The Board’s Role in a Crisis: Ready or Not?

Published by
Kimberly Simpson

Kimberly Simpson

If power and cellular phone service to your plant were inoperable because of a devastating hurricane, how would you reach employees to confirm their safety first, and then address the status of the facility? If your company handled classified projects and a building’s power grid failed in a natural disaster, how long would backup generators work before being refueled by trucks that might not have an easy route to the building? What if the building’s doors were unlocked after the back-up locks failed—could the classified work within the facility be compromised?

These real-life stories, shared at the April program of the NACD Carolinas Chapter, illustrate the unpredictable nature of crises. How can companies prepare for the unknown, and what role does the board play in oversight and direct response in the event of a crisis?

James H. Hance, director for The Carlyle Group, Cousins Properties, Acuity Brands, and Ford Motor Co. (and a former director of Sprint Nextel Corp., Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley), and Linda P. Hudson, chair and CEO of The Cardea Group, and director of Bank of America, Southern Company, and Ingersoll Rand, shared their experiences and advice on crisis management. They were joined by Deloitte’s Henry Phillips and Theresa Drew, who moderated the conversation.

Lessons learned from real-world crises and how the boards of their companies responded follow.

1. Establish and understand what amounts to a crisis.

  • “As a director, you know the company will have a crisis,” said Hance. “But what will that crisis be and how do you prepare?” He defined a crisis as an immediate problem that “requires the CEO of the company to be involved.”
  • Further, the initial measure of a company’s successful response tends to be tied to how early the crisis is identified. Social media may lead to the whole world knowing about the crisis very quickly, so the company must be agile enough to respond very quickly in kind.

2. Prepare for the known, but expect the unknown.

  • According to Hudson, if your company hasn’t thought through the possible risks involved in crisis scenarios, then the company likely will fail in its response. However, even if risks have been evaluated, there “isn’t a high probability the crisis that happens will be what was originally identified.” Hance added that those companies with a robust enterprise risk management function will likely be more prepared for a crisis, whatever it might be.
  • During her time as CEO at BAE Systems, Hudson deployed playbooks that addressed key crisis management questions. Some of the most critical items included in those playbooks follow.
    • Who will identify the situation as a crisis?
    • Who is on the team that is pulled together to respond to a crisis?
    • What is the escalation protocol?
    • Who calls whom (ex., customers, regulators, and other stakeholders)?
    • Who will be the public face of the company?

3. Board oversight is critical.

  • “The board must be in the escalation cycle in a crisis management plan,” said Hudson. Hance agreed. He also added that the board should exercise policy oversight. Hance pointed to a recent story in the news. A board would not, for example, look at how passengers are removed from planes. However, it would review the airline’s policy for bumping passengers, as well as the company’s culture, and make suggestions to management based on those considerations.
  • Phillips also emphasized the role of the lead independent director given that a crisis can be very emotional for board members closer to the company. The lead independent director can act as a source of calm leadership through a crisis. In addition, Hance emphasized, “The CEO needs to have a sounding board, and this group of people should be identified and set up ahead of time.”

4. Learn from each crisis and study your competitor’s crises to help prepare for your own.

  • Each crisis—whether one of your own or one happening at a competitor’s company—is an opportunity to learn. For example, panelists pointed out how well the CEO of General Motors Co. handled the ignition switch crisis, and called out the genuine connection the company made with affected people. Hance concurred and noted that other car companies were watching and learning. He also shared how Ford changed some of its processes after Toyota Motor Corp.’s crisis over sticking accelerators.
  • Unexpected events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina taught companies valuable lessons. For example, many New York banks routed electronic traffic through networks at the World Trade Center. When those networks went down, so did the banks’ ability to do business, according to Hance. Similarly, Hudson shared that after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2005, landlines and cell phones alike stopped functioning. Now the company has satellite phones in each of its locations, enabling seamless communications in the event of a communications-disrupting crisis.

5. Use outside help judiciously.

  • Depending on the industry, Phillips noted the importance of ensuring that the company has the right connections to important officials in the event of a crisis. For example, does the company have an established contact at the Federal Bureau of Investigations in case of a cyber-attack?
  • The panel agreed that, while legal help can be critical, it is also important to be open and honest, resisting any advice to keep silent during the crisis. Liability will follow, regardless. When asked about involving public relations firms, Hudson shared that each company “should tell its own story.” Doing so can be more authentic.

6. Always do the right thing.

  • The panelists agreed that the best defense in a crisis is to be sure the company directly addresses the personal needs of those impacted—whether they’re employees or members of the community. After Katrina, Hudson’s company assisted employees in Mississippi who had no access to banks by meeting their need for cash through the recovery period. The company never asked for that cash back.
  • Hance noted that the board is likely to be criticized in a crisis regardless of whether the proper oversight was exercised. So, as a company, the best approach is to identify what feels like the correct response for each event, and simply to “do the right thing.”

NACD Carolinas would like to thank the panelists for sharing their experiences with attendees and Deloitte for its support of the program.


Kimberly Simpson is an NACD regional director, providing strategic support to NACD chapters in the Capital Area, Atlanta, Florida, the Carolinas, North Texas and the Research Triangle. Simpson, a former general counsel, was a U.S. Marshall Memorial Fellow to Europe in 2005.

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