Taking a seat on a board of directors seems like an aspiration set aside for senior executives. To best prepare graduates for this role, corporate governance remains an important component of the MBA curriculum. At Rotman, the Onboard Fellowship program teaches governance through a non-for-profit lens and provides an experiential learning experience that places students on boards with true responsibilities.
These partner organizations range from pediatric hospitals to local symphonies to financial risk institutions. This range is extensive, and students can find themselves working in a completely different area compared to their existing field of expertise. But students are not navigating this transition alone. As an Onboard Fellow, students receive mentorship from seasoned leaders from the Rotman faculty and their partner organization.
LEARNING ROBERT’S RULES
As a pharmacist, I gravitated towards healthcare organizations where my combination of clinical and business background could provide more tailored contributions to my partner organization. Hemophilia Ontario became the perfect fit in this regard. As a patient advocacy organization, the group supports the needs of patients affected by inherited bleeding disorders. From advising the tendering process for pharmaceutical products to providing financial support to affected members, Hemophilia Ontario serves a diverse number of roles and makes a significant impact on patients.
In my capacity as a board fellow, I have been actively participating in board meetings, advising staff, and developing a strategic plan for the organization. Along the way, I have also been involved in supporting social media engagement and partnership strategies with pharmaceutical companies.
I learned several important lessons throughout this experience. One was understanding the procedural etiquette of board meetings. I experienced this first-hand when I was invited to stay overnight at a two-day board meeting at an out-of-city conference center. It was the first time I had met the board directors in person and we were able to bond over meals and conversations outside of the formal meeting.
When the meetings began, I noticed that discussion on important issues, such as large financial decisions or adopting policy, were guided by a formal structure. In this case, Robert’s Rules were followed. It is a framework that governs the process of speaking and voting at a meeting when making decisions. Under these rules, a board member must make a motion and the motion needs to be seconded in order for a vote on a matter to be considered. Sometimes sensitive decisions come up, and Robert’s Rules provide mechanisms for discussions on such topics. On the second day of my meeting, the topic of compensation for staff came up, and the board motioned to go “in camera”. When this occurs, meeting minutes are no longer recorded and non-board members are asked to step out until the meeting is no longer in camera.
For decisions that would not legally bind the organization, I saw that the board used a consensus decision-making model. In these scenarios, the group attempts to reach a decision that everyone can agree upon in a less formal manner. This was intentional to make board participation more accessible, especially when the rules surrounding the conduct of the meeting can be a barrier. Furthermore, to ensure that everyone is engaged, the board actively seeks input from members outside of the board such as staff and community members. This allows a wider array of ideas to be heard and fosters an inclusive approach to hearing more people speak.
I myself had spoken at these meetings. Each time, I did it with greater confidence as I adjusted to the mechanisms that guided discussion. For example, in one meeting where members discussed youth engagement, I offered the student perspective and suggested that younger members would be interested in gaining leadership experiences through a youth council. By the end of these meetings, I felt much more comfortable being an active participant in my capacity on the board. And the wonderful people I worked with made the overall experience lots of fun.
Byron James, the executive director of Hemophilia Ontario, was a key supporter in my journey. As a mentor, Byron was knowledgeable, approachable, and immensely attentive towards my personal growth as a board fellow. His charming sense of humor made learning enjoyable and his unwavering confidence in me was a major source of encouragement. Coming into an active role in corporate governance can feel intimidating. With the support of the group at Hemophilia Ontario, I never felt that way, even at the start.
Through this role, I also gained valuable insights on the patient perspective. There are so many things that I appreciate so much more as a medical professional. For example, children who are diagnosed with a bleeding disorder are unable to participate in activities like summer camp, which most of their peers can take for granted. Sports and physical activities can put these children at risk of harm due to their elevated risks of bleeding. Understandably, this can leave young people with bleeding disorders feeling socially excluded. In response, Hemophilia Ontario creates camps tailored to patients to ensure their safety and develops programs within these camps to help make sure that no child is left behind. Wanakita is one such example, and has been offered as an overnight summer camp since 1991. It is staffed with nurses, and even offers children an opportunity to learn how to self-infuse their medication. Understanding the patient perspective helps me grow both as a pharmacist and as a future healthcare leader.
Beyond board meetings, I also work directly with staff. In my work on social media engagement, I advised the creation of a student position to help coordinate content relevant to bleeding disorders. This aligned with the intention to engage more youth within the community and I saw an opportunity to bring in additional social media support. This proposal was endorsed and supported by the staff and the leadership. Ultimately, I was able to implement this proposal to fruition. It was very satisfying to see myself bring an idea to life.
Lastly, fellows are entrusted with a project that has a lasting impact on the partner organization. At Hemophilia Ontario, I am working on developing its 3-year strategic plan. Skills such as forecasting, building consensus, and team facilitation have been key to meeting this task. Along the way, I am also gaining new skills on organizational strategy such as business planning.
As MBA students, learning how to become effective board directors can be a challenge, especially when opportunities to sit on boards seem reserved for senior leaders. Through Rotman’s OnBoard Fellowship Program, students can become involved in a board’s inner workings and gain a new perspective on what it means to be in the “room where it happens”.
Dr. Peter Zhang, PharmD is a Hospital Pharmacist and an MBA candidate at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Through the unique combined Doctor of Pharmacy/MBA degree program, he has explored the intersection between life sciences and commercial strategy. Additionally, he has published research works in peer-reviewed academic journals and opinions in national media outlets in Canada.