Most Universities will be finishing the third and final cycle of committee meetings for this academic year. As with everything COVID-19 will challenge the normal cycle of business. I argue in this article that we should pause and consider the nature of Board and Executive team meetings and how both relate to one another.
As Patrick Dunne says in his book “Boards”, governance is all about Purpose, People, Process… So how can COVID-19 impact each?
As scenarios describing the financial implications of the COVID-19 crisis on recruitment and University finances are being developed, it is becoming clear that the financial survival of many institutions is more precarious than it has ever been. Boards and Executives will be needing to make some really difficult short-term decisions, mostly driven by financial considerations. And because of the level of uncertainty, it will be important for Boards and Executive teams to be clear on – and honest about – assumptions made; the possible and probable consequences and the actual -not imagined – preparedness of the institution. The latter will need to include an assessment of the institution’s human resilience, not just its financial resilience.
Whilst this will no doubt be the immediate focus of Boards and Executive teams, it will be hugely important to also challenge assumptions about the role of the institution for the future and the implications for “the academic business model”. Universities have a huge impact, locally, nationally and internationally. Many institutional strategies focus on the University being “the best”, “the top” and “world-leading”. At this time Universities also have a role in sustaining life, whether that is through local employment, contribution to healthcare systems or increasing creativity. I envisage tensions between those two roles in the coming months and suspect that in the best institutions, existentialist discussions will take place as Boards and Executive teams consider what their institution is for and what is at stake.
All this will require a good thinking environment, exactly at a time when people are starting to wear very thin. Counter-intuitively, at this time Boards and Executive teams need to resist the rush to action, but instead need to slow down, take time to reflect and iterate decisions.
The best Boards and Executive teams will build a psychologically safe environment. An environment that enables everyone in the institution to bring their best thoughts and share their concerns so that improvements can be made. This will require Executive teams to pay more attention to the operational detail, to ask for bad news, to engage more broadly, to destigmatise failure and sanction clear violation. Boards will need to create a culture of constructive challenge and ask good questions helping the Executive to conceptually clarify and probing assumptions, rationale, reasons and evidence.
The best Boards and Executive teams will give themselves – in the words of Dr Mark Brackett “Permission to Feel”. Because emotional literacy – being able to recognize, name, and understand our feelings – affects decision making, and creativity, working relationships, health and resilience, and performance.
The best Boards will recognise their own vulnerability, ignorance and blind spots. They will lean into the uncertainty and accept a degree of “muddiness”. They will rely on a wealth of social capital – friends, confidants, partners – to help them navigate what may be an existential crisis for many Universities.
How we organise the Board and Executive teams’ core processes will matter more than ever in the next months… A couple of questions I ask myself:
How can we create a meeting and working atmosphere that allows us to slow down, reflect and take time to make decisions? Rather than changing the planned face-to-face meetings into zoom meetings, can we pause and consider whether it may be more appropriate to break the meeting down in a number of smaller meetings each with a specific focus and an opportunity to go away mull on the decision before coming back for a final discussion?
How can we challenge statements in meetings in a way which supports the a psychologically safe environment whilst encouraging participants to think even harder and better? I have found the Language Compass and related article really helpful.
How can Board members sharpen their antennas and check in with what is happening in the institution? Many Universities already hold an annual or bi-annual staff survey. As we have gotten more used to online tools, is now the time to ask more frequently and more specific questions? Questions about wellbeing, psychological safety, organisational culture as well as about creativity, innovation and sense of belonging?
How can Boards members fully understand their institutional contexts? Are Board members aware of the institution’s local dependencies – I am thinking here particularly about what we have come to value as essential services? Are Board members aware of the ramifications of the decisions they will be making – I am thinking specifically about those people whose lives will have been affected disproportionally by COVID?
And finally, how do both Boards and Executive teams go about understanding the subtle, but significant societal changes which have taken place in the last couple of weeks. It is easy to remain in a bubble, to make assumptions about people’s experiences of the lockdown and make grand statements about the new normal. It will be important to give voice to and recognise all experiences and to question who will be involved in determining what the new normal looks like.
Reflecting on and changing how Boards and Executive teams meet and relate to one another can feel like a nice to have. Considering the huge challenges lying in wait for us, it is essential that we pay attention and prioritise this work, as it will support our futures.