Boards are our business

News and Views

Reflections From The Pandemic: What it Means for Governance and Leadership

June 18, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

We are through the initial shock of the COVID-19 crisis and adapting to a different reality, one that continues to challenge us personally and professionally in ways we never imagined. On a personal level, we’ve had to adjust how we work, how we learn, how we socialize, and how we parent. We’ve also had to coach our families through the highs and the lows, get creative in celebrating milestones differently, balance playing multiple roles at the same time, and figure out new ways of adapting to what still feels like an uncertain future.

Organizations have had to pivot significantly, and with urgency, to take care of employees, suppliers, customers, and communities. And as boards, we’ve had to adapt to new ways of meeting and deliberating important decisions. Collectively, we’ve had to tackle unprecedented challenges and changes, where we can’t draw on direct experience as readily as we may have in the past. Today, many of us are looking back at the last few months to learn from our experiences and looking forward to define how we will thrive in the “next normal”.

As we think about this, we are reminded of the oft-quoted phrase, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. The phrase suggests that now is a time to reflect and evaluate possibilities and chart new opportunities. At WATSON, we’ve always been driven by purpose, and focused on helping organizations perform better for greater impact on society; the pandemic has given us an opportunity to solidify what this means for us, and allowed us to explore new capabilities, increase collaboration, exercise creativity in our approach, and get laser-sharp in executing initiatives that we had previously been hesitant to launch.

As we reflect on this phrase from a leadership and governance perspective, we see lessons for organizations across sectors. So, in the spirit of not letting a good crisis go to waste, here are  eight takeaways for boards and leadership teams:

1. Continue to be FLEXIBLE and ADAPT as appropriate.

Boards and their organizations have learned how to adapt quickly to new ways of conducting business, including embracing new technology. Boards and leadership teams need to continue to be flexible, doing what they need to do to get through the immediate crisis while adapting for the future.

Now is a good time to test and be open to new ways of doing things and to think about lasting changes that can be made to bring your organization forward.

2. Take the TIME to reflect, evaluate, and learn.

Organizations have had their systems and structures pressure checked. Directors, leaders, talent, and culture have been tested in dramatic ways. This is a unique opportunity to learn from this together and think about what it means for the future.

Sit down together and ask yourselves: how well did we adapt and respond? How did we lead? How effective was our board and management team in coming together, in carrying out our roles, in showing up as leaders? What are we proud of? What could we have done differently? Use these learnings to inform how you approach future discussions around strategy, risk, crisis management, culture, and people.

3. Re-focus on your organization’s VALUES and PURPOSE

The pandemic has intensified the conversation around the purpose of organizations and the need to balance the needs and interests of a variety of stakeholders. This is a great time for boards and leadership teams to open up a conversation around their organization’s reason for being and the values it aspires to uphold.

Think about this broadly by asking who your organization serves, why it exists, and whether its purpose and values remain relevant. Assess how your stated values were lived through the pandemic and what shifts may be needed. At a time when things feel uncertain, stakeholders are looking for hope – they want to know where the organization is going, how it will get there, and how it will impact them in a positive way.

4. Re-imagine the possibilities and strategize for FUTURE impact.

Amidst all the uncertainty lies opportunity; think about possibilities in light of the organization’s re-focused purpose, values, and culture.

Ask what’s working well with your current strategy, what’s gotten in the way in the past, and what changes need to be made to shift to the future. Think about what has changed with respect to your human, technological, and financial capital and map out potential scenarios for the future. Be open to opportunities and prepare to act quickly if needed.

5. Make space for thoughtful conversations around RISK.

The pandemic highlighted serious risks – and given the urgent need for adaptation, organizations are finding they may need to take more risks to survive and thrive. Boards and leadership teams need to approach the subject of risk thoughtfully. Boards have an important role to play in setting a healthy risk culture for their organizations.

Think about how well your organization’s risk culture is aligned with its purpose, values, and strategic priorities. This should go beyond merely identifying a list of risks and ways to manage them; it should consider how best to optimize risks for the most benefit. Take the time to set your organization’s risk appetite and tolerance, and integrate that conversation with strategic, financial, culture, and people discussions. Think about different scenarios, test assumptions, assess possibilities, and use those to inform actions.

6. Seek broad FEEDBACK and collaborate effectively. 

It’s difficult to learn and understand how you did without good feedback and data. Seek multiple viewpoints and data points. Find out how your stakeholders are feeling, what’s important to them, and whether your culture is enabling or disabling. Take the time to understand if you are aligned on your organization’s purpose, values, and strategic objectives.

The crisis has likely resulted in more frequent communications between the board and management team, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Think about how to be even more strategic during this time. This is not the time for boards to get more operational; instead, it’s a time for boards to provide guidance and thoughtful support while allowing their management teams to be flexible and nimble in making the changes they need. At the same time, it’s important for management teams to communicate regularly and openly to help their boards understand the actions they are taking, who and how they impact, and how they continue to align with the organization’s purpose and values. [/row_column]

7. MOBILIZE for change and don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions. 

During a crisis people are often more accepting of tough decisions because they see the crisis and the urgency.

Don’t let the crisis paralyze you from doing what needs to be done to achieve your purpose and re-imagined strategy. Think about this from both an organizational and board perspective. As an organization, do you need to streamline your organizational structures, upgrade your talent, or better empower your existing talent? Are your executive compensation structures still appropriate and do they incentivize the right kinds of behaviour? What financial or people resources need to shift to allow you to move forward? Is now the time to accelerate those merger discussions or to drop that lagging business line? As a board, do you have the right composition, committee structures, and information? Are you considering your organization’s stakeholders appropriately? Do you have the right leaders to take you through this? As you make these tough decisions, do so with continued empathy and compassion, and with deliberate thought around being more inclusive and equitable to your organization’s key stakeholders.

8. Prepare and EDUCATE yourselves for the future.

The pandemic has highlighted new issues for organizations – the need for swift innovation and new governance and leadership issues coming to the board agenda with unprecedented haste. While some of these were percolating, the pandemic caused a seismic shift in what boards and leaders need to think about and prepare for as they carry out their organization’s purpose.

As leaders, ask yourselves: how well do you understand the key issues that impact your organization? What biases are at play? What do you need to think about to move forward? It takes time, understanding, and practice to address these issues appropriately and may require facilitated conversations and/or education. Seek advice and expertise as to how best to approach these issues for your organization and align on the role of the board and management in each.


The crisis has required organizations to take urgent and decisive action on a number of fronts in order to survive. There is a small window of opportunity for early learning and adaptation – it’s important to make the time now to reflect and learn from the crisis, even if it means starting small. Deliberately build these conversations into your upcoming board agendas and think about the important changes that will need to be made to move forward effectively. By bringing focus and attention to these eight areas, your organization will be better positioned to sustain and thrive in the next normal.