Board Challenge: Responding to Crisis


Responding to crisis means doing the right thing—under pressure.  Time and timing are often as important as finding the right response.  If the response is too slow, the board loses control of events and perceptions.  If the response is too quick, there is the risk of making things worse by taking action that has not been thoroughly reviewed. 

 More and more frequently, I get requests to work with boards around the issue of crisis response.  The unfortunate situation at Penn State has heightened awareness of the need for a response plan—before there is a crisis.  Finding the right response is the goal, of course, but the best way to improve the chances of right response, is to create a solid process that can be activated quickly.  Certainly every board should have a reporting process and a media consultant.  But beyond that, they need a decision-making process that is used routinely and effectively. 

 In a recent issue of Trusteeship Magazine, the publication of the Association of Governing Boards, Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth, Board Chair for Moravian College, describes a process that is straightforward, brings the right people to the table, and allows boards to practice their crisis response skills. 

 Chynoweth describes four pillars of a good decision-making process:

1)    Assemble the right people to discuss the issue at hand.  That could include people from outside the board and should be a group that represents different perspectives.

2)    Name a facilitator.  This should be a person who can manage the dynamic of the discussion but who stays outside the conversation.

3)    Create a structured workshop.  The facilitator creates and manages the structure.  Chynoweth recommends putting possible scenarios before the group.  I believe that outlining the reasonable options focuses the discussion and makes decisions easier.

4)    Set and adhere to a committed timeframe and document the discussion.  This preserves the nuances of the discussion and provides a record of all the options discussed. 

 These organizational pillars are important, not just in times of crisis, but any time the board has a significant decision to make.  Using the same structures and protocols keeps the board “decision ready” rather than having to decide on procedure when time is of the essence. 

 I also like Chynoweth’s recommendation that boards tackle tough issues “head on.”  Boards that practice a direct approach will be able to embrace complex conversations that involve controversy and disagreement–then lead to consensus.  That, as much as anything, produces wise decisions.   

Clear the Clutter!

“If you don’t pay attention to what has your attention, it will take more attention than it deserves.”

 ~ David Allen
It’s a New Year: clear the clutter!

When do Boards matter most?

Q: When does a board matter most?

A: When something big happens or needs to happen.

I often think that board work is like baseball.  The fielders do more standing around than making plays.  (I once read that out of an entire baseball game, the ball is in play for less than eleven minutes.)  On top of that, most plays are routine–almost choreographed.  From Little League on, every position player learns where to stand and where to make the play under almost any circumstances.

Most “plays” that boards make are routine.  Board meetings are often taken up with committee reports, reports from the head and sometimes from other administrators. Budgets are presented and approved.  A few questions for clarification may be raised, but the answers generally make sense and easily satisfy the questioner.  One Board Chair once said to me, “Boring is good.  Boring means nothing bad is happening.”  As much as I understand what he meant, I think boring can also be dangerous.

Boring can mean complacent.  Boring can mean that fundamental skills of collective decision-making are getting rusty.  Boring can mean that practices get sloppy, because, as has been said, “When things are going well, anything will work.”  The climate of agreement within a board may be wider than it is deep.  Challenges test the depth of shared values and strategic priorities. Yes, it’s how our practices and policies hold up under duress or challenge that really matters.

Challenges come in many forms–not all of them negative.  The “something big” could be the need for development of a fresh strategic perspective or a strategic response to an external challenge–such as the economic crash of 2008.  The challenge could be managing the departure of a long-term head of school, or the need to manage the search for a new head.  The challenge could also be a sudden, possibly damaging crisis –an unexpected flashpoint that must be dealt with quickly and wisely.

Like baseball, during those “routine” interludes, the game is still going on.  Every routine play is a chance to stay sharp.  That is the mindset of high-functioning boards no less than for elite athletes.  That means regular reviews of board culture through an annual self-evaluation.  It means the board chair and the head regularly seek out individual trustees to test for their satisfaction with their board service and ask for their input about the board culture.  It means strong rapport and trust between board chair and head.

High-functioning boards consistently practice self-assessment and self-reflection.  The focus of board development is to:

  • Build trust
  • Strengthen relationships
  • Have the right conversations

Within a board that has developed these practices, the structures are in place to deal with challenges with agility and wisdom and trust.

Next up: managing crisis.


This website will introduce you to the services we offer to schools and other non-profits. I bring over thirty years of administrative experience in independent schools, including eighteen years as head of Westridge School to my consulting and coaching practice.