Board Orientation 101

Nicholas J Price
6 min read
Board orientation is an important process because it welcomes new board directors to the boardroom and often becomes a new board director's first impression of a corporation. Board orientations can be formal and last for a few days, or they can be informal and take a few hours. Either way, the board orientation gives a new board director their first glimpse of the corporation's culture.

Board orientation is a process for new board members to get acquainted with the corporation and its history, the senior leadership and their fellow board directors. The orientation process helps new board directors learn about their duties and responsibilities.

What Is Board Orientation?

Anyone on the board can conduct a board orientation. Generally, the board sets up a policy for how to orient new board members. Often, the board secretary plays an integral role in conducting board orientations. The board secretary may conduct orientations alone or enlist the help of board officers, board members and senior executives of the organization.

New board directors usually get their first glimpse of their new duties by learning more about the corporation's vision, mission, goals and culture. The orientation provides an opportunity for them to learn who founded the corporation, its roots, how the corporation is currently doing, where they hope to be for the short and long term, and the challenges they've met along the way.

A thorough and meaningful board orientation helps new board directors to envision themselves in their new role and inspires them to put their best foot forward going into the first meeting.

Why Is the Board Orientation Important?

Board orientation assists new board directors in knowing what to do and how to use their position to do it without making costly missteps. Through the orientation process, new directors will become better acquainted with the knowledge, skills and talents of the other board directors. This information highlights areas where new directors can demonstrate how their own skills and abilities would be an asset to the functioning of the whole board. An in-depth orientation provides details about the types of problem-solving and decision-making techniques that the board uses to gain a consensus on important matters.

New board directors who come away from the orientation process with a solid sense of the corporation and their role in planning and oversight will pursue their duties and responsibilities confidently. New perspectives help to refresh and recharge boards.

What to Include in the Board Orientation

Even if newly elected board directors have extensive experience serving as a board director, it's still necessary to provide an orientation. Every corporation is different; every board culture is different; and serving on this board will be an entirely different experience.

The first portion of the board orientation includes the presence of some combination of the Board Chair, Board President, CEO, Executive Director, and one or more board directors. Depending on how formal the orientation is, their involvement may be a presentation, an introduction or merely a welcoming letter. Senior leaders set the standard for how they expect new board members to conduct themselves. These early introductions give leaders a chance to share the board's and the corporation's achievements and to motivate new board directors to share their vision for the future.

Moving past introductions, new board directors will learn more about industry trends and challenges that may affect the organization. The orientation leader should offer plenty of opportunities for new board directors to ask questions during every part of the orientation.

In learning more about their new roles as board directors, the orientation process should highlight important policies and procedures. New board directors should be instructed about how the board defines lines of responsibility between them and management and to respect those boundaries.

Corporations that have more than one facility may include visits to various facilities and a tour of operations. This is an appropriate time for new board members to learn more about the company's programs and services.

The orientation process may include team-building exercises or assigning mentors so that board members have a direct link for asking questions and getting off the ground as a productive board director.

Orientation Begins at Recruitment

An important consideration that many boards miss is that orientation can begin during the recruitment stage. New board directors usually get their first introduction to the corporation from various sources. They may have heard about the corporation in the media or they may have a personal or business acquaintance on the board. If neither of those situations apply, printed materials such as brochures and pamphlets should give new directors a feel for what the corporation is all about. The nominating and governance committee should also encourage recruits to check out the company web page or other online presence.

The recruitment stage is the prime time not only to assess the director's skills and qualifications, but also to assess their fit for the board. Recruits should be clear on the number of board and committee meetings the board expects them to attend, as well as any other time commitments.

Developing a Board Handbook

All boards should present new directors with a copy of the board handbook. The board handbook should include general information, such as a copy of the corporation's articles of incorporation, bylaws, and any regulatory or required legal filings.

The orientation leader should review policies such as those on conflicts of interest, codes of conduct, oaths of confidentiality, whistleblower policies, and abuse and harassment policies.

The handbook should include a list of board directors, senior leaders and other key people, along with their contact information.

In addition to the board handbook, new board directors should receive a copy of the current strategic and operational plans, copies of the last several agendas and copies of the last several board meeting minutes. Be sure to include a copy of the board's directors and officers' liability policy, copies of any audited financial statements, a copy of the current budget, and copies of the most recent annual report and the most recent income statement.

Format for Board Orientation

There's no standard format for conducting board orientations. Most corporations navigate the process through trial and error.

Generally, a board orientation begins with an introduction to the corporation and the key leaders. The next focus is on describing the corporation's vision and mission. The sooner new board directors understand where the company wants to go, the sooner they can become part of the process of helping the corporation achieve its goals.

The final portion of the orientation involves explaining and discussing the board director's duties, responsibilities and expectations. This part of the orientation includes a review of the board handbook and an overview of the processes and operations.

A well-planned board orientation will open the door for new directors to have the confidence to ask critical questions and to begin a valuable working relationship with their fellow directors.