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What struck me the most (and I don’t mean to be too critical), was the same names and faces either moving to a more senior role within the board or indeed moving between organisations, particularly within the public and semi-state sector. Whilst many of those individuals have many years of experience, surely it’s time to reflect and refresh the make-up of many of those boards, as organisations right across the public and private sectors are dealing with unprecedented change – driven in the main by COVID, which provides a perfect opportunity for organisations to transform.
For a lot of boards, COVID-19 has been an acid test of their effectiveness, leadership, and resilience at time of crisis. It also prompts some fundamental questions to the board, in how they treat their staff and customers; and how this links to their core values and purpose. Indeed, we have seen some organisations in Northern Ireland use this as an opportunity through their boards to step up to what is required of them in terms of operating model, product base, and how they have responded to the challenges and opportunities around COVID, Brexit and the NI Protocol. However, many boards are still clinging on to an outdated model, with their composition and ways of working no longer fit for purpose.
Organisations and their boards face fundamental challenges to their long-term future and how they navigate through a maelstrom of economic headwinds, sector disruption, and rapidly changing customer requirements. If you then add in the existing challenges around the future of work and a hybrid workforce, not to mention climate change and sustainability, you have the perfect cocktail mix to make the case for change, to not only enable the organisation to respond to these challenges and survive, but more importantly to thrive and prosper. However, in my experience this has to start at board level, with tone at the top being critical in setting out the case for change and more importantly “walking the talk” on that journey within the organisation at all levels.
There is a growing pressure at both a governmental and institutional level to persuade and cajole boards on the value of board diversity (gender, age, ethnicity and to be more reflective of workforce demographics). The value of non-executive directors (NEDs) is really important, but yet again it can often be the same group of people that I referenced previously, doing the rounds as they ease into retirement. We need a diverse mix of NEDs who can bring creative solutions to the board, working closely with the senior teams within the organisation to help imagine new operating models for the organisation and how they engage, often digitally, with a complex and distributed hybrid workforce.
We need board members who are not afraid to challenge the ‘Executive Bubble’ and any occurrence of ‘Group Think’, whereby one’s gender, age, sector or geographic background no longer matters; as long as they bring that strategic firepower, independent thinking, understanding of sectoral and customer trends, and healthy knowledge of working in the digital era. What is needed is the capability to combine high-quality challenge, debate, and oversight to support and provide value-add to the Executive and senior teams.
Incidentally the Irish Corporate Governance (Gender Balance) Bill 2021 proposes that 33% of a company’s board must be female after the first year of enactment, rising to 40% after three years. If enacted, it would apply to limited and unlimited companies, charities, and all state-sponsored bodies. There are a few exceptions, such as partnerships and companies with fewer than 20 employees. This is one of a number of legislative changes coming in that will now drive some of these changes at board level that I have referred to. All I can say is to bring it on!