Ethics and Governance

In the eye of the storm

Sep 30, 2020

Kieran Moynihan explains how boards, and non-executive directors, in particular, can optimise decision-making during times of crisis.

A veteran non-executive board director (NED) recently shared valuable insights into the workings of an experienced board dealing with the severe impacts of COVID-19 on the organisation. While this is quite an experienced board with battle-hardened veterans in both the executive and non-executive ranks, he indicated that they collectively struggled with the enormity of the challenge facing the organisation.

While the board was quite mature in terms of risk management and business continuity planning, several significant decisions were required in a very short time frame. He was extremely complimentary of the efforts, understanding and commitment of the employees to the organisation as well as the outstanding leadership shown by the CEO and executive team. He also highlighted how much the NEDs “rolled up their sleeves” and provided great support in reviewing, challenging, and providing valuable input to the crisis management plan. He highlighted that the CEO witnessed a “new side” to the board whereby it demonstrated a huge commitment not only to the organisation, but in supporting the CEO and executive team as they implemented an elaborate crisis management plan under severe pressure.

Unfortunately, some boards have not performed as well during the crisis. The core problem, I believe, is often the calibre of board members. Some are not strong enough to cope well in an emergency to add any strategic value to the executive team. This scenario continues to play out in boards across the world where, in some cases, board and executive teams have faced existential challenges in terms of their organisation’s survival. Amid the devastating impact on employees, an organisation’s financial health, and its shareholders and stakeholders, boards must stand up and be counted like never before.

The following definition of crisis management from Deloitte caught my eye recently: “Crisis management is a special, strategic discipline that enables an organisation to leave ‘business as usual’ behind, and to enter a different mode of governance and operations, designed to get decisions made, implemented and communicated quickly, with clear – but different – designated authorities.” While a board has many broad types of responsibilities, the fundamental duty of a board is to make significant decisions. At a time of extreme crisis management, this acute responsibility comes to the fore. It represents a real test of a board of directors in terms of its calibre, decisiveness, effectiveness, judgement, and performance. The following factors can help a board optimise decision-making in the eye of a storm.

Quality information

The brutal reality of the COVID-19 crisis is that major decisions must be made in compressed time frames of days or, in extreme cases, hours. Many of these decisions have serious consequences for the organisation and its employees, customers, shareholders, and stakeholders. Board chairs have a critical role in enabling the board to overcome these compressed review/decision cycles and drive coherent and decisive decision-making.

In normal times, quality information is the lifeblood of a board in terms of significant decision-making. In times of crisis, however, it is challenging for the CEO and executive team to create comprehensive board packs when you may have just 24 hours before the next virtual board meeting. In this context, quality is more important than quantity in terms of helping the board understand the logic behind significant proposals from the CEO and executive team.

While not ideal, firefighting CEOs and executive teams rely heavily on gut instinct to choose from what appear to be radically different options. It is essential to provide the NEDs with your gut instincts and blunt assessment of the pros and cons of each option.

Challenge, debate, and oversight

When the stakes are high for significant board decisions, the board must maintain the highest standards of challenge, debate, and oversight. A CEO and executive team under severe pressure could undoubtedly get a big call wrong or struggle to create a coherent proposal for consideration by the board. Despite the challenging time frames for decision-making, NEDs must prepare for board meetings, ask hard questions, and add genuine value (in some cases, by identifying additional options or variations/combinations of options that will help the executive team see the wood from the trees).

The board chair has a vital role in balancing the level of challenge, debate, and oversight with supporting the CEO and executive team. Genuine board diversity has been a very positive strength for boards as the broader range of thinking styles has enabled greater left-field thinking and more creative problem-solving, while significantly reducing the potential for group-think. At such a crucial time, shareholders, employees and stakeholders rely heavily on NEDs to provide such critical challenge, debate, and oversight to reach the best decisions.

The trust equation

The COVID-19 crisis is testing the bonds in many board teams. In such fraught times, tensions can morph into damaging conflict, which boards can do without. While some high-performing board teams have managed this challenge in their stride, this crisis has also galvanised many board teams around a common purpose.

A crisis of this magnitude shines a bright light on the ‘trust equation’ of a board. It can be challenging in such a volatile landscape, with so much uncertainty in each sector, to make concrete decisions. Decisiveness, however, is nevertheless a vital trait for a board in crisis management situations, and it is much more effective when the trust quotient is high. 
In order to strengthen trust, boards can extend a greater degree of latitude than normal to the CEO and executive team, enabling them to provide timely, insightful updates back to the board on the progress of major decision implementation.

Changing course

One of the most challenging aspects of the crisis for many company boards has been facing up to the requirement in specific sectors to make significant changes to the company’s business model and strategy. For companies that had a dominant market position for many years, it can be challenging to face up to the reality that the market has changed, customer requirements have changed, and in some cases, barriers to entry have been lowered with disruptive new technologies.

'Independence of mind' is a critical quality in a NED whereby the board director who is not involved day-to-day is able to step back, take a cold, objective view on the organisation’s position, assess the options and implications of a major proposal being put forward by the CEO and provide a sound independent judgement. In this scenario, where an organisation is facing severe challenges to its existing strategy and business model, independence of mind in the NEDs plays a critical role as it can help the board and executive team face up to and address severe challenges to the existing strategy. Some boards might hope that everything will go back to normal but, for most sectors, things will never be the same. As a result, the organisations that adapt will stand a much higher chance of thriving in the years ahead. 

Throughout the crisis, I have seen several progressive NEDs utilise this time as an opportunity to evolve the overall mindset and level of ambition in the organisation. NEDs are ideally placed to catalyse this evolving growth mindset as in the majority of cases, the CEO and executive team are in firefighting mode and struggle to have the bandwidth to think strategically and grasp the growth opportunities that the organisation could be presented with.

External expertise

We are in uncharted waters in terms of crisis management. As a board gears up to make big decisions, it is vital that, where appropriate, key shareholders and stakeholders are consulted. They will be forced to live with the consequences of the board’s decisions for years to come.

Besides the fact that this is the right thing to do, engagement builds support and is formally required in some instances. It will also provide valuable feedback that, in specific scenarios, may be incorporated into the board’s thought processes.

It is also vital that, where needed, external expertise is sought to assist with significant decisions. This might be an existing advisory partner who understands the organisation and sector, or an independent sector expert who could provide an objective assessment of the options.

Avoid ‘all-in’ decisions

I play chess at a competitive level, and one of the things you learn as you get more experienced is to avoid, wherever possible, making very committal decisions. This is particularly important when the chessboard is ‘on fire’ with severe complications, and it is simply not possible to calculate the variations. Instead, you seek to stay in the game and get through the next few moves. As the board position becomes clearer, you then make a more committal decision as you execute your plan.

The COVID-19 crisis is changing by the hour. As governments struggle to balance the resumption of normal life with the associated public health risks, it is tough for the majority of boards to accurately predict how their sector will look in three months, not to mention one year from now. In some cases, companies are being forced to consider severe changes to their business model. 

Boards should avoid making premature decisions based on assumptions about how the COVID-19 crisis will influence customer behaviours, business models, and the overall business landscape. Like a game of chess, boards would be wise to develop a range of scenarios linked to the public health and associated economic impacts with appropriate trigger points.

Understand the broader impacts

At the start of the year, many boards had made significant progress in increasing their focus on environment, social and governance (ESG) goals, employee engagement, and ‘doing the right thing’ in terms of focusing on the long-term, sustainable wellbeing of the organisation. This has since been severely tested in how boards signed-off on significant decisions impacting their employees, customers, and stakeholders.

In some cases, the COVID-19 crisis is undermining much of the significant progress made with decisions favouring short-term shareholder interests at the expense of employees, other stakeholders, and the long-term sustainability of the organisation. Throughout the world, employees have demonstrated incredibly strong commitment and understanding to their organisations and customers. How boards respond to this commitment says a lot about the character, culture, integrity, and values of an organisation. It is encouraging to see a significant number of institutional investors highlight the importance of this for their portfolio of listed companies. In many respects, we saw ESG at its very best in the first few months of the crisis with so many employees and organisations stepping up to help society in its time of need.

I strongly believe that the organisations that commit long-term to the core ESG principles of sustainability, partnering with their employees, going the extra mile for their customers and “doing the right thing to ensure the longer-term interests of the organisation” will be the organisations that flourish and thrive going into this uncertain future. The board has a critical leadership role in this. We are moving into an era where progressive boards are evolving into a far more thoughtful balancing of the interests of shareholders, employees and stakeholders. The COVID-19 crisis has crystallised the importance of this multi-stakeholder engagement model and is now firmly in the mindset of customers, prospective employees, partners and investors when they consider engaging with organisations.

Conclusion

Seven months on, boards continue to grapple with COVID-19 and struggle to make some of the most significant decisions ever made in the history of their organisation. Even the strongest, most high-performing boards struggle to get this right, so for any board members struggling right now, you are not alone.

This is a time for board teams to pull together and work closely with the CEO and executive team. Through challenge and debate, you will collectively make the best decisions possible and help your employees, shareholders, and stakeholders envision a path to better days ahead.

Key takeaways for boards and non-executive directors

  1. At a time of such crisis and volatility, it is vital for the board to regularly discuss what is happening with your customers, how the crisis is impacting them, how their requirements are changing both short-,  medium-and longer-term and how the organisation needs to adapt to support your customers.
  2. It has never been more vital for the executive reporting to the board to be high-quality, succinct and utilising executive summaries to enable the board members to prepare effectively for the board meeting and assist in the creation of a meeting that can focus on strategic and “move-the-needle” type discussions.
  3. Balance cost-cutting, productivity and risk mitigation with supporting innovation-led growth and strategy and business model shifts where needed.
  4. Be aware that boards are moving to agile approaches to strategy and budgeting using scenario planning and triggers that work better in situations of high uncertainty such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
  5. Organisations, as they facing their greatest crisis, have never had such a strong requirement for board members to demonstrate a great work ethic and commitment to the board and organisation.
Kieran Moynihan is Managing Partner at Board Excellence, which supports boards in Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe.