Cast your mind back to just before you started secondary school; prim and proper, excited, but nervous of the terrible things rumoured to come in the deep and dangerous waters of “Big School”.
Unless you were particularly unlucky, the rumours all turned out to be false, and your imagined worst case scenario was poles apart from the shark-infested waters it was cracked up to be.
Today, many years later, if you’re a director about to attend your first ever board meeting, you may well be hearing similar tall tales of impending doom.
Every firm has its share of Jeremiahs, and at least one of them is likely to have whispered in your ear, warning that failure to impress at your first board meeting will cast a lingering pall over the rest of your career.
But just as you escaped having your head held down while the school bully flushed the lavatory, I can reassure you from dealing with hundreds of boards over the years that attending your first board meeting is far from entering the lion’s den.
Instead, your first board meeting will be something of an anti-climax. While it won’t be hostile, neither will it be full of brilliant insights and fascinating news – more’s the pity.
The reality will be a meeting that is almost certainly too long, largely uneventful, and where much of the time is spent dealing with financial reports and items for noting.
In preparation for writing this piece, I contacted some experienced directors for their views about their first board meetings, which they were more than happy to give off the record.
One said that her first meeting felt like a reporting shop rather than a forum for strategic debate.
Another admitted to being shocked by the sheer amount of time spent on compliance and policing, with so little time left for everything else.
A third said reading the board pack before the meeting felt like drinking water from a fire hose.
But that aside, a board meeting is still a testing environment. And whether you like it or not, your fellow directors will be scrutinising your contributions and passing judgements on your performance. So, you have been warned – first impressions count.
But how to make the best first impression? I’m sorry to wheel out the old cliche, but if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Prepare to fail
Give yourself plenty of time to read the board pack properly. These days, some packs can be hundreds of pages long. Recent research by Board Intelligence and Cambridge Judge Business School found that to read everything in a standard size board pack you’ll need to dedicate a day.
Treat reading the board pack as the bare minimum in terms of preparation, however.
To make the best impression you’ll need to go the extra mile.
So, bone up as well on the big picture. Have views ready, even if they are never needed, on the current performances of your main competitors, on your media coverage, and on innovation in the industry.
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.
Go for the jugular
Only blustering directors with confidence issues go for a colleague’s jugular in board meetings. Good board members ask their questions diplomatically but with confidence. And their questions are not about catching people out, but are to ensure all angles have been properly covered.
In summary, being an effective board member is about asking the right questions and giving the best advice, but the art is how to ask those questions. And learning how to do that comes with practice and time.
Pippa Begg is director of Board Intelligence.