The Role of the Board Chair During a Crisis

A company’s long-term survival during a crisis depends on complementary roles, strategic alignment, and chemistry between the chair and CEO.

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Experienced chairpersons know that their success depends on how they walk the tightrope of being too involved or too remote in the company’s strategy execution. Yet when a crisis such as COVID-19 hits and the CEO transforms into Chief Crisis Officer, the chairperson may become increasingly unsure how to strike this balance.

Crisis breeds uncertainty and creates emotionally draining conditions for organizations that require fast decision-making with limited information on the part of leaders. The board’s role to monitor the crisis response of senior executives is crucial and in the interests of all stakeholders, but it also risks creating response delays and bottlenecks. Moreover, the chairperson’s objective to preserve future strategic options for sustainable growth might be difficult to implement when the organization’s short-term survival is on the line. These frictions can increase if the chairperson and CEO have conflicting views on crisis response measures, which in turn can divert the attention of both parties to preserving their image and reputation in the face of the media and key stakeholders — a typical “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

In light of these dynamics, the interactions between the chairperson and the CEO to establish decision rules, guidelines, expectations, agendas, and communication strategies are an essential and often underestimated success factor for leading organizations through a crisis. We took a closer look at this relationship to explore how experienced chairpersons interpret their role during a crisis, and why success and recovery for companies depend on complementary roles, strategic alignment, and chemistry between the chair and CEO.

The Chairperson and the CEO in the COVID-19 Crisis

Traditionally, the board of directors’ job description is “control” and “advice.” As a control function, each board member ensures that senior executives act in the stakeholders’ interests. The advice function contributes to corporate decision-making via strategic guidance and counseling to executive teams. For both functions, the chair builds the bridge between the board and the senior executive team.

There is no question that this relationship between the chair and the CEO is critical for success, particularly during the current COVID-19 crisis. Monika Ribar, chairwoman at Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), focuses regular interactions with her CEO on the main crisis-related activities and actions implemented.

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