There has never been a more testing time for boards. Covid-19 feels like SARs, 9-11 and the financial crisis all rolled into one. The existential threat to businesses and, more importantly, to our colleagues, friends, families and selves, is real. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.
It’s hard to put things in context when we are being overwhelmed with information and advice. But as board members that’s what we must do. We need to be decisive now in protecting our people and organisations and see through whatever phase we are in now to the next one and the longer term.
At the moment the numbers affected—883,000 at the time of writing—in the context of the wars of the last century, the Aids or Syrian crises, seem small. But this feels different. The speed with which it has come upon us and the acceleration in cases and deaths is unnerving. The obvious fear in politicians and health officials’ faces and voices and the acceleration of the death toll, especially in Italy, suggests far worse to come.
Yet China, if you believe the numbers, seems to have got a grip of it quickly and businesses and communities are recovering rapidly and the overall impact so far is not as great as feared.
Even if things turn out to be not as bad as feared, an effective vaccine is found and economies recover, albeit slowly, most people I know think that things will be different, and that we and the people who work with us will view and approach risk in profoundly changed way.
This is also a truly global crisis happening at a time when global co-ordination mechanisms and trust in governments, institutions and business—and therefore boards—is far weaker than I can remember.
The nature of employment and people’s relationships with employers is also more precarious and less deep. The division between the “self-employed” or horribly named “zeros” and those described as “employees” has been there to see in stark reality. A bright spot has been the recognition that it is many of the poorest qualified and paid, so arrogantly and ignorantly described by some of our politicians as the “unskilled”, that we all depend upon. Let’s hope that the appreciation they are being shown now continues in tangible ways.
As we have found out, complex and more interwoven supply chains have down as well as upsides. However, communication technology and its use is proving an incredible force for good enabling a measure of business continuity and a sense of community to be maintained.
The pace at which new information, government decisions and events is happening almost in the moment with seemingly no time to implement one set of decisions before the next need to be made.
Expectations have also never been higher and we will all be judged on how we step up to the crisis.
A challenging context
So, what does this mean for boards in practice?
Some things remain the same, other aspects very different and the best boards, as the old saying goes, “won’t want to waste a crisis”. They will change more than just what is necessary to survive. Many business and operating models will change as a result of this.
It is not hard to see that, with the number of those working from home rocketing from 1.5 million to 5 or 6 million in a few weeks in the UK, the pace of change to the world of work will also accelerate. The Chartered Management Institute’s inspired Management 4.0 initiative may go forward at warp speed and skip from 4.0 to 10.0. So many of us are likely to change the way we manage as a result of this.
The investor in me also thinks that there will be some brilliant opportunities for businesses to buy others, invest in capital equipment and innovate if they have the cash and mindsets to do it.
The charity chair in me feels so grateful for unrestricted reserves and their power to preserve capabilities and momentum when there is an external shock to the system.
Whatever tack you take in this storm the importance of leadership and culture will be a differentiator, as it always is. Calm, clear, decisive, empathetic, motivational and realistic leadership will be required from us all, with the board taking a lead.
Yet all of those characteristics, even delivered in whatever is your favourite style, won’t be sufficient. They are useless if not underpinned by good judgement—the ability to make the right choices at right time.
You can’t microwave a board, so the quality of the chair to make the most out of the board they have right now will make a huge difference. If you haven’t got the right chair for a time like this, then someone else will need to step up and fill the vacuum without the title.
We will find out who are our best people. New stars will emerge just as they did in previous crises. Sadly, it will also dawn on us who we really wouldn’t want to be in the next crisis with.
Time to step up
I’m a natural optimist and believe that most boards will emerge stronger and more tightly bonded, forged through crisis. The chair needs to lead by example and inspire everyone to step up.
Already, I have witnessed in the last few weeks execs and non-execs and trustees who have been absolutely exceptional in putting the organisation’s and their teams’ interests above their own. They have been brilliant in ensuring oversight as well as providing supportive insight to help the executive with their response. They’ve left those who just want another meeting or another report or to talk about the minor inconveniences that they have suffered in the shade.
We may also see many board members staying on past their term dates with good and bad outcomes as a result. The best will know how to do this well and step back when the time is right. Others sadly not.
Focusing on purpose, people and process to drive choices will matter more than ever. We will all need to ensure that we have the right strategy, resources and governance to achieve our vision especially if that vision is simply survival.
As with the financial crisis it is going to be hard to look after everyone’s interests in a perfectly balanced way. So, tough choices will need to be made.
Quality of relationship
Being under pressure and not having the perfect information to make decisions also means that we will make mistakes. So, self-awareness, recognising reality, adapting as well as tolerance and empathy for others will be important. Boosting confidence when bad news comes in, strengthening resolve when difficult decisions need to be taken and implemented will be vital.
The quality of relationship between the board and the executive is critical in all of this. This is not time for a parallel universe or for people to be trying to do each others’ jobs. We must take an adaptive healthy Venn-like approach as described in my book Boards, where the board and exec priorities are clear and we maximise the impact of the time we spend together.
Making decisions with incomplete or imperfect information in a fast-changing context is always tough, but it is where the best boards make the biggest difference. In doing this it will be vital to be able to distinguish between fact and interpretation and not to confuse worrying with thinking.
Finally, once we are through, customers, suppliers, shareholders and especially staff will remember how they were treated. So, I think it will be worth keeping the late great Maya Angelou’s words in mind:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Patrick Dunne chairs board consultancy Boardelta and charities the EY Foundation and ESSA (Education Sub Saharan Africa). He is the author of ‘Boards’ which is available at Amazon.