Modern Chair Practices: What makes an effective board chair?

By Karen Loon, IDP-C and IDN Board Member

Board chairs will continue to play an important role in engaging, enabling, and encouraging their boards and companies.

Effective chairs play a critical role during times of change and uncertainty. 

Whilst the recent pandemic has impacted how boards operate, it has had a significant impact on the role of board chairs, how chairs work, and what makes them effective, according to Stanislav Shekshnia, Senior Affiliate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at INSEAD and Director of Leading from the Chair Programme and Helen Pitcher OBE, INSEAD Directors Network (‘IDN”) President who recently shared their perspectives on emerging trends in board chairs’ practices in an exclusive webinar for IDN members.

Attendees had the opportunity to get a preview of the key findings from ongoing research on chairs’ practices in Europe across 15 countries, 200 chairs and 300 shareholders, directors and CEOs including during the pandemic.

The research, with some contributions from the IDN[i], will be released by Professor Shekshnia in the upcoming second edition of his book, Leading a Board: Chair Practices Across Europe.  The webinar was facilitated by Liselotte Engstam IDP-C, with support from Hagen Schweinitz IDP-C, both IDN board members.

Over the past few years, the environment in which boards operate in has changed and became more challenging.  Companies are now subject to more public scrutiny, need to be more transparent, accountable and do more reporting.  Boards have been busier than ever, particularly since the start of the pandemic.  

Effective chairs lead their boards through Engaging, Enabling and Encouraging

Professor Shekshnia’s research concluded that effective chairs have continued to lead their boards by providing the 3Es of chair leadership – Engaging, Enabling, and Encouraging their boards, consistent with his prior research.

The role of chairs however has changed during the pandemic.  “What we found (was) that during the pandemic, chairs became more emotionally involved with their boards, (and) they spent more time doing their jobs”, said Professor Shekshnia.

Additionally, leading chairs are innovative in the way they lead their boards.

Finally, board work has become more relevant during the crisis, with only 1.2% of survey participants saying their board is irrelevant.

Leading practices of chairs which have emerged in the past year include:


  • Chairs have become more caring – spending more time with each director; having more frequent contact; paying attention to mental and physical health; and having more personalised engagement.
  • Boards are engaging more over long-distance using technology such as Zoom, phone calls, Group chats and polls. Most hope to use face-to-face interactions when possible.


  • Changing agenda items – new agenda items include COVID-19; employee, customers’ and suppliers’ health and safety; CEO health and fitness; and boards’ and individual directors’ resilience. Boards are also paying more attention to sustainability, succession planning, employee well-being, and social corporate responsibility.
  • Agenda setting – Leading chairs involve their directors more in setting agendas, using technology to set them. They also adjust agendas more frequently during meetings.
  • New formatsBoards are inviting experts to meetings, creating advisory boards and mixed board-management groups, and bringing in non-voting members to assist boards where there are skill gaps.
  • Innovation in managing board discussions online – Boards are experimenting with different online formats such as “camera on, mike off” mode, groups in Zoom, polling directors during the meeting, undertaking express evaluations at the end of each board meeting, and even turning off directors’ mikes!


  • Greater care and empathy – Leading chairs are supporting their boards, management and organisations with greater care and empathy, with less feedback and more support. They champion board education by acting as a “Chief Learning Officer” with their boards, and immerse themselves into new subjects like COVID.  Popular ideas used in lieu of in-person events include tea parties and drinks before and after virtual board meetings.

Virtual meetings have become a proven instrument for most chairs in Europe and will continue to be used going forward.

In the future, boards are likely to use a mix of virtual and face to face meetings, with big debates such as strategy being saved for face-to-face sessions, more operational questions for virtual meetings, and other more routine information sharing undertaken outside of the board room.  Helen Pitcher further added that more virtual meetings have had a positive impact on the environment, because of reduced travel.

An evolving idea is the changing attitude towards risk management.  Boards now have greater recognition that they need to move from classifying risks to organisational adaptability and resilience.

“Most of the board’s looked at risk in a sort of set standard way.  We identified the most important risks. We tried to come up with (a) strategy to deal with every specific risk. And we monitored the risks ranking them in accordance with their probability … Now most of the boards have (an) understanding that in addition to this, we also need to see how resilient our organisation is; how flexible we are.” – Professor Stanislav Shekshnia.

Boards are likely to focus more on the health and safety of employees, customers, suppliers, board members and the CEO in the future.  Empathy and mentoring are expected to be used more as performance measurement tools, as metrics have become less relevant.

What makes an effective chair?

Being a chair requires the chair to “balance” different attributes.  It is not about having one attribute or another, but about being ambivalent (or plus and minus) at the same time.  The opposite pairs are:

  • Authority and humility
  • Commitment and detachment
  • Incisiveness and patience
  • Helicopter view and company knowledge
  • Hard and soft skills

Professor Shekshnia concluded that the impact of the board chair on board effectiveness has always been significant, however in 2020 became critical because of the high change and uncertainty that we lived through last year.  The board chair’s role and impact will continue to be critical in 2021.

The changing role of the chair – Experiences of chairing boards during the pandemic

Helen Pitcher OBE shared her personal experiences from chairing boards across a range of organisations during the pandemic, noting that the pandemic has had a significant impact on how boards work.

“This is a once in a generational opportunity to change ways of working.  We’ll never again be able to say the way we used to do it, or we tried that, and it didn’t work because we are having to rethink everything that we do, and how we do it”, said Helen.

“Good chairs were already doing a lot of the things that needed to happen and were able to gear up quickly to support their boards and their organisations through the crisis.” – Helen Pitcher OBE. 

Some of the areas that chairs have been focusing on are:

Impacts on the transformational agenda during the pandemic

Shifting goals and outcomes

Health and safety, mental health and well-being, and what our goals and outcomes should be have become more important for boards and their chairs.

For some boards, the pandemic has been an opportunity for them to look at how to build their businesses and move them forward.  However, other organisations have been in crisis; their boards are meeting far more frequently, which demands a lot of the chair’s time.

“All chairs are having to work far, far more in their boards and on their boards, and to keep the communication flow going”, Helen remarked.

On developing relationships, “it’s become even more important for chairs to hold pre-board sessions, post-board sessions with all the board, and indeed with other key stakeholders to see how things are going”.

Finding opportunities for informal interactions, such as “board gin and tonic” events with no business agenda to find out how people are have been helpful.

Communication and messaging

“Being able to continue to communicate, particularly at a time of pandemic and fatigue is really, really important” – Helen Pitcher OBE. 

Chairs and board members should be prepared to have sessions with people across their organisations.  “You can never overcommunicate… having clarity of message and making sure we’re keeping people up to date is absolutely, absolutely crucial” Helen stressed, adding that chairs and board members need to listen even harder in these times.

Transformational change with assurance

Many employees are anxious about the future, for example the impact that new technology will have on them, or about moving offices and what the impact would look like.

“It’s even more critical that the board is supporting the executives to have the right conversations within their organisations, and to have deep conversations, both formal and informal.” – Helen Pitcher OBE.

She recommended that chairs and board members take “time to listen to people to talk about their concerns…. so that as much of the uncertainty as you could possibly take away is taken away”.

The immediate role of the chair in the crisis

  • Supporting executives – Board chairs have a key role to encourage their organisations, acting as a sounding board for executives, and to mentor and coach them, bringing their previous experience to bear.
  • Strategic horizon – Leading boards are also spending a lot of time looking at the future of their organisations, giving their people hope that there is a brighter future for them. “We need to constantly be scanning the horizon to see what we can learn from others.  The board’s learning individually and collectively is very important, because that keeps them fit for purpose for moving forward”.

The strategic role of the chair in the crisis

Boards have a responsibility to ensure that decisions made are sensible for the emergent reputation of their businesses.  How boards and chairs respond during the crisis will be remembered internally and externally going forward.  “Managing that reputation is hugely important, not only because it is morally the right thing to do, but because it’s sound business sense”.

Other strategic areas where chairs play a key role include inclusion and diversity, supporting exhausted executives, and managing executive remuneration.

In concluding, Helen highlighted the important role of chairs to maintain the transformation narrative in the crisis:

“Things are changing, but we will not go back to the old way of being. We will always now focus, even more strongly on to things like risk management, health and safety, how we reward our people – we absolutely owe it to our organisations as boards to do all of that.

We really also need to make sure we are being reflective about what have we learned from this crisis that we can really take forward. 

How can we be more flexible and more agile as a business in order to ensure that all our stakeholders benefit from this, and have the time to think, what is good … and what needs to change.” – Helen Pitcher OBE.


IDN’s next webinar on Governance at Family Boards will be held on 8 March 2021.


INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) – An INSEAD Global Club of International Board Directors

Our Mission is to foster excellent Corporate Governance through networking, communication and self-improvement. IDN has 1,500 members from 80 countries, all Alumni from different INSEAD graduations as MBA, EMBA, GEMBA, and IDP-C. We meet in live IDN webinars and meet-ups arranged by our IDN Ambassadors based in 25 countries. Our IDN website holds valuable corporate governance knowledge in our IDN blog, and we share insights also to our LinkedIn and Twitter  followers. We highlight our member through quarterly sharing of their new board appointments and once a year we give out IDN Awards to prominent board accomplishments. We provide a peer-to-per mentoring and board vacancy service and we come together two times per year at the INSEAD Directors Forum arranged by ICGC. We also engage with ICGC on joint research.

INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre (“ICGC”)

Established in 2010, the INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre (ICGC) has been actively engaged in making a distinctive contribution to the knowledge and practice of corporate governance. The ICGC harnesses faculty expertise across multiple disciplines to teach and research on the challenges of boards of directors in an international context and to foster a global dialogue on governance issues with the ultimate goal to develop boards for high-performance governance. Visit ICGC website:


[i] IDN collaborates in many ways with ICGC. ICGC shares academic insights with the network, and provides opportunities for joint research. IDN shares experiences at several of ICGCs programs and events, and shares INSEAD insights with their boards and at many events. For the referenced chair practices research, led by Professor Stanislav Shekshnia, IDN President Helen Pitcher OBE has contributed with significant insights to both the topic and network, and IDN Board Member Liselotte Engstam has engaged for two years in the research performing the research on Swedish chair’s and board work, as well as contributed to the Nordic insights and co-authored the forthcoming book by writing one of the chapters.


Board Governance during a Crisis

By Joergen Jakobsen IDP-C

When a company is facing a crisis the board leadership is put to the test. The actions of the board can be critical for how successful a company will emerge from a crisis – or if they will be able to emerge at all. Writing this blog during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic this is more evident than ever. In this blog I will examine the top 3 priorities a board need to focus on during times of crisis.

Framing of the crisis and its phases appropriately

As a company finds themselves in a crisis having a material impact on the company the risk of losing sight of appropriate governance is real for many companies. When facing a crisis, it is helpful for the board to break down the crisis into 3 key phases in order to frame the crisis with different time horizons allowing for appropriate options to be considered in the various phases. These 3 phases are:

1. The crisis phase

During this phase the frame is typically short term and relative narrow in scope.  The key consideration is about how to protect the company, the people and its key assets. It is about damage control, prevention of major harm to the company and its stakeholders – and maybe even about the survival of the company. This is often talked about as the Business Contingency Plan for the company.

2. The recovery phase

In this phase the frame becomes wider and more mid-term in. The focus turns to how the company will emerge from the crisis. In this phase a range of tactical options will typically be evaluated in the context of how the underlying market environment starts to improve. This is often talked about as the Recovery Plan for the company.

3. The New Normal

It is important to think about the post-crisis environment as a different market environment compared to the pre-crisis environment. The market conditions and the customer requirements might have changed. The competitive landscape might have changed. The stakeholder expectations might have changed. Thus, the frame required to plan for the New Normal must be wider and a new Strategic Plan is required for the company.

Although it is helpful to think about the 3 phases as different in frame and scope it is important for boards to have an overall view of the planning and decision framework required to bring the company from the crisis situation into the New Normal given the decisions made in prior phases can impact optionality of future phases.

Focus on what matters most during the 3 phases of the crisis

The objective of the board is to govern the company by setting the frame for the future of the company within which the CEO and the executive team will define and execute the strategy under the review and approval of the board. The role of the board is to preserve and enhance the value of the company as seen by both shareholders and other stakeholders while minimizing the risk. In this light let us evaluate the key governance priorities of the board pertaining to the 3 phases:

1. The board’s key focus during the crisis phase

The key priority in this phase relates to value preservation and risk mitigation to minimize the impact of the crisis on the company. Thus, the key areas of focus relate to organizational and financial resilience:

  1. Establish scenario planning to determine the worst-case scenario of the crisis. Establish a Business Contingency Plan to ensure the company can withstand the worst-case.
  2. Review organizational resilience and experience in handling a business crisis at the anticipated level. This includes review of the experience of the executive team and the board and if required involve external resources to address deficiencies. It also includes review of the company’s work processes to effectively handle the nature of the crisis.
  3. Review the financial resilience required to handle the crisis. Assess capital requirements related to the worst-case scenario and if required increase the company’s liquidity.
  4. Review the potential crisis impact to strategic customers and partners and determine how to mitigate this risk.
  5. Increase communication frequency to the employees and key stakeholders to ensure their understanding and buy-in for decisions made.

During the depth of the crisis the board often brings a key value in being less consumed in the day-to-day operational challenges than the executive team. They often bring perspectives and experience from how other companies and other industries handle the crisis which can prove valuable. Also, during this phase the board should increase their meeting frequency to ensure decisions are made in a timely manner.

2. The board’s key focus during the recovery phase

Pending the context of the crisis this phase might have a high degree of uncertainty as timing and nature of the recovery might be difficult to predict. Thus, it is important to stay agile and adjust the recovery plan as required. The key priorities by the board would be:

  1. Evaluate the probable scenarios and strategic business recovery options provided by the executive team against the company’s ability to execute. Challenge the board to ensure various scenarios and recovery options are presented before deciding on the best plan forward.
  2. Review the compensation plans to ensure it is aligned to the new business realities striking the optimal balance between motivation of the organization and the reduced business level.
  3. Ensure the executive team defines and reviews changes required to align the organization and the operational business processes required for the business recovery plan.
  4. Review and update the financial plan and ensure adequate capital is available and allocated to make the plan successful.
  5. Communicate the business recovery plan to the organization as well as key stakeholders to ensure their support and understanding of their role to execute the plan.

3. The board’s priorities preparing for the New Normal

As the company emerges from the crisis it will be facing a New Normal. Customer behaviors and expectation might have changed from the impact of the crisis. Competition might have changed and potentially consolidated. Business processes and associated technologies might have evolved during the crisis. In addition, stakeholder expectations or legal requirements might have changed. In short, the New Normal phase might look very different from the business environment experienced prior to the crisis.

With the above in mind the board should undertake the following activities to ensure the company is well positioned for the New Normal:

  1. The board should review and if required update the overall frame and vision of the company.
  2. Request the CEO and the executive team to develop strategy options aligned to the updated frame and vision for the company and aligned to the New Normal as well as the internal capabilities of the company. The board should review and approve the new strategic plan and its KPIs and empower the executive team to execute the strategic plan.
  3. Evaluate the profile of the CEO and the execution team in order to ensure the leadership has the adequate experience to carry out the new strategy of the company.
  4. Update the risk assessment framework of the company and define risk mitigation actions as required to ensure the risk of the company is managed at the adequate level. Ensure learning and experiences from the crisis are captured.
  5. Communicate the updated strategy to the organization and key stakeholders to ensure support and alignment to the new plan.
  6. Revert to a normal cadence and format for board meetings to manage the overall governance to the company and support of the CEO and the executive team.

Having appropriate board governance processes in place

In summary, it is critical for the board to adapt and contextualize their governance practice during a crisis situation. However, the fundamentals of good board governance continue to be critically important and should be in place before a crisis develops. Good board governance includes aspects like having a diverse and active board, understanding of the roles between the board and the executive leadership team, and having in place a strong board culture and processes to optimize the effectiveness of the board – which will be put to the test during a period of crisis.

First published on LinkedIn on 25 May 2020.

Joergen Jakobsen, IDP-C is a board member, business advisor and consultant leveraging more than 30 years of experience from multiple large global technology vendors. His consulting practice is mainly focused on board advisory, business performance management, leverage of partner eco-systems for profitable growth, and optimizing organizational and individual performance in a culturally diverse environment.

What can boards do to handle the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Webinar with PwC Singapore – 31 March 2020

On Tuesday 31 March 2020, the INSEAD Director Network held a topical webinar for its members on “What can boards do to handle the Coronavirus Pandemic”.

The webinar was facilitated by Liselotte Hägertz Engstam (IDN Board Member, Non-Executive Director & Chair at Listed & Private Companies), introduced by Karen Loon (IDN Board Member and Non-Executive Director), and featured guest presenters, See Hong-Pek and Marc Philipp of PwC Singapore, and with Q and A support by Gerard Forlin QC.

In her introduction, Karen Loon noted that COVID-19 is a wicked problem which globally is impacting all our lives personally and well as professionally. A challenge for all of us is dealing with the rapid change – how do we move from our fear zone (anxiety and ambivalence) to a learning zone, and ultimately a growth zone where we embrace this opportunity.   She also shared her experiences of both some short-term challenges of boards (especially helping people, business continuity and clients), as well as some medium term potential focus areas, and concluded that it is during these fluid times that it is important that we all leverage our networks for diverse ideas and perspectives.

Three waves of response

SEE Hong-Pek of PwC Singapore highlighted three potential scenarios (contained, pandemic with hot spots, and uncontrolled pandemic) concerning the evolution of the crisis which need to be taken into consideration by companies which will have different impacts on organisations.

Companies are likely to go through three different waves (mobile – immediate; stabilise – medium term; and strategise – long term) as they learn to adapt and accept the new “norm”.

Supply chain challenges

Marc Philipp of PwC South East Asian Consulting outlined some of the external and internal challenges which companies which PwC works with have experienced in relation to their supply chains.  These have included external (unpredictable demand; supply disruption; economy uncertainty; contractual challenge), and internal issues (production/internal supply, workforce limitations; financial and regulatory issues; operational issues).  An example of a challenge for some companies was to be able to manage the increase in demand for products in China after some restrictions were lifted.

He also suggested eight questions which boards could be asking in relation to their business continuity plans, operational risk assessment, scenario planning, alternative sourcing, risk assessment across supply chain tiers, critical supply chain data, temporary inventory and evaluation processes, and product redesign/material certification resources.

IDN members also raised questions, particularly in relation to legal matters including global legislation, work from home legal employer duties, data protection, and potential litigation.  The speakers all agreed that good communication with all stakeholders is vital, and that that board members play a key role in supporting the mental wellbeing of the people in our organisations, particularly CEOs.

INSEAD IDN will be arranging more webinars on managing during the crisis for our members in the next few months so do watch out for them!

SEE Hong Pek – Partner, Business Resilience, PwC Singapore  specialises in assurance and management consulting services in the areas of information technology, data privacy and business controls.  

Marc Philipp, Partner & Management Consulting Leader, PwC South East Asia Consulting has significant experience in corporate strategy, operating model design and digital supply chain transformation across Asia Pacific.

Managing the Board in a time of Crisis

with Herman DAEMS, Chairman of the Board of BNP Paribas Fortis

Webinar with IDN Belgium Alumni – 13 May 2020

IDN Belgium invited the IDN Belgium network to listen to a speech on “Managing the Board in time of Crisis” with Herman DAEMS, Chairman of the Board of BNP Paribas Fortis.  This webinar, moderated by Xavier BEDORET IDP-C, was attended by approximately 40 participants.

We began by raising the question of the priority to be given to short term vs. long term issues.  Short-term topics undoubtedly include concerns about liquidity and solvency.

Secondly, is the widespread crisis a threat to the independence of our company? Or is it an opportunity to consolidate another player?  Is the composition of the board, and in particular the diversity of profiles, a success factor?  We are thinking not only of gender diversity, but also diversity of expertise in the field of digitalization and e-transactions.  The quality of the relationship with the CEO and the executive team is essential.  The teams must be close and aligned. Sometimes the chairman needs to manage tensions at the top.

In the longer term, we will have to measure the impact of the crisis on the value chain.

The speaker concluded by saying “our companies will be called upon by society to play a different role”.

By IDN Belgium Ambassador, Xavier BEDORET