At the height of the recent LIBOR rigging scandal the then Barclays Bank chairman, Marcus Agius, took centre stage. Fundamentally, his “the buck stops with me” got me thinking of the role that chairmen are expected to play during a crisis.
Essentially, the responsibilities of a chairman can often be a little vague when compared with the clearly defined role of the chief executive. It will invariably be the CEO who will take a lead of the hastily assembled crisis management team.
So, what should chairmen to do in such a situation? And should their status, whether in an executive or non-executive position, impact on their role?
Well, in real terms, the response is down to the organisation in question, the protagonists involved and the gravity of the incident. What do I mean?
Let’s take the BBC – an institution that is effectively chaired by its regulator. The role can leave the incumbent in the fiercest of tailspins, torn between championing the corporation and ensuring its behaviour is, at all times, totally proper and responsible. Subsequently, it would appear prudent for the chairman to play a less prominent a role at a time of crisis than his counterparts at other organisations.
The BBC though, is something of an exception – so what of other businesses and their respective chairmen? Again, the situation will vary on the circumstances, but what’s asked and required of a good chairman at a time of crisis is the ability to be part of the strategic response without necessarily being directly involved in its day-to-day management.
He or she generally needs to be above the fray, relaying key stakeholder sentiment outside of the business back to the CEO and their team; together with the thoughts of leading politicians and senior editors, who can have such an influence on the eventual outcome. This might appear a relatively minor aspect of the corporate response, but its importance in establishing the right tone and positioning cannot be underestimated.
To reiterate, corporate crisis responses are more often than not from the product of a team in retrenchment, so it’s imperative that expert eyes and ears are used accordingly beyond the business to help protect the future.
I’m acutely aware that staying above the fray can also be a case of “easier said than done” for those chairmen who have worked up through the business during their career. But those individuals who have helped build the company must continue to demonstrate a protective passion for their business interests when in the rarefied atmosphere of the most senior executive office. Such individuals do need to be seen and heard, but it’s vital that their zeal is not permitted to mar a collective response that serves the needs of the crisis team and the company’s numerous stakeholders. A good chairman will recognise the merits of a light-touch approach and minimal interference.
An effective chairman will also have the wherewithal and experience to ensure that it’s very much business as usual when it comes to the rest of the operation. Crises do tend to give a sense of being all-engulfing to those involved, but they occupy the minds of a relatively few individuals within the business and may probably affect far fewer consumers than is feared. And so managed effectively, crisis situations can actually benefit the long-term position of a business, both in terms of reputation and commercial success. Consequently, it is critical that other aspects of the organisation are working, and indeed working well. An effective chairman won’t let it happen any other way.
In summary terms, a crisis situation will invariably give good chairmen the platform to demonstrate their many strengths. With the right management team in place they must trust the ability of their team to rise to the challenge, but utilise their contacts to best ensure that external stakeholders are involved and they add a perspective that includes all of the business operation.