Joann Lublin wrote a Wall Street Journal article this week titled, "Boards Try Buddy System to Get Newcomers Up to Speed." Lublin describes how some boards have assigned mentors to new directors, so that experienced board members can help newcomers assimilate to the culture of the group. Lublin offers the example of Carol Martz mentoring new director Amy Chang at Cisco Systems. She explains,
More boards are pairing new members like Ms. Chang with seasoned mentors like Ms. Bartz as they scramble to improve their oversight of management in the face of intensified investor scrutiny. Board buddies can help newcomers figure out the boardroom’s cultural norms, power brokers—and even the right place to sit. Mentors make sure “you don’t come in as a bull in a china shop,” observes Steven R. Walker, managing director of the board services group at the National Association of Corporate Directors.
I certainly understand the importance of helping new directors learn the ropes when joining a board. These mentoring relationships certainly appear to have a good intent. However, I do have some worries about such systems. What if the mentors provide the wrong message? What if they encourage newcomers to refrain from challenging the status quo, expressing dissent, or asking the tough questions. In the article, Martz acutally encourages Chang not to apologize for asking a challenging question. However, some directors might provide very different advice. They might promote norms that include conflict avoidance and deference to management. Long-time directors might protect the harmony of the group, and in doing, send a signal that speaking up is not welcome. Rocking the boat might not be the right strategy during your first board meeting. However, discouraging people from ever rocking the boat might also be a very dysfunctional dimension of some of these mentoring conversations.