Board Talk: Lessons of Lockdown

By Stephen Bampfylde

Stephen Bampfylde

Consulting Team

Stephen is co-founder and Chairman of Saxton Bampfylde. He began his career working for IBM and Whitehall, where he spent nearly 10 years before moving into top level executive search. For 27 years he has been involved in the recruitment of executives to senior positions across all sectors. He helped establish the worldwide professional association AESC in Europe and was its international director for a number of years. Outside executive search, he has been involved with the advisory boards of the Business Schools at Cambridge and City Universities, is a Trustee of the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, and is former Chairman of the Guildford Cathedral Council. Stephen read Economics at Jesus College, Cambridge and studied corporate finance at London Business School..

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Here we reflect on our “Lessons of Lockdown” and share our insights on board and organisational purpose, human connectivity and leadership in times of crisis.

 

Interconnectivity Amidst Crisis

One of the most frequent human reactions in the face of crisis is to turn inwards. During periods of organisational difficulty, we should do the opposite and seek to reaffirm interconnectivity with both internal and external stakeholders. This reaching out to others provides colleagues with a level of reassurance from a visible leader, engages all members of a senior leadership team, and broader organisation, to create solutions collectively and enables leaders to gain insights from other trusted advisors. Upon learning of a crisis, one should – as swiftly as possible – implement a three-point plan to engage staff, assemble the senior team and put into action a new operating model.

Adaptability and Planning for the Unexpected

Times of challenge demand a level of accelerated change, as well as the need for organisational and personal adaptability. Boards and leaders should never rely on a set mode of operating, ‘as the status quo will always need to evolve’. Nevertheless, how does one plan for the unforeseen and unpredictable, such as a global pandemic? The answer is to create a contingency plan for the unexpected. It is possible to create a response plan for an unknown event. For instance, protocols as to convening senior leaders and advisors, plans for communication and flexible working and creating a back-up crisis committee, who will be responsible for responding to certain aspects of the crisis. A flexible workforce and organisational structure are a high value asset during times of challenge. That said, not all aspects of an organisation should be open to flex and change and beneath this adaptability should be a solid foundation of uncompromisable and commonly shared values across any organisation.

Authentic and Genuine Leadership

Leadership credibility must be built during ‘peace time’ in order that it might be called upon when under pressure. One aspect to creating trust lies in devoting time and effort to ensure that all colleagues feel heard and motivated; again, this must be done when an organisation is not in crisis mode and leaders need to prioritise diary time and resource for colleagues and their wellbeing. A leader must be open to self-evaluation, apology and humility, just as an organisation must be open to self-review. In times of a crisis an organisation must resist any sense of blame culture. This approach has the potential to introduce cracks into an organisation, whilst preventing the focus from being on collective and collaborative forwards movement.

Diversity and Inclusion are more important than ever

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how much needs to change to improve ethnic diversity and topics such as diversity and inclusion have become more of a priority than ever before. In times of crisis, such topics can be pushed to the side-lines and risk being taken off the agenda entirely as leaders try to navigate through a time of fundamental uncertainty. Organisations that have prioritised—and continue to prioritise—D&I as a strategic business imperative will emerge from this crisis better than others. Those that have invested in developing inclusive leaders and cultures and building balanced boards and leadership teams will fare better than others. Balanced teams are better at solving complex problems, managing risk, and spotting new opportunities. Inclusive leadership can hold together today’s disrupted, virtual workforces.

Digital Innovation is here to stay

Digital integration has been at the top of the agenda for every board for some time now, however the digital agenda has since witnessed a catalytic acceleration, triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak. The ability for boards and leaders to lead in a virtual environment is now an important aspect to evaluate when hiring too. We can no longer take for granted in-person meetings. Learning to asses tone, character and demeanour in a virtual interview has become part of reality. A digital people strategy is now part of any organisational strategy. Whilst people remain the most vital asset for any organisation, it is essential that digital innovation is embraced, particularly at board level.

Change is Inevitable

The crisis has already and will continue to change the way organisations operate. The ease with which organisations have shifted to entirely virtual meetings has thrown into question whether physical meetings, with their accompanying travel times, will return as the status quo. Whilst meetings are being called more often, they are shorter and more focused to combat ‘zoom fatigue’. For Boards, looking to the future it seems obvious the composition of boards will change as the skills required for board members for the next phase change, and any ‘passengers’ are weeded out by good Chairs. It is likely that a premium will be placed on financial literacy and approaches to risk management may well shift, with a greater focus on planning for consequences as opposed to specific events. Succession planning is going to be key and there will be a significant uptick in demand for board reviews.

 

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