Interviews & articles

Leading from a Distance: Althea Efunshile on Boards

By Althea Efunshile CBE

As part of it's Leading from a Distance series, Clore Leadership invited Althea Efunshile CBE to reflect on how the Board can best support a cultural or creative industries organisation in such an unprecedented crisis.

Board support during a crisis

Watch the video here

Read the transcript below >>



I’m Althea Efunshile, and I’m the Chair of Ballet Black, and a Non-Executive Director of Channel 4. I’ve been asked for some reflections on how the Board can best support a cultural or creative industries organisation in such an unprecedented crisis.

  • First, Boards can support by being proportionate!

    • They have a responsibility to oversee and monitor the Executive’s response to the crisis. But oversight can be exercised oppressively, or helpfully.
      • At a large organisation like Channel 4, with around 800 staff, the Board was reassured by the establishment early on of a very well-run internal structure with Gold and Silver crisis command teams, scenario planning, risk registers, and so on.
      • Conversely, at a small company like Ballet Black, with just 3 or 4 staff plus 8 dancers, it was appropriate that the crisis response only really started in earnest, as it became clear that lockdown was imminent
      • For each off the last few years, Black’s Spring Tour has kicked off with a three night performance at the Barbican. The 2020 Barbican performances was due to take place just days after lockdown was announced!
      • The Board met quickly (and virtually) to touch base on the implications for staff, finances & cashflow, audiences, communications, the possibility of neither the Spring nor the Autumn tour proceeding, and so on.
    • In both cases, but with very different processes and structures, the Board carried out its duties to oversee, scrutinise & monitor, but in ways that were proportionate to the relative sizes and capacities of the organisations.
  • Second, in a crisis Boards can support by not getting in the way!

    • The Board needs to have an on-going understanding of what’s happening in the organisation.
    • But frequent, ad hoc, and random communications and requests for information, simply add to the stress of staff who are already frantically busy.
    • Having established that there’s a credible crisis response in place, the Board’s job is to trust staff to get on with it, but with an agreed pattern of communication so it can remain updated.
  • Third, Boards need to be present, available and flexible

    • The Chair needs to be available to support the Chief Executive as necessary – someone to bounce ideas off; to take soundings on emerging risks; to judge how & when the rest of the Board should be brought in.
    • And board members need to be available for meetings that might be called at short notice
    • Especially in a small organisation, it can be helpful for one or more board members to help out with something specific.
    • At Ballet Black, for example the Board agreed actions that could be taken by individual board members, like checking the precise legal terms of our insurance policy, and researching Trusts & Foundations.
    • This is about the Board governing in a way that leaves leadership and management space, for the Chief Executive and other staff to come up with alternative creative offers for our audiences, when the normal business model has been so suddenly disrupted.
    • So, for example:
      • At Channel 4, against the backdrop of severe disruption to production, we’ve seen new content that responds to the Covid 19 crisis, and helps navigate audiences through this challenging time, in a distinctly Channel 4 way.
      • At Ballet Black, we’re seeing the on-line release of Ballet Black ballets and a virtual Sunday lunchtime Adult Beginner Ballet Class, all of which continue to challenge, comfort & enthuse, and show that excellent ballet is for everyone.
  • Finally, of course, Boards can support hugely by noticing the enormous efforts that staff are making.

    • Praising and applauding
    • Asking them how they are
    • Checking that they’re well

Most of us have probably moved out of that immediate phase of “Sudden Shock” where we witnessed life as we knew it shutting down before our very eyes, and we rapidly turned our organisations upside down.

Many of us seem now to be in an odd “Steady State” phase, where we’ve become used to a peculiar lockdown routine, and we start to think about how we prepare for a future recovery.

But the world is still uncertain. It seems to me that Boards can usefully support organisations by carving out space to reflect with staff on the future. What have we been forced to stop, that really we don’t want to restart ? What have we been forced to start, that we ought to keep ? What might be the impact on the future behaviour of audiences and viewers? How do we survive, and hopefully thrive in the future ?

What will the New Normal look like…?

This feature was originally commissioned by Clore Leadership

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