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S2 E6: The Role of Boards in Crisis Leadership with Dwayne Alexander
Episode 623rd March 2023 • PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network • Public Relations Global Network
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“Prior preparation prevents poor performance." Planning for the future is key to creating a successful organization and is an important factor to consider when making decisions.

But what about a company crisis? A crisis is often evaluated by how the CEO or management handle it - but usually it runs deeper than that. How should how organizational leadership and boards of directors properly prepare for unexpected future situations?

In this episode, Dwayne Alexander of New Zealand-based Alexander PR discusses the importance of good practices for boards of directors, particularly in the face of a crisis. He highlights the need for boards to be prepared for potential red flags, such as a loss of operational margins, a decrease in working capital, or overworked staff.

Dwayne and Abbie discuss the importance of considering the wellbeing of human beings when it comes to business models, productivity, and growth. Dwayne suggests that the idea of a four-day work week is gaining traction, which has made people more conscious of the productivity of their teams. They also discuss the importance of remote working, as it can be difficult to keep track of productivity levels. Abbie mentions the need for courage to be able to make changes and to challenge the status quo. Lastly, they highlight the importance of diversity of generations on boards, as different generations can bring different perspectives and ideas.

Download the new white paper: "23 Bad Habits Your Board Should Change"

About the Guest

Dwayne Alexander has nearly three decades’ experience in helping leadership teams tell their story and build their organizational share of market and share of voice. He holds a postgraduate honours degree in marketing (cum laude) and has global multimarket experience. He co-founded the internationally recognized Alexander PR and has innovated over many years by introducing "The Content Place," Company Crisis, and also becoming a published author in 2022. A mentor and confidante to a number of boards, CEOs and founders when it comes to Reputation Management, Issues & Crisis and Storytelling, Dwayne and his team have attracted 11 global awards from San Francisco to London, Washington DC to Singapore for their PR and content work.

About the Host

Abbie Fink is vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. Our executive producer is Adrian McIntyre.

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Transcripts

Adrian McIntyre:

From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

Dwayne Alexander:

Hello, Abbie. Thank you for having me on the show. My name is Dwayne Alexander. I'm from Alexander PR in Auckland, New Zealand.

Abbie Fink:

I'm going to read a quote that you have shared with me that I think is a fabulous way to start this conversation. “Prior preparation prevents poor performance. This pithy piece of wisdom is now shorthanded as the five Ps.” Thank goodness, because I don't think I could say that again. Planning for what's ahead. It's the number one thing we talk to all of our clients about is planning for the unknown, planning for the unexpected. And when we don't do that, we know that we have a bit of a crisis. So, you know, we all have had a very challenging handful of years. I think that globally we've all been impacted certainly by the pandemic and other economic issues. But you are taking a look at the role that organizational leadership, their boards of directors, whether that is a corporate board, a family board, but really those leaders that are in charge of running the organization and sitting around a conference room table and making decisions. So how are you thinking about this in this context of where we are in this global situation and what are we doing to advise clients on planning for and preparing for the inevitable that is bound to happen?

Dwayne Alexander:

Thank you, Abbie. There's a lot of talk around “poly-crisis” and catastrophic events and mega trends, but what we found is some of the basics are often overlooked when it comes to groups of people sitting around the table as board of directors. In fact, we were so incensed by it that we asked a whole lot of people across the PRGN network, as well as a whole lot of companies across the world, were there some bad habits that they saw amongst boards that could be actually helping exacerbate crisis.

Abbie Fink:

None of us think we have bad habits, right? I mean, and if we've been put in this responsible place to be helping to make decisions, we clearly are there because we know what's right. But we might not have all that information. What are some of the things that boards need to be thinking about? And as communications professionals, as the strategic counselors to these organizations, what are some of the things we should be looking at when we're preparing for or planning for what eventually might become a crisis for our organizations?

Dwayne Alexander:

Well, crisis is often evaluated by how well the CEO or management handle it, but often that's not the case. Often it's much deeper than that. Sometimes a board can be an ally for the CEO or the C-suite and have helped them prepare over a number of years for what could eventuate out of a red flag. However, other times CEOs are scapegoats and can be thrown into the world by the board as well, and that's oftentimes a very difficult thing. Some of the things that our network came across the entire world was reversing strategy too often, lack of stakeholder planning and preparation, and not paying enough attention to the red flags. You know, so those red flags could be anything from, you know, decline in operational margins through the loss of working capital, but it could be also simple things like staff are overworked, the leadership are not sleeping. So decisions are not being made in a time-less manner.

Abbie Fink:

And I think that's the hard part, right, is even when you recognize a red flag is what do you do about it? I mean, there's certain, you know, businesses have to keep operating and, you know, challenging times to hire new people and bring them on board and such. It might be a complicated scenario, even if we recognize it. What are we supposed to do about it? I mean, there may just be a point where we just have to keep moving forward because we can't make the kind of decisions, or we feel like we can't make the kind of decisions we need to make to move it forward.

Dwayne Alexander:

Even in the most complex of situations where we're dealing with macroeconomic trends, oftentimes it's kindergarten rules when we're talking about the board. And we distilled those 23 bad habits into sort of eight characteristics in a way, or eight influencing factors. And the number one was communication, you know? And we'll get into communication in a bit more detail. But another one was having the right experience and training and recruitment on the board as well. Having the right culture to grow the team and retain the team, especially in the environment that we've just come out of, which is an employee market. Discipline and internal processes. How many CEOs have waited outside a boardroom for an hour, just to speak to the directors who are busy on one red flag or the other? Another one is cronyism or nepotism as well. So that's a major thing across the world, is not having the right people on the board as well. And the last three is, the easy one is ego. Ego can get in the way of many a decision, has and always will. Technology is a major one. And the last one is ESG, which I think you've spoken about previously. So there are a lot of basic things you could work on that will help you make the bigger decisions in a more appropriate way.

Abbie Fink:

You know, one of the things that communications professionals and public relations practitioners will always say is that we need to have a seat at the table, right? We need to be in the room when these decisions are being made and in a lot of cases I think we're probably saying that with we need to be at the table with the CEO, right? We need to be sitting around with the presidents, with the vice presidents, with the staff that are being tasked with these responsibilities. But you're saying, as I understand it, that there's one more table that we need to be thinking about, and that's the one that the CEO needs to be sitting at, which is the board of directors. So how do we get in on those conversations? What steps do we need to be taking to make sure that our knowledge and expertise, our objectivity, is being heard not just by the CEO, but by the people the CEO reports to?

Dwayne Alexander:

I think it's helping the CEO with their job and you know our job is sometimes to make the C-suite look good and make the right decisions. But it's also about positioning what they're doing upwards as well as downwards as well. Many times it's actually lobbying some of the people amongst the board earlier before the meeting and making sure that they understand what the red flags are in the first place, never mind what the solutions are as well. Our job is oftentimes to negotiate and act as a go-between between the C-suite and the board of directors sometimes as well. Because they're not always equipped with the right tools and sometimes there are just too many different agendas on that board in order for the CEO to get a good airing.

Adrian McIntyre:

One of the metrics that you hinted at, Dwayne, really intrigues me when you mentioned are people getting enough sleep. And it strikes me that this is not the kind of thing that's typically benchmarked in an organization. But personal wellbeing, not only for the leadership, but for all the members of the team throughout an organization can absolutely be a red flag that could lead to crisis situation. So how do you bring those kinds of conversations to the table? I think most leaders are thinking about our supply chain, our health and safety measures, government regulations, things of that nature. But you're saying, hey, this goes through to the human beings and their wellbeing as well.

Dwayne Alexander:

I think it's easier in 2023 to have those kinds of conversations are pretty the poor people in 1980 and 1990 trying to say, “Oh, I didn't have much sleep last night.” Remember how that went down? But I think there's been a whole wave of transformative business models including one of our clients launch the global four-day week proposal where he's suggesting that Americans who love to work should be doing it in the four-day week scenario. And then it's conversations like that that are making us much more conscious of the productivity levels that we're getting from our teams. It's not just that presenteeism amongst the staff because, you know, red flags could be early on mistakes that are happening in the supply chain or in those businesses that that are not picked up by the CEO and then the board. And then it's too late because somebody's died or there's been an accident or something along those lines. There are increasingly sophisticated methods of looking at productivity and how staff are actually working optimally. And with remote working, it's actually somewhat harder. I don't know if all of you are the same, many of us work harder in the remote working scenario because you find yourself creeping into the night and into the early morning. But these things can be worked on with experts and boards can take, I suppose, courage and ideas from experts in this area as to how to maintain productivity and growth amongst key staff.

Abbie Fink:

Well, and I think that's an interesting word, courage, because it sounds easy when you talk about it this way, but to put it into action really requires a commitment to it, to a willingness to try it, make mistakes, evaluate, retry something different. And I think owning the change that we're trying to make, and that this is not all about just how much we can produce, but how are we doing it? And the ESG component of some of these things is, you know, we have this external audience that we're trying to manage, but internally, what are we doing for the people and, you know, are we creating this workplace culture that is a, you know, is diverse, that is a representative of, you know, what we want to be, how are we showing up internally in the same way that we are? Externally, but it does take courage. And I think from the consultants and how we advise, we have to have a sense of courage as well that we're going to challenge what might be their status quo and ask them to think a little bit differently and to the habits, as you've mentioned, that they have been used to doing that always worked before may not be what can move us forward at this point.

Dwayne Alexander:

That important word that you introduced, diversity, should also cover diversity of generations actually. A board is much stronger when it's got multiple generations, including the Ys, the Xs, and the Zs. If you leave it to a Gen X, they'll just say tough it up and get on with the business. That's how I did it. Whereas if you look at the Gen Z, they'll be talking from a different perspective. Maybe somewhat in the middle is the answer rather than the extremes of either.

Abbie Fink:

Well, and we could do a whole other talk on just diversity and what it looks like. I think one element of it that doesn't often get considered is the individuals in the room, not only by culturally what they represent, but by age and such, because we do all come to these things with very different experiences. And work ethic by definition is different for the different categories, right? It doesn't mean they're any less or I'm any more productive. We just come to it from a very different perspective and those different perspectives, I think, is what leads to our success. So, you know, the thing that I come back to is these initial conversations that need to happen. And when in the cycle of efforts do you start having these and challenging that status quo? When do you sit down with that CEO or that board chair, and say, we got to do some things a little bit differently. We are not progressing in the way that we're supposed to be, in the way that you've been charged with doing for this. You've been brought onto our board for a particular reason. So when do we focus on this idea of change and communication and kind of challenging what these habits have been or the way that we've always done it and bring in these new ideas?

Dwayne Alexander:

Some boards can just grow organically and they can be fortunate, they can have the tough conversations and move on. Others probably need an intervention. Within that, there's a few important principles that they may need to take heed of, including establishing clear expectations upfront. What is each board member's role and what are their responsibilities? Because if that's not clear, then they're going to be scope creeping all over each other's jobs and telling each other how to do their jobs. The other one is setting the ground rules. What are acceptable topics for discussion? And, you know, 20, 30 years ago, that would have been different to what's acceptable right now. And it's an important conversation that needs to be had. And that's also around ESG. We have one example of a listed entity in New Zealand, where the CEO made some very disparaging remarks about the CEO of another listed entity who happened to be a woman of color. And he did it in a very perverse way. It didn't go down well amongst the media. However, he ignored it. And what's more, his board ignored it as well. So it dragged on for weeks and weeks. He ultimately lost 50% of his share price and at the end of the day decided to delist off the stock exchange as well. So this is the power of words and having tough conversations. In this instance, I think it was the structure of the board was wrong as well because I think he had too much control over the board as a shareholder CEO. Boards need to learn when to step in earlier and help that C-suite get around an issue. But they also need to get away from their own selves as well. Sometimes they get involved too operationally and don't let the C-suite just get on and do the job. It’s a fine balance.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.

Abbie Fink:

We publish new episodes every other week, so follow PRGN Presents in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website—along with more information about PRGN and our members—at prgn.com.