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How to Onboard Directors, Especially First-time Directors

June 8, 2021

Startup Boards for CEO’s Series: Post 7 of 10

I’ve written a lot in the past about how to successfully onboard new employees and senior employees in particular. I’ve often said that the hiring process doesn’t end on the employee’s first day. The same goes for new board members – you have to take their onboarding as seriously as you take their hiring process.

The good news is that, if you have a hiring process that looks anything like mine you’ll have done a few important things before the new director’s first official board meeting. They’ll have met with every other board member, and with you multiple times. They’ll have met with one or more members of your executive team. They’ll even have attended a board meeting as an active observer, with you prepping them and reviewing your materials and financials ahead of time. Foundry Group partner and long-time CEO Chris Moody sent around some best practices for onboarding a board member that emphasize this last point well:

Make sure the new person is fully ramped on the financials before attending the first meeting as an official board member by walking them through the financials line-by-line. This isn’t just about reviewing the board deck in advance, but giving the new member an opportunity to ask dumb/basic questions before the first meeting.

There are a few other best practices when onboarding directors that can happen either prior to the person’s first meeting or in the person’s first 90 days on the board. These come from a mix of my own experience and various blog posts from Brad Feld and Fred Wilson, and from Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani’s book Startup Boards. These points are valid for onboarding any director but ESPECIALLY useful if onboarding a first-time board member.

  • Give the new director a “Board Buddy” other than you – a fellow director who can be the person at the other end of the Batphone when they have a question they don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable asking you
  • Make sure your new director has a 1:1 meeting with every senior executive in the company – or at least those with whom the board has regular interactions. Building those personal relationships will help the new director understand multiple perspectives on the company and extend the director’s impact on the organization
  • Besides reviewing financials, either you or your CFO or even your lawyer should spend a few extra minutes with the new director to familiarize them with the legal structure and capitalization of the company and the current business model. If the person is a first-time director and has never attended any formal director/governance training, invite them to spend a few minutes with your lawyer to understand a director’s fiduciary duties
  • If you’re a more mature company, you can have someone on your team help compile a formal board orientation package with org charts, bios execs and of other directors, contact information, past Board minutes
  • When there’s no pandemic going on, invite the director to spend a day or two at the company’s office, wandering around, meeting other employees, and attending an executive team meeting or all-hands meeting (some of which can be done remotely as well).
  • Check in more formally with the new director after their first couple of board meetings to get feedback on you, the company and the meeting; give any feedback on how they are showing up as a director if you have it; and make sure they understand all the issues that you care about and that were discussed and don’t have any lingering questions

All of this will be an immense help in getting your new board members up to speed. By taking board onboarding as seriously as you take your executive hiring process, you’ll derive more value out of each board meeting, strategic conversation, introduction, and negotiation that takes place.

-Matt Blumberg, June 8th, 2021.