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Chairing In The New Paradigm

May 21, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

Board meetings are changing, and board chairs needs to change with them. With a quick shift to virtual meetings, boards are adjusting to the next normal. They are adopting new meetings structures and practices that lend themselves to a remote venue – for example, meeting more often with shorter, focused meetings, drawing on different technologies, and streamlining reporting (see Evolving Board Practices in a Virtual World for more on how board meetings are changing).

These changes require flexibility and patience from directors, but what about the person leading the meeting? Chairs must not only adapt to the next normal, they need to create the right environment for board engagement in this new paradigm.

The chair plays a critical role in any boardroom, and the virtual boardroom presents a new challenge. They have to set the stage for an effective meeting and facilitate the conversation by phone or videoconference, while also fostering an effective culture and positive group dynamics in a virtual setting. For many, this is unchartered territory requiring new tactics and practices, all while dealing with a technological learning curve.


Setting the Stage

Like an in person meeting, a great virtual meeting starts with intentional design. Each meeting requires its own significant planning, thought and preparation, coupled with a long-term view. In this new paradigm, the chair, CEO, and corporate secretary will need to revisit the board’s forward calendar and adjust the board’s meeting rhythm to reflect both the pace of change in the organization and the opportunities and constraints of virtual meetings.

Some boards are meeting more often to receive regular updates and provide guidance on emerging issues. They are also breaking down their work into smaller segments to keep virtual meetings short and focused. Virtual meetings call for simplified agendas focused on a limited number of topics, intentional use of consent agendas, specific thought-starter questions to guide conversations, and clear guidance in terms of what topics are for discussion and which are for decision. The chair plays a key role in bringing rigour and focus to agenda design, especially as new norms and practices are put in place.

The chair and corporate secretary must also consider the needs of each conversation and determine the right online tools to support the nature of the discussion. Would the conversation benefit from breakout rooms, online polling, or virtual whiteboards? Are there any privacy or confidentiality concerns with different technologies? What training or resources do directors need to ensure they are using the technology effectively?

Beyond the technology, the chair plays a key role in testing contentious issues with directors before the meeting and looking ahead to tee up critical conversations. This is more important than ever in an era of virtual meetings. The chair will need to play a more active role between meetings, checking in with directors generally and exploring key issues to anticipate and prepare for board discussions. The chair can also draw on one-on-ones with directors to find out what directors need to feel comfortable and able to contribute, and to seek feedback on virtual meetings in order to learn and adjust over time. (In the Inclusive Boardroom we talk about the importance of inclusive board meetings, and how to create them; this is more important than ever in the context of virtual meetings).


Refreshing the Facilitation Toolkit

Complex, strategic conversation can be challenging to initiate in a virtual forum, and energy and engagement can be difficult to sustain. This change in platform calls for a new facilitation toolkit, packed with new practices and tweaks to existing tools. Consider:

  • Resetting expectations – while your board might have a set of expectations or rules of engagement, these likely need an update to reflect the board’s new meeting context. Reset expectations around preparation, meeting attendance, distractions during meetings, how to raise your hand and contribute, etc. Be patient with directors, but at the same time set the expectation that they show up with the same level of diligence and professionalism they would bring to the boardroom. Many boards develop guidelines for virtual meetings to set shared expectations (e.g., video on, mute when not speaking, ensure you are in a private place where conversations can’t be heard).
  • Go around the room – while many chairs already do this, it is more important than even in a virtual meeting. Set the expectation that you will be going around the (virtual) room to seek everyone’s feedback and change up the order to give everyone a chance to contribute early. Ask for contributions by name and draw on technology (hand raising, chat functions) to establish a speaking order.
  • Check-in – without the benefit of visual cues, it can be difficult to read the energy level in the room. Be intentional in initiating quick energy checks throughout the meeting and take short, frequent breaks to keep directors engaged. Keep the line open during breaks so directors can chat informally as they would in person.
  • Lean on open-ended questions – while a screenful of nodding heads is a good sign in an online meeting, it can sometimes come at the cost of more meaningful dialogue. Use open-ended questions addressed to the group or individuals to spur richer discussion.
  • Assign roles – your usual devil’s advocate may not be as comfortable playing this role remotely for fear or being misinterpreted. Ensure rich discussions by explicitly assigning directors responsibility for playing devil’s advocate, poking holes, and bringing a different perspective to critical conversations.
  • Wrap up each item – avoid confusion and miscommunication by making a more intentional effort to close conversations by reiterating key messages and any actionable next steps.
  • Seek feedback at every meeting – take five minutes at the end of each meeting to check in. What worked well and what could we do better? How is the technology working and how could we use it more effectively? What were the most productive aspects of the conversation and why?


Building Culture in a Virtual Space

Perhaps most challenging for chairs will be the work of establishing and maintaining board culture through virtual meetings. Without visual cues and body language, and with inevitable timing lags, conversations can feel awkward and directors can be difficult to read. The board needs a strong culture and effective group dynamics more than ever but getting there requires a more intentional approach.

Culture develops from a place of trust and understanding. As chair, you can help set the stage by acknowledging the current situation and the difficulties and opportunities that come from it. Be open about your challenges but also share your optimism for how the board can adjust and adapt to the new normal. Keep the board focused on why you are there – share a story or message about the organization’s purpose at the beginning of each meeting to keep the board focused on the big picture. Build solidarity by focusing on shared goals, celebrating successes, and learning together when you face new challenges.

Make the space to bring a human element to board interactions. Start and end each meeting with personal check-in questions, embed social time and virtual coffee breaks into board meetings, and share stories to build connections. Check in with directors between meetings on the issues, but also on what’s going on in their lives and how they are coping. Chairs can also use one-on-ones to create informal feedback loops, helping directors to add more value and seeking feedback on how to chair meetings more effectively.

Being a chair is a challenging role in the best of times. It is an ongoing leadership journey full of change, challenge, and learning. As always, try new things, adapt and adjust, seek feedback, and lean on peers for a sounding board and support. And get reacquainted with the Intentional Chair (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) to refresh yourself on leadership lessons that stand the test of time.