Three themes for boards during COVID-19

Trish Oakley, chair of Otago Southland branch committee and IoD council member, shared her insights on three themes for boards during COVID-19 recently in an online Otago Southland branch event.

By Institute of Directors
24 Apr 2020
read time
2 min to read
Stars above a cliff

This may be the first time you have experienced a crisis of such magnitude – the scale, significance of the decision points and speed of change are challenging to the seasoned professional so if you are newer to governance, how do you provide leadership to your teams at such a time?

I have found it helpful to break it into three themes:

  1. Have courage
  2. Communicate
  3. Be kind - a rightly popular phrase at this time.

1. Have courage

Courage looks like many things, it’s about stepping up. Let’s not confuse that with stepping in and becoming management. But amongst the noise, courage is a calm and considered perspective. Courage is also about:

  • confronting optimism bias and making the hard decisions after considering the facts, which for many, are a very real brutal reality.
  • communicating that reality, be it internally or externally. It means standing beside your executive team explaining the changes and why.
  • challenging what our futures look like. What is the permanent change that we face and how does that influence our purpose and the strategic direction we take?
  • working through how are we going to adapt to that change. It’s about understanding what our stakeholders expect, how have our customers’ expectations changed, what our supply chains look like and how our internal culture is responding to the crisis.

Courage is never easy but it’s the courage to continue that counts.

2. Communicate

The second theme is communication and for me, that is everything in a crisis.  Consistent, clear and regular.

  • Think about what your communication channels look like between the board and management.
  • How is the full board kept informed if sub committees are stepping up and supporting on a regular basis?
  • How about customers and stakeholders, how are they being kept informed?
  • Do you risk being tone deaf with your messaging?
  • How are directors communicating with each other at this time?

Just as a crisis will reveal strengths of management, likewise it will show the strengths of your colleagues and different leadership traits may arise at this time that you previously hadn’t seen. Maybe you need to work harder to pull out perspectives from someone normally only too willing to share a view.

3. Be kind

It’s also important to hold the third theme throughout this journey – that is to be kind.  The soft stuff matters always but especially at hard times. This is new, very challenging and for some, everything they knew prior to the 25 March has now gone. 

While it’s easy to assume that leaders automatically step up with poise and courage, for some the sheer scale of juggling young children, aging parents, a partner whose job is now at risk all the while managing a massive workload, will be taking its toll. So remember, before you are too quick to expect more or judge someone you can usually rely on, perhaps check in first:

  • how are they going?
  • how is their family holding up?
  • what are they doing to look after themselves?

Two small words make an enormous difference at this time – making “thank you” part of your regular vernacular if it is not already, is vital. People who connect, those who take the time to understand and acknowledge the realities of what people are facing personally, people who thank another and acknowledge efforts, they are who will have a significant impact on culture and they are the same people who will reenergize someone to take on the next task. 

Finally, just like a house of cards collapsing, while courage, communication and kindness give strength to our foundation, without a clock of mercy wrapped around yourself, things quickly collapse inwards so remember to take time to breathe and to be kind to yourself so that you can govern the business effectively.

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