Board Leadership and Performance in a Crisis [Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance]

Every industry across the globe has faced a crisis at some point in time. While most large companies survive, many struggle for years following a period of severe adversity. Others prevail and become stronger than before. How companies address crises has changed over time, as has the role of the board.

Amid COVID-19’s rapid spread across the globe, boards are moving fast to oversee the deployment or refreshment of crisis management protocols. The pandemic’s impact will be felt differently by every company, and boards will have to ramp up or dial back their responses depending on their unique circumstances.

That said, irrespective of industry, a crisis of this magnitude acts as a true pressure test for boards, uncovering new fault lines that directors must navigate. Much has been written about how boards should generally behave during a crisis, but few if any directors have experienced something as dire as a pandemic. COVID-19 will require both directors and management to have an open and flexible learning mindset. Directors especially will need to display courage, decisiveness, and a calming demeanor. In an ever-evolving crisis such as this one, they will need to be constantly pausing, assessing, anticipating, acting, and reassessing.

With this in mind, Russell Reynolds Associates wanted to move beyond the well-understood basics of crisis planning to gain insights from clients and colleagues with governance expertise who have successfully navigated prior crises. As the outbreak took hold, we spoke with almost twenty seasoned directors and active and retired CEOs to glean their lessons for boards on navigating the uncertainty and adapting to new challenges. This is what they recommend.

I had the pleasure of assisting Rusty O’Kelley, Constantine Alexandrakis, and Justus O’Brien on this article, which was published by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance.