The coronavirus pandemic is bringing untold pain and change. It’s changing the way we think, live, and work. It’s forcing us to challenge some of the most cherished organisational myths, not least of which is “remote working doesn’t work”.
Most governance professionals and board administrators are desperate to improve the way the board operates and the way the pack is written, created, and built — but, until now, have lacked the mandate for change. The conjunction of the move to remote meetings in a crisis presents a once-in-a-career opportunity to develop that mandate.
Carpe Diem. It’s Time to Change
A senior Company Secretary recently shared with us his model for responding to the current crisis. For him, there are three stages to the coming weeks and months:
- Stabilise — ensure governance can operate effectively following the crisis.
- Leverage — use the crisis to drive urgency and create a mandate for long-desired change.
- Reconfigure — as we settle into the “new normal”, use the opportunity to rethink completely how governance structures could operate.
We couldn't agree more. It’s our founding belief that habit and convention are the enemies of board effectiveness. As Ken Olisa, Chair of Restoration Partners, said:
“When we are in the boardroom, we would use our time better if we abandoned the ‘high church’ rituals.”
~ Ken Olisa, Chair, Restoration Partners
It seems clear to us that the painful and unique conjunction of remote meetings during a crisis creates an opportunity to completely reconfigure the board agenda, pack, and meetings. We believe boards and leadership have a lot to gain if they choose to view the current situation with a transformational mindset because the skills that make a virtual board meeting work well will become genuinely transformative when we can finally gather around a real board table again.
So, here are the areas you should be focusing on, to not only ensure the effectiveness of your remote meetings but also build solid foundations for the future.
Board Agenda: It’s Time to Develop The Discipline of Focus
Staying focused in a virtual board meeting is challenging enough, but a virtual board meeting in a crisis doubles that challenge and makes the need for focus an existential one. According to the Skipton Building Society’s research, the average human being can stay focused for around 14 minutes. Other studies say 20. Even assuming company directors are superhuman, and doubling that generous estimate to 40 minutes, it’s hard to see what an 8-hour meeting can be good for.
Instead, we can embrace the fact that working from home means we can easily run board sprints, not board marathons, and break the meeting into two or three sprints.
Like a balloon descending rapidly, it’s important your board agenda, pack, and papers throw out anything not essential for survival. So, rank your agenda items and order, push minutes and actions to another call, and only talk about what must be talked about in order of the energy each discussion point requires.
Throw out that dead weight. Control that descent.
Board Information: It’s Time to Cut the Pack
Too many authors write a board paper as if they were arguing with St Peter for entry to Heaven: an extensive defence of their failures and a list of their lifetime achievements.
The need to focus demands brevity from your board reports as well as your board meetings. That gives you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make some serious demands of your authors. In the same way your agenda needs to focus on first things first (or high-energy discussions), so should the board papers. Cut the crap, get to the point. Keep the paper short, dump data that doesn’t reflect the contents and go MECE. Tell your authors: the new salvation criteria are honesty, clarity, and brevity — and those that pass that test will gain entry to the promised land.
It may seem counter-intuitive but now is exactly the time to roll out board paper frameworks and best practice. You have all the excuse you need. Here’s how the conversation to your authors should go: “Folks, the board is under pressure and meeting remotely. I need you to bring a laser focus to your papers. Start with the conclusion and the ask. The rest is just evidence to support that. 6 pages max. It’s no time for padding.”
If that seems like too much of an ask, or you are swamped with other items, try starting with a first-class CEO Report and ensure all reports have a clear and concise executive summary. If the rest of the pack remains backwards-looking and operational, so be it, but these two are critical in driving effective meetings.
In return, do your authors a favour, and tell them exactly what you want to know. Write a crystal-clear brief for the paper. Why should they do all the work? Which questions matter most to the board right now? It’s your role to find that out and pass on the information. Otherwise, you’ll continue to get the board papers you deserve — not the ones you need.
Virtual Chairing: It’s Time for Chief Participation Officers
One of the most significant challenges of remote meetings is engagement. The visual cues that make up much of how a face-to-face meeting is structured (“Sue, you’re clearly not happy with that response, what’s on your mind?”) are missing, and thus a certain finesse is required of the Chair to get input from others. Even with a split-screen, where you can view both the digital board paper and the attendees, you’re not going to be able to see Sue’s frustration.
So, now is the opportunity to develop a far more disciplined and structured approach to contribution and engagement.
For a virtual board meeting to work, the Chair must develop the skill, as many have already, of not allowing the loudest voice or strongest broadband to dominate the remote meeting. In the absence of strong visual cues, systematically soliciting feedback against the list of attendees is a prerequisite.
In an ideal world, the Chair could be encouraged to consider entrusting the task of watching the attendees for potential contributions to the CoSec or Board Administrator — having them act as the Chief Participation Officer. We recognise that most Company Secretaries are busy enough in a board meeting, however!
This isn’t just about ensuring all have their say, it’s also about making the board work hard. Unlike in some face-to-face meetings, board members should have a high degree of certainty they’ll be asked their view on the matters that matter — and will be expected to have one. If you’re in the balloon, you earn your keep, otherwise you’re just extra weight in a fast-descending wicker basket.
For tips on how to chair productive virtual board meetings, download our Chair’s guide to remote meetings below.
Remote Directors: It’s Time to Expect More
Because time and attention are even more precious elements in a remote board meeting, you can start to mandate some increased expectations of board members.
All board members should be expected to submit clarification or challenge questions at least 72 hours prior to the meeting, via your board portal or any other collaboration tools you use. Only those unanswered, or answered unsatisfactorily, can find space on the agenda.
If you’re a board portal administrator, you can find out exactly who has read their board pack before the meeting. It’s the nuclear option, but a “Michael, I can see you haven’t yet viewed the board pack and wondered if I could help with any technical challenges” is not a bad call for ensuring everyone is ready.
Boardroom Technology: It’s Time to Dump Old Myths
When it comes to boardroom technology, the typical excuse used by those tasked with administering boards is the mythical Luddite Director. “I’d love to adopt boardroom technology, but my Directors would never agree to it or use it.”
Well, the move to remote has already put a pin in that objection. Somehow your Directors managed to log into Zoom or Webex or Microsoft Teams. Somewhere, today, the Chair of a publicly listed company will reach out to their children via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or, heaven help us, cut a TikTok video. It’s a smokescreen that Directors don’t like new tech and now is the time to dump it overboard — because it’s making your remote meetings insecure, inefficient, and less effective.
Technology doesn’t stop with video-conferencing tools either. If you’re one of the minority of organisations still distributing your board papers by email — stop right now! Instead, take advantage of the remote meeting format to move to a board portal. Share board papers instantly, virtually, and securely. Collaborate before the meeting to use your time wisely. Collate critical board papers in minutes and not hours. Allow your board to access papers on whatever device they want. Embrace last-minute updates and reports, because, in a fast-moving situation, they are part of the solution — it’s the system your organisation has always assumed inviolable that’s the problem.
The Virtual Board Meeting – Seize the Moment
In the UK, we are now four weeks into homeworking. For the lucky ones that means starting to move from the fire-fighting mode of multiple shorter emergency “board calls” into a new “BAU” of virtual board meetings.
It can be tempting to assume the change merely involves moving the forum from a gathering of the great and good around a single, highly polished table to 12 different ones — kitchen, dining or study. That would be both a mistake and a missed opportunity.
It’s not simply a question of porting a conversation forum: remote meetings require rethinking everything because running remote meetings is harder. Staying focused is harder, getting attendees to contribute is harder, collaborating before and after the meeting is harder, taking minutes is harder. Adopting new technology is difficult and imperfect, and inviting external contributors can be especially tough.
And in all that lies the opportunity.
Few organisations are enjoying the high-altitude view from the basket: most are transfixed by the fast-approaching ground. If what you’re doing dilutes value and adds risk, now is your chance to throw it overboard. Stabilise, leverage, and reconfigure.