What to expect from your first board meeting
Attending a board meeting for the first time can be nerve-racking.
Even though you’re an experienced professional, confident in your skills, you may still feel awkward, lacking confidence, and unsure of yourself before your first board meeting.
This is natural whether you are a CEO making your first presentation to the board or a first-time non-executive director.
How long is a board meeting?
Typically board meetings are held every two to three months and can last two to six hours.
If the meeting is in person, it will almost certainly be catered for with drinks and snacks, and whoever is in charge will most likely schedule a few breaks.
The pauses will be brief enough to have a coffee or use the restroom because the goal of each board meeting is to be as efficient with time as possible.
If you need a break, feel free to request one.
The board meeting agenda
Board meetings follow a set order of events, so knowing the agenda is a good idea.
Before the meeting starts in earnest and members put topics up for decision and debate, the board will review the minutes from the previous meeting and the business that emerged from the last meeting.
The chair will then open the new discussion, take roll calls, and ask if anyone has any conflicts of interest with any of the items on the agenda.
The next step could be a strategy update, depending on how strategic your board is.
Small details not requiring action or conversation during the meeting, such as upcoming events or correspondence received, will be documented in a “items for noting” section.
Finally, the chair will open the floor to questions and remarks about items outside the agenda.
It may seem obvious, but dressing the part is essential for your first board meeting as it will give you confidence and show others you care.
Prepare an outfit before the meeting so you have one less thing to worry about.
If you need help deciding what to wear, ask your chair if there is a dress code or if the organisation is more formal or relaxed.
In any case, make sure to incorporate some of your particular flair into the mix.
Read the board pack as well as previous packs
This is crucial. Ensure you set aside enough time to study the board pack, which can be extensive.
If you’re joining the board for the first time, review the previous half dozen board packs to get a sense of the issues discussed and how the board operates.
A board pack is a compilation of materials and information delivered to board members before the meeting, so you can contact other directors to request past packs for your review.
You can also research the organisation and the market for adequate context to proceed confidently.
Remember, being overprepared is always good, especially when trying to calm your nerves.
Research your fellow board members
Before your first board meeting, research the people who will be at the board meetings with you. Are they executive directors or non-executive directors?
What areas of expertise do they bring to the table?
Connect with them on LinkedIn and observe the type of content they share; what interests them?
“If nothing else, do this out of courtesy,” says David Duffy, CEO of the Corporate Governance Institute. “Know who’s who and their different roles, as well as their backgrounds and skills.”
When joining a board, it is critical to learn who else is on the board and why they are there.
“Some may be shareholders, while others may be independent directors, and you’ll want to think about, or at least have a concept of, the potential topics that may arise.”
You can contact your fellow directors before and after the meeting to develop healthy working relationships.
This will help with team building, which is critical because board members only meet a few times yearly.
You can also meet each person for coffee before your first meeting.
“It helps to break the ice and develop relationships,” says Duffy.
Back yourself and don’t be afraid of probable disagreements
It’s natural to be nervous and have a little bit of imposter syndrome. However, back yourself. You’ve made it this far for a reason.
Prepare to explain to the other directors why you’ve come and what you hope to contribute.
Remembering your ‘why’ will give you a sense of purpose and instil confidence if you feel anxious or out of place.
If you’re a new director, remember that you are in the room because you bring unique talents, experience, and knowledge to the table.
You may be privy to some discussions or conflicts during your first board meeting, especially if you’re dealing with sensitive topics, and there’s nothing wrong with that (as long as everyone remains courteous).
Effective boards are likely to have some disputes, which is good because it indicates diverse thinking.
“It’s healthy to discuss a contentious topic with other directors in the lead-up to board meetings where you know there will be some challenges or differences of opinion,” suggests Duffy.
“You must ensure that there is trust and respect among directors, or else the board will become quite dysfunctional.”
Make your presence felt, but avoid standing out
At the meeting, it’s a balance of absorbing and getting context while adding value.
For the first couple of meetings, err on the side of two ears and one mouth.
“Instead of making assertions or judgments, ask questions. Share your observations,” says Duffy.
Become a certified board director
Board directors courses are essential director training for board members.
Corporate governance training is something every aspiring board member should take as it prepares you to be an effective director.
By effective, we mean having a deep insight into board governance and the mindset you need to perform at the highest level in the boardroom.
After the meeting, request a debriefing
It’s good to ask the chair or another director to debrief you after your first board meeting.
Ask questions such as: Was that a typical board meeting? Have I correctly evaluated the board dynamics? How should my participation evolve for the next time?
“Too often, you do all this preparation for board meetings, and then it finishes, and people don’t speak again until the next board meeting,” says Duffy.
“You have to ensure that the conversations continue, that there is continued momentum, which is why you have subcommittees and other things, but you should also make time to reflect on the meeting.
Being on a board has many complexities; some issues cannot be addressed in a single board meeting.
Once you have taken part in two or more meetings, you will get into your comfort zone and should be able to contribute well, which is why you are there in the first place.