3 Tips for Maintaining Nimble Board Leadership in a Time of Crisis and Urgency
In times of crisis, such as the current global pandemic or other disruptive, large-scale phenomena, it’s absolutely essential that boards govern nimbly and ensure that they are not just reacting to the crisis in front of them—they also must be able to continue thinking ahead in the midst of it.
Research by scholars Allen Amason (1997) and Marcia Blenko (2010) has shown time and again that teams larger than seven people simply do not make quality decisions in a timely manner. However, now is the time to quickly make necessary decisions on behalf of your organization even if it involves many stakeholders. As the advice and expertise from board governance experts Thomas Dolan, PhD FACHE FASAE, and Mark Engle, DM FASAE CAE, have demonstrated, even large association boards may still respond nimbly in their leadership during a crisis. Here are their tips for how.
Delegate Urgent Decision Making to a Small Committee
“I have never seen valid research that says big groups can make time sensitive decisions,” says Engle, whose own research closely follows that of Amason and Blenko. “You can be informed by a large group, but make decisions with a small group that understands the dynamics of what’s happening right now.”
When urgent decisions need to be made by a board (the ASAE Research Foundation’s research indicates the average high performing Board size is 15), delegate a small committee of roughly 3-7 board members to take the lead in responding to the crisis in a timely manner. For many organizations, this is an ideal role for your executive committee, which is likely already a designated and trusted subgroup within the board that has been empowered to make decisions. If your executive committee isn’t able to take on urgent decision making, then consider having the board chair, another officer, and the CEO take on that role. The executive committee is what Engle calls the “engaged group,” since they are charged with making nimble decisions at this time. Roughly two-thirds of your board who are not part of the executive committee, or “engaged group”, are the “informed group.” They would remain in the loop of the decisions being made but are not necessarily the decision-making team.
Designate B-list Projects to Other Subgroups
People want to help during a crisis, and your board members who are not on the executive committee—likely the “informed” two-thirds of your board—may feel the same. Besides having the executive committee making urgent decisions, you may appoint other smaller, competent teams to handle other important affairs. As Dolan, who has participated in many association board meetings, says, “The board can and should designate subgroups that can address certain areas, which will keep them engaged and take pressure off executive committees to do everything; and there will be people on the board who have specific expertise for subgroups.”
There are certainly other “B-list” projects that could be started or completed, as long as they are still meaningful to the organization in light of the situation at hand. Board members may be encouraged to work on them if you ask, “Do you think you might have some time to dedicate to a project?” while giving them permission to say “no” or “not now.” See what works for your “informed” members of the board and give them the flexibility to take on only what they can.
Adopt an Attitude of Grace
Emotions can run high during a time of crisis, so it is important for board members to be gracious, patient, and trusting with each other. Give others permission to make mistakes and be gracious if someone says something that comes across negatively. Engle suggests, “We must assume good intent, which is important on an average day, and critical in today’s environment.” Even Amason’s research demonstrates how affective conflict, or emotional conflict, inhibits board decisions and leads to suspicion, distrust, and hostility among board members. Board members must remain civil and trusting to effectively lead through a crisis together.
Ideally, you should already trust each other in the board room, and your executive committee and other delegated teams should be elected based on trusting their competence, aptitude, intelligence, and sense of teamwork. “During a time of crises, it can be very dysfunctional for the board to second-guess the work of the officers; they must have the trust, faith, and competence to make wise decisions,” says Engle. If your executive committee members are busy with crisis decision making, they won’t have as much time to devote to their typical board duties. However, by delegating less urgent duties to smaller, trusted committees and being gracious with each other amid the stress, your organization’s board (of any size!) can make timely, nimble, necessary decisions in the face of this crisis and any other extensive disruption that comes your way.
Amason, A. C. & Sapienza, H. J. (1997). The effects of top management team size and interaction norms on cognitive and affective conflict. Journal of Management 4(23), 495-516. DOI: 10.1177/014920639702300401.
Blenko, M. M., Mankins, M., & Rogers, P. (2010). Decide and Deliver: Five Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization. Bain & Company, Boston, MA.
Megan Toal is a content marketing associate on the Creative Media Services team at AMC.
Mark Engle, DM FASAE CAE, is a principal and board governance expert at AMC.
Thomas Dolan, PhD FACHE FASAE, is the president emeritus at the American College of Healthcare Executives and an executive coach and consultant.
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