Deloitte Top 200: How to lead a boardroom during a pandemic

It can be difficult to look at the big picture when your business is suffering at the hands of a global pandemic. But it’s something that all good leaders do well in a crisis, while also communicating quickly and effectively as the situation evolves.

“Be objective – look at what’s changed, what is needed, what actions are required – and ensure actions align to company values and culture,” said Nick Wells, chief executive partner of Chapman Tripp, when asked to comment on this year’s Deloitte Top 200 Chair of the Year award.

“The uptake of the wage subsidy is a clear cut example where organisations didn’t always get it right,” he added in reference to some firms’ unjustified take-up of Government assistance.

Chapman Tripp sponsored this year’s chair of the year award, which was won by Liz Coutts – current chair of Ports of Auckland, Oceania Healthcare, Skellerup Holdings and Ebos Group.

The Deloitte Top 200 judges praised her governance style, described as “inclusive, calm and decisive”, and the way she dealt with Covid-19 across a range of industries to achieve success.

Other finalists in the category were John Loughlin (Powerco) and Pattrick Strange (Chorus, Auckland International Airport).

Chapman Tripp’s Wells said important traits top chairs have include an ability to think strategically and having the courage to drive decisions where boards can’t come to a consensus.

Good chairs need to understand the difference between what the board does and what management does, he said.

“A board’s purpose is not to do management, but to both support and challenge the management team … you need a strong relationship with, and understanding of, the CEO.”

When it comes to handling a crisis like Covid-19, look at things minute to minute, day to day – and communicate with your board accordingly, he says.

“Be nimble, in a sensible step by step and considered way. Don’t panic.”

The importance of strong corporate governance was highlighted in last year’s brutal Australian Royal Commission into Misconduct in Banking.

Wells said the big lesson from that was the importance of culture.

“This is a good reminder to be mindful of what people are doing at all levels of your organisation and finding tools to test and audit this –you can’t be so high up that you are left unaware of the day-to-day.

“Examples of tools to support directors to keep ‘on the pulse’ include Peakon (an avenue to test culture and sentiment) and enabling whistleblowers. In addition, be very careful with your reward system to ensure it doesn’t encourage unwanted behaviour.”

New Zealand, he said, has some very good directors and the depth of the pool is becoming increasingly deeper and more diverse.

Chapman Tripp’s recent NZ Corporate Governance trends and insights report showed that the average board size was 6.54 directors, up from 6.35 in 2019, and 17.3 per cent of chairs in the top 75 (by market cap) were women, up from 13 per cent in 2019.

The 2020 Deloitte Top 200 winners were revealed at a luncheon on December 3.

Click here for a full list of winners.

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