We asked directors for their suggestions on how to hold effective virtual meetings.
Unique to the COVID-19 crisis is the sudden and unexpected transition for many businesses to a majority “work–from–home” workforce and leadership structure. For boards, virtual meetings have gone from an infrequent option to an absolute necessity. The panelists explored some of the nuances of virtual board meetings, the pros and the cons, and how to get the most out of them.
Recognize Both the Benefits and Limitations of Virtual Meetings
It’s important to recognize the good and the bad of virtual meetings in order to understand how to get the most out of them. The panelists recognized that while they are useful and clearly beneficial in times of crisis, virtual meetings tend to be more transactional and less conversational, and therefore have some drawbacks for specific board functions, such as strategy discussions.
Yiannis Petrides has found virtual meetings to be more focused, more efficient, and more action oriented — all of which are beneficial qualities for meetings held during a crisis. He explained:
“I think all of us are learning right now, but I think with virtual meetings, everyone is doing their best to be a lot more focused. In a virtual meeting with ten people on the screen, if you don’t follow the agenda and plan, then it’s easy for things to get very out of hand. So small things like ensuring everyone is on mute as default and having people raise hands can make a lot of difference. As strange as it sounds, I’ve found virtual meetings to be a lot more focused. I’ve also seen that directors have really done their homework very well in terms of reading the material closely and preparing ahead of time. It turns out that, in virtual meetings, we talk less about the context because people already read about it, so we get directly into the key issues and the action planning.”
Eileen Kamerick acknowledged that some board functions don’t lend well to the remote board meetings in her experience.
“The SEC has required the contract renewal process for mutual funds to be in-person, and they’ve offered relief for this during the crisis. I don’t disagree in the context — we need a degree of exemption. But in my experience, those in-person [discussions] are very helpful in terms of fleshing out these complex issues. I understand why the regulation was necessary in the first place, because it’s a recognition that the kinds of issues — and really significant amounts of data associated with dissecting performance and fees — are better presented in a personal and live format. I think you have to recognize some limitations to virtual meetings in order to optimize them.”
Adapt the Meeting Agenda and the Board Chair’s Approach to Facilitation
Given the strengths and the weaknesses of virtual meetings, triaging certain topics and decisions when possible can enhance the discussions around those postponed issues and improve mid-crisis meetings. Kamerick shared how her boards are adapting their meetings to the virtual format.
“My impression thus far has been that chairs and CEOs are trying to streamline the agenda and focus on the things that have to get accomplished and are most important. The idea is that there might be informational matters or discussion matters that are difficult to handle in a virtual environment, so defer what can be deferred in order to get through higher–priority agenda items. I acknowledge that the reality is so much more complicated than the ideal version of this – while boards might try to avoid significant decisions, it’s a crisis, so a number of them will have to get made, nonetheless — boards have to do the best they can. I still do think it makes sense to set limits and prioritize when possible.”
The panelists emphasized that leadership from the chair is critical for making virtual meetings work. Individual board members can also find strategies that help them stay engaged and make the best contributions. Claudia Fan Munce had a few suggestions.
“I started to only activate my video when I want to share a view or have a question, and I found that to be a very useful change for me. If I am just listening, no one needs to be watching me or anyone else — it is somewhat distracting to have so many faces on the screen — but once I turn on the video, it directly signals my desire to speak, so instead of fighting in during any air gap or using the raising hand feature, this is so visual that people pause to invite me in and it really improves the interaction in my view. I am surprised this practice is not more widely used, especially in large meetings.”
“The other practice I found useful is to leave the meeting on during breaks, even with video, instead of the old practice of muting or dialing off and on.It makes us feel more connected in this time when we can participate in small talks during the break with people in the meeting.”
Virtual Board Meetings Require Greater Discipline
Virtual meetings demand more attention from everyone on the board to ensure all the benefits of a board meeting are delivered. Philip Aiken laid out the key issue and the chair’s role in addressing it.
“You really have to make sure people are very disciplined, and the chair plays a big role in that. The chair makes sure the items get introduced, then the person speaking to the item speaks it through, then you ask the questions going around the whole board. If you were sitting in a boardroom, you wouldn’t have to do that — the information would just flow naturally. But on a video conference, you have to make sure people can ask their questions, get them answered, and then move on. In that way, it requires more discipline than being in the room.”
Board Chairs Should Ensure Directors Aren’t Left Out
It’s always important that directors with relevant perspectives provide input on key topics. In a virtual meeting, people can get left out of discussions for a variety of reasons. It’s the chair’s job to ensure everyone who has a valuable perspective can participate. Petrides advised chairs to ensure that people with relevant expertise are not left out of the conversation:
“The principles of leadership are the same, but the practices need to adapt. As chair, you need to take a proactive approach in terms of leveraging the capabilities and knowledge of board members. The chair needs to think a lot about who are the board members that he or she needs to bring into the picture for a specific point or discussion to ensure that you’re actually getting feedback and advice from the people who know the subject matter best.”
Sometimes there isn’t the time or the need to hear from every single director. Jamie Orlikoff explained how he determines when to go around the room and about a strategy he sometimes uses to streamline.
“Part of the art of chairing a physical meeting is knowing when to follow procedure and when to let the conversation “freewheel.” When you hold meetings virtually, you have to be a lot more explicit and intentional about it. You need to be clear with the board about when you’re using a process. Frequently, I’ll say, ‘” want to hear from every board member,” and I start with those with an opinion, then I go through the roster. I think that’s really important for controversial or provocative topics. Other times, I’ll say, ‘” want to hear some views,” and after each one, I very intentionally ask, “Are there any other views that have not been expressed?””
Utilize Pre-Meeting Work
When time frames are condensed, it becomes more important to get the most out of each board interaction. Orlikoff explained how he uses technology and pre-meeting work to extend discussion in the same amount of time.
“I’m a big believer in not asking the board to make a decision[on an issue] at the meeting where [that issue] was first presented. In emergencies and crises, that’s a lot more challenging, but pre-work in advance of the meeting makes it much more doable. Board members have the materials in advance; they can raise concerns and ask questions first on [their board software] platform. We can collaborate and discuss beforehand. You can engage the board with non-binding straw polls, ask if everyone has enough information, and have several back–and–forths prior to the meeting itself. When you can get some of the benefit of discussing over multiple meetings, that helps people become more comfortable making decisions.”
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Meet the Panelists
Phillip is Chairman of Balfour Beatty plc, Chairman of AVEVA plc, Non-Executive Director of Newcrest Mining Limited, Director of the Australia Day Foundation, and Director of Gammon China Limited. From 1997 to 2006, he was President of BHP Petroleum and then Group President of Energy of BHP Billiton. Philip has been Managing Director of BOC/CIG, Chief Executive of BTR Nylex, Senior Advisor of Macquarie Bank (Europe), Chairman of Robert Walters plc, Senior Independent Director of Kazakhmys plc and Essar Energy plc and Director of Essar Oil Limited. Other previous roles include: Director of National Grid plc from 2008 to 2015; Director of Miclyn Express Offshore; Chairman of the 2004 World Energy Congress; and serving on the Boards of the Governor of Guangdong International Council, World Energy Council, and Monash Mt. Eliza Business School.
Eileen is currently serves on four boards: Associated Banc-Corp. (NYSE), Legg Mason Closed-End Mutual Funds (NYSE), Hochschild Mining, plc (LSE), and AIG Funds. She chairs three audit committees and one corporate governance committee. Previously, Eileen served on the Board of Directors for ServiceMaster, a Fortune 1000 services company, and Information Resources, Inc., a leading marketing data and analytics company, prior to the successful sale of both companies. She is an adjunct Professor of Law at The University of Chicago Law School, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, and University of Iowa College of Law, where she teaches corporate finance, corporate governance, and compliance. Recently, Eileen was profiled as a “Director to Watch” in Directors & Boards magazine. She was also profiled in The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors. Women Inc. magazine named her one of 2019’s Most Influential Corporate Board Directors.
Claudia Fan Munce is a Venture Advisor at NEA, one of the largest and most active venture capital firms globally, as well as a board member at BestBuy, CoreLogic, and Bank of the West/BNP Paribas. Claudia is a seasoned board member, having served on the board of National Venture Capital Association (NVCA); Chairwoman of the board of the Global Corporate Venturing; Advisor Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and many global organizations, such as the Latin American Venture Capital Association, Women in Leadership in Private Equity in China, Canadian Innovation Exchange, and the Savannah Fund in Africa. Claudia is frequently cited as a pioneer and leader in the corporate venture community and contributed to many articles and books on corporate innovation published in Businessweek, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. She was named one of the 20 Most Powerful Players in the Silicon Valley by Worth magazine.
Jamie is currently the Chairperson of the board for the St. Charles Health System in Bend, Oregon.He is also President of Orlikoff & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in health care governance and leadership, strategy, quality, and organizational development. Jamie is the National Advisor on Governance and Leadership to the American Hospital Association and Health Forum and is the Senior Consultant to the Center for Healthcare Governance. He was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare in the inaugural list by Modern Healthcare magazine. Jamie has consulted with hospitals in six countries, and since 1985 has worked with hospital and system governing boards to strengthen their overall effectiveness and their oversight of strategy and quality. He has written 15 books and over 100 articles.
Yiannis is a board member at Mytilineos S.A., a leading industrial company listed on the Greek stock exchange, and involved in the Energy and Mining sector. He is also a board member at Puig, a privately held company operating in the world of fashion and prestige fragrances, with a brand portfolio including Carolina Herrera, Paco Rabanne, Nina Ricci and Jean- Paul Gaultier. Additionally, Yiannis is currently Senior Industry Advisor for Frankfurt-based Triton private equity. Among other prior board positions, he was formerly Chair of the Supervisory Board at Refresco N.V., the world’s largest independent bottler for retailers and A-brands, with production in North America, Mexico, and Europe. Prior to serving on boards, Yiannis had 23 years of operating experience at Pepsi Co.