The evolving role of the board of directors in a post-pandemic world – Fortune

While the challenges of being on a board of directors have never been insignificant, the last few years have been especially testing.
Increased shareholder activism and regulatory demands—not to mention the changing conditions brought on by the pandemic—have forced boards to adapt so that they can better keep an eye on a company’s health and competitive landscape.
Fortune, in conjunction with Diligent, assembled a collection of executives and board members from a variety of industries to discuss the modern evolution of the board of directors during a virtual conference on Tuesday.
One change the pandemic brought about, noted Brian Stafford, president and CEO of Diligent, was a massive increase in the number of board meetings, which were interspersed with phone calls between meetings. The frequency of that communication has been dialed back some since we’ve come out of the worst of the COVID-19 era, but board members and executives are still talking more than they used to—and making better use of their time together.
“The frequency of communications post-pandemic is higher than it was before,” said Phyllis Yale, advisory partner with Bain & Co. and a board member with Aledade, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, and DaVita.
The communication can take several forms—from calls with the company’s CFO to discuss financials before a board gathering to more detailed pre-reads—so the meetings can be more focused on strategic discussion than fact-finding.
The information boards utilize is evolving as well. Karen Francis—chair of the board at Vontier; chair at CelLink Corporation; and a board member at Metawave, NAUTO, Polestar, and Wind River—said it’s valuable to not just look at what business competitors are doing, but what customers are.
“We’ve started doing a deep dive on customer strategic plans and what they’re going to do,” she said. “We all need to be tracking much deeper into where our customers plan to take their business and whether what we’re selling them will be valuable to them in two or five years.”
It’s just as important to fold in employee sentiment, added Tiffany Luck, a partner at GGV Capital and a board member at Mindee, Stream, and Yac.
“In challenging macro environments like today, employees wonder what these things are going to mean to them,” she said. “[Additionally], one of the biggest places companies have made improvements and progress is diversity reporting. Even at the early stage, companies want to know what diversity is like.”
Technology—particularly artificial intelligence—is an area of interest, but the panel had different viewpoints on that. Luck noted that A.I. could be a valuable tool for finance leaders and board members to access data faster, making it less of a cumbersome task to get information.
Stafford, though, said it ultimately comes down to the people in the seats.
“The collection of people you have on your board is so valuable,” he said. “That’s the best-case scenario, when your board members can help you look around corners…I would love to say A.I. is the silver bullet, but if you can surround yourself with people who will push you, that’s the best way to keep yourself out of trouble.”
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