New directors face social pressures as boards become more diverse

It takes courage to walk into a room full of strangers, especially when those strangers know each other well, speak the same shorthand, and behave according to an unspoken code of conduct.

But dozens of new administrators have summoned the confidence to enter these rooms in recent years. And with boards increasingly prioritizing diversity — gender, race and even work experience — their recruits are more likely to be people with no leadership experience, says organizational psychologist Laryssa Topolnytsky, associate of the consulting and talent firm Heidrick & Struggles.

This radical change provides a unique opportunity to design new guidelines during the introductory period, which is an underestimated but essential part of the onboarding process. Several consultants and organizations, like the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), offer excellent certification and training programs, says Topolnytsky, who leads his company’s CEO and board consulting practice in Americas. But she pushes new directors to go further, by educating them about group dynamics and culture long before their first board meeting.

New board members should strive to build strong interpersonal relationships from the start, she says, and understand the values ​​and motivations of other directors so they are comfortable enough to disagree. during meetings “and make the best decisions as a group”.

“At this level of business success, you’re going to meet great personalities,” says Topolnytsky. First encounters with powerful, even legendary leaders can be exciting. But they can also be stressful, especially if the business is in crisis. Boards of directors meet far less often than management teams, she notes, making it more difficult to build trust quickly.

Here are some of the tips she shares with newbies:

  • Confirm that the table is inclusive. New board members from underrepresented groups might ask themselves two questions: How open is the board to someone like me, with my unique skills? And does this council choose me because I am underrepresented or because of my expertise? Speak with the head of the nominating and governance committee or the chair of the board of directors to assess the level of inclusiveness. (The vast majority of boards, especially at larger companies, understand why boards need to be diverse, Topolnytsky points out.)
  • Research. Turn to online resources and your research firm to get a sense of your fellow board members and what motivates them. Look beyond LinkedIn for interviews and press videos, such as TED Talks. These are the places to get “rich” information, Topolnytsky says. “Are they succinct? Are they more expansive? Do they have causes close to their hearts? »
  • Book one-on-one. Proactively schedule meetings with all members, especially those you haven’t met yet, ideally before the first board meeting. Continue to meet regularly. Topolnytsky recommends setting up at least one meeting before and after each group board meeting for the first year.

The responsibility of fitting in with other board members should not rest solely with newcomers. Board chairs and committee heads also have a duty to get to know new directors well and understand what they have to offer, Topolnytsky says. One piece of advice she gives to chairpersons is to look at the meeting agenda and identify areas where new members can lead a discussion and flex their subject matter expertise, rather than expecting ‘they make their way into the conversation, if at all.

NACD CEO Peter Gleason says expectations have changed for new directors. In the past, “people would take their time, sit down and listen to several board meetings before getting into the conversation,” he says. Fortune. “You don’t have that luxury anymore.”

It should be noted that for new directors from underrepresented backgrounds, there is also a risk in being a polite and silent observer when they debut. “Research shows that for some underrepresented groups, this could fuel unconscious bias some people might have” about their merits, Topolnytsky says. In other words, speak early.

Lila MacLellan
[email protected]


By the way, I’m also new here. I recently joined Fortune, and this is my first newsletter as a senior editor for The Modern Council.

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