August 17th, 2021

Things have gotten complicated at the top of organizations. Whereas the C-Suite used to be a simple lineup—CMOs, CFOs, and CTOs, for example—today, it’s not unusual to see a much larger C-suite reflective of company imperatives, industry trends, globalization, and a digitally native era. Chief Digital Officers, Chief Revenue Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers, Chief Customer Success Officers. These are the new faces of the modern C-Suite.

In many cases, changing roles and perspectives have impacted boardroom representation, as well. No longer is it acceptable for boards to be composed of one main “persona”—typically older white men from a CFO or CEO background. Progressive boards are embracing a range of perspectives and diversity, from cognitive and gender to functional expertise and age.

For your senior leaders, these changes have led to a shifting dynamic between boards and leadership teams. And in many ways, the reality of our pandemic world has accelerated these changes. Following are some trends impacting your senior management, and my suggestions for how to navigate these new challenges and opportunities in leadership.

Boards are closer than ever to your senior leaders.

The expectations and stakes are higher than ever for board directors. No longer can directors hop on a plane, review the financials, and plan for a few-hour meeting and then a round of golf.

While board directors sit outside the day-to-day line of management, it’s become clear that they are expected to maintain a pulse on management and the broader organization at large. From understanding culture and the quarterly sales forecast to mentoring senior leaders and getting hands-on with the product, directors today are more entrenched in the business than ever. Perhaps no other event illustrated boards of directors’ need to align with management better than the coronavirus pandemic.

Harvard Business Review reported that “since the onset of the pandemic, boards have been getting more frequent updates from management and having shorter, more frequent meetings to deal with a multitude of issues that have presented themselves. . . .Working more closely with management on strategy, tracking a richer set of performance measures, overseeing an expanded menu of risks, rethinking compensation policies, engaging in more thoughtful deliberation, reviewing board composition—all of these activities take time.”

In our still-pandemic reality, where new variants of coronavirus continue to reveal themselves and collaboration can happen instantly and virtually, boards will continue to play a partnering role with senior leaders. It’s easier than ever to collaborate from afar.

Succession planning is going several layers deeper into the organization.

As Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of Diligent Institute, pointed out in a recent Athena Salon on board assessments, the Covid-19 pandemic opened the eyes of boards around the world in a whole new way. Boards were vulnerable, senior leadership teams were vulnerable, the health of the overall organization was vulnerable. The idea that a board director, CEO, or strategic leader could become sick—or worse, pass away—felt (and was) quite real. (Recall, the average age of a board director is 64).

The result: boards have become far more involved in the executive succession planning process. A recent report from the Darla Moore School of Business from the University of South Carolina shares that “several CHROs have communicated to us that the COVID crisis highlighted a need to think beyond emergency succession plans to business continuity plans. . . . To link it to the crisis, what happens if COVID spreads among the executive team to where a majority of them are hospitalized?”

Today, it’s more important than ever for boards and C-Suite teams to understand the capabilities, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses of their leadership teams—several layers down into the organization. Boards must have a playbook plan for business continuity in the event of a natural disaster, pandemic, or any other unforeseen emergency. Leaders at all levels should be prepared to engage with their boards, casually and formally.

Leadership skills and business acumen matter now more than ever.

These changes lead to an increased need for executives to broaden their knowledge and to be able to speak to the business as a whole. Rising in your career and leading at the C-level or board-level means stepping outside your functional bounds. Harvard Business Review explains it well:

“Once people reach the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals. Chief information officers need to know how to create business models; chief financial officers, how to develop risk management strategies; chief human resource officers, how to design a succession plan and a talent structure that will provide a competitive edge. In other words, the skills that help you climb to the top won’t suffice once you get there. We’re beginning to see C-level executives who have more in common with their executive peers than they do with the people in the functions they run.”

So, what’s an organization to do who needs to understand that their bench strength is ready to lead at this level? How can an organization ensure that its teams are prepared to engage with the board? Experience and time (or a traditional MBA) are nice options, but not practical for today’s fast-moving world where a single case study may be outdated in just a few months.

Instead, allowing your executive team to serve as teachers can be one solution to fast-track the road to business acumen and holistic understanding. Executive teaching executive. Practitioner teaching practitioner. Real-world lessons served up in an intimate and safe environment. Athena helps companies such as Autodesk, Quinstreet, and Databricks do this today.

It’s the closest executive education can get to the real world—the real world that presents new and unexpected challenges daily, whether it’s a cybersecurity attack, a pandemic, global market expansion, or a PR crisis. And it’s the most current and relevant learning experience to ensure your team is prepared to engage with your board and C-suite teams.



Join Top Women Executives

Invest in your senior leadership career and join our global, virtual community of the most influential women in business.