I'm seated at Heathrow, homebound after a busy week attending the ICSA: The Governance Institute annual conference in London, and a bevy of other commitments. The following comments reflect on two busy days spent at the ICSA conference. The intention is not to provide comprehensive reportage, but rather to bring forward notable points (from my perspective anyway!). As always, please feel free to get in touch if you have a question or would like more information.
Overall, the conference provided a valuable forum for company directors, secretaries and others who support the work of boards to learn, compare notes and meet others in similar situations.
Please contact me if would like more information.
So, Travis Kalanick has left the building, no longer the chief executive of Uber, the company he co-founded. The company, which makes money through the use of a ride sharing application, has grown rapidly in recent years. From a good idea, the company has become a colossus valued at over US$65 billion. Kalanick deserves credit for Uber's rise. However, Uber's reputation is not without tarnish; reports of a toxic culture, sexism and several scandals have blotted its copybook. The co-founder's pugnacious style hasn't helped either.
Uber's widely-reported missteps raises some challenging questions about the role and function of the board of directors; questions that are strikingly similar to those asked following the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal and the collapse of Wynyard Group, both in 2016:
Uber was founded on a strong vision and its grew rapidly. The board was technically diverse and debate did occur in the boardroom at times, yet the evidence suggests that board lost its way and became ineffective.
Though tragic, the Uber situation is instructive for directors and boards elsewhere. Power seems to have been a significant factor. If directors are serious about fulfilling their duties well—especially acting in the company's best interests and pursuing the future performance of the business—some shared understandings are crucial:
However, the presence of these factors is insufficient in terms of predicting effectiveness or performance. Ultimately, the effectiveness of any board is a function of what the board does and how directors behave. Research is starting to understand the mechanism of corporate governance, but causality remains elusive. Directors take their eyes off these considerations at their peril.
This is a brief note to advise that I will be in London next week, to speak at the ICSA Annual Conference. The conference is being held at ExCeL, London, over two days (4–5 July). Programme details are available here.
I'll be speaking on the first day of the conference, at 12noon. My topic is strategy, from the board's perspective. Here's the session summary from the programme:
Good strategy vs bad strategy
Sound interesting? Come along, I look forward to meeting you.
Note: I'll be in London Monday 3rd to Thursday 6th inclusive, with some free time both during the conference, and immediately before and after. Please get in touch if you'd like to meet up (day or night) to ask a question; discuss an aspect of corporate governance or strategy; learn more about my research on boards and business performance; or, simply have a chat over a coffee or a drink. I'd be delighted to hear from you.
During the last month, I have had the privilege of working with four different boards and management groups, helping them wrestle with why the company they govern exists (its purpose, or reason for being) ahead of formulating strategy to pursue the agreed purpose. All four engagements have been invigorating, revealing many insights and much passion (and debate!) within the assembled groups.
However, three troubling signs became apparent amidst the boards' commitment to the cause. These signs, which are not uncommon, have the potential to stymie the quality of the resultant strategy and management's ability to implement the approved strategy. The following comments highlight the issues:
The temptation to embrace detail, confuse the roles of the board and management and shorten the view remain very real challenges for companies around the world. If boards are to fulfil their responsibilities well, a clear sense of purpose supported by a coherent strategy is vital—regardless of the company's size, sector or span of operations.
The great news is that increasing numbers of boards are starting to realise that material benefits are available if they contribute directly to both the process of determining purpose and formulating strategy. However, boards have some way to go before the value they have the potential of adding is actually realised, if the evidence of the past month is any indication.
Guest blog: Dr James Lockhart (College of Business, Massey University, New Zealand)
During the late 1990s and early 2000s the hot topic in corporate governance was independent directors. Independent directors, it was proposed at the time, were the very panacea for performance improvement. It didn't really matter what the problem was the solution was independent directors, preferably a majority of them—and fast!
Much effort went into defining an independent director and veritable lists emerged of the much needed characteristics and attributes, especially concerning ownership (the lack thereof); earnings from ownership (the lack thereof); or, employment or former employment (the lack thereof). Sadly, in all that enthusiasm the single most important attribute—independence of thought—was seldom mentioned.
Fast forward a decade: now its diversity’s turn. Diversity, it is now proposed, is the panacea for improvement. Just like independent directors in the past (where no systemic evidence emerged supporting the assumption that independent directors actually improve performance) business is besieged with the idea that diversity on boards will enhance performance. All of the board diversity research conducted to date has been from outside the boardroom. We know that because there have been only four longitudinal studies conducted within the boardroom—one in Norway by Morton Huse; one by a serving board member (no conflicts there); one by a British colleague (Silke Machold); and, one by Peter Crow.
So what is being measured? Just like the independent director research, the diversity research has reduced the boardroom to a simple input-output model. Diversity then refers to the measurable appearance of directors, such as, skin colour, ethnicity, sex, age, qualifications, professional backgrounds, and so on with a focus on sex, colour and age. But does diversity of appearance produce a diversity of opinion? Does diversity of appearance produce different strategic decisions that would not have been considered or not approved in the absence of such diversity on boards?
Given that we don't know how effective men are in the boardroom, it is implausible to argue that we know the effectiveness of women. That is not to suggest we don't need more women on boards—we do. But the focus of the discussion ought to be one of building better boards, boards that are focused on wealth creation, and boards that deliver the company’s aspirations.
As with the independent director argument that preceded it, repetition seems to matter—if something is repeated often enough it will eventually be believed. The discussion is being fuelled by the post-modern/neo-Marxist views currently dominating the B-school landscape, one that will acknowledge diversity everywhere other than amongst Caucasians. And with that, the point is lost. The focus of corporate governance should be on performance, in organisations where the thinking folder is overflowing, not what people look like.
About Dr James Lockhart:
James is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Business School, and a credentialed and practising company director. He teaches and researches in strategic management and corporate governance, and is responsible for the delivery of the College’s business internship and professional practice (Management) courses. He currently holds two directorships; is on the Defence Employers Support Council; and, is a Chartered Member of the Institute of Directors in New Zealand.
I'm pleased to introduce Powerful Governance, a one-day learning workshop that I will be contributing to soon. Powerful Governance is the brainchild of Heidi Börner, an accomplished business advisor who sees a direct link between a strong health and safety culture and high business performance. The workshop series is designed to help boards leverage the essential elements of good corporate governance and a strong health and safety culture, resulting in a more holistic understanding of how to pursue business performance outcomes from the boardroom.
More information about the workshop, including pricing, an outline of the programme and an on-line registration page for the next session on 27 June 2017, is available at the Powerful Governance website. The workshop is approved for NZTE capability development credits, which means that participants may qualify for up to 50 per cent discount!
The question of whether companies with gender-diverse boards perform better than companies devoid of gender-diverse boards has been debated with passion for many years now. The locus of much of the early discourse was women on boards. However, the rhetoric has matured in recent times.
Whether motivated by political, social or cultural ideals, the weight of opinion amongst consultants and practicing board members now points to a positive correlation between various diversity attributes (sex, gender and ethnic identity, inter alia) and company performance. But is this a reliable reflection of reality? Wittgenstein's aphorism provides a useful reminder that all may not be exactly as it seems:
From its seeming to me—or to everyone—to be so, it doesn't follow that it is so.
Recently, Katherine Klein, a professor of management at The Wharton School, reviewed the findings of rigorous peer-reviewed studies and meta-analyses, in search of a more complete understanding. Her conclusions, which include the following comment, paint a rather different picture from normative opinion:
Rigorous, peer-reviewed studies suggest that companies do not perform better when they have women on the board. Nor do they perform worse. Depending on which meta-analysis you read, board gender diversity either has a very weak relationship with board performance or no relationship at all.
Klein also discussed possible reasons and implications of her findings. Boards and nominating committees would be well-advised to read Klein's commentary, understand the nuances and contextual factors and, most importantly, debate the implications for practice.
Postscript: Another review of the board diversity literature is available in my thesis (see pages 39–40).
"In our world now, the primary mover for reproductive success—and thus evolutionary change—is culture, and its weaponised cousin, technology."
The words in this quotation, originally published in National Geographic (*), stood out when I first read them recently. They seemed to lift themselves off the page, as if to highlight their significance. The penny dropped when I realised the quotation is applicable well beyond the [biological] world from whence it emerged.
Take boards of directors for example. The quotation suggests that board effectiveness (and, by implication, company performance) is more likely to be influenced by board culture and appropriate technology than any static attribute such as a particular board structure, composition or governance code. This intuitively attractive proposition enjoys widespread support in the academic literature, and case studies of actual board experiences have been reported.
Yet board and company failures abound, which begs an awkward question. Why do some boards continue to prioritise structure and compliance (with statutes and codes of practice) over culture and technology, especially when a stronger focus on the latter is more likely to lead to increased board effectiveness and, importantly, better company performance?
(*) D.T. Max (2017). Beyond Human, National Geographic, April 2017, p.49.
Monday 8 May 2017 shall, in our household anyway, be remembered as a significant date. It was on this date that a father and a daughter both crossed the stage to receive recognition for their respective achievements.
While the day was special for close family members in attendance, the awarding of academic credentials is by no means an endpoint. Rather, it marks a weigh point on a long-term journey. The priority for Megan now is to build her career in international business, marketing and customer service (get in touch if you have an opening for a willing and able staff member). I will continue to encourage boards and directors to focus on what really matters: fulfilling their responsibility for company performance.
Bob Tricker, named by Sir Adrian Cadbury as the godfather of corporate governance, is a hero of mine. While he did not 'invent' the term (Richard Eells did, in 1960), Tricker did do most the heavy lifting—helping all of us who followed understand what corporate governance is and, crucially, what it is not.
Sadly, some directors, consultants and academics have lost sight of Tricker's useful guidance; wandering off to propose all manner of definitions and descriptions. Thankfully, Tricker and a few others have continued to carry the baton, periodically reminding us what corporate governance actually is. Recently, Tricker put pen to paper again, writing this short piece to call out a common mistake: of conflating governance and management. That these two terms are used interchangeably has become a real problem.
A key insight from Tricker's most recent article is that corporate governance is what the board does. In contrast, management is what managers do. Sometimes, the two distinct roles (director and manager) are performed by the same person (an executive director, for example). In such cases, the person performing both roles must be diligent in the extreme, to correctly discern the particular hat they are wearing at a given moment in time.
Thank you for the timely reminder Bob.
Thoughts on corporate purpose, strategy and governance; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.