What makes a supervisory board effective?

Founder and CEO of Directors Academy, Dr. Viktoria Kickinger speaks with podcast moderator, Ingo Notthoff, about the role of supervisory boards, the need for continuous board training, and for excellent board meetings.

Viktoria Kickinger
The Agenda Podcast

The Agenda brought to you by Sherpany uncovers the journey leaders take from facing challenges to making decisions. In this unique series of podcasts, leaders talk candidly with podcast moderator, Ingo Notthoff. #LeadingTogether

In this podcast episode, you'll hear:

Founder and CEO of Directors Academy, Dr. Viktoria Kickinger, as she discusses what makes supervisory boards effective, how to get a supervisory board mandate, and the importance of continuous training for supervisory board members. An experienced supervisory board member herself, with a career in the boardroom including mandates for major state-owned corporations such as at the Vienna State Opera, Dr. Kickinger is a digital educational expert on supervisory board excellence. Curious to learn more and help boost knowledge of supervisory board members, in 2013, she launched Directors Channel, an online television channel for supervisory boards. Three years later, in 2016, she also founded Directors Academy, a portal for board of directors.

Listen to the podcast episode to learn more about supervisory boards, and their work as Dr. Kickinger shares her personal experience and views on what makes effective supervisory boards, and gives advice to aspiring supervisory board members: 

  • Supervisory boards: The role, and pitfalls to avoid
  • The importance of continuous board training
  • Excellent board meetings: What are the criteria for board meeting preparation?
  • Expert advice: What should young board members do to be successful?


*Please note: The podcast episode is available in German.

What makes a supervisory board effective with Dr. Viktoria Kickinger

Supervisory boards: The role, and pitfalls to avoid

"The role of supervisory boards is to offer a company an overall view in terms of experience in leadership, in dealing with finances, and with business situations. It's important for supervisory boards to be aware that they must not be operational. It means we (i.e supervisory boards) advise, we control in a certain way, but we do not touch operations. At the moment, supervisory boards are undergoing a major change. 

Supervisory boards were someone whom companies liked to have four times a year at board meetings. Supervisory boards take their job very seriously because they take full responsibility for it. Training supervisory boards is deliberate today. Boards train as much as possible to always keep to the highest level of knowledge. Not only practical or regulatory knowledge, but also management know-how. Today's supervisory boards are a plus for a company. [...] 

In the past, a mandate was received, I would say, from our grandparents, or perhaps our parents. Today, you are looking for special skill sets. I'm talking about sustainability, digitalisation, and cyber issues. [...]

Are there any pitfalls you should avoid?

There are three pitfalls you should avoid. 

The first one refers to the first board meeting. The behaviour is important because the first impression is always the lasting one. Politeness in conversation is a basic requirement for every supervisory board member. Interrupting, profound knowledge, that never works well. It doesn't make any supervisory board member likeable, nor credible. Adapting to the communication culture is a must. This is a pitfall that you should not fall into.

The second pitfall I see again and again is a certain search for meaning and importance, and of always putting oneself in the centre of attention. In a supervisory board we make decisions in the group. We are each individually liable, of course. Ultimately, however, we are responsible as the supervisory board. So, there is no room for 'I'. [...]

The third pitfall is one that is seen throughout the entire supervisory board work: you have to take the mandate completely seriously. A supervisory board member that does not attend every board meeting, unless they are really sick or the situation could not be prevented, is a bad supervisory board member. I often read the Annual reports and it is there where it's often stated how often supervisory board members attend board meetings. That has to be reported. There are quite a few supervisory board members who attended just half of the board meetings. That's a no-go. As a company, I would say good-bye to such a supervisory board member. They don't take their mandate seriously. These are the three pitfalls every supervisory board should, and can take into account, for themselves."


The importance of continuous board training

"In 2016, I founded the Directors Academy. It developed very quickly due to the intensive demand from our supervisory boards. Directors Academy is a purely digital platform that conveys content for supervisory boards in short, concise information videos. A video is usually between 3 to 4 and a half minutes' long. The experts at Directors Academy are leading experts in Germany who present content here. We are constantly updating and expanding. 

Currently, we have six modules for six different target groups, four in the banking sector and two in enterprises. Our strongest module is the one for supervisory boards of family businesses, and we are building another module for supervisory boards in the public sector.

Do I have to be a supervisory board member to be able to participate?

Everyone can use Directors Academy, and apply for a subscription. We have some members in our community who are preparing themselves to take on mandates, but three quarters of Directors Academy community are already working as supervisory board members."

The ideal supervisory board meeting is one where you understand and agree with the discussions, and the decisions taken.

Excellent board meetings: What are the criteria for board meeting preparation?

"The supervisory board has returned to face-to-face meetings (i.e. post-pandemics), simply because the discussions are completely different face-to-face than in hybrid meetings. But if a member of the supervisory board is abroad, or sick, they can join in hybrid or via video conference. [...]

A board meeting always begins with establishing a quorum, and with the approval of the last meeting minutes. Then individual agenda items are dealt with. There are certain business activities that require the approval of the supervisory board, and without this approval, the board of directors cannot operate.

What does board meeting preparation look like?

The ideal meeting preparation includes timely receipt of the meeting invitation and of the agenda. It should arrive at least 14 days in advance, and documents must be sent along with each agenda item. It's a bad habit when mountains of documents that you can never read are sent to a supervisory board to go through as quickly as possible. [...]

As a member of the supervisory board, I need the opportunity to obtain sufficient information in advance. I also need to be able to ask the board of directors questions with the support of the chairman, and in the meeting itself, the board member who introduced the meeting agenda item needs to be able to answer questions comprehensively. [...]

The ideal supervisory board meeting is one in which there is a high level of conversation culture, and the chairman is capable of taking action to the extent that he ends a rampant statement early.

It is a meeting from which you go out and say 'yes, all the resolutions that were passed, everything that was said in there, I understand, and I stand by it.' That means culture and appreciation are highly represented in the supervisory board. [...]

Personally, I'm a big fan of digital formats in the board meeting. I always have my iPad with me. I actually work all my meeting minutes virtually. It's all done through the iPad, and stored immediately. It's a great support for me because I can also enter my reminders right away."


Expert advice: What should young board members do to be successful?

"I recommend taking on professional onboarding, namely accompanying partners to the first mandate. You should prepare yourself optimally, study the documents, read the latest business reports, familiarise yourself with the company and the topic.

You can't give your opinion fully, let it sink in first. How does the committee work? What are the group dynamics? I'm also aware that from the first board meeting I am part of the supervisory board, and I am 100% responsible for what I decide, and what I vote for."

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Viktoria Kickinger
About the author
Dr. Kickinger is an experienced supervisory board member, and an expert in digital education and training for supervisory boards in Germany. Dr. Kickinger worked for major state-owned corporations. In 2013, she launched Directors Channel, an online television channel for supervisory boards, and in 2016, she founded Directors Academy.