The Changing Role of the Board: Managing Risk in Times of Disruption

13 Nov 2019

The Changing Role of the Board: Managing Risk in Times of Disruption

The clearest takeaway at our most recent board-focused event was that the roles of boards and the responsibilities of board directors are changing. Moreover, the factors affecting these transformations are as varied as the boards and organizations themselves.

Odgers Berndtson's Vancouver office, in partnership with theBoardlist, recently hosted the event; The Changing Role of the Board: Managing Risk in Times of Disruption. The event featured panel of seasoned board directors that included Jane Bird, senior business advisor at Bennett Jones LLP and board director at the Canada Infrastructure Bank, Global Container Terminals Inc. and Western Forest Products Inc., Geoff Catherwood, partner at BDC Venture Capital and board director at D-Wave Systems, Teradici Corporation, Switch Materials, Cooledge Lighting, General Fusion, amongst others, and Tim Manning, the current Board Chair of the B.C. Provincial Health Services Authority and B.C. Emergency Health Services, as well as BC Chapter Chair of the Institute of Corporate Directors, amongst many other roles.

Elaine Grotefeld, Partner and CleanTech Practice Head, kicked off the event, with Elaine Roper, Partner, Board Practice at Odgers Berndtson, moderating the discussion.

Elaine began the conversation by asking each of the panellists to share key issues and challenges from their respective boards and the answers were diverse. Jane Bird spoke of the challenges and opportunities that ESG (environment, social, and governance) investing has presented boards of directors. Geoff highlighted the risks that foreign investment poses and how geopolitical conflict, specifically between China and the U.S., has created several new challenges.

Tim underscored numerous issues, elaborating on the challenges of technology and managing legacy system. He also spoke of the impact that external disruptors are having. For example, he shared, “organizations like Uber and Amazon are creating conflict within healthcare because they’re changing customer expectations – everybody now expects the Airbnb experience and service and it’s challenging the healthcare system.”

Culture and talent management were also sited in relation to evolving risks. Boards are having conversations about how to help their organizations shift internally to be more comfortable with disruption and around talent deficiencies in several sectors. Tim shared that the World Health Organization predicts a shortage of 18 million health workers by 2030 and that it’s already affecting Canadians by shutting down operating rooms.

So what are boards doing to stay on top of these challenges? The consensus from the panel was that there needs to be strategic intent and active education. Tim shared that all his board meetings aim to include an educational element. Jane highlighted the importance of adding other skills, perspective and expertise to the board – like HR, technology and personal experiences like First Nations representation.

The panel also discussed that boards need to be focused on enabling execution, not just building strategy. Jane shared a quote from B.C. Lieutenant Governor, Janet Austin, that a plan without execution is a hallucination, and spoke of how the boards that she works on are working with the executive team to understand how management plans to execute and achieve key metrics. She shared, “you won’t hit all the metrics and milestones, but the board needs to understand why they’re not hitting them.”

When asked to share a piece of advice for board members and executives, Tim told the audience that boards need to take a continuous learning approach, stay engaged, roll up your sleeves – you can’t do it from the side of your desk. Boards need to get educated and learn from others.

Jane advised that boards need to get to a place where risk is an active and candid conversation at every board meeting. You need to have broader conversations. How the board is discussing and dealing with risk is a good indicator of how the board is doing. If the topic of risk is in tab eight of the meeting guide, she said, then that’s a sign that you’re not really paying attention.

Geoff shared his top three pieces of advice which included taking the corporate director’s course, focusing on building a strong board culture, and ensuring a high value to board time ratio.

Below are some photos of the event; the full gallery can be viewed online here. 

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Elaine Grotefeld (Partner, Odgers Berndtson) opens the event.

The moderator and panel from left to right: Elaine Roper, Geoff Catherwood, Jane Bird, and Tim Manning.

From left to right: Joanne Fedeyko (Managing Director, theBoardlist Canada), Tim Manning, Elaine Roper, Jane Bird, Geoff Catherwood, and Shannon Gordon (CEO, theBoardlist).