Brian Cavanagh CONSULTING

Governing Despite Covid – How your Board can Respond

It is has become a cliché to say the Covid-19 is rewriting the rules and changing our actions in many areas of business and work. Yet pandemic or not, it hasn’t changed the need for good governance and leadership around the board table. Indeed because of the extent of the crisis, the need for good governance is even greater than in other times.

So, spare a thought for all those board members who are charged with the responsibility of governing and leading organisations through to the other side of this pandemic.

It is tempting, because of the fast-changing nature of the virus, to cut corners and bypass normal rules in relation to decision making. Yet despite the crisis, the rules of assessing risk, determining priorities and transparent decision-making processes must still apply.

It is hard to estimate how much pressure board members are currently, though this colourful description I got from a board member recently, sums it up pretty well,”it’s like starting an ice cream franchise on the top of a mountain that you realise is a live volcano”.

So as a board/ board member how do you maintain the organisation, ensure quick but transparent decision making and at the same time, keep your sanity? Here some thoughts that I believe can help you through this and out the other side.

In the first instance, you will need to think creatively, and encourage agility. This is a time to maximise the skills and talents of your board to develop a virtual governance system.

Establish virtual board meetings. These are now becoming a feature of how to meet and at the same time stay safe. I have facilitated a couple and chaired one in the last week. And as participants become more familiar with the technology, it will become a valuable way to ensure board members are connected and engaged. I was struck how participants responded in the virtual as compared to face to face meeting. Contributors stuck to the point and kept focused. Participants also commented that it brought a higher level of engagement than hitherto. In addition it is a speedier way to respond to crises than traditional face to face meetings.

However virtual boards are not just enabling governance to take at a time of crisis. They also provide for social solidarity across the board and senior management team. Being a board member can be an onerous burden at the best of times. Part of exercising that role in ensuring a duty of care for all employees, and that places significant pressure on you and your fellow board members. And in this context, it is important to look out for each other as board members. Use the development of virtual meetings to develop informal links beyond the formal governance meetings if you have not already done so. Some may be working in a risky environment; others may have family members with the virus. So, it is important you maintain contact with each other and provide support to ensure that the board doesn’t just function but maintains a duty of care to each other.

Also recognise that this is a stressful and challenging time for the CEO and senior management team. That duty of care role will be keenly felt by them, so seek ways in which you can be an effective support, without burdening them with additional demands. The greater the clarity the board can give in priority setting allows the CEO to concentrate on directing the organisation. It is even more important than ever that you remain strategic in your role.

Finally, the most important value for boards and board members right now is trust. High levels of trust are the cornerstone of good governance. That is trust between the CEO and the Board, and between board members themselves. Inevitably for some matters, urgent decisions may need to made without recourse to everyone. So, if delegated decision-making powers to the CEO/Chair are deemed necessary to act speedily, it needs to be set against a criterion that is about good governance, and not about bypassing processes or concentrating power.

The stronger the trust, the easier it will be to ensure that decisions are made quickly, yet at the same time be transparent. Therefore, good communication, maintaining engagement, and keeping all board members informed is essential to maintaining and sustaining trust.