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What do CEOs Need from their Boards, Right Now?

Mar 22, 2020

“A crystal ball?”

That was the first reaction from the CEO of a multi million-dollar tourism not-for-profit when I asked her what she needs from her board, right now. Laughter aside, the crystal ball comment was followed by some great insights from inside the storm we know as COVID-19.

I then emailed the same question to a dozen other CEOs, male and female, across regions, from organizations large and small, for profit and not-for-profit, private companies and government departments, from pro sports entertainment to healthcare, from financial services to the arts and culture sector ─ all of these CEOs report to boards.

They all responded to me in a matter of minutes. (By the way, if you are one of those individuals reading this blog right now, thank you for taking the time to respond!)

Clearly, this has been an intense week. From their responses, these CEOs seemed stressed yet definitely in control. If they are working from home, it means they have both business and personal issues to contend with. And they’re getting it done. Warriors, all of them. Just not like the guy in the Enterprise car rental commercials …

Ok, savvy directors … listen up. There are some things our CEOs need from our boards. The good news is we are delivering. And we can probably do more ─ myself included.

In no particular order, I’ll share what I heard from the CEOs. I’ll follow that with a few observations from various governance organizations that are doing their best to support our board work during these crazy times.

CEOs can best support our boards when our boards support them first. We can all agree on that.

We may also agree that, during times of crisis, boards need to lean in. They need to have noses in, and fingers tap dancing around the edges, not necessarily fingers out. But the last thing CEOs need right now is busy work. So, let’s pick our spots. Here’s some of what I heard.


What do CEOs need from their boards, right now?

  • To be available and informed, able to make crisp decisions quickly.
  • Confidence … and they need to keep in mind their role is governance (which is needed) and not operations (which is not.)
  • Immediate access and very quick decision making. That could mean delegating board decisions to the Chair or a committee such as the risk committee.
  • They should review any senior management incentives that would not align with this environment.
  • Give me the confidence to “do what I have to do.”
  • Help stabilize the decision-making process.
  • Labor management is critical with issues such as working from home, etc.
  • Agreement on the frequency and nature of reporting.
  • To be the voice of calm.
  • For the Board Chair to act as a sounding board, to either challenge or concur with decisions, and to decide when to convey information to the whole board.
  • It’s easy to know the decisions that must be made to mitigate financial risk ─ but what does that do to the long-term employer reputation and company brand?
  • Access, sharing of insights from their experiences, contacts and connections, perspectives from other industries, things we may not have thought about.
  • Trust and support as we navigate uncharted waters.
  • Make room to move and make decisions. Boards need to understand business continuity planning. Risk management is number one.
  • Recognition that mistakes will be made. Understanding that preserving jobs and supporting staff is the priority.
  • Boards need to trust leadership, not slow them down.
  • Don’t forget a sense of humour.
  • Remember gratitude!
  • The biggest thing is support. Just a comment like “you’re handling this well” or “good job.” That means more than anything at this point.
  • Be considerate by not calling or sending emails unless I send one first, because of the many demands placed on a leader right now.
  • Understand the environment in which we are operating, and then ask good questions. Don’t expect the CEO to have all the answers and future plans in place. The event is fluid - the board needs to understand that.
  • A high-level view of the impact on the company without getting into the weeds.
  • The ability to do our respective jobs. We don’t need the board in operations.
  • We need them to ask great, big picture questions, and provide direction on the main focus for our customers, staff and the business.
  • Focus on doing the right thing as soon as possible and worry about the cost later.
  • Contribute based on their relevant skill set, whether that be business continuity, HR, communications, finance, etc.
  • Share insights from similar experiences in crisis situations.

Well, that’s quite a list. As directors and board leaders, what do we do with this information?

For the coming week, and the weeks ahead, let’s consider some areas directly within the board’s influence to make a difference.


What can boards do?

Meeting Agendas
  • For now, clear the meeting agenda of regular board items.
  • Stay focused on the pandemic and its risk management implications.
  • Determine how to spend our valuable decision time.
  • Consider the levers we have to work with. What do we do in one week? One month? Six months? One year? Quit planning for anything that can happen.
  • Think about additional risks that arise from the situation, such as increased cyber security risks from working at home, phishing attacks, etc.
  • Determine the cadence, frequency and method of board reporting.
  • Utilize the Board Chair to be the conduit to the CEO. Call board meetings as needed.
  • Ensure there is a communications plan for all relevant stakeholders.
  • Should management incentives require a re-visit, let them know that will be done in the weeks ahead, but not now.
Business Continuity
  • Monitor the business continuity plan ─ is it still relevant? What are we learning as we execute the plan?
  • The risks we thought we would face in this type of situation, are they materializing? Why or why not? What other risks may have emerged?
  • How will we monitor the mental health of our employees and those we serve?
  • Is the organization sufficiently resourced to be able to respond to matters that come forward?
  • What are the impacts on our supply chain, including third party suppliers (those who supply our suppliers?)
  • We can’t think of everything. Let’s start to think in terms of the organization’s resiliency.


It’s time to wrap up.

We could go on for awhile. If I could summarize what I heard from the CEOs who responded, I would say it was all about trust. Again and again, I heard from them that they need to know they are trusted to do the right thing within the parameters established by the board. A trust relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO is especially important.

The organization may need to pivot due to the severity of the impact to its business model. That isn’t personal, but it is about company survival, at least in some cases. Some difficult decisions remain, and many have already taken place.

I have a sense that things will settle down over the next week or so as people get used to their new normal, whether that be working from home, social distancing, or whatever. This past week was the time for people to get organized and deal with the shock of the tsunami of change coming their way. We’ve now had some time to start settling in and think about how we plan for the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that.


Valuable Governance Links

Some of our tremendous governance organizations are opening their doors and wallets to support our boards in these efforts.

  • The Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) is now making its full suite of online governance resources available to all boards whether they are members or not. Click here. 
  • The Governance Professionals of Canada (GPC) have a webinar coming up on Monday March 23, 2020 on how to hold a virtual AGM during the COVID-19 crisis. Click here
  • BoardSource always has a tremendous library of resources for not-for-profit boards and have published guidelines for remote board meetings. Tip ─ check your bylaws to ensure the legality! Click here
  • Diligent is a company that provides an online portal for boards. It also publishes regularly on topics of interest to boards. Diligent also owns BoardEffect, a portal for not-for-profits. Here’s a link to their latest insights on COVID-19. Click here

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

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


Share Your Insight: What advice do you have for boards to support the CEO during the COVID-19 pandemic?



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