Struggling to demonstrate your value as a board member? Develop your readiness for a crisis.
Experienced board chair Kristi Honey shares how understanding risk, response, and your individual role can set you apart.
By Kristi Honey
On May 21, 2022, a devastating tornado touched down in the Township of Uxbridge in Ontario, with wind speeds capable of downing trees, toppling power lines, and tearing roofs off buildings. Within minutes, the Township’s Emergency Operations Centre was activated, putting into effect plans that we had practiced only weeks previously. All our emergency preparedness work allowed the municipality’s senior staff and council to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Everyone knew their roles, and our approach to communications was aligned with our practiced plans.
We are fortunate that we rarely have to face an emergency at an organizational level. But when it happens, the most effective responses are from organizations whose senior leadership and board have planned for the crisis, providing a clear understanding of the organization’s role and each individual role within the emergency response.
As a board member, being asked to step up in an emergency and put your plans and preparations into effect can be a fulfilling part of your journey on a board, one that allows you to develop and demonstrate leadership. But before a crisis happens, there’s also an opportunity to develop and demonstrate your value as a board member, through a commitment to readiness — knowing your role in the event of an emergency, understanding the organization’s enterprise risks and response plans, and going the extra mile to help optimize both.
As an experienced board chair, I’ve spent years figuring out that extra mile. My goal now is to help other women compress the learning curve (from getting on a board to succeeding once there). If you want to better understand how you can practice good governance to optimize your and your organization’s readiness for a crisis — and quickly demonstrate your value to the board — read on for my best advice.
Know your board, know your role.
First, take the time to understand your board, and your role as a board member. You should have clarity on your board’s model — is it an advisory board, an elected board (or council), a not for profit, or a corporate board? Also, what governance model has been adopted — is it a traditional, hybrid, or policy-based governance board?
To learn this, thoroughly read the board’s by-laws, committee structures and mandates, and the boardroom rules of order. Be sure you are familiar with the board’s Directors & Officers (D&Os) insurance and indemnification agreements, to limit your personal liability. Knowing your role is essential to good governance. If you lack governance experience, seek formal education such as the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) Director’s Education Program, Women Get On Board, and Competent Boards.
At the Township of Uxbridge, our council orientation is essential to onboarding new members. Further, our council is governed by the Municipal Act. Ongoing annual training is essential to ensuring our council members understand their roles and the segregation of duties between staff and the mayor and council during regular operations, and how authorities change when we declare a state of emergency.
Understand your organization and its approach in a crisis.
Success in your board journey requires a solid understanding of your role and the organization. Do you know the organization’s vision, mission, and values? Have you read their annual report and strategic plan? Do you understand the organization’s financial position? Are you current on competition and industry drivers that need to be addressed in the strategic plan? These are all essential to your onboarding journey.
To become an effective contributor, be sure you go beyond the basics and seek to understand the organization’s:
- Enterprise Risk Management Framework & Ongoing Monitoring: Review the board work plan and be sure it includes enterprise risk assessments and reporting to the board. Understand what committee is responsible for ongoing monitoring and board reporting. As a board, are you clear on what risks the organization has mitigated, outsourced, insured, or accepted? What level of risks are reported to the board, and what triggers a requirement for board reporting when incidents occur?
- Crisis Communications: Who can speak on behalf of the board (hint: the Chair!)? Does the organization have a communications plan with pre-written responses approved by legal counsel or insurer to address foreseeable controversies or crises? Who is monitoring what is being reported about your organization on various forms of media? Are tools in place to monitor the sentiment of your brand? How and when are these regularly reported to the board?
- Crisis & Disaster Preparedness Scenarios and Tabletop Exercises: Ensure role clarity ahead of a crisis. Does your organization conduct scenarios or tabletop exercises for emergency preparedness, if so, what role can the board play to support readiness? Be clear on your role in a crisis or emergency (if any). A board should contemplate issues that might come to the board for decisions ahead of an emergency, and have contemplated ramifications (legal or insurance, reputational risk, communications) ahead of an emergency. You don’t want the first conversation on critical issues — such as the board’s position on paying ransomware — to be during a crisis. Good planning, including scenarios and tabletop exercises that involve the board, ensure better focus during a real event.
Be sure the Board Chair is familiar with the skills and experience you can contribute at the committee or board level, and particularly what expertise the organization may want to rely upon during an emergency or crisis.
During our Township of Uxbridge weather emergency, I was able to pull in key capabilities of our councillors to help us respond. We have a comprehensive emergency response plan, pre-written crisis communications, and had recently (only two weeks before) conducted additional refresher training. This ensured we could focus on what was most important in our response. We were able to work with the local paper, the COSMOS, to have an early edition printed and distributed to over 8000 homes to get critical information into the hands of our residents at a time when the local radio station was down, and many of our residents were entirely without power, internet, or phone systems.
Prioritize relationship building.
Demonstrating you’ve arrived at the boardroom table well prepared — understanding the organization, your role, good governance principles, and of course, that you have thoroughly read the agenda materials and actively listen, will help you build credibility with your boardroom peers quickly.
I have had the opportunity to mentor several new directors during my tenure as chair of multiple boards. While it does involve an investment of time, it builds relationships and creates a safe space for new directors to ask questions, seek guidance, and find their voice faster at the table. It accelerates their inclusion and ability to fully contribute to the team.
Relationships are at the heart of our ability to contribute effectively, particularly in times of crisis:
- Build relationships with the Chair, other board members, and senior management.
- Seek clarity on the organization’s key vendors on contract for emergency preparedness. Does the organization have contracts with the expertise required under a number of foreseeable scenarios such as legal, insurance, negotiators, public relations and crisis management teams?
- Make sure the board knows your area of expertise and how they can lean on you to support board goals or in an emergency (cyber security, legal, human resources, public relations, government lobbying).
- Seek a mentor and offer to be a mentor in an area where you have expertise.
Relationship building means taking the time to learn, socialize and network together. Take the time to arrive early to board and committee meetings — getting to genuinely know your boardroom peers makes a difference. Attend the social events. Attend the optional learning or educational sessions, and facility tours. Let people know who you are and what expertise you can offer.
Knowing your board, your role, and your organization is essential to onboarding to a new board. Building relationships ahead of an emergency or crisis dramatically improves an organization’s ability to respond. In fact, aside from our extensive emergency planning, our rapport was the only thing that truly mattered when the Township of Uxbridge put a call out during our community’s most dire hours of need. The tremendous response ensured no loss of life, the safety and security of all, and a community united.