Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Off to a good start: A learning-centered, performance-driven board orientation


What does new member orientation look like in a nonprofit board learning environment? If we acknowledge that formal training is only one comparatively small part of the way adults really learn, how do we structure it while facilitating the more comprehensive experience?

If we want our new board members to launch their leadership journey with us from a place of confidence and increasing effectiveness, how do we support their early performance?

I can't let this year's official focus on board learning environments come to a close without a specific reflection on the processes needed to bring not only welcome new members but provide the kinds of quality experiences and other resources required to become the leaders we need.

I've written about board orientation here before, but I think I'd rather start with a blank slate and draw from my own expanded understanding of board learning that evolved across 2015. The 70:20:10 framework offers one rich context for this reflection.

Formal learning

I'll start here, because it's where most of us begin (and sometimes end) our thinking about new member orientation. There is a legitimate role for a formal training event for preparing new members. Whether or not they have served your organization in other roles, whether or not they have years of experience serving on other boards, new members have a legitimate need to understand three topics more deeply: your mission, your organization, and your expectations of them as board members. To the extent that there is new information to share and discuss in these three areas, training has a role.

That said, we must recognize that (a) new members' learning needs exceed what is possible in a formal setting and (b) the gap between what we want them to take away and what they actually retain can be pretty big (58 percent lost within an hour, according to the Association for Talent Development). We also can structure orientation sessions differently. For example, we can:

  • Balance presentation of information with open space for questions and interactions, giving new members opportunities to ask what is important to them and to clarify points that feel uncertain. (We also do them a service by not overloading them with 'stuff' that they will struggle to remember.)
  • Incorporate other active learning strategies to minimize that passive sitting and
  • Provide and demonstrate resources that put what they need to know at their fingertips when they need to know it. Whether it's a hard-copy board handbook, an online board portal, or something else, make sure that new members have ready access to tools that support their performance.

Social learning

New members benefit from welcoming access to human resources, especially board leaders, senior staff (especially the CEO) and fellow members. In a healthy board culture, these relationships naturally develop and expand members' learning potential across their service. In the beginning, though, we expand our support of new members by creating specific opportunities for interaction and support.

I've long recommended a board mentorship program as an essential part of a multifaceted orientation program. Pairing each new member with a more experienced peer offers the former a partner to whom those "naive" questions about board processes and other mysteries. It also can have the secondary benefit of sparking opportunities for reflection (why do we do it that way?) for the mentor.

It's also important that the board chair and CEO not only make themselves available to new members but actively reach out early in their service. Demonstrated openness to supporting new members' learning and other needs lays the groundwork for open and mutually beneficial relationships in the future.

Informal learning

The previous learning resources are important in bringing new board members up to speed. They may even be institutionalized, valued parts of your orientation process. But they still likely play a comparatively limited role in how our board members really learn to be board members (the "70" in the 70:20:10 framework).

In a nutshell, new board members learn by doing. They also learn by observing and analyzing what their peers do and say and respond/reciprocate in ways they perceive as appropriate to the context. They occasionally learn - as we all do - by making mistakes and reflecting on them. I discussed general ways to think about, and approach, facilitating these experiential learning opportunities earlier this year. But today I'd like to offer a few specific ideas for fostering the richest experiences possible for new members.

  • Lay the groundwork for productive participation early, by describing why they are being asked to serve before they say yes. I remain convinced that one of the most powerful factors for my case study board's effectiveness was the role clarity that each member described having before joining the board. They knew what specific perspectives, skills, etc., they were expected to contribute up front, which provided the foundation for stepping up and fulfilling those needs.
  • With each new member, identify specific ways to begin involvement that (a) invites active and productive engagement and (b) fits the member's skills and learning interests. Select committee assignments thoughtfully - offer immediate ways to contribute to meaningful work while also providing opportunities to learn more about the organization and the board. Identify any other board activities, beyond standing committees, where new members can contribute and learn.
  • Provide tours or visits that give new members extended opportunities to learn about your programs and staff. Encourage appropriate, ongoing interactions that provide context for the work that you do and an understanding of the environment in which those services are provided. (Note: "appropriate" will vary from organization to organization. Have that talk with your new members - it's part of the "context" they must learn and respect.)
  • Offer appropriate volunteerism opportunities that bring them closer to your programs and your mission. Yes, we must acknowledge the potential challenges that accompany board members stepping into volunteer roles. Some volunteer roles may clearly overstep. But most of our organizations have episodic volunteer experiences that can bring board members into our work and bring an added layer of life to our missions. The more we can create those firsthand experiences, the deeper the connections and motivations become.
  • Encourage authentic new member participation in board discussions. Ask for their opinions and questions. Encourage them to contribute knowledge they hold that can inform the conversation at hand. Listening and observing is one part of the new member learning process, but don't allow them to linger forever in silence. The earlier they are involved in the work of the board, the greater the access to experiences that naturally expand their understanding of the work they are expected to do.
  • Find opportunities to share organizational stories that illustrate your organization's work and impact. Stories bring your mission to life. Stories from firsthand sources - including other board members - bring it even closer. Encourage new members to share their own stories and make them part of the board narrative.
  • Support their performance by expanding their on-demand access to resources and tools that inform their thinking and participation. Share external resources (articles, websites, etc.) that expand their understanding of your mission and/or their governance responsibilities. Use some of those resources as jumping off points for board-level discussions and reflections.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list - as lengthy as it ended up being. Clearly, the 70:20:10 framework is only one lens through which we can view board orientation. Clearly, one can't completely "program" informal learning - nor should you even try. But I hope that it might spark conversation about how your board brings new members into productive places.

What one step could your board take to enrich those early experiences for your new members?


Gail Perry said...

I like board orientations to also include social time so the new members can get to know the old members. Without this, new members tend to hold back until they feel like they are accepted in the group.

Developing personal relationships (via social time) is so very important to foster among all board members, and particularly between the new and old members.

It builds trust, which in turn helps generate a team spirit. When newbies feel more a part of the existing group, they are usually more comfortable speaking up and taking action.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Oh, I truly love this recommendation, Gail. I agree completely. The more opportunities that we provide to build supportive peer relationships, from the very beginning moments of their board service, the more empowered and supported new members will be - and the better off the board as a whole.

Appreciative of your shared wisdom on this. Thanks!