News

Leading through a pandemic: Tips from the board

Seasoned board directors offer advice on how to lead through a crisis.


Management Today | April 16, 2020



The Agenda article, “Leading through a pandemic: Tips from the board,” was co-written by Russell Reynolds Associates Consultants Laura Sanderson and Rusty O’Kelley and features advice from seasoned directors and active and retired CEOs about how boards should lead through the worst times. The article is excerpted below.

Channel – and curb – your enthusiasm
As one director put it to us, “it’s not helpful if too many helpful people are trying to be helpful.” Chairs need to manage and temper well-intentioned directors who are eager to assist management, as their involvement may overwhelm an already-crowded effort and bog down management teams with distracting requests.

Step up…but don’t overstep
Under normal circumstances, the distinction between governance and management is usually clearly defined and understood, but in a crisis, boards are challenged with toeing an ever-moving line. The board’s role should always be to support management in the right way, at the right time, without trying to manage the company. Ask the right questions and test management’s assumptions, whilst being careful to frame this challenge with appreciation for and encouragement of a hard-pressed management team. Find the right balance between giving advice and asking questions, even when tensions are high.

Plan for permanent changes
Prepare to challenge management’s thinking about how the crisis has fundamentally shifted business operations and which changes will permanently impact the company’s strategic direction. Boards will need to grapple with what these changes mean for legacy businesses and even for some cherished cultural behaviours. Consider which aspects of the business should remain the same, which will briefly change, and which have been permanently disrupted – including consumer behaviours, public expectations, supply chains, and operating models. Ensure that management establishes mechanisms that capture enduring lessons from this crisis to help make the organisation more robust going forward. History demonstrates that the most significant shifts in a sector’s competitive rankings occur during moments of crisis and uncertainty such as these.

Set the tone
Now is the time for decision making that demonstrates inclusive capitalism in action. Companies with boards that act fast to reinforce a strong, compassionate, and positive culture with both internal and external stakeholders stand to benefit the most post-crisis. Employees, customers, and communities will be making long lasting judgments based in part on how the board behaves in the coming weeks.

Keep succession in focus
During times of tremendous pressure, the board will see which executive leaders rise to meet new challenges and inspire confidence – and which do not. Note what this reveals about the management team and, as critically, what it says about the internal succession pipeline. Look at the experience that was missing from the team as well as the behaviours and leadership qualities that were or were not displayed. During a crisis, boards have a unique opportunity to sharpen their understanding of who their leaders truly are, and how they should adjust both short- and long-term succession plans.

In hard times, the soft stuff matters more
Don’t underestimate the power of saying thank you and asking specifically about how the leadership team, their partners and immediate families are holding up. Small words or gestures have a big impact with the management team that is working hard to protect and resurrect the business. Express gratitude and celebrate small wins along the road to recovery. This will help reinvigorate a fatigued team and keep them energised for whatever still lies ahead.

To read the full article, click here.



Sign up for our newsletter

Get the newsletter that prepares you for what's next with valuable insights across industries and geographies.
Leading through a pandemic: Tips from the board