HomeOpinionBoardroom Talk: Away days: Back to normal?

Boardroom Talk: Away days: Back to normal?

IT MIGHT be a bit difficult to remember what was “normal”, but in the pre-Covid-19 world most boards normally had the annual strategy day or two as a fixed item on their annual calendars. It gave an opportunity for a strategic stock take and reflection, served as a less formal and deeper exposure to the management team and all-important time to socialise.

Many boards are hoping that it might just be possible to get together in one place by the end of this year.  Most had to miss out on an in-person strategy day last year, improvising to their best ability in virtual sessions.

Because everybody is very keen to actually, finally, work together face to face, it is more important than ever to make the “day” work well. Not least as a kick start to getting back into the groove. Here are a few pointers to help make sure you get the most out of it.

The dos and don’ts

Identify what you want to achieve. Is it a new strategy or a tactical refresh? Are you assessing progress in implementing strategy? Are the challenges of the next couple of years enough to handle for now, or should you be working on the vision for further ahead?

Do you need a full review or a focus on one narrow aspect of the market or a strategic driver such as technology or people? There is no one way to do it – but the objectives need to be realistic and clearly stated.

Avoid assuming everyone is on the same page, especially after the upheavals and constraints of the last 15 months. The CEO and chair need to decide what they want to get out of the day and then work together to achieve it. Getting the board and wider management team together and away from business as usual is more than ever a precious opportunity, so use it wisely.

Ask well ahead what the board wants and that means more than a chat between the CEO and chair. That is necessary but not sufficient. After well over a year of on-screen discussions, and perhaps more time for reflection, some of the NEDs might well have some new ideas or be looking for something a bit different.

Avoid just assuming that reverting to the pre-lockdown structure will hit the sweet spot. Or that a discussion between a few will be enough to come up with the optimal plan. The momentum and energy coming out of a good strategy day depends in part on people feeling that it was focused and structured in just the right way. You will not be able to satisfy everybody. But this time more than ever the structuring needs to feel inclusive.

Build in plenty of social time. It has been a long time since people got together. Some directors will not have met in person before. Others will be looking to rekindle the intellectual and personal spark that makes their membership of the board enjoyable and there is just a lot of catching up to do, whether the news is business or personal.

You should avoid feeling it is wrong to build in too much social time, so as not to distract from the imperative of making sure the organisation has a clear way out of the crisis times.

Also avoid being a bit tight on the social spend, not wanting to be seen splashing out when others are tightening their belts. Both are understandable, even laudable, considerations.  But the value of bringing the board together should not be underestimated. It is a good — and necessary — investment.

Allow enough time. At least a full day with an overnight stay, otherwise travel schedules interfere with the sessions. Doing it properly takes time.

Avoid imagining half a day plus lunch is going to be enough. In fact, a lot of boards are now working off two days and getting a lot more value as a result. Do not be tempted to squeeze in a regular, energy-sapping and distracting board meeting at the same time.

Preserve plenty of time for discussion. That is what the NEDs will want, and what should make it most valuable to the executives. And in-depth discussion is what is suffered most from 18 months of screen interaction.

Avoid allowing management presentations to take over. Yes, the team will want to share their thinking and analysis, but much of it would be better covered in pre-read.

Listening to slide-driven explanations is rarely the best approach, and it is especially unlikely that this is how the Board will want to spend their first lengthy chunk of time together.

Spend some specific time on the Covid-19 consequences. Boards will have been tackling the short-term consequences constantly. But they — and possibly the executive team — may not have had the space to sit back and reflect on what happens next: the lessons learnt, the new opportunities that are shaping up.

Avoid letting the pleasure and relief of a “return to normal” result in a “back to where we were” approach to strategy. Few will have escaped the impact — and, for some, new opportunities will demand fresh thinking. NEDs are likely to bring a mixture of caution, enthusiasm and challenge.

Pay extra attention to how competitors have been affected or how they are responding to the new environment.

Avoid imagining that they are responding to an unprecedented time of change in just the same way as us. So bigger questions need to be asked: what opportunities have they seen that we have missed?

What weaknesses are they now suffering that we can exploit? And management needs to have done their research before the meeting so that the inevitable questions donot get the answer, “We’ll take a look at that”. That doesnot help the discussion.

Set out in the pre-read where the executive team’s thinking has got to. (Okay, you can let management have a few minutes’ presentation time to launch each session.) Perhaps with a section on “How Covid-19 has changed things” just to make sure it is thought through?

Do not expect the board to do all the thinking. That’s not what they are there for, at least not at the outset. They will give value by reacting to and building on management’s work.

Think through the attendance carefully. Travel exposure and quarantine might still be a factor for some, but that is not the main point. It is about what makes the atmosphere right, who really does need to catch up with whom, and who has knowledge that will help ignite the discussion.

Ensure that you do not invite too many of the management team members. In a normal year, there is an element of “the more the merrier”. (Some parts of the meeting provide an opportunity for wider-than-usual team engagement. But this time round the quality of the catch-up with fellow directors is going to matter most, so it must not become too diluted.

Look for clear outcomes. Getting together will be important in itself, but that’s not the whole story. By the end of the day, there needs to be a consensus position which gives management direction on next steps. Continuing uncertainty will make this trickier than normal — which means that clarity of outcomes is more important than ever.

Do not let the day come to a close without some clear summarisation and agreed next steps. At the very least, agree on when the next discussions need to happen. It’s great if the day comes to and end with everyone feeling, “That was a good discussion and wasn’t it great to see everybody.” It’s less good if it’s followed by “…but I’m not sure where it got us”. Outcomes still matter.

  • For comments and feedback please send to boardroomtalk@icd.co.zw The article was published in the Boardroom Magazine, an Institute of Corporate Directors Zimbabwe project done in partnership with the Zimbabwe Independent.

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