Despite the negative health and economic consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic there is a lot we have learned from how individuals, groups, and organisations have adapted during the period of ‘lockdown’. Not least is what we have learned about how governing boards can get their work done differently and even better than in pre-COVID times. Here are some initial reflections on the lessons we would do well to remember when physical meetings resume.
- Physical presence is not essential
Boards of directors and their executive teams do not need to be physically in the same room to have worthwhile discussions and make good decisions.
- Holding board meetings need not cost so much
Into the bargain, virtual meetings have shown us how we can achieve significant meeting-related cost savings (e.g. travel costs, venue costs, catering costs, etc.)
- Board meetings do not need to be convened at regular intervals
We do not need to hold board meetings according to a regular monthly/quarterly schedule just because we always have and because, for example, we have traditionally matched meeting dates to financial accounting cycles. We can hold our ‘regular’ (i.e. planned) meetings according to a schedule that is much better suited to the patterns of our business. We can call ‘special’ (i.e. unplanned) board meetings at short notice when there is value in doing so. This means we no longer need an executive committee to deal with ‘emergencies’.
- Much that goes on a board meeting agenda is not a good use of the board’s time
Many of the items that get on to board meeting agendas are not worth the board's time in considering them or the executive time in preparing for them. During lockdown we have been able to demonstrate that boards can be far more intentional about what they allocate their time and attention to. A good starting point is to make sure that board meetings are board meetings and not management meetings that directors attend.
- Quality must be put ahead of quantity in reporting to the board
The fatigue factor we have experienced when board meetings are video-based points to the desirability of making them shorter. The shortening process has shown that a great deal of what has historically been included in board meeting packs has little relevance or value when related to what a board meeting needs to accomplish. Boards are (or should be) tossing out all those ‘for information’ and ‘noting’ papers, and executive reports that are little more than diary dumps by which executives show how busy they have been. The message should be – ‘don’t tell us what you have been doing and how hard you have been trying, tell us what you have achieved. And, by the way, keep what you tell us focused on the implementation of the strategic plan. For the moment, we will take business-as-usual as a given.’
- Board meetings do not need to be the long, drawn-out affairs they often are
We have learned it is possible to have shorter and more productive board meetings. When (as pre-COVID) meetings are slotted into our diaries months in advance and we have to travel some distance and at some expense to get there, we are vulnerable to letting meetings drift along unconsciously extending their length to fill and justify the scheduled time and expense of the meeting.
- Directors can and should be better prepared for board meetings
Meeting virtually has taught us that we need to get straight to the heart of things. Therefore, as directors we have learned that we need to be better prepared for board meetings as do our executive support teams. Papers need to be prepared sufficiently in advance to not just allow participants to read them ahead of the meeting but to feedback queries and questions of clarification to management and to let board chairs know in advance about the issues we want to raise.
- Executives also need to be better prepared
Board papers that relate to organisational performance need to be clear, concise, and relevant. They need to be self-explanatory to be able to be ‘taken as read’. In virtual meeting mode we have found that there is limited time for rambling executive presentations and random director inquiry.
- Boards must be clearer about what needs to be achieved and what they need to know
For boards to get crisp, concise executive reports that tell directors what staff have achieved rather than what they have been doing we are reminded that in most matters boards need to do their job first and do it thoroughly. A critical starting point is in setting performance expectations in terms of outcomes and impact rather than in open-ended ‘objectives’ and organisational ‘laundry lists’ that are little more than vaguely expressed statements of good intention and wishful thinking.
- Board teamwork cannot be left to chance
Boards are human groups and good governance is more about behaviour than it is about structures and other visible governance-related variables. We have learned that it is much easier to operate in virtual mode if you are already well acquainted with your colleagues. Whether or not we can return to pre-COVID normal any time soon we need to get a lot better at inducting new board members and integrating them into the board team.
- Having a competent board chair is not optional
The premium attaching to good board leadership has become even more visible. Chairing virtual meetings is more difficult although some platforms give meeting leaders some powerful tools. The free-flowing conversations possible in in-person settings are more difficult in video conference mode. Virtual board meetings are even easier to hijack by those who would have their thinking prevail (or who just lack the self-awareness of the way they tend to dominate available airtime). Chairs have to work hard to get directors and advisers heard on important points while at the same time maintaining the interest of others in the meeting. The experience thus gained will have long-term benefits.
About The Author:
Graeme Nahkies is a specialist governance effectiveness consultant dedicated to assisting governing boards to provide effective strategic leadership to their enterprises and to fulfil their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities to their stakeholders. Working with his team at Boardworks International, it is their aim to make 'board work' a satisfying and enjoyable experience for all who serve on or provide support to, governing boards.