Do You (And Your Board) Need a Boost?

A couple of days ago, DirectorPrep co-founder Alice Sayant shared with me that her car wouldn’t start. The battery had just enough juice for auxiliary power, but not enough to turn over the engine.

Now, in our part of the world (the Canadian Prairies), a dead car battery is a fairly common occurrence in the middle of a cold winter. But it hasn’t even been that cold (at least, not yet.) And not only is her car parked in the garage, but the block heater (click here if you’ve never heard of a block heater!) was plugged in, keeping the engine nice and warm.

But in the midst of a Code Red lockdown – with stores and restaurants shuttered, arts and recreation venues closed, and visits to family and friends banned – her vehicle, like many others, is sitting unused. Even her board work, which in “normal” times requires driving to attend in-person meetings, now takes place sitting at her desk in front of a computer screen.

So, what did she do about her dead battery? She called roadside assistance for help and – voila! – a friendly tow truck driver arrived armed with jumper cables and helpful advice. After he boosted her car battery, she headed out into the bright winter afternoon for a nice long drive and some quality time with a good podcast.

This everyday event got us both thinking … maybe it’s not just car batteries whose energy is depleted these days. Maybe board directors, and the boards they serve, could benefit from a metaphorical block heater and a pair of booster cables as they head into the longest, coldest part of the winter.

So, I asked Alice to jot down a few thoughts on the subject for today’s blog.


Boosting Your Personal Energy

At this point in the global pandemic, it’s fair to say that we are all experiencing COVID fatigue to some degree. It’s a weight on our spirits and a drag on our personal energy. While the prospect of a vaccine provides some light at the end of the tunnel, it surely is a long tunnel. The tow truck is still way off in the distance, and there are many challenges to get through before then. Still, let’s keep in mind, that even if, right now, hope seems as distant and elusive as a warm spring day, spring will eventually arrive.

“O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Savvy directors with a healthy level of self-awareness realize that the stress and anxiety of this strange time – stress and anxiety that arise from their personal lives as well as their board work – can have an adverse effect on their effectiveness as a director. We’ve written about this topic in an earlier Savvy Director blog, Self-Care for the Stressed-Out Director. Maybe it’s time for a re-read.

At this time of year many of us think about committing to a few New Year’s Resolutions. A recent article by psychologist Katherine Arbuthnott argues that our resolutions for 2021 should be much more short-term than usual. Instead of focusing on long-term goals, we could try setting ourselves a goal of “arriving at the pandemic’s end with some semblance of good physical and mental health.”

So, as we step out gingerly into the new year, maybe we can all resolve to focus on self-care – whatever that phrase conveys to each of us as individuals. Whether your version of self-care is exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, convening with nature, listening to music, or just taking a long drive with a good podcast, think of taking care of yourself as a boost for your personal battery!

And if you insist on setting a few longer-term goals, Katherine Arbuthnott recommends basing them on what you’ve learned during the pandemic. Consider these three questions:

  1. What do you want to keep from changes you made to cope with the pandemic?
  2. What do you want to reclaim from the pre-pandemic time?
  3. How would you “build back better” if you were in charge of the world - or maybe just your neighbourhood?

 

Boosting the Board’s Energy

For many boards, the global pandemic changed everything almost overnight. In the face of massive uncertainties, unprecedented challenges, and an ever-evolving set of guidelines and rules, most boards rose to the challenge. Whether they excelled or just muddled through, they and their organizations have (with some sobering exceptions) managed to survive – so far.

Some directors even found they had to “lean in” during this extraordinary time, and ended up energized by the heightened degree of board engagement that emerged.

And yet, for many of us, COVID fatigue might be setting in on the boards we serve right about now. It’s certainly understandable that the strain of responding to the continuing crisis is having an effect. But I think there’s also another factor to consider – a factor that boards can act on.

I’m talking about virtual meetings and the effect they have on board dynamics and interpersonal relationships. For more on this topic, read our earlier blog, Board Dynamics in a Virtual World.

Let’s face it, people are social animals. They feed off the energy of those around them. And a board of directors is just a specific kind of social group. Virtual meetings have, in some way, impaired the ability of the board to operate as a cohesive group, and that can contribute to fatigue and disengagement.

Still, it looks like virtual board meetings will be a necessity for some time to come. And even in the longer term, many boards will want to take advantage of their obvious advantages, like reduced travel and improved attendance. A recent Harvard Business Review article, ‘The Upside of Virtual Board Meetings’, focuses on those advantages.

“… shifting to virtual has allowed boards to improve governance and collaboration through shorter agendas, crisper presentations, more inclusive and bolder conversations, and broader exposure to key executives and outside experts.”

Fortunately, the article also offers some valuable tips for practices that should help to offset the impact to board dynamics while optimizing the potential benefits. Any or all of these are worth your consideration if your board’s energy could use a boost.

  • Do pre-work. Encourage board members to exchange feedback before the meeting, using file-sharing services and secure chat platforms. 
  • Take more breaks. Since virtual meetings create fatigue quickly, make sure to schedule plenty of breaks. A good rule-of-thumb is one 15-minute rest per 90 minutes.
  • Schedule shorter meetings. Shorten the agenda by focusing on fiduciary responsibilities and any resulting decisions that need to be made, Updates can be provided by file-sharing or email instead of taking up meeting time.
  • Spread sessions out. Instead of one lengthy meeting, spread in-depth discussions over a series of shorter meetings. For instance, what would have been a two-day board retreat in pre-pandemic times can be spread out over a two-week period instead.
  • Be deliberate about building trust. Board directors used to develop comfort with one another in the casual give-and-take of coffee breaks, lunches, and dinners. In a virtual world, these opportunities must be purposefully planned. Use exercises designed for participants to share things about themselves and learn about one another. Just Google ‘virtual icebreakers’ to come up with ideas suitable for your board.
  • Use virtual breakout rooms. Make full use of what the software has to offer. Virtual breakout rooms are useful for discussions that require candor, such as pressure testing ideas and challenging the wider discussion. After the breakouts, the board reconvenes as a group to hear the reports.
  • Bring in guests. Widen the board’s perspective with new people by inviting experts to drop in remotely to deliver bite-sized insights and expertise. Guests can be external - they don’t need to schedule travel – or internal to the organization. Consider hearing from employees who wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to interact with the board.

If your board’s energy could use a boost, why not resolve to suggest one of these activities at your next virtual board meeting? Or better yet, just send a link to this blog to your board chair or governance committee chair.

 

Your takeaways:

  • Focus your New Year’s resolutions on self-care to boost your personal energy for what is, hopefully, the last leg of the pandemic.
  • Help boost your board’s energy with activities designed to optimize meetings in a virtual environment.
  • And, last but not least, don’t forget to keep your car battery charged with a drive a couple of times a week!

 

Resources:

 

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.


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