Chairmanship in a time of corona

01 May 2020

Chairmanship in a time of corona

Our conversations with chairs reveal clear advice on what they should be doing (and not doing) to support their leadership colleagues in the midst of this crisis.

Life speeds up in a crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. Management teams and boards have been responding to a succession of must-solve challenges coming at them at high speed.

It’s been a blur of moving staff to remote working, furloughing thousands of others, raising fresh cash, and maintaining morale internally while keeping the business moving forward where possible.

The chair’s role at such a time is particularly critical, both in terms of supporting the executive and keeping the board focused on the right questions.

Let managers manage

There can be a tendency for directors and boards to throw themselves at the problem, born of a natural instinct to help ‘man the pumps.’ But sometimes, less is more. Even in good times, the chair and the board must let managers manage. In a crisis, that axiom is doubly true.

One chair told me: “The last thing a CEO needs is a board that wants to put its hand on the tiller.”

Another said the board should make itself available to the management team, but not impose itself. “My message to the executive team is: ‘over to you – if you need the board, we are here to help.’”

Stay informed, but out of the way

There’s nothing chairs or non-executive directors like better than a cogent, crisply written and beautifully argued board paper, supported by just the right amount of data. But enough of such luxuries right now! What boards need is to stay informed while keeping out of the executives’ hair.

To be sure, boards of companies at the limits of their financial covenants or for whom the pandemic is an existential threat may be locked in near full-time discussions. But, for the rest, a shorter, sharper tempo to board discussions appears to be the order of the day.

In the words of one chairman: “If you’ve got something to talk about, hold a board call. But I don’t believe in hassling managers to speak to the board for the sake of it.”

Another chair has told his executive team: “Don’t prepare lots of paper – just tell us what’s going on.”

A third chairman told me: “We’ve pared backboard meetings, shortened agendas and created less preparation work for the executive. I’m not having interminable read-outs from the executive team. Run a tight board meeting and keep the time down.”

Check-in, check-up, lift up

Does that mean that chairs are simply leaving the executive team to get on with it? By no means. The virus crisis has plainly added to the workload of senior executives, but the style of work has arguably also added to levels of executive stress.

Hours spent crouching over a screen on endless Zoom sessions are both exhausting and dehumanising in ways that few have experienced before.

The wise chair is regularly checking in, not just for a business update but to ensure that morale is maintained and provide reassurance that board support is in place and forthcoming.

“It’s tough,” said one chairman. “It’s really hard. Make sure the CEO is okay, keep their morale up.”

Regular contact also helps the chairman stay informed in a time of high change. Unable to drop into the office, have chats and trade insights, chairmen have to stay in touch in other ways. Those I spoke to missed the informal ‘corridor conversations’ that can be a vital source of soft information. A weekly or twice-weekly call with the chief executive is an essential (if inadequate) substitute.

Too early for strategy?

There will be life beyond this virus, though markets and business models may look very different when we come out the other side. A perfect time, you might think, for a bit of strategic thinking and forward-planning. But, again, chairmen warn that it may be too soon.

In one chairman’s words: “We don’t know what the future will look like. You can’t make big decisions on some scenario that may never emerge."

"There’s mud all over the windscreen, we need to drive slowly so we don’t come off the road.”

Another said: “Be tactical in the short term. Think about the future for sure, but you can’t turn that into a plan yet. At some point, we’ll pull the trigger on a new strategic plan, but we don’t know enough yet.”

Finally, I’ve always liked the line that the appropriate posture for non-executives is ‘Noses In, Fingers Out.’ To which, in the current environment, we might add: And wash your hands!  Good advice for all of us, chairs or otherwise.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss your chair, CEO or board requirements, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.