Written by Michael Lannini and Paul Smith

The coronavirus has the world in a blend of uncertainty, fear, panic and rapid adjustment. Supply chains have slowed, events are being cancelled, school campuses are closing, stock markets are falling, and many are being hit hard. We’re living in a high risk environment and one of the best ways to navigate such an environment is to be as informed as possible. The best way to become informed is to ask the right questions. The resulting answers will allow you to find clarity and perspective in a difficult time and help your leadership team make the best possible decisions.

In these times, governing a school is no different to any other company, government or organization, and to help you lead your team out of the unknown here are five questions you need to be asking.

  1. Who has past knowledge and experience?
    The first thing your board needs to do is look to anyone who has been through something similar. Who in the room was governing through SARS or the financial crisis? If that knowledge is not in the room, tap into your networks to find those who can give you a “been there, done that” perspective. Gain their support and find out what you need to know to inform your decision making and better support your school. Importantly, ask them what worked back then versus what didn’t but be mindful of the differences between those previous situations and the one you’re facing now.Whilst you’re seeking out this support, another key question to ask is: Who is the calmest person here? In times of near hysteria, it’s easy to get carried away and make irrational choices. Often you will need to make quick decisions, but before you get tempted to cancel classes or force people back to work, take a careful look around your team and determine who has the most equanimity (emotional balance) in challenging times. Take inspiration from them. Let cooler heads prevail, and gain the right perspective before you take action.

    Key Actions:

    • Locate and talk to people who have had similar experiences
    • Look to your ‘calm in a crisis’ leaders for inspiration in this high stress and uncertain time
    • Seek out informed opinion and advice from experts
  2. What are the major challenges?
    How will this outbreak affect us, on all levels? How bad is it and how bad could it get? It’s essential to take a look at this fallout on all levels – starting with the health and welfare of our community but also including the economic and financial perspectives. Consider whether you’ll be losing staff, students and their families if you’re in a region that is heavily affected. It’s common for the public to panic, so you need to expect that your stakeholders may not want to take the risk in coming along to classes, work or group meetings.To combat uncertainty amongst stakeholders, one of the best things you can do is keep everyone in the loop, consistently and constantly. Provide facts but also reassurance. Remain open, honest and informative in the communication of the current challenges and possible scenarios. Communicate how you are trying to overcome those challenges. Provide leadership. This proactive transparency will promote confidence in your community at a time when it’s needed most and will serve you well in the future.

    Key Actions:

    • Focus on the health and welfare of students, staff and families
    • Consider the economic and financial impacts in the short and long term
    • Communicate to stakeholders consistently, explain both the challenges and your plans
  3. What are the risks we can and cannot see?
    Now is the time to bring your risk register to the forefront of the boardroom agenda, although it should already be a constant companion. If you haven’t done so already, review your risk policies and protocols and apply them to the current situation. Utilising any policies can help you gain better insight into associated risks, both obvious and more subtle. Knowing these risks will allow you to determine your continuity plan, and help you to steer through the situation more effectively.While you’re steadily moving through this current challenge, you should be taking notes about what you could do differently next time. This is valuable experience and you don’t want this knowledge to be lost over time. There will be ways you can improve your risk mitigation strategies and you’ll see gaps in your processes (both board and management levels) that will give you clues as to how you can protect yourselves next time.Don’t have a risk register? Your role as a governing board will be to spend your time identifying the next risks, putting mitigation and response plans in places. Work on the medium to long term whilst you are supporting your management team manage the short term.

    Key Actions:

    • Refer to your risk register and associated policies and procedures
    • Record everything that you do so you, and your future board, can learn and improve
    • If you haven’t got a risk register, start developing yours immediately
  4. How can you future-proof your board?
    From every bad situation, we can take a number of positives – we just need to look for them. In facing a challenge like coronavirus, one of the positives you can focus on is how you’re going to future-proof your boardroom and your organization for the next time a similar crisis occurs. This doesn’t mean you need to take a perpetually pessimistic view, rather, it’s just common knowledge that life will be full of surprises. Taking such issues and turning them into a learning opportunity is one of the most effective ways to gain knowledge and experience that you can apply in the future.To find such lessons, one of the best questions to ask here is: How can you improve your capabilities for next time something like this happens? Do you have a virtual teaching program that will allow students to learn from home? If not, should you implement one? Is there a force majeure clause in your admissions agreements that specifies the conditions under which families are entitled to refunds in the event that they can’t physically make it to their classrooms? Continuously take notes throughout this entire process. Such notes will prove to be invaluable in the future.

    Key Actions:

    • Remember that the role of the board is to look after the medium to long term
    • Always be thinking, “how can we improve our capabilities for next time?”
    • Check your admissions policies for a force majeure clause
  5. What’s the hidden opportunity?
    And finally, the last essential question to ask yourself is: What is the hidden opportunity here? The way you handle this issue will impact the way your school is viewed by your community – and it will either be good or bad. If you can set yourselves up quickly to deftly handle such a major crisis, it will put you in good stead in the future. Members of various communities will see how you managed the expectations of all your external stakeholders while engaging in open, honest communication, and will see you as a highly attractive community to join. Parents will be wanting to send their children to schools with leaders who know how to deal with issues like this in a calm, honest, professional manner – so make sure that’s you!In summary, the essential questions you need to be asking yourself and your board right now are:

    • Who has past knowledge and experience?
    • What are the major challenges?
    • What are the risks we can and cannot see?
    • How can you future-proof your board?
    • What’s the hidden opportunity?

If you need further assistance in facilitating this process of enquiry make sure you join us on 18 March for a webinar as we discuss all things relating to the coronavirus and school governance.

We’ll be taking a deep dive into these essential questions, and it’ll be a must-see for anyone in the field of governance and education. And don’t forget to become a member of the School Governance Network on LinkedIn to stay up-to-date about our upcoming webinar, as well as all the latest industry news.


MichaelMichael Iannini is a Council of International Schools affiliated consultant with the following areas of expertise: Appraisal and Professional Development, Leadership Development, School Governance and Strategic Planning. Michael also serves as the contracted PD Coordinator for the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS).

Michael helps schools engage with their community and improve student learning by ensuring alignment throughout the school with its guiding statements and strategic objectives, as well as by improving collaboration in and across teams. Michael has worked with a variety of schools across Asia, helping them to devise plans to articulate their Vision and be Mission driven. To achieve this he has demonstrated the capacity to satisfy the needs of diverse stakeholders, improve intercultural leadership and establish effective communication strategies.

Michael lives in Hong Kong with his wife Barbara and their two children, Helena and Marco.

paulPaul Smith is the founder and CEO of the Future Directors Institute, an award-winning author, international speaker, governance advisor and experienced, but still relatively young, non-executive chair. He is on a mission to empower the next generation of directors and boards who will drive change at an accelerated pace for the benefit of all humanity.
Paul’s book ‘Right Se

at Right Table: An Outsider’s Guide to Securing the Ideal Board Role’ has sold in over 15 countries and he is a keynote speaker in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia. He currently serves on several boards, including as Vice Chair of the Jane Goodall Institute Global.

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