Leading through a pandemic: Tips from the board

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

by Laura Sanderson and Rusty O’Kelley III

Few, if any, company directors in this generation have navigated something as dire as a pandemic. Nevertheless, board members who have lived through a previous existential corporate crisis can provide us with signposts. As coronavirus hit, we interviewed more than 20 seasoned directors and active and retired CEOs about how boards should lead through the worst times. This is their advice.

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. 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, while 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.

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