Non-executive directors (NED) play a crucial role in organizations by providing constructive feedback and objective insight to support the Board’s decision-making. In a crisis, the views of a NED are even more critical to help organizations navigate the challenges they face.

To support our clients navigating the global health emergency, we hosted a virtual event, "COVID-19 and the New NED Leadership Agenda," for NEDs across the commercial, public sector, not for profit, charity, and education sectors to share challenges, learnings, and opportunities.

During this discussion, it was clear the role of the NED has rapidly evolved to meet a new leadership agenda and that strong NED and Board relationships are key in managing a crisis. Here are some of the key takeaways from the session.

Challenges and Opportunities

Cost management

One of the most prominent ways NEDs have been helping their organizations survive is by ensuring cost management is at the forefront of board agendas. This has firstly been about ensuring the business can survive today, and secondly create a healthy platform from which to bounce back when we return to a level of normality in the market. Unsurprisingly, many Boards have taken advantage of government programs and furloughed staff where necessary. Many have also had to request that employees work for reduced salaries and hours.

This has seen salaries and bonuses come under evaluation, with all the NEDs at our conference commenting they have been advising their CEOs and Boards that any pay cuts should be implemented equally from the top down. This must include board members’ pay to demonstrate solidarity across the business, and often there have been decisions to remove bonus payouts.


Amidst a market of uncertainty, NEDs and their Boards have been required to make rapid decisions, often with limited financial and market information. NEDs have therefore been working more closely than ever with their Boards to quickly advise and support executive leaders during this period, meaning clear communication has been paramount. Some NEDs commented they have moved to weekly briefing sessions and in some cases, Board meetings had moved from monthly to daily.

The increased frequency and proximity to their Boards was highlighted as an evolving challenge and concern. While they are comfortable with their current increased board involvement for the short term, they are very mindful they should be seeking to distance themselves from the boards in the next three to six months or risk losing the objective independence that is fundamental to their role.

Managing a New Work-Life Balance

For many professionals, prolonged working from home has had its unique challenges. NEDs are not only adjusting to this new set up themselves, but also have to flexibly work with their Boards and be strong advocates for Boards to accommodate their teams’ individual circumstances, such as schooling or managing bereavement within colleagues’ families. There has been a need for leaders to demonstrate high levels of empathy and understanding at a very challenging and uncertain time.

Reassessing Customary Working Practices

One common theme across sectors was the need to start reassessing whether physical office spaces will be required if remote and home-based working can be sustainable in the long term. In some instances, it will not be the case, but this situation has prompted NEDs to advise their Boards to evaluate their office design and working practices. This should include reviewing the need for business travel (domestic and international) and how to communicate between offices and at client meetings.

Positive Mindset

All the NEDs at our meeting commented on how key a positive mindset has been when managing such uncertain challenges. By focusing on the day-to-day and navigating challenges as they arise, as well as keeping an eye on the future to identify potential opportunities, leaders can help to keep morale high and maintain a focus for the organization. Striking a balance between the two will help to protect the business now and act as a springboard for identifying opportunities and growth in the future.

It is important Boards are asking, "What has changed for the positive? And what else can be changed to improve other processes that will have ongoing benefits for the business?"

Lessons to Be Learned

Anything is Possible

One thing that has been proven throughout this unprecedented time is that rapid change, even for a large organisation, is possible. For example, before the COVID-19 crisis, large-scale home working was deemed by most as impossible and not a viable option for a sustained period, or feasible for every employee. Despite this, Boards have quickly implemented new working practices to meet the government’s social distancing requirements, and many continue to operate effectively and maintain productivity remotely.

Engage Quickly

Looking back over the past few weeks and the decisions that have been taken, some of the NEDs said that they would have engaged more quickly and frequently with their Boards. They would have also got more involved in detail to be more effective when advising the board.

Identify Your Self-Starters

Prior to the lockdown, intrapreneurship was identified in our skills report as being key for 2020. Since the lockdown, this skill has become ever more important and it is crucial to identify your self-starters and leaders who stand up in a crisis.

The role of NEDs has quickly shifted in the past few months and, in many cases, enhanced the working relationship with executive teams, but the good governance and independence of NEDs should not be lost sight of.

If you would like to discuss this topic further or get involved with our future events, please get in touch. Alternatively, for information about how we can support you or your organisation at this time, please contact us for a confidential discussion.

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