Did your board have the right skills to take on 2020?

David Mousavi examines some of the skills to look for when recruiting board directors for 2021

David Mousavi

For many organizations, 2020 has been incredibly challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-racism protests that swept across the world. The year has required leaders to rise to the occasion and in some instances exposed where leadership skills have not met up to the challenge.  Many organizations have come to the conclusion that they need a deeper look at their leadership capacities.

In a typical year, boards (whether private, public, or non-profit) will undergo a recruitment process that will include an introspective assessment of a board’s collective “skills strengths” and collective “skills gaps" to identify those specific skills that should be sought in potential new director recruits.  This skills analysis is often carried out through the use of a common board tool known as the “Skills Matrix,” which provides an easy to reference, visual chart of your board’s current skills complement.

Skills matrixes will often have some commonly sought skills, such as legal, finance, or human resources management, in addition to more highly specialized ones dependent on the specific organization’s industry, sector, or particular strategic needs.

As your board undergoes its 2021 recruitment process, here are just some skills 2020 showed us your new directors, and board, may need:

Governance expertise

For many organizations, 2020’s challenges came incredibly fast with previously unexperienced issues and the need for quick and nimble leadership. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations weren’t properly equipped to operate apart or virtually until putting the necessary software, hardware, or virtual meetings policies in place.  Equally, the anti-racism protests and Black Lives Matter movement needed organizations to look within to ensure they did their part as good corporate citizens for the benefit of their employees, customers, stakeholders, and society at large. The need to respond rapidly in times of crisis and emergency with sound decisions meant that some organizations had to modify existing governance practices, such as establishing special committees with subsets of directors to make those critical and time sensitive decisions.  Having access to a director with governance expertise, such as a lawyer, accountant, or otherwise, has proven to be even more important when uncertain times are ahead.

Information technology and cybersecurity expertise

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted norms about working from home virtually from an abstract concept to a very real corporate policy. While a temporary measure for most organizations until a vaccine is widely available, many other Canadian organizations, such as Spotify and OpenText, have announced their employees will have the option to continue working virtually rather than having to return back to the physical office environment. Similarly, many boards have transitioned to using virtual meetings as a means of adhering to physical distancing recommendations while ensuring vital work is done.

But with the convenience of virtual meeting comes some potential risks, such as cybersecurity, privacy, and the potential loss of sensitive, confidential information. If your organization hasn’t yet developed a virtual meetings policy, a good start could be here. But in addition to such a policy, having a director with technology and cybersecurity expertise will be of tremendous value as organizations continue to transition towards a more virtual world.

Human resources and talent management expertise

The physical distancing measures of the COVID-19 pandemic equally impacted schools and day cares as much as they did workplaces.  With the need for employers to accommodate employees that had children or immunocompromised dependents, the need for directors with expertise in human resources and talent management best practices became ever more important. With uncertainty about potential third and fourth waves of the COVID-19 pandemic before a vaccine is widely available, organizations will need to continue adapting to the needs of their workforce to maintain their productivity through people-centric human resources policies that build up organizational resiliency.

Diversity and inclusion expertise

The Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent anti-racism protests that followed the tragic killing of American, George Floyd at the hands of local police showed us that despite all the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting us, demand for social change with respect to tackling systemic racism was not going to step aside. Major corporations, such as Nike, the NBA, and Coca Cola, all made it clear where their organizations stood in terms of addressing systemic racism through declarations of support for the movement and announcing new initiatives as good corporate citizens.  Going forward, it is entirely foreseeable that organizations will continue to address systemic racism, whether through their relationships with consumers or their own employees, and they will need to call upon the wisdom of directors with diversity and inclusion expertise.

2020 has been a challenging year that has exposed leadership and skills gaps within boards and the organizations they serve. While your board undergoes its recruitment process in 2021, these are just some examples of skills you may wish to seek out in your new recruits.

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