Boards are our business


Looking Back In Order To Move Forward: What Boards Should Ask Themselves Now

April 8, 2021

Posted in: WATSON Views

As spring returns, we naturally feel hopeful; after all, it’s known as a time for new beginnings. And as the COVID-19 vaccines roll out, we may even feel emboldened to put 2020 behind and look ahead.

If we want to position our organizations to blossom through spring and summer, the truth is that we need to pause and look back; take a moment to reflect and learn. Did the pandemic shine a light on areas that need strengthening? Think risk register, or business continuity plans. What about board engagement? Be honest, how well did the board navigate what was likely a changing line between what is within the purview of the board and of management? Are our leaders at all levels healthy, engaged and ready?

Let’s also look at where we are today. Are we paying sufficient attention to the future of work, the anticipated tough road to economic recovery, or even the opportunity to evolve the board’s practices?

At WATSON, we have used the emerging research paired with our work helping organizations through this extraordinary time to identify eight dimensions of board performance through COVID, and created practice points for an assessment framework. This is what best-in-class boards are paying attention to today, as they learn from 2020 and look forward to what comes next.


1. RESPONDS DECISIVELY AND EMPATHETICALLY – Takes action to navigate a complex and changing crisis, with care for people and community in mind

2. ABILITY TO OPERATE IN A NEW CONTEXT – Adapts to a new context for work with safety, security, privacy, and effectiveness

3. MAINTAINS ORGANIZATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY – Balances and supports multiple “bottom lines”

4. CHARTS A COURSE – Adapts plans and strategies to manage today while positioning for the future

5. POWERS UP LEADERSHIP – Ensures leaders are strong, supported and engaged

6. CHECKS THE COMPASS – Keeps the most important values and principles at the heart of the organization

7. ENVISIONS THE FUTURE – Explores forces of change and adapts strategically and operationally

8. GOVERNING WITH INTENTION – Provides effective oversight and guidance through response, recovery, and ramp


Start your spring by taking the time to reflect and learn, click here to download the full framework of the eight dimensions and a self-assessment tool. Use it to guide your own thoughts and reflection, or as a tool to start an important conversation in the boardroom. We would be pleased to assist and welcome your reflections and questions.

Let’s proclaim the silver lining of all of this to be learning and growth. With that, we will be able to look back in five years and say that it was the tough lessons of COVID that positioned us for strength and success, and to be better poised for an ever-changing world.

WATSON Webinar Coming Soon!

WATSON will be hosting a webinar on the topic on Thursday, May 6, 12:30 PM ET/9:30 AM PT; details and registration will be available soon. If you would like to receive more information or secure a spot, please email


International Women’s Day 2021

March 8, 2021

Posted in: WATSON Views

The 2021 International Women’s Day theme, #ChooseToChallenge, is a call to act against bias and inequality, celebrate women’s achievements, and take personal responsibility for change. A challenged world is an alert world.

We each have a role in working towards gender equality. As a board member, you can reduce barriers and increase visibility for women leaders through elevating, amplifying and celebrating their voices. One of the best opportunities to practice this is through recruitment.

Here are five ways you can #ChooseToChallenge your approach to your next executive or director search:

  1. Consider the scope and specificity of executive positions you “require”; the senior leadership pool (after the top spot) is deep with smart and skilled women.
  2. Set a minimum of 50% women candidates on your long list; see #1.
  3. Seek women candidates from operations, engineering, STEM, and other traditionally male-dominated disciplines.
  4. Examine how you define “leadership presence” and ensure there is no gender bias in the assessment language e.g., assertive versus aggressive.
  5. Set a minimum of 25% women candidates from underrepresented communities on your long list.

This year, challenge yourself to create a more inclusive boardroom.

Happy International Women’s Day from the WATSON team.


The Broken Chair

February 4, 2021

Posted in: WATSON Views

Think about the chair at the head of your boardroom table. Is it shiny and new with lots of useful features? Is it ergonomic, designed perfectly to fit your needs? Is it a bit old and rusty but comfortable? Or is it broken? Maybe it came that way, or maybe it’s worn down and no longer serves its purpose. But it’s still there.  

What do you do when your board chair is no longer serving your board?

One thing has become clear over the past few decades, the role of the board chair is complex and demanding. Once seen as a figurehead role focused on facilitating meetings and liaising with the CEO, the role has evolved to include a breadth of responsibilities: planning the forward agenda, ensuring the right information is before the board, framing key issues for board decision or oversight, orchestrating the strategic planning process, nurturing relationships with stakeholders, and fostering a healthy board culture.

As the demands of the chair role grow, so do the expectations we hold for the individuals who choose to take it on. The role requires a significant commitment of time and energy and a broad set of skills and experience from facilitation and meeting design, to EQ and consensus-building.

So back to the question – what do you do when your chair isn’t quite cutting it? It’s a challenging situation to navigate but given the importance of the role it’s critical to do something.

First, try to understand the root cause of the issue. Is the chair overstretched and unable to commit the time needed to the role? Is the chair inexperienced and perhaps unaware of what is expected of them in the role? Would they benefit from training or mentorship? Have they been in the role for too long? Has their performance dropped recently, or has it always been an issue? Are they showing signs of burnout?

Then, look to your practices to see if there is already a framework or tool in place that might help assess or improve the chair’s performance, or potentially set the stage for transition if the chair is underperforming. Do you have a chair position description? Do you have term limits in place for the role? Do you have a chair evaluation built into your board or director evaluation process? Do you have a budget to support chair training and development?

Based on your situation, there are several potential courses of action:

  • Conduct a chair evaluation. One of the best ways to get a balanced sense of the chair’s performance and highlight strengths and opportunities for improvement is through a chair evaluation process. Often this is done as part of a board or director evaluation; this can help take the attention off of the chair and put the feedback in the broader context of continual board-wide improvement. A chair evaluation is a fair, neutral way to assess chair performance, offer constructive feedback, and provide an opportunity for the chair to act on the feedback. A chair evaluation process often involves an in camera debrief of the remaining directors to discuss chair performance and align on key messages – this is an opportune time to discuss and align on a shared view of chair performance. In an ideal situation, boards have a regular practice of chair evaluation as part of their annual calendar so it doesn’t feel reactive to a particular situation (and, so your chair benefits from great feedback on an regular basis).
  • Invest in chair development. If your chair’s performance feels related to a lack of clarity on the role and expectations, or a lack of support, consider whether they would benefit from mentorship, education, or professional development to support them in their role. Especially in smaller organizations with less formal governance practices, a lack of role clarity can result in misaligned expectations. And in any organization, inexperienced chairs “don’t know what they don’t know” and benefit from chair training to understand the role and what is expected of chairs today. Start from a point of understanding and support the chair to ensure they have the tools to succeed.
  • Have the conversation. The conversation will look different depending on the situation, dynamics, and relationships. Depending on your relationship with the chair, it might be a conversation with them directly, focused on how they are feeling, asking if they need support, or trying to understand why their performance has changed. If you don’t have a relationship with the chair that would allow you to have this conversation, consider who might have the relationship, credibility, and soft touch to have this critical conversation (for example, the vice chair or governance committee chair). Share your observations and concerns with this person, focusing on facts and specific examples, not personality or hunches. Give them time to process and think about how they might address the situation, and what information or support they might need.
  • Go back in time. Hindsight is 20/20. If you find yourself in a situation where it feels like there is no clear course of action, consider what structures or mechanisms would have been beneficial and ensure they are put in place going forward. Consider what makes sense for your organization in terms of chair term limits, a clear role description, a chair succession process, mentorship from a previous chair, a regular chair evaluation, or a chair development budget. Look to the future and build practices to ensure there is a pipeline of qualified leaders who are clear on the role and able to add value in the future. Don’t wait until things are broken to put good process in place.

Where you go from here will depend on the nature of the issue, the chair’s plans, and your governance framework and processes. In most cases, chair transition will come naturally – most chairs know when they are not performing at their best and want the best for the organization, which in some cases means transition. In other cases, high quality feedback, role clarity, and support are powerful tools to course correct. Regardless of the situation, make sure to approach it with tact, empathy, and kindness, starting from a point of understanding and working towards a solution together. The role is difficult and can be lonely – sometimes a chair needs a little support to manage the load.



In the Boardroom: COVID, Travel and Tone at The Top

January 20, 2021

Posted in: WATSON Views

Your ears perk up – what did the CEO just say?  Here you are, a director participating in the last Finance Committee meeting of an exhausting 2020.

As the meeting comes to a close you hear the CEO mention that they will be checking email over the holidays from their condo in Palm Springs. 

“Wait …”, you start to voice your concerns but the Chair jumps in first, “That’s great! You’ll finally be able to see your spouse after all these months.” The CEO smiles broadly as the Chair continues, “You must be so tired after leading the organization through this challenging and intense year.”

The conversation flows naturally to holiday well wishes and before you know it, the meeting is over. When you touch base with the Chair afterwards, they express concern about the CEO burning out or resigning, which would be a disaster. With everything on the CEO’s shoulders, surely this is essential travel, isn’t it?

It seems like every day we are seeing headlines about leaders who chose to travel over the holidays. Some stories feel clearly over the line: a tropical vacation; a trip to a zone with high infection rates. Others are more ethically complex: a last visit with a beloved grandmother dying in a country far away, a cabin respite for a spouse whose mental health needs attention, a reunion for a weary leader separated from their partner and children.

We are exhausted. We have given up so much. We are all separated from the people and places we love. And we are disappointed when the people we look to for leadership don’t seem to be holding the line with us.

Our leaders, in all sectors and industries, are tired too. But it’s not just CEOs who need to reflect on their leadership, boards must be COVID-19 role models too. In some cases, the very boards who are now chastising or dismissing their leaders were well aware of these travel plans. While they may not have formally approved the travel, they did not establish clear expectations or act when they heard their CEOs mention holiday travel plans.

Tone at the top matters. Boards are held to a higher standard than others and, as such, need to anticipate staff, executive, and stakeholder concerns. Boards need to lead unimpeachably, no matter how tired they are – and they have a key role to play.

  • Establish, communicate and reinforce pandemic guidelines for gatherings and travel throughout the organization, starting at the top.
  • Keep guidelines updated based on new information, evolving guidelines and ever-deepening understanding of stakeholder’s expectations and experiences.
  • Go beyond the letter of guidelines and avoid the grey zone by being leaders in safety and health for the broader community.
  • If you are the chair, really lean into your role as a sounding board and advisor to the CEO. Most CEOs need an outlet for the pressure and a thought partner who can steer them away from a decision that will erode stakeholder trust and confidence.
  • What you say and do (or don’t say or do) sends a strong message about your organization’s truest and deepest values. Send the right message.

We know our CEOs are tired, yet we need them to stick to a high and often painful standard of leadership, and to remain engaged and optimistic. They need empathy, a sounding board, and a coach who can help them set and hold the standard of behaviour.

When CEOs’ behaviours are in the grey zone, the potential consequences are high: unplanned turnover (if they are dismissed or resign); negative media; frustration of employees, customers and other stakeholders; financial or legal consequences; and, in this case direct and indirect health risks. Directors need to support each other and their executives to uphold a high standard even in difficult times.

Today it’s travel, tomorrow it will be something else; now is a time we can make a difference with courage, consistency and commitment.



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