Business development 5 May 2017

How to make a good impression at your first board meeting

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The boardroom can be a testing environment

Your first board meeting as a company director is something of a rite of passage. Here, co-chief executive at Board Intelligence, Pippa Begg, tells readers how to make a good first impression.

Let’s be honest, if you are a newly-appointed director your first board meeting is bound to be daunting. There’s every chance that in the days leading up to it you’ll have some sleepless nights and a rising sense of foreboding.

Of course, it hasn’t helped if – courtesy of a ‘well-meaning’ colleague – you’ve heard that a poor personal performance at the boardroom table can spell career doom, and that any mistake will be most severely punished.

Let me reassure you from dealing with hundreds of boards and board meetings over many years, your first board meeting is far more likely to be something of an anti-climax.  Unless something exceptional is happening at the time in your company, a routine board meeting is likely to be slow, painstaking and largely uneventful.

But these are no reasons to drop your guard. The reality is that the boardroom is a testing environment and as we all know, with human nature being what it is, that colleagues will form quick judgments, often within the first 20 seconds of an interaction.

In short, one’s first board meeting is hardly the place to drop the ball. So what can you do to succeed and make the best first impression?

Prepare!  I don’t just mean read the board papers, which is a given but no small task in itself. Many board packs run into the hundreds of pages, and some as many as a thousand pages. Recent research found that to read everything in the board pack you’ll need to dedicate a day.

But, real preparation involves going the extra mile. Ask yourself what’s missing from the board papers? What’s your take on your main competitors, or on current customer feedback, or your company’s coverage in the media?  Spend time on desk research and cover the ground to be up to speed.

To properly think about all the conversations a board should be having, consider these six questions in advance of the meeting. Each relate either to ‘steering’ or ‘supervising’ your business’s development.

Steering

  • Do we have the right strategy?
  • How can we work smarter?
  • What culture and policies do we need?

Supervising

  • Is our strategy on track?
  • Will we hit this year’s targets?
  • Are we working in the right way?

Ideally, in good time for the meeting you would have already received an induction pack, with background information and the foundations you need to make it make sense.

Good induction packs go well beyond the board’s terms of reference, articles and past board papers. They should clearly articulate the value drivers and risks within the business and provide a clear representation of the business model.

You’ll also want to know about shareholders and key stakeholders. If your company is listed on a stock market, get some sense of recent trading in your shares and what’s effecting their performance. But look also at the broader stakeholder piece which can often be missing.

And when reading the board papers try not to be distracted by clarification details.  A good director looks at the big picture, so ask yourself what are the main messages and trends, and of course their implications. Ask where can you best support the business by bringing to bear your experience and advice.

Good board members don’t just provide the Spanish inquisition, they see things that have been missed, they uncover issues through constructive challenge, they give back, they add value, they advise.

And good board members deliver their messages diplomatically but with confidence. Too often you will see the ‘alpha’ personality on the board aggressively attacking a colleague to make the point. This gives questioning and probing a bad name.

Being an effective board member is about the right questions and best advice, but the art is how you ask those questions. EQ triumphs over IQ in many boardrooms.

Pippa Begg is Co-Chief Executive at board performance specialists, Board Intelligence.

Read our interview with Brompton Bikes CEO Will Butler-Adams, who thinks success should be measured by continuous screw-ups. 

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