Wheeler: Navigating the COVID-19 Black Swan Event

Black swan is a metaphor describing an event that comes on as a surprise and has a major impact. There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic is indeed such an event. Its impact has touched virtually every individual, business, and, yes, nonprofits, including our soybean organizations. Day-to-day operations, governance, meetings, planned events: every aspect of the organization has been affected.

Gary Wheeler

There are some actions an organization can take to continue to function effectively.

Be Proactive. Don’t let fear or panic dominate the board room or the office. Few, if any, good decisions or positive outcomes originate from it. Stakeholder expectations may well be even greater.

Communicate. Make it a priority to ramp up communications across the board, especially to directors, producers and other stakeholders, staff, and even the public when necessary. Be sure that you are open, direct, and transparent. I personally have always practiced the three C’s, Communication, Communication, Communication. No one has ever said, don’t over communicate.

Govern Effectively. It’s fortunate that our boards are small. That makes it easier to engage directors. Director fiduciary duties to the organization remain despite these unusual times. Duties and responsibilities continue.

Effective governance has new challenges. Directors and leadership likely have even greater time constraints as they focus on dealing with the impacts of the pandemic on their own operations. Social distancing and group size restrictions mandate alternative approaches to meetings and board decision making.  

  • Be Strategic. More than ever, the board needs to think and act strategically, focusing on understanding the new headwinds and even looking for new opportunities. Remember, not only is your responsibility but now is not the time to micromanage and to be down in the weeds.
  • Meet Effectively. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing via the Internet (Zoom and GoToMeeting are popular formats) are good alternatives to in-person board meetings if all participants can hear and participate; proper meeting notices are given; and quorum requirements are met. However, it is important to check your state laws and bylaws to determine how these options can be utilized and what restrictions may exist.

It is especially true for state boards considered to be quasi state agencies, which may have open meeting requirements to meet. If these requirements create obstacles, work with your Department of Agriculture to determine if given the circumstances, obstacles can be worked around or set aside.

  • Take Action Properly. Again, state laws and organization bylaws need to be reviewed to ensure actions are properly taken and recorded during teleconference or videoconference meetings. In many states, action can also be taken via email. However, it’s more restrictive often requiring unanimous consent to employ it.
  • Beware the Challenges. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing bring challenges that cannot be ignored. It becomes important to engage each director. In face-to-face meetings, silence from a director can be easily dealt with. That’s not the case where faces can’t be seen. The silence could range from inattention or distraction to disagreement with the discussion.

Scenario Plan. There is little doubt that today’s unprecedented situation falls well outside your strategic plan and implementation and operating plans.  It’s imperative to strategically assess these plans from the perspective of the new external and internal environments the organization faces. For instance, what impacts will the pandemic have on industry supply chains? The Phase 1 China agreement? Key customers like the domestic meat industry? Internally, how have day-to-day operations been impacted and how might they be changed permanently?

The critical issues and priorities driving current plans need to be reassessed and new ones identified and prioritized. New opportunities should be identified along with new threats that need to be strategically dealt with.

Current resource allocations also need to be reexamined to ensure they are properly aligned with new priorities.

Because there is no road map for navigating through and beyond this event, a three-level scenario planning effort can be effective. Scenarios for the short, mid and long term should be defined with the most likely one for each term determined and planned for, with the expectation that – especially over the next weeks and months – they will need to shifted as unknowns come into better focus. Nimbleness and strategic focus become critical.

Evaluate Planned Events. Are they necessary? Can they be delayed or cancelled? These decisions need to be driven by ensuring participant safety and effectively communicated.

Manage Strategically. Day-to-day operations undoubtedly have already been impacted, adjusting to social distancing, group gathering, and travel restrictions. Some or most staff is likely working from home.  Maintaining productivity may become a challenge to contend with while respecting the personal challenges staff may face like schools and day care facilities being closed.

Staff policies such as leave policies should be reviewed and adjusted if necessary to ensure flexibility. Keeping staff safe and relieving as much job stress as possible is vital.

Keeping everyone safe and healthy should always be the priority.

Your CEO/Executive Director is responsible for these tasks but communication of changes are key

Be Sensitive to Time Resources. Time is a critical resource. This event has undoubtedly impacted both the quantity and quality of the time of volunteers and staff. Finding ways to maximize this diminished resource needs to be a priority.

History shows that black swan events are rare and create unique challenges. They are survivable, and many organizations emerge stronger. Using this event to become even more strategically focused will help your organization become one of them.

Navigating this unprecedented time again requires communication. If anything is in question, don’t over think it, communicate.

Gary Wheeler
CEO/Executive Director
Missouri Soybean Association
Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council
Foundation for Soy Innovation

This article first appeared in the April 2020 governance blog and newsletter for Ag Leader Source participants. To learn more about training resources and board governance visit agleadersource.com.