Leadership from the board in lockdown

In December 2020, we brought together a group of very experienced board members from across our client group to find out what working through lockdown has taught them. This note summarises their experience and their wisdom as we face the challenges of the new year.

Focus on listening and sustaining relationships

In the early months board members were very aware of the different impacts of the lockdowns on their colleagues. They highlighted the importance of noticing these differing impacts, to empathise, and to identify new ways of continuing informal social contacts as the prospect of more face-to-face has once again receded.

As boards and committees meetings went back on-line in the Autumn there was more need for Chairs to schedule 1-to-1 conversations with all NEDs and to encourage informal peer to peer contact across the board. These are not about preparing to stage manage the board meeting – but more about social contact and building understanding between individuals.

Demonstrating the behaviours for others to follow

Setting the etiquette for on-line board meetings is a key opportunity for Chairs and CEOs to set a standard and influence the remote working culture across the whole organisation. But executive and nonexecutive leaders also have had to deal with some very difficult issues such as managing redundancies, and even acknowledging the death of a member of the team. Difficult though these conversations are, board members agreed that it was important not to avoid them or try to postpone them. It’s only by leaders raising these difficult or challenging issues and acting as role models that other members of the board or the wider leadership team see that they can too.

One example of this was the need to surface conflict in an on-line meeting. There are lots of examples of people being more reluctant to raise disagreement in screen-based meetings and the risk is that silence is taken as assent – where it could mean the opposite. Part of the job of the Chair is to find ways to prompt for or un-earth hidden dis-agreement. It was clear that Chairing on-line meetings does make significant demands and can take its toll. There is more need for preparation – and more recovery time afterwards.

Board members highlighted the importance of self-care and the strategies that they have developed to sustain their own well-being at this time. The different ways of keeping physically and mentally healthy and the positive impact that senior figures could have through sharing their own stories in blogs or videos across the wider organisation.

The benefits of lockdown

The talk was not all of difficulties, board members also talked of the positives of on-line board meetings – the reduced travel time and consequent reduction in carbon footprint, as well as the ability to pull people together to for a one-off meeting to resolve an emerging issue at short notice. They also highlighted the opportunity to involve a more diverse range of voices from people working in different territories to tackle challenging board issues.

Board meetings were described as being more efficient as board members were more prepared in their contributions and willing to take turns to make their points. However, this trend towards transactional discussions has made it more difficult to get to grips with emerging complex strategic opportunities and risks.

Boards are accountable for planning the sustainable future of their organisation. As such, boards can and perhaps should be more visible demonstrating leadership over the coming months.  There is lots of evidence of fantastic innovations emerging and board leaders have the opportunity to uncover and channel this creative energy.

And finally…

But right now, perhaps the board’s most valuable leadership role is to encourage everyone in their organisation and all their families to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Its only by building confidence in vaccination that we can all build confidence in the economy and all that flows from that.