The Role of the Board Chair During a Crisis

By Donal Laverty, Consulting Partner at Baker Tilly Mooney Moore

Any chairperson will tell you that the success of their role depends on how they walk the tightrope of being too involved or too distant in the realisation of the organisation’s strategy. Yet when a crisis such as the current Covid-9 pandemic strikes, and the CEO is turned into the Chief Crisis Officer, the role of the Chairperson becomes unclear and many become increasingly unsure how to strike this balance.

A crisis breeds uncertainty and creates emotionally charged conditions for organisations that require fast decision-making, often with limited information on the part of leaders. The board’s traditional role to monitor the crisis response of senior executives is crucial and in the interests of all stakeholders, but it also risks creating response delays and bottlenecks. Moreover, the chairperson’s objective to preserve future strategic options for organisational sustainability might be difficult to implement when the organisation’s short-term survival is on the line.

In light of these dynamics, the interactions between the chairperson and the CEO are an essential and often under-estimated success factor for leading organisations through a crisis. We took a closer look at this relationship to explore why one reason for the success and recovery for organisations depends on the rapport between the chair and CEO.

  1. The Bridge builder. The Chair builds the bridge between the board and the senior executive team and there is no question that this relationship between the chair and the CEO is critical for success, particularly during the current COVID-19 crisis. A Chair needs to focus on regular interactions with the CEO on the main crisis-related activities and actions to be implemented. By doing as much as they have to be approachable at any time for the CEO, which means keeping all forms of communication open to help and learning as much as possible about the senior executive team’s approach to fight the crisis. Boards are well versed in the difference between governance and management however in a crisis, boards are challenged with re-acting to an ever-moving line. The board’s role therefore should always be to support management in the right way, at the right time, without trying to manage the organisation. An effective chair understands the role they must play in order to lead and rally the board of directors as a highly effective team at the service of the company and its stakeholders and in supporting the executive team.
  2. Guardians of the Mission.With any crisis response, organisations tend to react with short-sighted, actions rather than aiming for an overall strategic recovery plan. When a crisis unfolds, CEOs are pressured to take immediate action and communicate a response quickly — even when the full scope and impact of the crisis is not known. The danger is always that they risk harming the organisation’s heart and soul when these knee jerk efforts fail to recognise critical skills, capabilities, experience, and culture so crucial to the organisation’s long-term recovery. There is a significant role for the Board and Chair and their commitment to the organisation’s identity to guide executives when formulating and implementing crisis response strategies.
  3. A Re-assuring hand.Often, leadership teams are unprepared for the fallout of a crisis such as Covid-19, which can create stress, discomfort, and other negative emotions. An effective chairperson will focus on actively addressing the emotional and psychological impact on their CEOs. The Chair will be approachable, expressing sympathy, will be involved and visible and demonstrate care and empathy — toward their CEO in particular. This provides psychological support and avoids bad decision-making driven by negative emotions, uncertainty, and fear.

The Chair Matters – crisis or not

We are living through an unprecedented crisis. Now more than ever is a time for organisations to ensure alignment and mutual support from the board, the chair, and the CEO. The board and the chair need to stay disciplined, remain focused on their roles and stay detached from operations. An experienced chair will not interfere or micro-manage. Instead, they help the CEO navigate the crisis by providing consistent reminders of the organisation’s purpose, identity and mission.

Moreover, chairpersons will use a blend of visibility, positive reinforcement, support and trust to ensure timely information flows and to build an understanding of the CEO’s challenges and responsibilities.

Finally, it is important that chairpersons remain focused on and committed to the organisation above all. The role of the chairperson after all is to challenge decisions, to defend the organisation’s long-term interests, and be ready to take the lead when needed. Leadership in a crisis is not the same as in business as usual: demands become exponentially greater and it becomes harder for leaders to execute their role. The role of the chairperson in a crisis therefore becomes even more important – to provide calmness, to be situationally aware and to bring focus and support to an executive team under pressure by demonstrating courage, poise, independence, and integrity.

 

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