Board Training: it’s tricky

Board Training: it’s tricky

For some directors training is still a tricky topic.  Maybe it’s the word that puts them off – perhaps a feeling that they’ve done enough training over the past 40-odd years and can’t quite stomach the idea of more classroom time (whether online or in house).  But for many there’s a willing acceptance that they can always learn, that things change and they need to keep up.  What’s more, they don’t like feeling exposed when they know their understanding isn’t where it should be.

But even with a willing board, company secretaries often struggle to put together programmes that hit the mark.  In our board evaluations, we often come across a vague feeling that directors want “training” but they can’t quite put their finger on what’s needed.   So here are a few suggestions on approaches which might help bring more shape to director training, together with a few warning lights.

Good practices to consider…

Ask the executives what they think.  We often hear comments that “the directors could understand x and y better”.  And the executives are in a good place to judge.  They see hesitation in meetings, or can pinpoint where the NEDs might need help because they are feeling the need themselves.

Things to avoid…

Keeping the discussion solely between the company secretary and the non-executives (or worse, just with the Chair).  There often appears to be a reluctance on the part of management to be proactive in suggesting what’s needed, unless it’s in an obviously technically difficult or new area where the need is immediately apparent.  Maybe they are worried about implying the NEDs have gaps.  So don’t sit back and wait for them to come forward – ask!

Good practices to consider…

Give some thought to the name.  Call it “technical briefings” or “deep dive briefing” or something similar.  For some, it’s easier to acknowledge that technical knowledge needs to be kept up to date than to accept that “I need training”.

Things to avoid…

Using the word “training”.  It seems a small point, but it can be off-putting, particularly in more hierarchical cultures where suggesting that the directors need training might be perceived as a sign of weakness.  This might not be entirely rational, but they’re human too… and it’s easier to change the name than to have an argument about it.

Good practices to consider…

Try some different formats.  It’s well-known by the professionals that interactive, people-led sessions are the most effective, even if delivered online.  So that should be applied to director briefings too.  And that doesn’t mean getting a manager to stand in front of 50 slides.  It does mean well-structured briefings led by someone (in-house or external) who knows how to communicate and how to involve the audience.

Things to avoid…

Sticking to classroom-style briefing.  It’s even less appetising if it’s an information dump squeezed between already long board and committee meetings.  And rethink the whole idea of dry, slide-based presentations that directors are supposed to grind their way through “on the plane”.  Now that dreary reading is having to compete with sitting in the garden with beverage and companion of choice – not a fair contest!

Good practices to consider…

Put the executive directors in the “classroom” too.  They might know it all already (though that might not be true: when did the CEO last have training in anything?)  But in any event, and very usefully, they can help apply the theory to real-life situations and challenges.  That brings it alive and makes the briefing much more effective and interesting.

Things to avoid…

Sticking to classroom-style briefing.  It’s even less appetising if it’s an information dump squeezed between already long board and committee meetings.  And rethink the whole idea of dry, slide-based presentations that directors are supposed to grind their way through “on the plane”.  Now that dreary reading is having to compete with sitting in the garden with beverage and companion of choice – not a fair contest!

Good practices to consider…

Put the executive directors in the “classroom” too.  They might know it all already (though that might not be true: when did the CEO last have training in anything?)  But in any event, and very usefully, they can help apply the theory to real-life situations and challenges.  That brings it alive and makes the briefing much more effective and interesting.

Things to avoid…

Making it an exclusive session for the NEDs.  That might sound tempting – after all, for many topics they are likely to be coming at it at a different level from the executives.  But the purpose is to make sure the NEDs have the knowledge and understanding to enable them to contribute well.  And it will be much more rewarding for management to be part of achieving that, rather than sitting in meetings harbouring doubts about the NEDs’ ability to understand.

Good practices to consider…

Use case studies, whether from your organisation or from elsewhere.   Most of us enjoy discussing other peoples’ problems, so that brings it alive.  And tying the briefing into live issues will make the value of the time much more obvious.

Things to avoid…

Sticking to theory.  Some technical briefing might be needed as a base, but everybody has their limit (and for many people, that limit reduces with age and practical experience).  More importantly, it’s just not an effective way of communicating.  But if you simply ask a manager to put a “briefing” together, theory is what you’re likely to get.

Good practices to consider…

Keep it short(ish).  It’s better to have two one-hour sessions than one two-hour briefing where people switch off for the second half.

Things to avoid…

Killing appetites before you’ve even started.  Even the prospect of a long session can be enough to dampen enthusiasm.  And then, once it’s started, a certain weariness will set in.  Always leave the audience wanting more!

Good practices to consider…

Keep track of who’s doing what and when outside the organisation, and encourage NEDs to take advantage of what’s available.  Many professional advisory firms offer technical briefings, frequently to a high standard and with the added benefit of discussion with NEDs from a variety of other boards.

Things to avoid…

Being in the dark about how your NEDs are keeping up to speed.  In regulated entities this matters from a formal viewpoint: you may well have to provide information on NED training.  But all organisations should be keeping sight of how the NEDs are updating their skills.  And getting feedback on their experience might help others on the Board.

Good practices to consider…

Use the board’s skills matrix to get a picture of the breadth of expertise and knowledge that is relevant to the board and its work.  Then ensure that all the important topics are being covered by someone, not just to fill any gaps but also in staying up to date on everything that matters.

Things to avoid…

Leaving it entirely to individuals to decide their own needs, without putting it in the context of the needs of the board taken as a whole.   Make sure that the dull but important stuff gets shared around.  (But avoid the extreme of having highly expert NEDs who can only contribute in their own specialist areas.)

Good practices to consider…

Put weight behind the briefing programme.  The Chair should be communicating the importance of completing the sessions.

Things to avoid…

Giving out the implicit message that briefing and refresh sessions are optional.  Or that missing them doesn’t matter.  The Chair’s periodic reviews of individual director performance should include a discussion of needs – and of involvement.

If you would like to know more about Independent Audit’s board evaluation and governance services, please contact remneek.sangar@independentaudit.com www.independentaudit.com



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