Insights Blog

Advice for first-time board directors

As they pursue the benefits of diversity, corporate boards are transforming - changing the way they operate, expanding their purview, and bringing on more first-time and diverse directors than ever. To uncover best practices of diverse boards and help boards navigate this period of change, Better Boards Initiative interviewed 103 experienced directors serving on diverse boards with two or more women and/or people of color. This first report of BBl’s Best Practice Research focuses on practical onboarding advice for new directors.

BoardReady is fortunate to work with organizations like The Better Boards Initiative. We sat down with BBI co-founder Cate Goethals to discuss the report.

In your ideal world, how would you like to see the Better Business InitiativeReport distributed and used?

I’d love to see new directors gain confidence and contribute even more quickly andeffectively.  The boardroom is a specialized world with its own rules of engagement and cultures that can behard to read.  Women and people of color have so much to bring to corporations and their communities to make thembetter.  I want them to hit the ground running.  


For this report, you asked your interviewees two questions: “What do you wish you had known when you joined your first board?” And “What advice do you have for new directors?” What led you to settle on these two questions specifically?


They were the first two questions in a longer interview.  We chose the first question to encourage our interviewees to share their personal experience and anecdotes on all the questions. Directors don’t talk much on what actually happens in the boardroom; we wanted to surface the stories that new directors haven’t been hearing.  The second question is what we wanted: advicefor new directors.  Sometimes the two answers were linked, sometimes not.


Was there a single piece of advice that seemed to best sum up the feedback in the report?


That the most important board dynamics happen beneath the surface of meetings and the official agenda…and that relationships matter more than anything.  As one interviewee put it, the official agenda is “Kabuki Theater” for what is going on in the rest of the company.  Another said she wished she’d had a “decoder ring” for understanding her first board. This report is designed to serve as that decoder ring for new directors.


The BBI report interviewees were an impressively diverse group of sitting directors. Was there any advice that the diverse directors in your sample emphasized particularly for new diverse directors?


That it’s particularly important to find ways to contribute quickly since their perspective is different and valuable and needed.  The women and people of color we interviewed, like diverse directors in general, brought with them many other levels of diversity - they tended to be younger, a few were LGBTQ, they had strategic expertise that reached beyond the more traditional finance.  It’s hard for a new director to navigate topics that the others have been discussing for months or years, but they can draw immediately on their own experience in many ESG conversations.  As one diverse director put it, it’s OK to just jump in and “start swimming along.”


One of the focuses throughout the report is the benefit of building relationships with other board members. Given the current trend toward digital networks, are those relationships that can be developed online, or should new directors commit the extra effort to meet up in-person?


Most directors recommended meeting frequently - the gift of Zoom - but building relationships in person as much as possible, ideally at least twice per person per year.


Were there any “new director tendencies” that came up in your interviews that new directors might want to avoid?


To be driven by insecurity to either clam up or talk too much out of a need to prove yourself.  Build your confidence offline by asking a mentor director newbie questions and requesting feedback.  Earn your place by contributing thoughtfully and selectively.


You mention in your summary that this is the “first report of BBI’s Best Practice Research.” Are you able to give us a preview of what to expect in further reports?


Our interviews were quite rich with insights.  We’ll have at least two other reports, a shorter one on how diversity adds value in the actual experience of sitting directors - what does it look like in the boardroom?  Then at least one on the best practices for diverse boards.

For the full Better Boards Initiative Report and all of its insights, please follow this link.