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The Power and Potential of a Virtual Board Orientation

The Power and Potential of a Virtual Board Orientation

By Erin Volland, MPA CAE

There is the line in everyone’s 2020 calendar where plane tickets and hotel reservations shift to virtual meeting appointments. For our personal calendars, the shift might look like cancelled vacations. For our professional calendars, it might be rescheduled annual conferences and house of delegates and board meetings: those events where consequential business still has to take place but no longer can in the traditional face-to-face format.

For many associations this meant rereading bylaws to obtain clarity around the authority to conduct business virtually and moving large governing body meetings to later in the year, or amending governing documents to delegate authority back to the board.

While association leaders were faced with many challenges around shifting their business to provide value in a virtual space, their boards of directors were turning over, which coincided with their (now virtual) annual convention. An essential part of the new board member transition is their orientation. The importance of a board member’s work in advancing strategy and their legal obligations hasn’t changed. With all these shifts, the need for board members to understand their role and be prepared to participate at their highest potential is just as, if not arguably more, important than it was 6 months ago.

Benefits of a Virtual Board Meeting

As frequent governance consultants, students, and teachers of boards, it is no surprise that we had several client board orientations scheduled as in-person events. The question became: do we push the orientations back and hope that the board is able to meet in a few months? Or pilot a virtual board orientation?

A high-performing organization building from strength, such as the (IFT), understands the importance of preparing board members to get the work done. Their mission of advancing the science of food and its applications across the global food system is incredibly important in a pandemic world, and the strategies to achieve that mission will certainly look different today. The more prepared board members are to contribute, the more successful IFT will be in adapting their strategies to meet that mission.

The saying goes “Don’t fix something that’s not broken.” The board orientation model is not broken, but the pandemic broke it for us. Partnering with IFT leadership, we went to work transforming a face-to-face board orientation program into a virtual one.

How to Adapt Face-to-Face Content to a Virtual Board Room

Ensuring that IFT’s goal to educate board members was the focus, we analyzed the face-to-face board orientation content to adapt it to the virtual environment. This meant that some things, like education around fiduciary duties, still worked in the shift to a virtual model. Other things, like small group discussions and participant engagement, had to be adjusted.

There is a lot of wisdom and research on the human attention span (and how short it is). Focusing the educational content for the virtual session and allowing for as much engagement in the orientation process as possible became critical. Sending articles ahead of time to review is often part of the learning module, but now a video on fiduciary duties was also created as prework. This allowed the time structured for the board to be focused. You always take the risk of people not doing their pre-work, but it’s a risk worth taking when building a virtual board session.

The value of the learning that takes place during a discussion cannot be overestimated. Thankfully, virtual platforms like Zoom understand this, too, and have options like Breakout Rooms, which allow for small group discussions as part of a larger meeting. IFT assigned the breakout room participants as they would have with face-to-face discussion groups. IFT also assigned discussion scenarios to foster mentorship and engagement of new board members, which is typically done in-person as well.

Something not to be overlooked when building the virtual board orientation was the culture of the board and organization. IFT’s board culture is very participatory, and in the virtual setting, the board members often just speak rather than using options like chat or hand raising. The preferred methods of engagement are important to know about a board when building the session in order to adapt facilitation styles.

Raise Your Hand, Please

Building on that, facilitation skills might look different, too. Facilitators need a team to help monitor chat, hand raising and verbal discussion to ensure that thoughts are probed and questions are answered. Virtual interaction options have the potential to solve some of the challenges with balancing introverts and extroverts in a discussion. These options allow for people to choose the one they are most comfortable with (e.g., raising hands, using the chat to the group, using chat to one person, or verbally asking questions). This enables different communication preferences to be addressed as long as each option is seen as valuable and the facilitator and meeting hosts recognize content from all areas. This is not for the faint of heart but has great potential.

In building the agenda with IFT, the importance of how this session fit into the whole session schedule, for breaks as well as networking, did not change in a virtual environment.

Focusing on the content and layering in the culture led to a session that was engaging and educational. Participants asked thoughtful questions and provided valuable examples to support themes throughout the virtual session. Whether in small group discussions or in the full group, board members provided their feedback and shared their experiences to ensure the session was individualized to the IFT experience. (Something very important not to lose in a virtual model.)

Planning Ahead

As we do with every session we develop and execute, we evaluated the session with staff and volunteer feedback and have already made adaptations for our future virtual sessions.

With IFT, we learned that it is critically important to engage new board members and be cognizant of their participation in comparison to seasoned board members. IFT recognized how important this is by having assigned board mentors as active participants in the orientation to share their experiences and perspectives for how they prepare and participate on the board. Additionally, having one-on-one chats during breaks with new board members and also having participants change their names to include their board member title (a virtual table tent card!) will help the facilitators and hosts to give extra attention where it is due for future sessions.

Will we eventually return to face-to-face board meetings and board orientations? Undoubtably. We don’t know when or what they will look like exactly, but they will happen again.

In the meantime, we should all continue to build virtual sessions that respect the culture of the board, engagement preferences, content delivery, and achievement of the meeting goal. We also shouldn’t lose the tools we’ve built and the lessons we’ve learned in our virtual board meetings. Just as we took what worked in face-to-face meetings to help shape our virtual sessions, we should take what we’ve learned from virtual meetings and apply it to the new face-to-face meetings.

Until then, we will see you at our next virtual appointment!

Erin Volland, MPA CAE is a senior consultant on the 911 Consulting Team.

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