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The Undervalued Use of Mentors for Boards

Peer mentoring is a powerful piece of an onboarding program. Boards can use these to great effect and in a variety of ways. It may be speeding up the learning time of a new director or improving performance and rapport. Organizations can and should formalize these programs to make sure they cover the full range of the many items and provide some accountability.

 

By Kevin Smith

The topic of mentoring came back to the surface for me recently while working with a local nonprofit here in Madison, WI where I live. (When I say that 99% of my work is with credit unions, now you’ll know where that other 1% is.) A director who had joined the board last year was talking about how overwhelmed she was with the role as board member. And she had been volunteering with the organization for years previous to her invitation to the board. She was struggling to find out where her voice was relevant and wanted. There were cultural issues where she learned about the two people who did most of the talking in the meetings. Some logistical issues arose about finding documents in the Google drive and who was allowed to edit or touch what in the files. The rest of her colleagues then lamented her experiences and talked about how they could’ve helped her. It was a clear case where a formal mentor program would have made all the difference.

Anecdotally, I can say that more credit union boards are incorporating mentoring programs, but I don’t get the sense that it’s nearly as common as it should be, nor are they as comprehensive as would be ideal for those that are using them. This is a great opportunity.

From Informal to Formal

If you’ve heard me speak, you’ll know that when asked a question, my answer is typically, “it depends.” Like most things in the credit union space, what kind of program you set up will depend on the nature of the board, its culture and resources. And these will range from informal to formal on a wide spectrum. I lean towards the more formal side of this spectrum. The complexities of credit unions and board work in order to be higher performing are moving in that formal direction with a need for guardrails and accountability. But let’s consider some of the things that I’ve witnessed on both sides.

Informal

Some “mentors” and mentorship programs are simply a veteran director who offers to “help out” a rookie. This is often very lax and reactive, where the mentor offers an email and a cell phone number and in invitation to “call if you have any questions.” While helpful, new directors often don’t know what they don’t know and need some more directed guidance.

Formal

On the formal side of things, I’ve seen programs that are so overloaded with meetings, checklists and trainings that it overwhelms both the mentor and the mentee. This removes the human element that we love so much about our industry, as well as the flexibility to address the volunteer nature of the work.

I defer these days to the slightly more formal approach to make sure that this is comprehensive, organized and that it gets done in a proactive way for the mentee.

Timeline

A good program should be at least a year, maybe more. It depends. (My favorite phrase.) In the first few weeks and months several calls and meetings are important. My approach is to let that evolve to a monthly call or meeting, with another review just before board meetings. These can be short, 30 – 60 minutes, to be efficient and avoid overwhelming either participant. This also allows for some repetition for material that will take time to sink in.

Topics

If I say “it depends” again you’re going to close this, run away and never come back. So, I’ll suggest that you take a close look at the background of the mentee to determine what topics need the most attention. But here are some obvious choices:

  • Credit union financials (these can take a long time to really understand).
  • Review of the board’s agendas over a year and several board packets.
  • Industry trends and strategies
  • A full year of events at the organization and how the board is involved.

*These suggestions are beyond the formal training courses that are required of the new director, and there should be some.

A Less Obvious Choice

Mentors can really help a rookie by giving a human description of the personalities of the people on the board, the CEO and senior leadership. This includes a discussion of the culture of the group. (“Oh, when Ralph brings something up, you have to know that he’s an extravert and has to talk things out to know what he really thinks. He doesn’t expect us to act on everything he brings up.”) These discussions are invaluable in giving a rookie confidence and understanding quickly, so that they can contribute as soon as possible.

Who’s a Good Mentor

Be careful in your choices for mentors. Not everyone is cut out for this. Look for those who are willing, experienced, dependable, with available time. A good mentor will be proactive and identify areas that will come up and be consistent but flexible.

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