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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.