What the 1960s taught us about governance under pressure, and why we hate video call tips.

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When everyone is looking for new solutions to the current situation, the past is easily overlooked. I’d like to offer a 1960s-style antidote to the parade of top tips on how to conduct board business by video call. (Is it just me finding all those posts patronising?) Governance hasn’t changed. The mechanism for delivering it might, but the same rules still apply. You don’t need to read a list of how-to tips to get your governance right; you need to stick to great governance principles.

What we can learn from 1961

So much has changed since the 1960s. In February when I found a book on boardroom practice dated 1961, I bought it anticipating I would have a laugh at how far we’ve come. How wrong I was. The book, Standard Boardroom Practice, was more of a reminder that the governance principles we have today are as relevant now as they were in the middle of the last century. Three constants stood out. book
The book sets it out well: “(Trust) is the heart of the matter and affects every action he takes as a director. He is trusted by the shareholders to manage their investment; he is trusted by the employees to ensure as far as he is able their security; he is trusted by the company’s creditors; he is trusted by his fellow directors. Break that trust to any one of this number and he has certainly compromised himself – and worse, he will almost certainly have compromised the company.” That’s something hard to disagree with today. (You‘ll have to forgive the antiquated use of the masculine throughout the quotes. At least we’ve made progress in some areas so that these exclusively male references feel outdated.)
The book also references being a trusted employer, a “good firm to work for,” and about communication being at the heart of that. Too often organisations fail to effectively cascade their vision, strategy and actions to everyone. That leaves a knowledge gap meaning people just aren’t able to contribute to delivery. This is more relevant in April 2020 than we ever thought it could be.
As a director, your duty to the company should always come first – and today more than ever. It’s colourfully described in the book as: “shed(ding) his other skins.” The principle of the company’s interests coming ahead of everything else is a critical one, especially when considered in the context of delivering on strategy. How often will a director be part of formulating company strategy and then fail to deliver their contribution to it? Worse, some actively work against strategy in the way they manage their teams. This can be motivated by preservation, because they are putting their department and teams ahead of the overall company good. In my third week of Civil Service training, the esteemed historian Lord Hennessey declared that the first principle of governing governments was to protect their citizens. Right now, the Government is essentially acting as a steward by reverting to its core principle of governance – not to support, to supply, to grow, to invest – but to protect us all. For directors this principle is to be seen in selflessly managing the business, its clients, customers and patients, and also the staff. Never has sticking to your governance principles seemed so relevant.

No change – despite a changed landscape

Those principles of governance still hold true. And in a changed world, it’s still true that good governance needs proximity. Not to your fellow board members, to the information you require to make decisions. It’s about being close to the assurance you need, not the people you govern with. You don’t need a lesson from me (or anyone else) on how to assure good governance from a distance. What you need in these times of high pressure and stress is to have respect for your team. What you need is to continue to apply your leadership principles; just on the phone or by video call. And most of all, what you need is to stick to the core values of your organisation. They haven’t changed.

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