How to Practice Good Governance During a Crisis

Mark Schinkel

I recently met with the Board of Directors of a provincial non-profit organization to talk about good governance. During the session, we discussed the role of a healthy board in anticipating and proactively planning for a crisis or major disruption. In our discussion, the COVID-19 crisis was just emerging as a real and present danger and was identified as a timely example of this discussion’s importance.

The foundation of any successful organization is its core mission, vision, values, and guiding principles. These are most powerfully reflected in the constitution, strategic direction, policies, and decisions made at a board and senior leadership level. Any system under stress is vulnerable to fractures at its point of greatest weakness . . . and acutely so when the fracture point is in the foundation.

Some organizations are collaborative, adaptive, creative, and resilient at their core. It is who they are and how they function every day. Others have limited resources and capacity to draw on in a crisis. They have difficulty maneuvering away from their typical way of doing things and solid planning is not in place to assist them when business comes to a standstill or they encounter the unexpected. It is in times like these that an organization’s investment in leadership development and good governance, policy, practice, and stability are imperative.

Governance is really an overarching term that refers to structures, systems, policies, and practices an organization puts into place to:

  • Define core purpose
  • Set strategic direction
  • Make decisions
  • Provide oversight
  • Monitor and account for performance
  • Pay attention to and appropriately adapt existing constitution and policies
  • Manage risk and ensure legal compliance
  • Support the organization’s mission and efforts to continually improve

No organization can anticipate every eventuality or challenge on the horizon. The old saying, “When the watering hole shrinks, the animals look at each other differently,” speaks to this. A crisis can lead to dysfunction, disunity, and a complete loss of focus among leadership. However, healthy and effective leadership plays a vital role in helping their organization navigate a path through adversity and unforeseen calamity.

It is in times like these that an organization’s investment in leadership development and good governance, policy, practice, and stability are imperative.

Following the SARS epidemic in the early 2000’s, I represented our school board at a pandemic planning team table. This was under the direction of public health leaders – including representation from all sectors both public and private – to anticipate our response should a similar crisis occur in the future. The plan that emerged didn’t provide every answer to assist with the sheer scale of the current crisis. However, the exercise itself and the very existence of a collaborative planning initiative that carried into the boardroom provided the opportunity to build capacity, awareness, and trust.

In preparing to meet with the non-profit board I mentioned earlier, I came across an article titled, “Challenges and Changes: In the Eye of the Storm – Governing in a Crisis.” It outlines which organizations prove most resilient in rebounding from a crisis, and the list below is a distilled version of the information in the article.

The following list is a guide for boards and senior leadership to practice good governance as they work through the current crisis and prepare for the next one:

  • Create a well-tested business continuity plan
  • Ensure leadership will rise to the occasion and take prompt, decisive action
  • Communicate promptly and frankly with employees, customers, other stakeholders, and media
  • Demonstrate practical compassion for the injured, frightened, and bereaved
  • Establish practical arrangements such as alternative computer and communication systems, off-site back up of vital records, support for staff working remotely, etc.
  • Set aside financial and other necessary resources to absorb the effects of the crisis and return to normal (strong balance sheets, positive cash flow, good cost control, etc.)

What will you do to provide your organization with the best possible opportunity to survive a crisis or rebuild and thrive after a crisis?


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Author: Mark Schinkel
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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