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Evolving Board Practices in a Virtual World

April 29, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

It’s a new world, with rapid change, new challenges, and new opportunities. In the coming year, boards will be helping their organizations develop new and innovative strategies, overseeing culture and talent in a time of profound workplace change, and navigating a rapidly shifting world economy. They might hire a new CEO, contemplate a merger with another organization, or oversee significant changes to their business model. Most likely, they will be doing all of these things remotely, relying on virtual board meetings and other technology instead of interacting in a physical boardroom.

Under the new reality, boards are going to be working in a radically different environment – so why would we assume that the way forward is to replicate traditional board practices and force fit them to this new paradigm? With COVID 19, board practices have already been shifting, with more frequent meetings, regular briefings from the CEO, and access to real-time updates. As we look forward, in addition to thinking about what they should be focusing on, boards must also think about how they are going to do their work. With continued health risks and social distancing, many directors, particularly those who fall within high-risk categories, will be reluctant or unable to travel and engage in traditional board meetings. As a result, boards will need to evolve – or even fundamentally shift – how they function in order to tackle the important work ahead. In order to create effective board culture and dynamics, have meaningful conversations, and continue to provide value, boards will need to be intentional about their board practices.

Applying existing meeting practices to a videoconference is a fine short-term solution. But longer term, boards and organizations need to assess and adjust how they are meeting remotely to ensure the quality of dialogue is sustained. With a shift away from in person meetings, boards need to think about how to structure virtual meetings for optimal engagement.

Anyone who has attended a full-day videoconference knows it feels very different from a full-day in person board meeting. We anticipate boards will reassess their meeting rhythm and adjust their forward calendars, shifting to shorter, more frequent meetings with ample time for breaks built into agendas. Not only does this allow the board to stay up to speed as their organization quickly adapts to changing circumstances, it promotes greater engagement and focus when relying on technology to interact.

With a shift to the board’s forward calendar, meeting agendas will also need to evolve. Rather than shortening the length of each discussion topic, we anticipate meetings will be focused on different areas and leverage different technologies to support the nature of the conversation. For example, boards might meet first for a compliance-oriented meeting to review quarterly financial statements and receive regular reporting, using an online platform that supports information sharing and group discussion. The board might meet separately to discuss emerging strategic issues, drawing on a more collaborative tool that enables breakout groups and virtual whiteboards for brainstorming. Boards might draw on online polling technology to quickly capture votes in real time during meetings. They may also shift communications between meetings to a chat-based forum where directors can share resources, discuss emerging issues, and submit questions.

Moving to virtual meetings will also require a shift in how individuals show up and participate. While watching a screen is typically a passive activity, directors need to engage actively in videoconferences while keeping contributions concise and focused. This means closing all other windows and disabling notifications to avoid distractions, thinking consciously about body language and tone, and preparing clear notes and questions in advance of meetings. For management, this means bringing even more discipline to presentations, highlighting the top three to five insights from pre-reading materials. For board or committee chairs, this requires a new toolkit of facilitation skills to manage the flow of conversations, generate genuine engagement, and ensure value is added (stay tuned for our upcoming article on how chairs can create the right environment for board discussions in this new paradigm).

Committee meetings may follow suit with more frequent meetings or may meet more sporadically and report to the board in specified meetings when there are important committee items to discuss and report on. We may also see broader changes to committee reporting practices, an area boards often struggle to structure in a focused and efficient way. One great idea we’ve seen is a committee report podcast or video shared before the meeting for information, with any recommendations from committees put on the board agenda for discussion and decision-making.

Another area that will require an innovative approach is board social time. Board dinners, offsites, and informal conversations during coffee breaks are important opportunities for directors to connect, get to know each other, and build relationships. We strongly believe that social time is critical to build trust and a positive culture. Building culture online is possible but requires creativity and intentionality. Ask directors to join meetings early to create a forum for small talk, be more intentional in having a regular check-in question at the beginning of meetings so directors can connect on a personal level, host a virtual social hour or pre-meeting board dinner focused on education (or purely for social engagement).

Governance professionals will also need to expand their repertoire and become adept at collaborating with chairs and executives on structuring agendas, choosing virtual platforms, and supporting effective workflows. We have all experienced hiccups at the start of a virtual meeting or found ourselves in a situation where the platform gets in the way of good process or content. Whether designing a virtual AGM, making board meetings seamless in terms of technology, or ensuing security and confidentiality across all platforms, governance professionals will need to be knowledgeable, well-supported by experts, and ready to engage.

As with any new board practice, shifting to virtual meetings will be a process of trial and error. It will require directors to be patient and open to new ways of doing things. It will also require a thoughtful feedback process to gauge how new practices are working, ensuing they are given enough time to adjust and adapt, while also being nimble if things aren’t working and new solutions are required. Regardless of the changes made to accommodate virtual meetings, directors will need training on how to use new technology, proactive communication from the corporate secretary through the transition, and strong leadership from the board chair. Organizations will also need to be highly attuned to cybersecurity risks related to using different online tools, as well as any legal requirements around confidentiality and privacy.

Along with any new challenge comes new opportunity. We see the potential for boards to become more nimble and adaptive, develop new habits to add more strategic value, and streamline some of the mechanics of board meetings. We are encouraged by the many thoughtful and innovative ways organizations of all shapes and sizes have stepped up to tackle challenges. With that same level of intention and ingenuity, we look forward to seeing the many ways boards adapt and step up to lead in new and different ways.


We hope you find a useful idea or consideration to bring back to your board. If this article sparks any questions, or a new idea to help your board have the right conversations and build culture in this new paradigm, shoot us an email and let us know what you’re doing – we always love to hear the great ideas that work in your boardroom.

Have a governance question? We are here to help.



Beyond the Virtual Board Meeting – 10 Considerations for Hosting an Engaging Online Event

April 6, 2020

Posted in: Uncategorized

You’ve probably had your first online board meeting to discuss the immediate impact and implications of COVID-19 on your organization (if you haven’t, check out our article on Board Meeting Practices Beyond the Boardroom. You may have experienced some technical issues but were able to adapt and learn how to work together effectively in the virtual boardroom. But what happens when the time comes to have an online meeting or event that engages a larger group, or needs to create a different experience? Virtual meetings become more challenging as more participants are engaged (including those external to your organization) – the technical requirements become more complex and the need for a coordinated support team becomes critical. Added complexity calls for even more intentional design – here are 10 things to keep in mind as you design your next online meeting or event.

1. Know the baseline requirements and conditions

  • Depending on the nature of the meeting (e.g., board meeting, AGM, election, etc.), your options for moving it online may be limited
  • Review the following documents to understand what applies to you:
    • Your governing legislation (e.g., CBCA, CNCA, provincial Corporations or Societies Act, etc.), and any associated regulations or guidelines (including anything being communicated by the relevant authority, in light of current circumstances)
    • Your articles of incorporation, bylaws, or other constating documents, and formal policies
  • Look for what is explicitly allowed (or disallowed) but also for related considerations such as location of meetings, physical presence, etc.; also consider whether other activities are tied to the event or meeting (e.g., member or shareholder updates, director elections, financial audit, etc.)
  • Consider any policies, practices, or historical norms that may also inform your decisions and plans, or require you to be thoughtful about laying the groundwork for a change in approach

2. Consider the context and the nature of the business to be conducted

  • Map out a rough agenda of items, including discussions, formal motions, etc. that you might expect to address in the meeting
  • Consider what level of interaction is required to ensure that these have been delivered to the standard you need and important perspectives are heard; some items may need rich dialogue and engagement, others may need a reliable and confidential voting mechanism, etc.
  • Use this to define what kinds of platform, roles, resources, and communication you will need in order to be successful; in other words, what conditions must be in place for you to achieve the objectives of the meeting, with the broad acceptance of participants (e.g., members, stakeholders, investors – whoever the key audience is, depending on your organization and the nature of the event)

3. Communicate early and often, even before a decision

  • Think of this as a change process and consider what will be needed to ensure the buy-in of participants and other stakeholders, so that they accept the meeting and its outcomes as legitimate
  • It is helpful to lay groundwork early when possible, letting participants know through regular communication channels they access (e.g., newsletter, email updates, etc.) that this change is being considered and why
  • This will not always be possible, and in some cases if a decision needs to be made quickly, it will simply make the most sense to tell participants as soon as you are able, and give them a way to ask questions or understand how and why the decision was made

4. Choose a platform that allows sufficient engagement

  • Based on the conditions for success you have identified, determine which tools will best get you to the right outcome, taking into consideration the size of the participant group and the nature of accessibility required
    • Web conferencing tools improve and become more affordable all the time; for many situations, a carefully designed plan using the features of a web conferencing platform may meet the need
    • For more complex situations, such as large and high-stakes meetings, a full-service provider may be required for success
    • In addition to the event platform, you may want to consider how you will collect questions, views, preferences, proxies, mail-in votes, etc. ahead of the meeting

5. Help participants prepare well

  • For your participants to engage well and support outcomes, they may need your help to prepare
  • Consider whether they may need guidance or resources for:
    • Accessing and effectively using the platforms/technologies you have selected
    • Meeting any pre-registration or advanced communication requirements
    • Accessing and understand pre-reading materials
    • Preparing their contributions and questions
    • Understanding the etiquette, expectations, or communications norms for this new context
  • Create a set of guidelines for how to participate in the meeting so that expectations are clear, and provide these well ahead of time; make it clear that these need to be reviewed in advance so that participants are not surprised at the last minute by the need to prepare and participate differently

6. Establish essential roles

  • Virtual events and meetings often require a variety of supporting roles to make them effective; this may include:
    • Facilitators managing the meeting process, ensuring the agenda flows well and objectives are achieved
    • Presenters speaking to particular topics (and/or experts available on call for specific questions that may arise)
    • Producers managing the technology, sound, presentation materials, etc. so that all are effective
    • Technical support people helping address issues ahead and on the spot
    • Moderators for questions in chat functions, virtual breakout rooms, etc.
    • Minute-takers, whether working in the moment in whiteboards or recording in detail for the future
    • People counting attendance for quorum, recording votes or tallies, etc.
  • To coordinate all of the above, you may also need someone to act as project manager, and you may potentially need to draw on others to support communications, platform choices, and other key advice and support
  • Not every meeting will need all of these roles, and some people can wear multiple hats; but it is important to think through what is needed, who will play each role, how and when they will be needed, and how they will be coordinated amongst themselves especially if they are also virtual

7. Road test roles and platform – start small and then scale

  • The more important the meeting or event, the more essential it will be to do a dry run with all of the identified roles engaged
  • Often it makes sense to do two dry runs, including:
    • A smaller test with people in the supporting roles, to get aligned and comfortable with the platform
    • A live test with a group of real or mock participants, to understand what the experience is like for participants and how things are affected by having a larger group of people on the platform
  • It can be helpful to have group or individual participant pre-meetings a week or so ahead of the main meeting or event, so that participants can test their access and get support to work through any wrinkles on their end

8. Ask for understanding

  • Be up front with participants about the rationale for the change and the fact that it may not run as planned when you first make this change
  • Ask for their understanding and engage them as partners in making the event successful; tell them what you will need from them to help make this work for everyone

9. Stay nimble

  • Expect the unexpected; have back up plans for when things do not go as well (e.g., a presenter loses their network connection; participants have technology issues)
  • Ask participants to connect several minutes in advance, and have technology support available to greet them and to assist with any challenges
  • Set the tone from the outset of the meeting or event that this will be a learning experience, and let them know what the process will be for re-connecting, changing the approach, or other things that may arise (e.g., letting them know that email is the place to check for quick messages in the event of an issue; suggesting they send any urgent problems via chat to a particular person)

10. Listen, learn, and follow up

  • After the meeting or event, ask for participant feedback on the objectives, the experience, and the platform and resources
  • Gather the team together for a debrief; celebrate successes and feed forward learning for next time
  • Communicate out learnings to participants along with thanks for being part of the change

As with in person meetings, the key to a successful virtual meeting is intentional design. But in these uncertain times, adaptability is also critical. Plan ahead as much as you can, assemble a strong team with key roles, flex your problem-solving skills when challenges arise, and learn and move forward.

As always, we’re here for you if you have questions about how to best support your board in these changing times.



WATSON Supports Backpack Buddies

April 1, 2020

Posted in: WATSON at Events

WATSON is proud to support local charities in Vancouver and Toronto, whose mission and values align with ours, focused on impacting the surrounding community, and contribute to a stronger Canadian society; Sister Jazz Orchestra, Covenant House, True Patriot Love Foundation (Toronto), The Reading Bear.

WATSON is pleased to continue its support of Backpack Buddies in their fight to enhance bags of food so that hungry kids can eat while their schools are closed because of COVID-19.




For more information about Backpack Buddies, and how you can help, please visit: Backpack Buddies


Now is the Time: Make Sure Your Emergency Succession Plans are Crisis-Ready

March 31, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

As COVID-19 shakes the world, we can stop talking about the CEO being hit by the proverbial bus (or, more positively, winning the proverbial lottery) – we have a very real scenario to wrestle with. While organizations shift to respond and adapt to a quickly changing world, they also face the growing risk of a sudden loss of leadership at the top. For all organizations, a strong leader brings comfort and stability during these uncertain times – to staff, customers, shareholders, and stakeholders. Right now, most can’t afford the additional challenge of a gap, or a scramble to move forward, should the CEO be suddenly unable to serve.

It sometimes takes an extreme example to highlight the importance of emergency succession planning. In practice, events that trigger emergency succession plans are often realities of everyday life – a CEO might resign with short notice to take on another role, they may be terminated (there have been many recent examples of terminations for ethical reasons), they may become sick or injured and be unable to work for a period of time or face an urgent family issue. Regardless of the trigger, boards who have prepared for emergency succession take comfort in having a roadmap to guide them through an uncertain time; they are able to quickly mobilize and make clear-headed decisions.

In times of crisis, it is natural to respond reactively, and to focus on what is right in front of us. But now is not the time to rely on a name on a piece of paper, or to push the work of developing a succession plan off into the future. Put a plan in place now, so that you are ready. It doesn’t have to be perfect – you can revisit it later when you have more breathing room. If your organization does not currently have a robust emergency succession plan for the CEO, here are some things to think about to get you started:

What is the immediate response?

In some situations, you won’t have the luxury of time. Certain things will have to be immediately and automatically transferred (for example, statutory authority, signing authority, etc.).

THINK ABOUT: What needs to be handed off immediately, if anything? Who is best positioned to take this on? How will this be documented and communicated (now and later)?

Who will take on the CEO role on an emergency basis? As soon as possible, the board should meet and appoint an emergency CEO successor. This may be the same as the interim CEO or it may be someone else (in many cases, this might be a board chair or COO). This person is generally appointed for a short period of time (e.g., two weeks) until an interim CEO is selected. Or, if the current CEO’s absence is short-term (due to illness, investigation, or similar), they might serve until the CEO is able to return.

THINK ABOUT: Who will be the emergency CEO successor? Is there a backup? How long will they be in the role until an interim CEO is selected? How will this be communicated to the executive team, staff, and stakeholders?

Who will be the interim CEO? An interim CEO often takes on the role for a longer time period, while a more structured search/selection process takes place. Some boards have a list of several possible interim CEO candidates as part of their emergency succession plan and have insight into their key strengths and gaps. Other emergency succession plans might not name names, but instead might describe the process to select the interim CEO and roles in the process. While the current CEO plays an important role in designing and inputting into the emergency succession plan, the final decision of who will take on the role on an interim basis rests firmly with the board.

THINK ABOUT: Who are potential candidates for the interim CEO role and what is our process to make a decision? What principles will guide us in selecting our interim CEO? What is expected of the interim CEO? What are they authorized to do and what should wait (for example, changes to the senior team, development or execution of strategy)? What support, learning, or coaching do they need? How long will they be in the role?

How will we find our long-term CEO? With an interim CEO in place, the board can start to look for the organization’s next leader, while concurrently supporting the interim CEO. If there is a long-term succession plan in place, this is the place to start. Many organizations also engage the support of a search firm to lead them through this process, identify and evaluate internal and external candidates, and support the board’s decision-making process.

THINK ABOUT: What will our process be to find our next leader? Will we consider internal and external candidates? What support do we need to find, evaluate, and select the right leader?

What else?

A thoughtful emergency succession plan is more than a set of names. It is linked to the organization’s strategy and risk profile and considers:

  • Key steps throughout the process (e.g., the board’s action plan, key external activities)
  • Roles of the board, key committees, and key executives in executing the plan and throughout the transition
  • A crisis communication plan – both internal and external, including timing and messaging
  • Key contacts (e.g., labour lawyer, PR firm, banker, etc), passwords, keys, safe codes, etc.

THINK ABOUT: When faced with uncertainty and change, what information will we need to ease the transition? What pre-work can we do now to be prepared and ready to act?


As we are learning, the world can change very quickly. Business needs, operations, and an organization’s external context can shift significantly in a short period of time. The emergency succession plan should be reviewed at least once a year (in detail by the human resources committee and at a higher level by the board) to ensure it still makes sense given the organization’s context.

With hope, you won’t need to use your emergency succession plan. But if you do, you’ll be happy to have structure and process to guide you through an uncertain time and get you to a good result – regardless of the trigger.



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