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As signs of business activity re-emerge, CEOs and boards are immersed in assessing the pandemic’s impact and planning for recovery. The phased approach to reopening taken by many governments can feel like a slow walk, especially when compared to the breakneck speed with which crisis mode hit. This ramp-up period presents an opportunity for leaders to take stock of the last two months, reflecting on lessons learned and aligning on the path forward. Knowing this crisis may have put extra stress on important relationships, one of the most critical areas for reflection is the way the board and the CEO work together. 

There are a few questions we would recommend CEOs and boards ask themselves about their working relationship, both during the current crisis and in what comes after:

Where did communication succeed and where did it break down? In a challenging period like this, how did we perform under stress, as individuals and as a collective? What patterns of behavior are contributing to (or getting in the way of) our effectiveness in leading the organization?

From our ongoing research on CEO/board relationships, we would like to share several important learnings which may be helpful in these fraught times.

  • Default to over-communication. Establish routines that allow for agility in decision making as the landscape changes. More than ever, there is no need for fully baked ideas or formality; CEOs and boards should work together in real-time, sharing freely and transparently to determine next steps. A private equity client said it best, “The CEOs doing well are the ones who reach out whenever, and I mean literally whenever. They want to run things by us or talk through things, not so much for approval but from a partnership standpoint.”
  • If necessary firefighting upended typical conventions and ways of working, it is a good time to reestablish expectations around partnership to avoid stepping on toes or appearing out of sync. A board director we spoke with recently remarked, “We need to be clear about guardrails. Where does the CEO need to check in with us and where can they just go?”
  • Good old-fashioned empathy goes a long way. CEOs and their management teams have a variety of objectives and stakeholders to manage, as do boards. Having the maturity to seek to understand each other’s perspectives before reacting can help reduce misunderstandings. And a little empathy for the immense pressure under which CEOs and boards are operating in today’s environment can help all parties not sweat the small stuff.

It’s clear that a return to “business as usual” is unlikely. It is our hope that CEOs and boards find at least one silver lining by forging an even stronger working relationship in their efforts to navigate this – and future – storms.