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Five Tips for New Directors

Dear Mary: 

I’m new to our board, appointed after a longtime member stepped down. I’ve met some of the other members, but I don’t have real relationships with any of them yet. I have lots of ideas for things we can start doing or do differently; I’m just not sure how to make that happen. Any suggestions for getting off on the right foot and becoming a member with influence?  

— New in NoHo


Dear New:

Congratulations on your appointment — and for thinking about how to get off on the right foot. How you start will make a big difference in how influential — or marginal — a board member you become. Will others embrace your ideas? Or will they see you as “that know-it-all who came in telling us we’re doing everything wrong — and who we thus decided to ignore?” Commit to a few basic guidelines to avoid that fate and, in the bargain, get your ideas adopted. 


Don’t rush it. Gaining influence takes time. Board members are not thinking: “Thank goodness [insert your name] is here to set us straight!” Pushing your ideas on Day 1 is not your path to success. You’ll need to invest some time before others will see you as having valuable contributions worth considering. 


Get to know the players. You need more than a nodding acquaintance with your new colleagues. At the very least, develop a relationship with the board president. You don’t need to vacation together, but you do need to start having conversations. Observe the dynamics at board meetings. To whom do members listen? Who seems amenable to chatting with the newbie? Introduce yourself to each member — face-to-face if you can, via Zoom if you can’t. 


Ask questions first. Before you tell, you need to ask. And listen to the answers! You may think you know why things are a certain way and why the board has made particular decisions, but you probably don’t. Is there something that seems like such an obvious fix that you can’t imagine why the board hasn’t done it? That’s a reliable sign that you need to ask before you offer your solution. Model your approach on what many newly elected politicians do: Have a “listening tour” with your new colleagues.  


Watch your delivery. Not all ways of asking questions and suggesting changes are equally effective. Be careful of “why” questions, which can elicit defensiveness. Instead of “Why is our leasing process so bureaucratic?” try “How well do you think our leasing process is working?” Or “What do you think is working well and not working well?” Make suggestions respectfully, and avoid sounding judgmental. No one appreciates the implication that they’re stupid, ineffective or uncaring. 


Pick one thing to start. Do you have a long list of changes you want to make? Prioritize the list, and focus on something that’s doable. You won’t gain influence by starting with the in-house equivalent of solving world hunger. You need “demonstration projects” that prove your willingness and ability to contribute. Is there a problem that’s been lingering because no one has the appetite to deal with it? Maybe you can help solve it now. Does a member need a hand with an ongoing project? By helping, you can both show your stuff and build a relationship.  


As much as you may want to hit the ground running with all your ideas, that’s typically not how it works. Instead, build lasting influence through this more deliberate approach.


Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.

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