The arrival of Covid 19 has led to many changes in the governance of civil society organisations. The biggest difference is that board and committee meetings are now almost exclusively virtual. As a result, meetings are more frequent, called at shorter notice, briefer and have been predominantly about immediate decisions. The requirement for rapid decision taking has led some boards to create an ‘inner group’ that maintains closer engagement and provides strong support for their senior executives.
Some of these changes will lead to lasting benefits, particularly the ability to hold meetings at short notice and speed up decision taking. However, we all need to be alert to longer term dangers:
- Meetings risk being mainly transactional, with less flexibility to ruminate on complex issues
- Difficult conversations about how the board is performing and what individuals need to do differently to improve board effectiveness will be harder without face to face interactions
- Creation of an inner group risks some board members feeling demoted to an outer group
- There are few opportunities to build social capital between board members and with leadership teams.
These changes are appropriate in the short term but will require investment to ensure strong relationships exist before difficult decisions come down the track.
So what can be done?
Here are a few tips:
- Hold online coffee sessions that everyone is expected to attend before meetings
- Set up break out groups before the meeting so people can chat with a smaller group before it starts
- Encourage more conversations among board members and with senior executives between meetings
- Revisit the annual board meeting plan to ensure that regular scrutiny do not get lost in the stream of shorter-term decisions
- Ensure agendas include strategic items as they did before Covid
- Schedule early exploration of difficult issues well before final decisions are required
- Be alert to the danger of becoming too involved in management and delivery and remember to step back into those governance roles where the board adds greatest value.
Covid has created massive uncertainty for many boards, leading to huge challenges in planning for the longer term. For some this will necessitate a thorough review of the fundamental purpose and business model of their organisation. Boards may need to reflect on whether the consequences of Covid require a reframing of their mission and significant changes to longer term strategy. This may require quality time to explore different scenarios for the possible futures your organisation faces and the establishment of new strategies that will be robust in a range of different external circumstances.