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Mission Critical Information: What New Board Members Need to Know to Succeed

The founder of the Boy Scouts, an English solider named Robert Baden-Powell, coined the phrase “Be Prepared” in his 1908 handbook, “Scouting for Boys.” In his mind, if you are prepared, you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.

Just as “Be Prepared” has served the Boy Scouts as its guiding principle for more than 100 years, this simple phrase can serve as your club’s mantra to welcome new members to your board of directors. That means preparing an effective new board member orientation is a mission-critical task for most private clubs.

Given the volume of information, needs and activities, it is wise to segment the orientation process into five key parts. Doing so will equip your club with an organized and sequential process to avoid information overload while providing the background, data and understanding of duties new board members need to hit the ground running.

As each private club is unique, there is no foolproof template for the perfect orientation schedule.

Nonetheless, the following five-part, sequentially sorted, orientation process is a useful “how-to” guide for clubs seeking improved governance.

Part One: Organizing the Onboarding Process

The orientation can take place over a few hours or a couple of days. The board chair/president should lead the onboarding process to ensure new board members can get to work as smoothly and as knowledgeably as possible.

The club manager and his/her staff will be instrumental in preparing the information to be shared, scheduling the orientation and supporting both the current and new board members through the onboarding process.

An important part of developing and organizing the onboarding process is to ensure the following key matters are clearly presented and reiterated from the onset:

  1. Every new board member must complete the new board member orientation. Period. There should be no exceptions or exemptions for new board members to skip the orientation. It does not matter how many boards on which a new board member currently or has previously served. Anyone who has previously served on or answered to a board knows each organization has its own unique aspects and to be effective, you must be familiar with the process and procedures.
  2. Each board member reads, understands and executes the annual Board Affirmation Statement. The affirmation statement includes the Board Code of Conduct and its conflict of interest requirements. This should be completed and submitted prior to a new board member attending his or her first meeting.
  3. Each board member is provided and becomes responsible to govern in a manner consistent with the club’s governing documents. The club’s bylaws, board policy manual, Form 990 (current), strategic plan and prior year auditor’s letter are mandatory documents to be provided to new board members.

Additional documents that are helpful include a roster of board members and department heads, including all contact information. The list of current committees, their purpose and the contact informa- tion for the committee chairperson. The most board-friendly way to provide these documents is through a private link or individual computer fob so as to save the time and expense of printing all this information.

Part Two: Understanding Board Members’ Duties and Responsibilities

Each new board member should meet with the sitting president, the club’s legal counsel and its manager.

This meeting might begin with a Q&A session allowing the new board member to ask any questions regarding the documents provided and board service at the club. Next, club counsel should review matters of legal importance currently or that might come before the board in the near term. Further, counsel should advise the new board member of the legal requirements and responsibilities of a board member serving within the club’s jurisdiction.

Next, the club manager should review the club’s organization of management, current capital and operating budgets, taking the time to answer all questions from the incoming board member.

Finally, the board president should confirm the fiduciary duties of all board members: duties of care, loyalty, obedience and confidentiality.

Part Three: One-on-One Interviews with Key Stakeholders

Step three in the orientation process is scheduling one-on-one meetings with each of the board officers followed by meetings with each sitting board member. Among the questions that should be addressed to benefit the newcomer:

  • What are the strategic goals for the club?
    • What is the fiscal policy of the club?
    • What are the pressing matters before the board currently?
    • What are the keys to being an effective board member at this club?
    • Are there any ‘sacred cow’ guidelines within the board?

A key point of emphasis during all meetings for a new board member is to note the congruency and alignment of the various stakeholders.

Part Four: Reviewing and Understanding the Governing Process

The club’s bylaws, board policy manual, Form-990, strategic plan and prior year auditor’s letter are critical documents for new board members to understand the vision, mission and financial position of the club.

They are mandatory reading. New board members should also be provided with information related to board meeting policies, proce- dures and expectations. This part of the orientation provides an opportunity for club leaders to answer all questions and/or concerns thoughtfully and promptly.

Part Five: Summary of Board Priorities, Goals and Objectives

The objective of the board orientation is not to tell new board members what to think and do. Rather, a new board member orientation helps to fully inform and provide a mutually understood commitment to sound governance.

Among the most common current board priorities are:

  • Fiscal/Financial Discipline.
    • Member Experience/Engagement.
    • Capital Maintenance/Improvements.
    • Talent Recruitment/Retention.
    • Brand Management/Reach.

New board members should understand how and why the board determined these to be strategic priorities. Further, it is important that new board members understand how the board knows or knew why these priorities should be priorities; attitudinal surveys of members are a common reference point for boards.

5 Most Common Missteps to Avoid in Board Orientations

Five common errors evident in private clubs—however well intended—are:

  1. Document Dumping. The club assembles all necessary board reference materials in a three-ring binder and advises the board member to read the materials before their first meeting.
  2. Laissez-Faire Attitude. “This is no big deal. I’m sure you know more about board service than I know.” This is not board orientation and serves to diminish the significant responsibility one assumes as a director.
  3. Dictatorial Approach. In an effort to be serious-minded and dedicated, some board chairs and club managers over-emphasize the onboarding process, causing new board members to question whether their input will be heard along with their willingness to serve.
  4. Violating Confidentiality. Putting a new board member to work is not about sharing the club gossip and violating board confidentiality standards. Some involved in orienting new board members overlook the weighty responsibility of servant leadership.
  5. Making Orientation Voluntary. A variation of a laissez- faire approach is to make new board orientation “optional.” Clubs that commit this error leave their board members flying blind and uncertain of key aspects and duties that they are assuming.

The quality of the orientation process is a reflection of your club and its governing effectiveness. A thoughtful, well-run process will ensure your new board members come to their first meeting with full confidence they have the knowledge they need to contribute intelligently and enthusiastically. They will be prepared.