March 10th, 2023

To succeed in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, boards must embrace a new approach to governance. As Athena’s Director of Board Recruitment & Portfolio Talent Services, I’m constantly reinforcing with our clients the importance of being flexible as your board evolves to meet emerging business needs.

Athena’s executive development community recently hosted a panel of experienced board directors to discuss how leading boards structure themselves for innovation and efficacy. The discussion uncovered core themes that make great boards excel: the drivers, structures, and topics that need to be addressed for your board to have its greatest impact. The resounding agreement: boards today must operate differently.

Below, I’ve outlined the key themes and best practices they identified that can help any board excel.

Make strategic planning a living document

Boards must ensure that their strategic plan is a living document that guides the company’s operations. They should constantly revisit questions like…

  • What your status is on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?
  • What is your carbon footprint?
  • How are you responding to public and generational changes in attitudes toward climate change?
  • Are all of these things a part of your business strategy?

It’s important to allow their strategic plan to evolve, continuously evaluating the management team, tools, processes, and boardroom structure to meet these emerging challenges.

Learn from the pandemic and prepare for the unexpected

The pandemic has disrupted businesses worldwide, emphasizing the need for boards to be prepared for the unexpected. Boards must examine their response to the pandemic and assess whether their structures and processes are effective for a hybrid world. They must also ensure the integrity of data collection and consider how to provide support to employees during challenging times.

For example, consider the effects of a global pandemic on the travel industry. How do you operate as a business when 75 to 95% of your revenue goes away overnight? Don’t let these topics be a surprise for your board – proactively have the conversation, both at the board level and committee level, so you’re prepared for the unexpected. Take steps in terms of your leadership team, your tools, your processes, and your investments so that you’re as prepared as you can possibly be.

Consider the influence of stakeholders and the regulatory environment

To be effective, boards must consider the impact of stakeholders and the regulatory environment on their organization. Topics such as the geopolitical landscape, employee activism, and environmental, social, and governance issues (ESG) have become hot-button in the boardroom. Digitization, innovation in transportation, and a more fluid flow of data around the globe have created new opportunities, risks, and challenges that boards must be prepared to handle.

Reconsider the board meeting agenda

Gone are the days of quarterly board meetings with little conversation or action in between; expect hybrid board schedules with greater frequency. Boards are adding special committees (many of which meet asynchronously from the regular board schedule) tackling issues like large M&A transactions or cybersecurity. Expect emergency meetings around major turning points, like a global pandemic or the departure of a CEO as organizational priorities evolve.

The meeting agenda shouldn’t be decided just between the board chair and CEO; it should include input from the full board, as well as the management team and consultants. A board’s most important resource is its time, and setting the agenda appropriately is your best tool for maximizing the efficacy of your board.

Utilize consultants strategically

Boards need information, oversight, and expert input to operate effectively. It’s unlikely an 8-10 person board will have in-depth expertise on all of the key issues you need. Utilize consultants to supplement the knowledge base of your wisdom. Bringing in outside experts – such as cybersecurity, DEI, and ESG consultants – can be beneficial, given the increasing complexity of issues boards must address. The board isn’t meant to be putting out fires and tackling ongoing crises; consider pulling in experts in cybersecurity, ESG, and DEI as the need arises.

I could continue elaborating on this topic (and may in a future post), but these are just a few of the top considerations for ensuring a dynamic board in 2023 and beyond. If you’re interested in diversifying and strengthening your board this year, Athena can help.



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