Q:  We hold an annual orientation in January, but every year it’s the same thing…. Board members argue about who should attend. Our philosophy has been to invite everyone, but longer-serving individuals push back saying that they’ve “been there and done that.” What generally happens is that they don’t show up. Since I’m chairing the orientation, I want to know if I should just cave and invite only the new directors this year. Your advice and any suggestions would be appreciated.

 

A:  Don’t cave, PLEASE! In fact, I’d do more than just invite everyone. I’d make their attendance mandatory.  But, I’d also ensure that I was making it a worthwhile experience for old and new directors alike.

I think it’s essential that all directors are at all orientations for a number of reasons. First, I don’t care if longer-tenured directors think they’ve heard it all. Some may have missed the meeting where critical information was shared. Or, they might have tuned out at the most inopportune moment. Even if they heard the information, they may not have processed it thoroughly or correctly. It never hurts to have key information reinforced – especially when these very individuals are going to have to make informed decisions on the basis of this information. As important, however, is that orientations are the perfect time to initiate the bonding process. Decision making – at least good decision making – requires creativity and the challenge of assumptions. These behaviors will not occur without the existence of trust and cohesion. It’s hard to build trust and cohesion throughout the board as a whole if each “class” is treated as a unique cohort.

I suggest making attendance mandatory, because once one director doesn’t show, I guarantee that the rate of no-shows will grow exponentially each year thereafter. But, this doesn’t mean that you have to torture long-time directors by doing the same thing over and over again. Consider some of the following ideas.

Have some of your most experienced directors work with some of the newest to create the orientation program. People are more likely to show up – and be excited about it – if they had a hand in the planning. The experienced directors bring organizational memory and culture to the table. The newer directors know what they didn’t learn, and what they wished they had.

Don’t call it an orientation. People hear “orientation” and they think basic and boring. Choose something creative and inviting, perhaps “a day of vision insights” or “a peek behind the curtain.”

You can’t cover everything a new director needs to know, especially in a single session, so don’t even try. Focus instead on what the board will be focusing on this year. Will attention be on increasing awareness of your issue?  Create a program that teaches directors how they can help the organization do this successfully. You will find ways to integrate the basics without making the time together about the basics. For instance, you can’t increase awareness about your organization’s issue without knowing the mission and vision, but that doesn’t mean you have to present the mission and vision as statements to memorize.

Consider how to make the experience fun and memorable. Can you choose an intriguing, yet appropriate venue? I know one board that held its orientation in a limousine!  (Long story, but trust me, it was absolutely the right thing for what the group wanted to accomplish.) What about presenting material in the form of word puzzles or a game of Jeopardy? You can find web-based programs that will allow you to create both for free. (Two examples are www.CrosswordPuzzleGames.com and http://sourceforge.net/projects/byojeopardy/.) Perhaps you can create a skit or have attendees fill in a timeline that reflects the organization’s history. Hold a mock trial or have the group create a video. Encourage people to work and laugh together. Provide prizes.

What? You say that your directors are serious-minded and will rebel against anything like the above? First, if you are involving your directors from the start, they will know how far out on the limb to go. Second, play is serious business. Studies show it builds teams, a common language and innovation. Third, if the play is designed around the objectives of the session and time is spent debriefing each exercise, people are less likely to revolt than if the play is designed for the sake of play.

Serve food.  Yes, it matters. Become known for serving good food and people will show up just for that. Of course they’ll benefit from the information they’re fed at the same time! Food also provides increased opportunities for networking among your directors. If we go back to the beginning of this article, creating a bonded board is one of the most valuable reasons for having an orientation in the first place.

Finally, put the date of the orientation on the calendar early, and remind people to keep that date open. Don’t make last minute changes unless acts of God or war intervene! In that way, you are reinforcing the criticality of attendance.

If you incorporate these ideas into your plans, you’ll have people raving about their orientation experience. That will make getting people to attend next year that much easier.