Leadership journeys in an online world

How board chairs and CEOs are managing relationships and leading their organisations with reduced personal contact


Image: Istock

Radojka Miljevic

Partner, Campbell Tickell

James Tickell

Partner, Campbell Tickell

The pandemic catalysed a seismic shift in how we work. It is clear that the shift is irrevocable – there is no going back to where we were before. Our knowledge and resources have changed.

At Campbell Tickell, we were interested in exploring what working differently had meant in a very practical way for chairs or CEOs who had joined their organisations during the pandemic and had to meet the challenge of getting to know and lead their new teams. We are grateful for their time and candour. All, of course, were acutely aware of the suffering and personal tragedies that the pandemic had wrought.

Many of our interviewees had themselves been selected through entirely online processes, having little familiarity with the people engaging with them. For Keith Leslie, as soon as he was appointed as chair at Samaritans (and all of his appointment process was conducted online), he was joining a recruitment panel for a new CEO. A new reality settled in quickly.

Accelerating change

A couple of people told us how easily they had adapted. Sally Higham from Rooftop felt that the pandemic had been more of a shock for those who were staid in their ways of working, and less so for those of an entrepreneurial and adaptable bent. Michelle Meldrum (CEO at Berwickshire HA) found that Covid-19 made agile working more palatable and accelerated its adoption. A common theme in our conversations was the need to hold onto the learning, and continue the evolution of new ways of working. Some chairs spoke, for example, of committee meetings continuing to be held online.

The uncertain timeframe of the pandemic was, in some ways, freeing. For Priya Singh, chair at NCVO, the period of time wasn’t measured in years, but rather experienced as a series of individual months, where little was known about what to expect, thereby encouraging continuous adaption. She said: “It brought out the very best in us all, certainly at NCVO, and although we all lived on adrenaline, so much that was unthinkable just happened. Joining in the midst of that meant that I really had no expectations of what normal was, and that’s quite liberating as well as daunting.”

The mechanics of meetings

A number of people commented on how much more straightforward the mechanics of meetings have been, with people being more available on account of both being at home and not having to travel. Chairing meetings had not felt too problematic. Although a couple of people mentioned how helpful they’d found it to work with two screens, one for the meeting, the other for documents or presentations.

Holding meetings virtually also invited better consideration of inclusion. There was a realisation, for example, that the chat function can exclude people who are partially sighted – as well as creating challenges for what constitutes the ‘real’ meeting and decisions/comments. The chairs we spoke to seemed to have moved to a more facilitative style of chairing than the more conventional approach.

A particular challenge was identified in the conduct of hybrid meetings, with some people in the room and some unavoidably having to join remotely at the last minute. One interviewee said: “It’s a challenge as a chair to keep that feeling of a single group with aligned focus and an atmosphere of togetherness. Those on-screen often experience the meeting differently and less well and those in the room can feel as if those on-screen are observers. It can sometimes become quite exhausting to ensure we are creating and energising the environment necessary for everyone to feel comfortable with dissent when we are meeting virtually or hybrid.”

Interviewees’ observations of online meetings

  • It’s been easier in some ways to chair meetings
  • Putting virtual hands up in an orderly way is helpful
  • It’s harder for people to hog the limelight
  • It’s certainly been good enough for the transactional elements of organisational business, and it’s been better in terms of focusing and cracking through meetings
  • It can be exhausting
  • Meetings start on time more often

Avoiding the rose-tinted view

It was clear that these new flexibilities have broadly been embraced and that all concerned had ‘crossed the threshold’ in terms of technology. In effect, a new tool has been created for organisations in how they remain agile and adaptable. Nonetheless, other concerns have surfaced. For instance, the unequal home-working circumstances for some individuals, alongside the subliminal communication of material wealth (a squeezed bedroom compared to a well-appointed lounge).

One chair emphasised that: “Flexible and hybrid working is here to stay, so it’s been very good to see the pace at which organisations in all sectors are sharing their insights and experience. I’m keen though that we don’t adopt a rose-tinted view of hybrid working, and create a chilling effect that stops people properly identifying the detriments that arise from not having teams physically together. Also because working from home is simply not an option for vast numbers of essential and often poorly paid workers.” 

All acknowledge that the ability to take the cultural temperature of the organisation is different and harder under these circumstances. For Samaritans, given its charity DNA as a space for talking and listening, the downsides felt challenging, with its general branches closed to visitors for long periods of time, and real barriers to appreciating the distinctiveness of some services.

“The Samaritans chair and CEO engaged in ‘coffee chats’ via Zoom with between six and 10 branch volunteers several times a week, and this felt unifying and levelling.”

But organisations have used the convenience of meeting differently to drive other outcomes. We are all familiar with the ‘equalising’ nature of the online meeting environment, altering the power dynamics and hierarchies that can exist in a physical space.

The Samaritans chair and CEO engaged in ‘coffee chats’ via Zoom with between six and 10 branch volunteers several times a week, and this felt unifying and levelling. Every branch director has ‘met’ the chair several times over the course of a year, and this would have been an unlikely phenomenon in ‘normal’ times. Michelle Meldum at Berwickshire had engaged in a virtual full staff conference, with great interaction, but felt that getting across key messages in the organisation needed more repeating, and that the need for written communications was intensified.

Relationships and dynamics

The intimacy of relationships and dynamics has been compromised by these ways of working. A typical chair might be used to meeting their board between say four and eight times a year, the executive team at least every quarter, and most trustees a couple of times a year. “I would know what’s on their minds and the fragments that people volunteer, but via Zoom it’s harder to read what transpire to be sensitive topics for some people,” said Keith Leslie.

Several chairs had found it harder to read the runes among trustees. Their antennae were hampered by the lack of personal and intimate engagement that would create the right kind of environment for trust and disclosures. “You hear dogs barking,” said one, “but it may not be the dog that you think, and you can’t entirely read the visual responses on topics. You also learn not to over-interpret visual responses.”

The magnitude or temperature of issues for individuals were elusive to catch sight of and explore. Executive staff were more likely to be direct about any concerns or disagreement (perhaps because they are more embedded in an organisation). One chair told us they had found it helpful to have someone else supporting them, helping to engage in ‘spotting’ and reading the virtual room.

The work to fully realise the talents of a different mix of people sounded like work underway, with an acknowledgement that face-to-face meetings would help accelerate progress. But many of our interviewees also missed the random Brownian motion that came from chance contact during breaks, and how these kinds of informal engagement – the work on the margins – sparked thoughts or helped to take the organisational temperature.

“As a chair,” said Priya Singh, “there is something about being in a place (or places) on a regular basis, both in order to connect and also to be creative, so I have missed not having that type of rhythm. It’s very easy to organise regularity of contact remotely, but that isn’t the same, it’s the bumping into people over coffee, on the stairs etc that creates those connections that spark creativity.”

One person said that “the quiet majority were quieter than they would be if you were face to face” and it was heartening to be out and about seeing people and getting positive feedback of strategic or cultural changes. It is as though the volume dial had a much narrower range to offer in terms of either positive or negative sentiments through online working.

The role of experience

The point was underlined that the role of the chair has grown hugely over the past decade. Well-seasoned chairs were sympathetic about the challenges of how someone new to the chair role under the pandemic could experience growing into it. It had helped experienced people to draw on their ‘toolkit’ of resources and knowledge, and distil some truths from that learning which continue to work under whatever circumstances. Perhaps this is true of CEO leaders also: thinking back on her experience as a newly appointed CEO, Michelle Meldrum felt that she would have advised her earlier self: “Believe in yourself. Trust your inner voice. Experience and skills are valid and they count for a lot.”

For some chairs, there was a refocusing of (agenda) time on important things and real engagement of trustees to help in that work. This meant that they were actively shaping how they use their time and using board time to dig into a smaller number of topics. Boards have been through the normal cycle of renewal processes amidst this period of flux. The Samaritans chair found that getting trustees to work together to select new trustees – and the time spent doing real work together – had been hugely beneficial. This was in terms of fostering a team ethos, as well as cycles of action and reflection (for example in relation to working on the strategy). Keith Leslie described these as “the universal truths of how organisations work”.

For others, there had been a strong onus placed on the direct communications from senior leaders to staff and active cultivation of openness. The point was emphasised that there are many contributing factors to what make boards and that the challenges of leadership and putting it into practice could not use Covid-19 as an excuse for poor working or lack of focus.

“The role of the chair has grown hugely over the past decade. Well-seasoned chairs were sympathetic about the challenges of how someone new to the chair role under the pandemic could experience growing into it.”

Navigating troubled times

A stronger emphasis has been placed on organisational values and culture through the pandemic. This has made leaders more self-aware of their impact on others and ability to influence, but also grateful for the kindness and patience with which they were received into their organisations. The values have also been an anchor during uncertain times, used as a stabilising force by leaders to help focus teams on “what really matters in politically, economically and socially turbulent times”.

New strategies helped to bring board and executive teams together and make the culture feel ‘unified’ – an aligned leadership group working with common purpose.

The time after the pandemic remains one of existential uncertainty – a cost of living crisis, a war, anxieties about climate change. While this new learning means that organisations are better equipped perhaps to manage through change, many are also conscious of the stress and fatigue that remains a legacy of the past few years and which has yet to be fully understood.

This article is based on interviews with the following:

  • Aman Dalvi, chair of Aspire and also of Newlon.
  • Keith Leslie, chair of Samaritans.
  • Michelle Meldrum, CEO of Berwickshire HA.
  • Priya Singh, chair of NCVO.
  • Sally Higham, chair of Rooftop.
  • Tracey Downie, CEO of Women’s Pioneer (getting ready to start) and also chair of Ekaya.

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