Finding Your Voice at the Boardroom Table

Written by:
Deborah Rosati, FCPA, FCA, ICD.D
Corporate Director , Founder & CEO, Women Get On Board Inc

What does it mean to find your voice at the boardroom table when you are a new board member appointed to a board that has longstanding relationships? Or a new Chair of the Board is appointed and you have never worked together? Or when you are the “token” woman at the boardroom table?

How do you break in with credibility and build trust with your board colleagues? There are five tips I would like to share in helping you find your voice at the boardroom table:

1. Onboarding

An onboarding process is set up to ensure that new board members familiarize themselves with the company, the industry it competes within, and the governance practices it’s ruled by. Its purpose is also to familiarize new board members, like yourself, with people you will be working with, such as other board members and members of the senior management team. It’s not uncommon that new board members may take up to a year to feel that they have fully completed the onboarding process and can become truly effective in their role.

2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

As a new board member, in addition to your due diligence process (which includes asking for industry reports, reviewing board materials such as minutes of past board meetings or board documents, and taking the time to read up on any applicable legal or regulatory requirements), it’s critical to also get a sense of the expectations and norms before attending your first board meeting. Make sure to get a clear view of what the expectations of you are, what your board mandate is, and what committees will you be serving on. Then, follow up by gathering information about specific board protocols including how far in advance board documents are distributed, how the board conducts business, and start dialogues with other board members about the boardroom dynamic, looking out for cues about boardroom etiquette.

3. Build Out Your Relationships

Some boards have adopted a “buddy system” that takes effect throughout the onboarding period, pairing a tenured board member with a new board member as a way of showing new members “the ropes”. However, when the onboarding process is over, new members are often left to find their own way. As a result, you need to ensure you’re putting in place the systems to find your own mentors to have conversations with and learn from. A great way to find these potential mentors is through observing boardroom dynamic – board members that have a strong hand on the conversation, or those that most closely resemble your own style can be effective role models to learn from.

Yet, while finding a mentor is important, building out relationships of all types is a key pillar of success in the boardroom. There’s no arguing that it takes time to find your voice at the boardroom table, so take that time to start building relationships that will help you ease into the conversation. I suggest meeting with other board members outside of the boardroom and setting up one-to-one meetings with the CEO. It takes time to become an effective board member, but a focus on relationship building and trust building will result in establishing credibility with your fellow board colleagues. This in turn, will help in making valuable contributions in the boardroom, and increasing the level of support you feel around the table.

4. Lean In

The concept of leaning in means to be assertive, to move toward a leadership role rather than a follower’s role. Imagine a round table discussion, the most active participants are the ones physically leaning forward into the table and the discussion, while those who are willing to take a back-seat approach are usually in a more passive, distanced position. So, how does one lean in at the boardroom table?

Start by taking a leadership role on a particular topic, issue, or governance process on which you have specialized expertise. For instance, I have been asked to “lean in” on certain due diligence processes as part of an M&A transaction. Also, you might “lean in” as the Chair of the Nominating & Compensation Committee, where you might have the opportunity to lead the process in engaging outside advisors to provide an Executive & Directors Compensation review. Yet another great example is leading a board renewal process and ensuring your board is advancing gender diversity in the boardroom.

Most importantly, remember, the roles on which you “lean in” on may relate to your specific board committee, but can also take place outside of the boardroom, so make sure to seize these opportunities.

5. Stand Up for What You Believe In

My last piece of advice is to stand up for what you believe in, form a clear point of view, and most importantly, never feel pressured into making a board decision you do not agree with.

All else said, the board selected you based on your expertise/skills, strategic insight, and leadership track record, so if after hearing out the table on a discussion, something doesn’t feel right, stand behind your instincts. There is no lesser way of demonstrating your value than by following someone you disagree with because of a willingness to stay quiet. Even if this means that you have to fall down and pick yourself back up, put yourself out there, make yourself visible, and be fearless, because the only way to be heard is to speak up.

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