Partnership in a Time of Pandemic:
The CEO and The Board

By Ann Cohen

In a time of crisis, and certainly we are in such a time, it’s not on the chief executive to do it all. Today it is imperative that we look to the partnership between the chief executive and the board. It is the kehillah – the community – they form that must step up.

This isn’t just good governance. It is how we, as Jews, practice our values.

When a board hires a competent chief executive, it presumably has adopted the basics of role differentiation to support the mission of the organization where each has a clearly delineated lane. But what happens when a seismic change occurs, and the chief executive must redefine what they do? How must they care for the employees, ensure their safety, apply for federal loans and grants that evolve in real time, stay on top of the virtual advice being offered, and lead with skills perhaps outside their knowledge base – all of which require decisions to be made without a board being able to convene.

While board and chief executive have pledged to “be in this together” what does that mean now? How can they be partners in support of the mission? Today, as the lanes are changing rapidly, boards must become allies with their chief executives. The life and death decisions that the chief executive and board must address for the staff, the organization, and the people they serve are decidedly different than when the chief executive was hired, or when the board members were brought on. Today, each must say: Hineni: here I am, and act to support the organization.

There are many critical ways to put this into action. Here are my top three and the Jewish values that underlie them:

  1. Responsibility for Decision-Making/Achrayut – Taking full responsibility for the organization
  2. Humility/Anavah – Knowing you don’t know it all and seeking what you don’t have from others.
  3. Order/Seder – Bringing planning and order to this work

Responsibility for DecisionMaking/Achrayut – What is needed to take full responsibility for the well-being of our organizations in these uncertain times? There are critical questions to answer and they vary depending on the mission of the organization, the starting point for inquiry.

  1. What is our mission and which elements are most critical now?
  2. What is our role in the time of this pandemic?
  • Should we hibernate and put the organization, not just our employees, on furlough?
  • Are we an organization that should become virtual to further our mission? Or not.
  • Do we need all our employees? Should we keep all employees to benefit from the CARES Act, or is there another approach?
  1. What financial resources can we tap into: Reserves? Endowment? Pledges? Grants?
  2. What do we tell our donors and are we their priority now?
  3. Should we jump on every webinar to find out what to do?

These are just some of the decisions to be faced by the board, in partnership with the chief executive. In addition, the board leadership must determine whether to convene as a full board or as an executive committee; but convene it must. And then be present and say: Hineni.

Humility/Anavah – What additional expertise is needed given who am I in this organization and what am I being called to do? Again, Hineni. What expertise is resident in the chief executive? In members of the board? Think about the skills, knowledge, wisdom, and connections that the board can bring so that the organization is guided effectively in this time.

  1. Do we need help making decisions affecting our employees and those we serve?
  2. Do we need legal, financial, funding, HR, and/or management advice?
  3. What are the ethical and moral implications of the decisions we must make?
  4. Is the expertise resident in members of the board or through others, including other organizations?
  5. Should members of the board or others be called on to serve in an advisory or volunteer capacity?

Order/Seder – How do we create order based on our priorities during all this uncertainty?

  1. What will we look like in 90 days? In 180 days?
  2. Do we have a business continuity plan? What does re-start look like?
  3. What is our fundraising plan? Should we fundraise? Should we convert recurring membership fees to contributions?
  4. Should we examine collaborations, partnership, merger or folding?
  5. How will we learn from this and plan for restarting?

A trusting partnership between board and chief executive is imperative for healthy and productive navigation of these times. As we step into somewhat different lanes, we need to keep in mind that no one person can do it all.

There is no magic here: even if your organization is not governed by a high-performing board, it has a chance to seize this moment and change. Guided by our values, and with awareness as to the function or disfunction of the board, as this seismic shift is upon us, it is incumbent upon each of us to be present, Hineni. We must examine the changes each of us must make to lead in this moment. Don’t do it all, do what matters and look to the one, two or more people and the one, two or more issues where you must come together decisively. And act.

This is pivotable moment. It is time to step up. To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, “where leadership is needed, be that leader.”

While we might ultimately have to learn how to go back to our lanes, right now we need to work together in new ways. And let’s hope that when we have the blessing to go back to our lanes, we have learned to do so with greater community, humility, responsibility, and order. As Jews, we understand that our values guide us, and today we know that our future depends on it. Hineni.

Ann Cohen, Chief Strategist of Ann Cohen & Associates, combines business and nonprofit experience to enable organizations to identify and achieve high performing governance, create and address their strategic goals and make it work. She is a Senior BoardSource Governance Consultant and the Program Director of PRESIDE a nationwide program focused on the confluence of governance and leadership through a Jewish lens.