Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen more and more news stories, LinkedIn posts and tweets about layoffs at companies across all industries, sizes and locations. Some industries, though, are being hit harder than others. Take the travel industry, for example. Major hotel brands are having to furlough thousands of workers, while others are having to institute massive layoffs to stay lean and operational during these uncertain times. Some companies are even putting employees on unpaid leave for an extended period of time.
These are all really hard decisions to make for the C-suite and board of directors. No one, myself included, is making any judgments. But to get to those difficult decisions, there had to be emergency board meetings — all of which inevitably had to happen virtually. Given the regulation and compliance hurdles many boards face, the SEC recently released guidance to help public companies, investment companies and shareholders conduct their board meetings virtually in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. So that’s good news and a step in the right direction.
But the unfortunate fact is that board meeting processes are steeped in old-school traditions that seem archaic and counterintuitive to the digital-first environment in which we live and work. But with COVID-19, how prepared are board members to adjust and adapt? What’s standing in their way right now? Could technology be the key difference between survival and failure post-crisis?
To answer these questions, I spoke with Ben Kepes, Principal of Diversity Ltd. In addition to sitting on the boards of many organizations, he’s also a tech industry analyst and has written for major publications the likes of GigaOm and ReadWrite. During the Covid-19 Pandemic, his business, Cactus Outdoor, is dedicating its entire factory to the production of their facemask, made in New Zealand using wool and organic cotton.
Here are excerpts from our conversation.
What’s the traditional process for setting up a board meeting? How long can it take to get all board members aligned and in agreement on a day, time and agenda?
Ben: To most of us today who are glued to our digital and mobile devices, the process of setting up board meetings is quite antiquated and inefficient. It usually starts with sitting at the start of the year to work out acceptable dates for meetings for the next 12 months in advance. Oh and did I mention this is usually done with paper and pen? As so many businesses are faced with making important and difficult decisions right now – and they have to do it quickly – this antiquated process just doesn’t work when you’re in a state of crisis.
On top of that, it can sometimes take forever (at least it seems like it) for board directors to agree on a day and time that works for everyone. And because they’re at such a high level in the organization (and their responsibilities carry tremendous weight and influence), their availability can change at the drop of a hat. This leads to even more delays in making urgent board meetings happen – and oftentimes, can even result in cancellations. Cancelled board meetings are a luxury that no company can afford right now.
Could this end up causing delays in discussions and resolutions of important topics/issues that could positively or negatively affect business growth and ROI?
Ben: It’s really about what good governance looks like for a dynamic organization trying to navigate through a changing environment. The notion of tech company boards using outdated meeting processes and methods is counterintuitive. That says a lot about their ability to adapt to changing environments. Right now, boards will survive or fail on the basis of their agility and adaptability.
The unfortunate reality is that board directors sometimes don’t fulfill their duties due to delays and inefficiencies related to scheduling clashes. For anyone who sits on a board, it will be critical to adapt your ways of working and integrate certain tools like Doodle and Zoom, which make it easy and efficient to schedule those emergency board meetings that could ultimately determine if they come out on the other side of the current unstable climate.
I’ve introduced Doodle into three or four traditional boards I sit on. It’s made a huge impact on their ability to schedule and run ad-hoc, emergency meetings (like so many organizations must do right now). But for the boards that still do things the old-school way, not taking full advantage of technology and tools like Doodle and Zoom could result in board meetings simply not taking place.
The danger of not getting emergency board meetings scheduled is real and serious. It results in a rudderless ship that organizations are trying to steer through unstable situations. This is not a viable scenario in emergency situations, such as the current coronavirus outbreak. The board needs to be able to react rapidly as things change on a daily basis. So it’s mission-critical for boards to communicate quickly, effectively and on a regular basis. This is where remote work tools like Doodle Zoom are key enablers for making that happen.
Do you think poorly run board meetings could directly affect how an organization copes (and makes it through) an emergency/crisis? Can you elaborate?
Ben: Absolutely. This is a time for people to meet regularly and make decisions quickly in ever-changing landscapes. A board that can’t react to those changes in real-time won’t get through this crisis (or any other crisis for that matter) – or at all.
Most boards, especially publicly listed organizations, work within a highly regulated environment (i.e. Sarbanes Oxley, EU GDPR, etc.). So there are a host of legal obligations to think about when it comes to compliance. But the problem is that boards tend to operate on a 90/10 ratio – 90% focused on compliance and 10% focused on business strategy. Amidst the current coronavirus outbreak, this ratio isn’t viable or future-proof.
For good governance, boards need an agenda, schedule, goals, outcomes, board papers and other essential elements. But if all that ‘stuff’ ends up being a barrier to the board being able to think and act strategically, if not irrelevant, at the least it misses the point of crisis-response. What I’ve found is that when a board of directors embeds technology/tools like Doodle and Zoom into the way they work, it can be seen as a proxy for whether a board is future-proof and fit for purpose. That’s important now more than ever.
What’s one piece of advice you have for boards that find themselves scrambling to set up emergency board meetings?
Ben: Almost every board I’m on is meeting at least once a week (and some, daily). These might be quick 30-minute updates or they could be more in-depth conversations that could go on for a few hours. Even organizations with potentially large growth opportunities right now (i.e. ecommerce, delivery services, logistics, warehouse/distribution) need to be able to rapidly react to changing situations. That means board directors need to be in the loop constantly. But if they don’t have the right tools in place to connect, meet and coordinate amongst other board members, investors and shareholders, then they have bigger problems on their hands.
There are two critical characteristics of a good governance program: adaptability and dynamism. A big component of that is to be able to schedule meetings on an ad-hoc basis. Every organization today spends much time talking about digital transformation. But many senior executives (and boards) view this as something that’s primarily focused on the customer experience and sales touchpoints. But it’s more than that and relates to every part of how an organization works. So boards adopting tools such as Doodle and Zoom at the board level is another example of digital transformation. If a board doesn’t display a digital mindset, how can it expect its organization to survive a crisis, let alone grow after a crisis has ended?
To get an up-close look at how the Doodle-Zoom integration actually works – and how it can help your board set up emergency board meetings in a matter of minutes – watch this video.