Onboarding Directors: Is It Possible Now?

In the midst of a global pandemic, boards need new directors who can jump in to help quickly. But can that happen in a virtual world?

For decades, it was the same routine. Newly elected board members would prepare for their role by taking a deep dive into the organization, getting a tour of a facility if possible, and ultimately gathering with the entire board for dinner the night before the first meeting. Few ever thought of changing this “onboarding” process.

Now, of course, everyone must. The coronavirus has essentially wiped out much of the personal approach that generally helped directors become valuable assets sooner. In the midst of a global pandemic, new directors—including many who are needed right away—are forced to jump in via emails and video calls. The process is far from ideal. “It’s a temporary fix, but it can’t replace face-to-face interaction,” says Joe Griesedieck, vice chairman and managing director of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice.

To be sure, many boards are simply pausing the electing and onboarding of new directors until at least the fall, when they are hoping in-person meetings with the full board can begin again. But not every board has the luxury of time. Some boards need to fill vacant director spots now. “They need the new expertise to help navigate through the crisis,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice and vice chairman of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice. Or, in the case of one of Stevenson’s recent appointments, the board didn’t want to risk losing the candidate. “Locking in the commitment of a hard-to-get high-caliber director, particularly a diverse one, is definitely an impetus to onboard now,” says Stevenson.

For these boards, the only option is to move to a virtual interviewing, nomination, and voting process not unlike how the organizations they govern are currently hiring talent. That said, experts say some companies are, ironically enough, finding ways to make such impersonal processes somewhat personal.

Instead of the usual interviews by committee, some firm directors now individually call or video chat with newcomers. The fact that these Zoom calls are done against the backdrop of not only a pandemic but also in homes and living rooms only adds to the personal quotient. Similarly, experts say, new directors should turn this new order of onboarding to their advantage—using it as a reason to call individual members instead of having to wait for the full meeting, even if it’s just a quick 15-minute meeting to introduce themselves.

As Andrés Tapia, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and strategist on global diversity and inclusion, sees it, the old process of meeting by committee had some awkwardness built in that one-on-one virtual calls may not. New directors, he notes, usually don’t get in front of the entire board and meet everyone until the first full meeting; that can be intimidating for even the most accomplished director and usually results in a listen-and-observe posture. “With all that is happening, you can’t afford to have a new director you need not be comfortable from the start,” Tapia says. “Their expertise may be needed right away.”

Stevenson says there are positives and negatives to the virtual process. On the one hand, she says, it “levels the playing field for new directors” since all board members are operating the same way. “It makes it easier for them to engage initially because everyone is speaking up relative to their expertise,” she says. There’s a drawback, however: the newcomers can’t as easily observe the dynamics and culture of the board. Stevenson says new directors have to be ultra-aware of how they engage with other board members. “They’ve never been in the same room together,” she says. “Their level of familiarity is different.”