By Ralph D. Ward of Boardroom INSIDERWith the BP ( BP) oil leak disaster now more than two months on, consider the involvement of BP's board of directors. Or make that non-involvement. All the ingredients for a competent board response are there -- the BP board has an independent, European structure, good people, and a Safety, Ethics and Environment committee. Even President Obama claimed to avoid meeting with BP CEO Tony Heyward because "the board is in charge." But so far, BP's board has proven hapless. Chair Carl Svanberg appeared vague and aloof in public hearings, and committed his own gaffe by expressing sympathy for "the small people" hurt by the oil spill. The board then pushed aside CEO Heyward so another exec would be the public voice of the company. So far this has only started a deathwatch clock ticking on the hobbled Heyward's job. What should this board be doing?: -- BP's board needs to form a "board special committee" of tough independents now to monitor the disaster. Such committees, often named to deal with major issues like takeover bids or investigations, have special powers, and can hire outside counsel to navigate a crisis. Directors like George David (former United Technologies CEO), Douglas Flint (CFO at HSBC, strong on global finance and governance issues) retired BHP Billiton CEO Paul Anderson, and Cynthia Carroll (CEO of Anglo-American, a director at DeBeers) could shape a PB special committee with global government and media savvy, technical smarts and governance cred to show that lights are burning in the boardroom. --Give this committee a solid mandate to -- serve as the public face of the company -- investigate how the disaster happened, the ongoing attempts to fix it (and why the board's own safety oversight failed) -- serve as temporary overseer of CEO Tony Heyward (either strongly support him or sack him). -- The committee should designate targeted tasks for its members. Someone to serve as public spokesman, someone to work government regulatory contacts, someone to assuage big investors (who at the moment want heads to roll in the BP executive suites). The BP disaster is now too big for just a single (and so far, ineffective) board face like chairman Svanberg (who was only elected to the job in April).
-- The committee should work with top BP staff to shape a single, coherent message from the company. Hint -- "Don't worry, everything's under control"; "It's just a little spill"; and "Shit happens" have all so far failed. Ralph D. Ward is publisher of the online email newsletter Boardroom INSIDER and author of the books The New Boardroom Leaders (2008), Saving the Corporate Board (2003), Improving Corporate Boards: The Boardroom INSIDER Guidebook (2000), and 21st Century Corporate Board (1997).