By: Lisa Sprenkle and Sarah Woods

Board directors have a high stakes job, and even more so in times of turmoil, change and challenge. While one of the Board’s key responsibilities is managing company risk, the nature of that risk has changed dramatically in our current environment. This leaves many Boards focused on an outdated definition of business risk that in this pandemic-influenced world is failing to meet the new bar to ensure business continuity and growth. And that bar was irrevocably raised in March 2020, when the workplace as we knew it changed as companies shuttered their doors and overnight became virtual.

What’s Changed and Why it Matters to Boards

The sudden move to remote work and the cascading changes, challenges and even opportunities that came with that sea-change have had a well-documented impact on the workplace culture. The “Great Resignation” that is now sweeping across all corners of the work force is the biggest indicator of change, and while this is an empowering movement for many employees, it is systematically upending plans for growth and even survival for companies in many industries. Leadership teams everywhere are newly laser focused on employee engagement and turnover, on retention and development, on inclusion and collaboration, as they seek to navigate a hybrid operating model, maintain business continuity, and deliver on growth agendas. Once considered the “that’s how we do things around here” backdrop that human resources and leaders managed around, the question of culture is now front and center in corporate strategy conversations. Getting culture right from the top of the house – and retaining and growing the talent needed at all levels of the enterprise – will make or break a company’s future.

What this means to Boards is a profound shift in where they need to focus when it comes to understanding and assessing risks to the business. Boards historically have focused on audit risk, reputational risk, cyber risk, and risk to the company value. Today, Board agendas must include culture and talent risks as significant disruptors to business progress and value. In many ways, culture risk IS one of the most critical business continuity risks, as more and more employees vote with their feet, and companies lose essential workers and key talent. The flight to “healthier cultures” where the employee value proposition is well represented means a drain on knowledge, productivity, morale, and growth for the companies they left behind.

The Board as Culture Steward

We see this impacting Boards in several ways, from what they talk about with the CEO and each other, to how they organize to support this new role, to what they can bring to the table to elevate the conversation. Consider these 3 shifts as critical to your duty to guide and steward the company.

  1. Have the culture conversation. Boards we work with – particularly those at the leading edge -- are getting more involved in asking the questions of each other and of the CEO: if attrition has increased, why? What do employee engagement scores tell us? What is being said about the culture on GlassDoor? What steps are we taking to support engagement and collaboration in a hybrid work model? How is CEO/executive compensation linked to culture? Why are we doing it this way? In the past Board members would stay away from this conversation, but it’s time to wade in with both feet.
  2. Make the talent strategy a core responsibility. Legacy committee structures leave no room for critical conversations about culture and talent risk. On many Boards, talent conversations are limited to succession planning with a focus on “replacement planning” at the top levels of leadership. Assessing talent risk based on culture lacks definitive accountability at the Board level and is often left to the CEO and CHRO. If the topic is raised, it might occur in a Compensation Committee process, or in the Nominating & Governance Committee, but culture risk lies across all of these, making its ownership uncertain. The time has come to reimagine this risk as living in a Human Capital committee, whose job it is to connect across committees and keep the necessary line of sight.
  3. Bring outside knowledge and insight. Many directors sit on multiple boards and have a broader perspective of practices that they know exist elsewhere. They can bring that knowledge and insight to the dialog with the CEO and the rest the Board. This requires Board directors to see themselves outside of the more traditional siloed committee structure and having a stewardship if not a fiduciary responsibility to share knowledge. This requires the Chair or Executive Committee to facilitate the connections and recognize that there may be opportunities missed if the full Board isn’t participating in these critical conversations.

5 Culture Questions to Ask at Your Next Board Meeting

If you want to ensure your Board is focused on culture as a key priority, add these five questions to your agenda for the next meeting:

  1. How are we incorporating an assessment of culture risk in our Board meeting agenda now? How can we ensure that dialog?
  2. How well is the CEO and their leadership team tuned into work force trends and risks in their company? What are the engagement and talent metrics being used, what are the trends, where are the trouble spots?
  3. What is the CEO and Leadership team’s plan for managing and mitigating culture risk to ensure business continuity?
  4. What can we do as a Board to support and enhance that plan? As individual Directors?
  5. How do we need to restructure the way we work to ensure we embed a focus on Culture Risk?

As a Board director, if you are not addressing the impacts of the Great Resignation and actively querying or supporting your management team on how work force planning and changes to ways of working are impacting business continuity, you are missing a significant area of risk for the company strategy and long-term value. In the future, company culture will represent the single biggest risk to a corporation’s health, competitiveness, and opportunity to thrive.




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