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9.4 The Board’s Role in Crisis Management

Crises are inevitable. Large corporations can expect to face a crisis on average every 4 to 5 years. Every CEO will probably have to manage at least one crisis during his or her tenure. A director may have to face two or three crises during a normal tour of service on a board. Crises can take many forms—an industrial accident, product tampering, financial improprieties, sexual harassment allegations, or a hostile takeover. Any sudden event that threatens a company’s financial performance, reputation, or its relations with key stakeholders has the potential to become a crisis.This section is based on M. Nadler (2004) and D. Nadler, Behan, and M. Nadler (2006).

Some crises are preventable, others are not. Many are of a company’s own making, resulting from sins of commission or omission. In those cases, the board certainly has a role to play in crisis prevention and has clear accountability for failing to faithfully execute its fiduciary duties. A good many crises begin as problems, developing gradually over time, with plenty of opportunities for an alert board to step in and take corrective action.

Nadler (2004) groups crises into one of four categories:

  1. Gradual emergence, external origin. These might involve economic downturns or the emergence of competitive threats, such as breakthrough technologies, new go-to-market strategies, alliances of major competitors, or regulatory changes that limit business practices or expand competition.
  2. Gradual emergence, internal origin. Examples range from strategic mistakes (such as a poorly conceived merger) to failed product launches, the loss of key talent to competitors, and employee discrimination suits.
  3. Abrupt emergence, external origin. Some of the most obvious examples are natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and product tampering.
  4. Abrupt emergence, internal origin. This can include the sudden death or resignation of one or more key executives, failure of critical technology, production, or delivery systems, or the discovery of fraud.

In the event of a gradually emerging crisis, a carefully designed risk-management process should provide warnings, in plenty of time, for the company either to avoid the problem entirely or to take corrective action before it develops into a full-blown crisis. Abrupt crises are more problematic; no one can predict a terrorist attack, an earthquake, a plane crash, a shooting spree by a disgruntled employee, or a CEO’s sudden decision to quit and go to work for a competitor. But sound planning can help the company mitigate the consequences and speed the recovery. The board has an obligation to ensure that management regularly reviews, updates, and practices all aspects of crisis planning.

To deal effectively with any of these scenarios, a board must put together its own crisis-management plan, which identifies the different roles it may have to play depending on management’s role in the crisis. The most challenging situation occurs when the CEO is the source of the crisis. This scenario requires identifying what specific role board leaders and individual directors should play, and who the board should call on for independent guidance on legal, financial, or public relations issues.Bremer (2006).

Thus, the board needs to be absolutely clear about how it will be organized during a crisis, which members have particular expertise it can call upon, and who will take the lead in efforts to restore the confidence of employees, investors, and other stakeholders.

Crises Involving the CEO

During most crises, the board has an important but secondary role to play. That is, ordinarily the CEO is the chief crisis manager and communicator, and the board operates in the background to provide oversight, advice, and support. But, as noted above, when the CEO is the cause of the crisis, the board has no choice but to assume the full burden of safeguarding the interests of the company and its shareholders. That situation can arise for a host of reasons. The most obvious is the CEO’s death or sudden departure.

To determine who should take the lead in the event of a crisis, the board first must decide whether the crisis creates a real or potential conflict between the interests of management and the company. A hostile takeover bid, for example, may threaten the jobs of senior executives but still be in the best interests of shareholders. In such instances, only the board can provide the necessary leadership to maintain stability in the company and retain the confidence of employees, customers, and investors.

Every board should have a detailed plan for dealing with the sudden and unexpected loss of the CEO. Once emergency succession plans for the CEO and other top officers have been developed and agreed on by the board and the CEO, they should be reviewed and updated at least once a year.

Other Crises: The Board’s Role in Supporting and Advising the CEO

Most corporate crises are not about the CEO. Usually, therefore, the CEO will act as the chief crisis officer with the board playing a supporting role—approving key decisions, providing the CEO with a confidential sounding board, giving informed advice based on directors’ previous crisis experience or special expertise, and demonstrating confidence in the CEO and support for management’s efforts to navigate the crisis.

In a crisis, boards need two things above all else: information and a credible, candid communications policy that keeps shareholders, the media, and everybody else abreast of what is happening. If necessary, boards should launch an independent investigation of what happened and why, and retain their own outside counsel. Constant communication between the CEO and the board is also critical. The CEO must keep the board informed as events unfold and should engage the board in evaluating alternative courses of action. This provides the CEO with the benefit of the board’s collective experience with crises at other companies.

Recovery and Learning

After a crisis, the opportunity for collective introspection and improvement is brief because there is an inevitable push to regain normalcy, calm, and control. This is when the board should demonstrate its independence, leadership, and value to the organization by insisting that management stop and learn the most important lessons from its brush with disaster. It also is an opportune time to review, evaluate, and update the organization’s capabilities in the areas of risk assessment, crisis planning, and organizational recovery.Myers (2007, January–February).

The bottom line is that, in quieter times, boards could conduct their affairs in a climate of privacy and anonymity. Today, directors are increasingly exposed to all kinds of pressures—from the government, regulatory agencies, shareholders, NGOs, the press, consumers, and ordinary citizens. To deal with this heightened level of public scrutiny, boards must learn to function effectively in an environment of openness and transparency, and learn how to respond to such pressures and to unexpected events.