board members surprised them.

Yes, they had heard some griping, the trustees reported later, but they said they expected that. (As leaders themselves, many are used to hearing complaints.) Far more important, they said, was hearing firsthand about the transformational impact of the college experience—such as the student who gushed about how her chemistry professor had helped her overcome a challenge. Later, well into their second board terms, some board members were quick to recall the inspiring stories they found in those initial sessions.

One lesson for the administrators? Don’t be afraid to take risks in orienting new board members. The payoff could be remarkable. That’s just one of the takeaways that institutions are realizing as they become more intentional about delivering a strong board orientation program.

Welcoming New Trustees

Among all the programs and events that a college or university conducts in a given year, the orientation of new board members probably ranks relatively low in the amount of attention and planning it gets from top administrators. But that might be a tactical or even strategic error.

Institutions often invest considerable efforts to recruit board members. It follows, therefore, that they should also be intentional in planning how to best welcome those recruits to actual service. And given that board terms are often short, it is very much in the institution’s best interest to make sure that new board members hit the ground running—with a reasonably broad understanding of the college or university—from their very first meeting. That makes board orientation an important, if sometimes overlooked, exercise.

Board orientation provides a unique forum for an institution to help new board members understand the roles and responsibilities expected of them. It is a chance, too, to share essential information that the college or university thinks new trustees need to know. Moreover, it is an opportunity for the institution to bring new members up to date about where it is today and its goals for the future.

Board members essentially jump into a conversation in the middle and need to be briefed on “the state of play of the key initiatives and issues that the board will be dealing with,” says Richard V. Riddell, a vice president at Duke University who functions as chief of staff to the president and serves as secretary to Duke’s board of trustees. Orientation, he says, “fills them in on the movie up to this point.”

Kai S. Swanson, executive assistant to the president at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, says that board orientation is crucial because it directly affects board performance. Augustana trustees attend a maximum of just 12 meetings during a standard four-year term, Swanson notes. “We can’t afford to give a new trustee a year to come up to speed,” he says. “To get the best benefit for the institution, they have to be firing on all cylinders to the greatest extent possible” right from the start of their board service. “Based on what we are laying on their shoulders,” he says, “why not do everything we can to make sure that they are in fighting shape by their first meeting?”

The best board orientations attend to the fundamentals that must be addressed but also leave room for creativity. And while core components of onboarding new board members can be informed by available guidelines, such as those from AGB, and experiences at other colleges and universities, orientation affords individual institutions a natural opportunity to develop practices that reflect their distinct culture, mission, and history.

Shaping Better Orientations

Scanning the current landscape—and talking with some experienced practitioners—yields many ideas to help shape better board orientations. Here are 15 suggestions for institutions to consider.

1. Recognize that even experienced board members need orientation. Many board members join colleges and universities with some board experience already under their belts. But people who have served on corporate boards may not fully understand how such boards differ from those of nonprofit colleges and universities. And even if a board member has been a higher education trustee before, that person needs to understand the culture of the institution he or she now serves. “Orientation is required of everyone, not just those who haven’t previously served on a college or university board,” says Kim M. Brunner, chair of the board of trustees at Augustana.

2. Eschew the information overload. At the beginning, many institutions bury new board members in information. But lengthy, detailed briefings with armies of administrators might be less effective than carefully planned presentations focused on a few well-chosen bullet points. Institutions can backstop those presentations with instructions for how new board members can find details when they want them—such as on a board portal or website. Every institution should cherry-pick the fundamental pieces of information that they want their new trustees to first see.

3. Pace the race. Similarly, colleges and universities should plan communications so new board members can retain essential information by allowing time for them to absorb critical lessons. “In general, there is a tendency on the part of institutions to cram a great deal into a board orientation. I find that, by the end of the day, people are almost wilting from the input of information,” says Ellen E. Hallett, assistant to the president and board secretary at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. “One of the big challenges is to somehow manage and balance that information flow, so that you don’t wear out your new trustees completely.” Trying to impart as much information as possible in a short timeframe, some institutions even forget to leave time for new board members to ask questions. One antidote is to bake time into the schedule specifically for discussion versus presentation. Duke, for example, makes sure that half of each information session for new board members is given to discussion.

4. Partner up. Many boards ask experienced members to help guide a new trustee. For some institutions, an official mentor program works well; for others, that is overkill. No matter how formal the process, helping new board members connect with more-experienced ones gives those new members crucial points of reference and someone to go to with initial questions. Thomas C. Longin, an AGB consultant and senior fellow, advocates for the continuity of pairing a new board member with the same mentor for at least several board meetings.

5. Highlight principles of good governance. Colleges and universities need to make adequate time for discussion of governance writ large: board roles and responsibilities, ethics, risk management, board policies, and other important topics. Board orientation is the perfect time to discuss the general principles of governance—separate from institutional responsibilities—and to underscore the demarcation between governance and management. Wheaton’s Hallett recalls an orientation session in which the president and board chair both spoke about governance and the goals of the institution, sparking an “animated, high-level conversation” that proved to be “a very good introduction to the level of thinking that is appropriate for trustees.” An outside consultant can sometimes help lead that conversation.

In addition, helping new board members get to know the president’s cabinet can reinforce that understanding. “Things work well when trustees understand what their role is and administrators understand what their role is, and how each could benefit from each other,” Riddell says. “Boards function well when those relationships are healthy, and they take work to develop.”

6. Confirm campus contacts. When new board members step onto a campus for their first meeting, they plunge into a highly complex environment. To help them navigate, many colleges and universities make a point during orientation to introduce them to the key campus players—usually members of the president’s cabinet—who can answer their specific questions. “We give new trustees so much information that we don’t really expect them to fully capture or remember it all,” says Janice Breslin Doyle, chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Maryland System and secretary to the Board of Regents there. “The important thing is that they know that there are these six people that they can call for more information if and when they need it.”

7. Share your culture. Augustana’s Swanson also says institutions ought to take pains to make sure orientation is a “cultural immersion.” They should provide essential information but also give board members time to tour the campus, visit a classroom, meet with students and faculty, and otherwise engage in the life and culture of the institution. New trustees at Duke University recently had the chance to stretch their legs during orientation with a walk to the institution’s medical campus. More than a change of venue, the exercise also gave them a first-hand look at a huge component of the overall enterprise at Duke.

8. Don’t neglect the small stuff. From the arcane to the mundane, board members often want answers to the same questions in every orientation. (What to wear to board meetings is a good example.) A board FAQ can anticipate those questions and save a board member the potential embarrassment of having to ask what they might fear will be thought of as a “dumb” question. Augustana College distributes a list that translates the countless acronyms that the college uses. Savvy institutions also know to build time into board meetings to help members learn how to access information online, including mastering website passwords and iPads.

9. Help new board members engage with faculty members. Trustees can enrich their understanding of the institution when they better understand those who advance its educational mission. “There’s such value in having opportunities to talk with faculty, to get a sense of their responsibilities as they articulate that, how they fit in with the oversight responsibility of the board,” Brunner says. “That type of cross-communication is invaluable.”

10. Connect new board members with students. In fact, not only new but also seasoned board members have found that hearing directly from students enriches their understanding of the institution. Jeffrey B. Trammell, the rector of the College of William & Mary, sat down with a group of students to talk about technology. “For a half hour we discussed the usual issues like parking and housing. Then I asked them to give me their thoughts on how technology is and should be changing the way they learn in ways that we on the board might not have considered. That unleashed an hour and a half of highly spirited analysis and revelation as to how they, as the consumers of the new digital learning, perceive it. The information they shared has been invaluable as we consider strategic directions in online learning,” he notes.

11. Sit in on a class. Having board members attend a class during orientation is another way to immerse them in the life of the university. Swanson tells a story about how a new trustee at Augustana, who is an executive at the Lutheran college’s church headquarters, found himself in a class that was examining religion broadly as part of the American experience. Far from taking umbrage, the church official struck a lasting friendship with the professor, and has helped inform her research. Many colleges and universities will say there is simply no time in orientation for class visits, but experts argue that taking new board members to class is time very well spent.

12. Don’t neglect socializing. The old saw about “all work and no play” applies to board orientations. Whether over a meal, a reception, or campus activity, social events built into orientation are invaluable in helping new trustees bond with the board and the institution.

13. Get feedback and continue education beyond orientation. The University of Maryland System surveys its new board members after their orientation. That feedback “helps us know what to do better next time,” Doyle says, adding that the survey also signals that the system values what they think. And, because trustee education should not end after orientation, the Maryland system has also committed this year to having an educational forum at every one of its board meetings or in board retreats. Previous topics have included fundraising, technology transfer, and academic transformation. To see what board members say about trustee education, click here.

Besides fine-tuning existing processes by following some of the guidelines above, institutions would do well to step back a bit and think more broadly about how to improve orientation. Accordingly, here are two additional suggestions.

14. Take risks. Asked what advice he might share about board orientation, Swanson says, “Be not afraid.” That is, he suggests, institutions ought to be willing to let boards see the whole of the institution, which gives them a richer perspective. One of the absolutes when it comes to boards is that there should be “no surprises.” Certainly institutions want to present themselves in the best light to new trustees, but sugarcoating the truth too much could backfire if and when less-than-sweet truths emerge. Besides, board members can intuit when they are being sold a billed of goods. A genuinely fair and honest description of the institution during orientation—including problems and challenges—will help board members understand the institution more fully and, consequently, do a better job. And they will appreciate the honesty.

15. Rethink the fundamentals. Some experts think board orientation could and should be a richer experience. Longin, for example, says that most institutions are not sufficiently intentional or purposeful about orientation. The common approach—a day or half-day—leaves time to just scratch the surface for all that a new board member needs to know.

Another problem is that typical orientations focus too much on what the institution wants the board member to know and not enough on helping him or her integrate into the board. Here, again, rather than packing every moment of orientation with presentations that are little more than an information dump, effective orientations focus on a well-planned short list of key points that the institution wants to convey, leave ample time for questions and answers, and include sessions that help the new trustee acclimate to the board itself, not just the institution. Longin thinks orientation should be the responsibility of the board’s committee on governance. He also advocates that formal orientation continue well into the board member’s second year of service, with continued contact during that time with a strong mentor on the board.

Effective orientation “comes down to storytelling,” Swanson says. At Augustana, he suggests, “one of the goals is to help trustees find their place in our 152-year-old story. It’s a good story, and one that many of them already have in place as a former student here. But the institution is not what it was in the 1960s or 1970s. And it needs them as much now if not more than it did then. So it’s about sharing the story, and you can’t do that in a morning.”

“You have to help people find their place in the story,” Swanson says. “And if you haven’t done that, don’t expect high-performance engagement from them.”

What Are the Most Common Topics Covered at Board Orientations?

(in descending order)

Trustee responsibilities

Institutional history and mission

Strategic priorities or challenges

Board governance policies

Responsibilities of key administrators

Institutional finances and budget

Standing committees

Academic programs and quality

Liability of board members

Auditing procedures

Institutionally related organizations

Faculty and/or tenure

Role of audit committee

Institution’s relationship with the state

State and federal compliance

Personnel laws

Whistleblower policies

Student rights


—Susan Johnston, The AGB Survey on Higher Education Governance (2009)

Read “What Board Members Say about Trustee Education” by William M. Griffin and Rebecca S. Lake

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