Netflix has been in the news a bit lately, aided no doubt by public interest in its rapidly increasing 'reach', meteoric rise in its stock price and membership of a new generation of behemoth—the FAANG club. Now, the actions of the board of directors have seen Netflix become even more newsworthy, principally a consequence of this article published in Harvard Business Review. The board of directors operates quite differently from many others and, indeed, conventional wisdom. Could this be a contributing factor in Netflix's success?
Conventional wisdom, supported by both agency theory and 'best practice' recommendations of directors' institutes (in the western world, at least), suggests that 'distance' (a clear separation between the board and management) is important if boards are to objective in decision-making. The listing rules of most stock exchanges specify that at least two directors must satisfy established independence criteria at all times. Independence is de rigeuer, even though no consistent link between director independence and firm performance has ever been identified!
Back to Netflix. Two researchers, David Larcker and Brian Tayan of Stanford University, gained permission to investigate how the Netflix board keeps up to date and informed, a prerequisite of effective decisions. They found that the Netflix board does not embrace conventional wisdom. The full research report, from which the HBR article was derived, is available on the SSRN website.
The Netflix approach is based on proximity not distance. The approach has been adopted to help directors resolve a fatal flaw present in most boards: Five out of every six directors do not have a comprehensive understanding of the business being governed. Specific measures in place at Netflix include:
The combined effect of these measures has been profound: directors are much more well-informed than they would have otherwise been. The handicaps of lack of transparency or hard-to-assess information are removed. The perennial problem of information asymmetry that besets boards globally has been, it seems, solved—in Netflix's case at least.
Standing back a little from the Netflix case, several learnings are available for boards, as follows:
Many boards and directors do take their role and responsibility very seriously. But, sadly, a significant number do not display appropriate levels of commitment. If boards are to become more consistently committed to the cause—the pursuit of high firm performance and longer-term value creation—they could do a lot worse than take a page from the Netflix playbook and the advice shared here. If you want to learn more, including scheduling a discrete briefing to explore how a mechanism-based understanding of corporate governance can contribute to improved board effectiveness, please get in touch.
The chattering class has been very active of late, responding vociferously as case after case of corporate failure and misstep has come to light. Carillion plc and the venerable Institute of Directors (both UK), AMP (Australia) and Fletcher Building (New Zealand) are the latest examples that have resulted in consternation and angst.
That seemingly strong and enduring organisations continue fail (or have significant missteps) on a reasonably regular basis is a cause for much concern; the societal and economic consequences are not insignificant. Many commentators (primarily, but by no means exclusively, the media) have responded by berating company leaders (the board and management specifically), placing 'blame' squarely at their feet. This is a reasonable: ultimate responsibility for firm performance lies with the board after all.
Calls for tighter regulation and stiffer codes abound. Yet the geographical spread of these failures implies that local statutes probably aren't a significant contributory factor. The responses of the boards have been telling: some have circled the wagons (a demonstration of hubris?), others have cast out the chairman or chief executive (diverting blame elsewhere?), and some individuals have simply walked away.
At this point, it would be easy to join the chattering class; to stand on the margins and berate all and sundry. But let's not go there. Instead, let's try to identify repeated patterns of activity may have contributed to the situations, in search of learnings. Several things that stand out:
The role of the auditor: Most if not all of the firms mentioned above were attested by their respective auditors to have been operating satisfactorily. Yet they were not, clearly. Whether the auditors were in cahoots with management or the board, failing to discharge their duty to provide an accurate assessment or, even, inept remains to be seen. Regardless, something is amiss. To date, few commentators have called out the audit profession as being an accessory (Nigel Kendall is a notable exception).
Business knowledge: Remarkably few of the directors of the companies identified here seem to understand the business of the business they were governing. Many directors are recruited for their technical skills (notably, legal and accounting expertise), but few if any have any significant experience in the sector that the business operates in—research by McKinsey shows that one director in six possess such knowledge. How any board can make informed decisions when most of its directors do not understand the wider operating context well is perplexing—it would struggle to detect important though weak signals, much less understand the implications of them.
Board involvement in strategy: The boards of all of the firms identified here relied heavily on management to prepare strategy. Directors backed themselves to ask questions in response to proposals when they were presented. While most directors are capable and well-intentioned, such a heavy reliance on management is unwise. If the board is not involved in the development of strategy in some way, as many researchers and commentators recommend, the likelihood of the board understanding what it is being asked to approve and subsequently providing adequate steerage and guidance is low.
If boards are to learn from the failure cases noted here (amongst others), the first and, frankly, most pressing priority is to mitigate apparent weaknesses and focus on what matters. My research suggests that high levels of firm performance are contingent on several factors including:
Some commentators have suggested that the success of the board is entirely a matter of luck. I disagree. While outcomes are not guaranteed, my doctoral research and experience shows that boards can exert influence beyond the boardroom, including on firm performance, but only if they focus on 'the right things'. Unless and until boards start taking their responsibility for the performance for the company seriously the hope of much changing remains, sadly, dim.
I arrived in London yesterday, ahead of what promises to be an interesting week. Formal commitments include delivery of the CBiS seminar in Coventry; planning for the Future of the Board launch event in June; and a miscellany of meetings in which corporate governance, effective board practice and this recent article will be discussed. Two recent events, Carillion's fall from grace, and the now-public machinations at the Institute of Directors (which have resulted in the resignations of the chairman, Lady Barbara Judge, and deputy, Ken Olisa), are likely to invigorate discussions. Already, I've been asked to comment publicly on the Institute's troubles.
The problems at the Institute of Directors in particular are troubling. They strike at the heart of what many say is wrong with boards and corporate governance; the Institute becoming a laughing stock in some quarters. The Institute's effectiveness as a professional body is contingent on it being the epitome of good board practice. The IoD chief executive, Stephen Martin, said on Friday that the resignations are a victory for good governance. They are not. Rather, they are an indictment of poor governance.
Sadly, the Carillion and Institute of Directors cases are not unique. They are but two of many examples of poor practice that reinforce perceptions that boards are not effective. The ancient Chinese saying (more correctly, curse) seems especially applicable just now.
If trust and confidence is to be restored, the power games, hubris and ineptitude apparent in some boardrooms need to be rectified. Flawed understandings of what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced also need to be corrected, especially the misguided belief that any particular board structure or composition is a reliable predictor of firm performance (the following letter highlights the conventional wisdom problem).
The scene is set for some fascinating discussions this week. I'll let you know how I get on.
GE, a company with a strong history of success including a reputation of being the world's best-run firm, has hit turbulent times. Profit forecasts have dropped by half in the past two years, with the inevitable knock-on effect on the share price. It seems that the size and complexity of the business, and probably some poor decisions in the past, is proving to be a challenge for the board and its ability to fulfil its duties.
Consider the following indicators, reported in an article published in The Economist:
How the GE board can make meaningful decisions given these indicators, much less lead the firm intentionally into the future, is hard to imagine. Sadly, this is not a unique case. Wells Fargo, Wynyard Group and, most recently, Carillion are examples of companies that have suffered through poor reporting, weak engagement and the seeming inability of the board to make courageous decisions.
Fortunately, boards finding themselves in a similar situation are not without options. If they are prepared to retake control of the firm they govern (which will probably require some decisive actions; brevity and clarity of reporting being necessary but insufficient) and take an active interest in its strategic future, then the likelihood of actually making a difference is greatly enhanced.
Another once proud company has just suffered the indignation of failure. Carillion plc, the UK's second-largest facilities management and construction services conglomerate, collapsed on 16 January 2018, after bankers withdrew their support. The fate of hundreds of contracts with public sector agencies, and thousands of jobs were left in the lurch (although some emergency measures have since been put in place).
Though tragic, Carillion's demise should not have been a surprise to anyone for it did not occur as a result of a single external catastrophic event. Consider these indicators:
These indicators, which are not dissimilar to those of other failures (here and here), raise many questions viz. board performance, including questions of accountability; the board's supervision of management (or lack thereof); malfeasance and ineptitude in the boardroom; the efficacy of 'best practice' recommendations; and, the role of auditors. Why the Carillion board failed to act on the indicators listed here (and others not yet public, no doubt) is a matter for due process to uncover. The investigations should not be limited to the boardroom or even executive management. Other questions worthy of consideration include:
Hopefully, the investigations now commencing will result in one or more people actually being held to account. Practical guidance to help boards focus on what actually matters (firm performance) is also needed, if boards are to step beyond conventional wisdom (which is clearly not working), and the damage that inevitably occurs when boards are diverted by spurious (and typically discordant) recommendations that appeal to symptoms or populist ideals is to be limited.
Larry Fink, co-founder and CEO of influential investment firm Blackrock may have just moved the goalposts.
Writing in his annual letter to CEOs, Fink argued that companies think beyond shareholder maximisation, a maxim that has dominated investor thinking since the early 1970s. Companies need to determine their raison d'être, their reason for being, towards which all effort should be aligned. Fink could not have been more clear:
Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. Ultimately, it will provide subpar returns to the investors who depand on it to finance their retirement, home purchase, or higher education.
Fink directly associates strategy, board and purpose—and in so doing Blackrock's expectations are spelt out. Simply, boards need to take their responsibility to ensure the long-term performance of the companies they governs much more seriously. Specifically, the board should both determine and agree several things, namely, the reason for the company's existence (its purpose); how the purpose will be achieved (strategy); and, how the progress towards the agreed purpose and strategy will be monitored, verified and reported.
Together, this is corporate governance.
To have such an influential firm speak so boldly is wonderful. Mind you, I am rather biased: my research findings and experience working directly with boards over many years now is consistent with Fink's assertions.
I commend the letter to all boards. Two rather obvious questions boards may wish to discuss having read it:
The annual deluge of articles summarising on the year gone and predicting (promoting?) future priorities is in full swing. Examples include diversity surveys, lists of board priorities and cybersecurity predictions, amongst many others. While these articles make interesting reading, most of the 'predictor' ones should be taken with a grain of salt; the summaries of past practice and current thinking are more helpful.
The recently published PwC Annual Corporate Directors Survey (2017 edition) is an example of the former. It offers helpful insights about what US-based directors of large companies currently think about various board and corporate governance matters. The survey results suggest that levels of awareness amongst directors—in relation to gender diversity on boards, working relationships (both between directors and with shareholders), accountability and alignment in particular—are increasing. That the trend line is moving upwards and to the right is good news. However, demonstrable progress, in the form of better business outcomes remains resolutely elusive. This begs a rather awkward question: Why?
One possibility is that boards are spending precious time on the 'wrong' things. Little if any focus on company performance and strategy is apparent in PwC analysis; the inherent implication being that those surveyed assign responsibility for strategy to management. What's worse, a significant percentage of directors accept what is put in front of them. Critical assessment and vigorous debate is rare.
The PwC results cast a dark pall over the performance of US-based directors and boards. They suggest that many have lost sight of their statutory obligation, which is that responsibility for company performance lies with them. This assessment is consistent with first-hand observations of boards in action, including my own, which reveal that the dominant focus of many boards is compliance (monitoring historical performance and checking regulatory requirements are satisfied). The protection of professional and personal reputation is a very powerful motivation for many directors, more so than ensuring the performance of the company it seems.
If boards are to become more effective in fulfilling their value-creation mandate, directors need to hold tight to their core responsibility and concentrate on what actually matters—which is to govern in accordance with prescribed duties, and with the long-term purpose and performance of the company to the fore. Necessarily, effective steerage and guidance requires the board to be discerning and committed to the task, using reliable governance practices in pursuit of better outcomes, lest they be diverted by spurious (and often discordant) recommendations that appeal to symptoms or populist ideals. How might this be achieved?
Returning to first principles, one option is to re-conceptualise corporate governance; as a multi-faceted mechanism that is activated by competent, functional boards. The mechanism itself is straightforward: an integrative assembly comprised of strategic management tasks (the board's responsibility to influence the performance of the business places it at the epicentre of strategic decision-making and accountability), relationships (with the executive, shareholders and legitimate stakeholders) and five behavioural characteristics of directors (details). The harmonious exercise of the five behavioural characteristics in particular provides a platform for motivated directors to interact well, and for the board to make forward looking, informed, strategically-relevant decisions in a timely manner.
A mechanism-based understanding of corporate governance provides an alternative pathway to achieve more effective outcomes from those promoted by conventional wisdom. Specifically, it provides a framework to focus the board's attention on what actually matters; outlining the tasks, interactions and behavioural characteristics that are conducive to effective contributions. Significantly, those aspects of corporate governance orthodoxy that have demonstrably failed to have a beneficial impact are challenged. For example, board structure and composition recommendations are set to one side, as well as any notional separation between the board and management; an uncomfortable consequence for some.
If you would like to know more, including how to deploy such a proposal in practice, please get in touch.
From hardly rating a mention a few decades ago, boards are now newsworthy. Questionable practices and failures of various kinds have seen boards become highly topical; targets of both curiosity and criticism in the business media, regulators and, increasingly, the wider public. A plethora of corporate governance codes and 'best practice' recommendations have been produced, but most are yet to have their intended effect. What's more, many well-intentioned directors say they have become confused about the appropriate role of the board, what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced.
Clearly, corporate governance is in troubled waters.
I have joined a group to do something about it. The "Future of the Board" is a new research-based initiative dedicated to getting to the root of some of the problems that beset boards, and to producing rigorous guidance to help boards achieve better outcomes.
I had the distinct privilege of attending the 9th Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna this week. Approximately 500 people attended the two day forum held in Aula der Wissenschften (Hall of Sciences). The programme included fifteen plenary sessions and a parallel session (four tracks). The very full programme was run to time; a Swiss watch operated with Germanic efficiency, in the birthplace of Drucker.
Many global authorities in strategy, innovation, entrepreneurship and related addressed those in attendance (and many more utilising the live feed option). Presenters included Richard Straub; Angelica Kohlmann; Jenny Darroch; Hal Gregersen; Roger L. Martin; Anil K. Gupta; Bill Fischer; Rita Gunther McGrath; Sidney Finkelstein; Tammy Erickson and Carlotta Perez, and more. The forum produced many insights; the following commentary merely a portion lifted from my 28 pages of notes:
Richard Straub, President of the Peter Drucker Society, set the scene by noting that Drucker, a man genuinely interested in the bigger 'why' questions, maintained a strong focus on business performance. He avoided cookie-cutter 'solutions', a reflection perhaps that such solutions don't work within the dynamic and social context of modern organisations. Straub went on to say that management is most accurately conceived as a liberal art [to be understood holistically], not as a social science that can be reduced to constituent elements.
Lisa Hershman, DeNovo Group, posed the question, "How do we generate growth and ensure more people participate in it?" This was not a veiled call to embrace left-leaning socialist ideals and anti-business practices, but rather a clarion call for 'inclusive capitalism'. (I've been using an equivalent term in speeches in the last couple of years: 'capitalism with a heart'.) Hershman noted that around half of the young people in the United States say they prefer socialism over capitalism. This, she said, is a clear indication that something is wrong. Business leaders have become too focussed on themselves and shareholders, to the exclusion of others. This collapse of confidence needs to be addressed by business leaders. If it is not, companies are likely to find it increasingly difficult to recruit motivated and capable young people. Why? Because they are not interested in working for poor leaders who they do not believe in, much less aspire to.
Jenny Darroch, Dean, US Peter Drucker School, explored the essence of an effective business and societal ecosystem. She described five key interests (characteristics), namely, a functioning society, where all can participate; recognition that management is a liberal art, not a simplistic of formulaic process; that self-management is important, because neither the state nor business 'owes' people work; that performance [actually] matters; and, 'transdisciplinarity' (i.e., looking beyond the immediate context, sector, role, team) is crucial. These comments set a solid platform for what was to follow.
Hal Gregersen, MIT Leadership Center, spoke on the important topics of community and communication. He asserted that isolation is the number one enemy of innovation. The world is far too complex for one person acting alone to be effective. Leaders that sit in their office and wait for input are far less effective that the best leaders, who actively seek to reduce (to zero, if they can) barriers in pursuit of the best possible information to understand current reality and what might be possible, so as to inform effective decision-making. The best leaders also encourage dissent, inviting people to both ask and respond to uncomfortable questions, because they want to discover what is wrong and what can be improved. Asking the right questions and, importantly, getting authentic responses (but not necessarily simple answers) depends on being in the right place (read: with staff, customers, in the market) and inviting people to challenge the status quo.
Roger L. Martin, Rotman School of Management, built on Gregersen's comments by observing the prevalence of certitude (that sense of 'being right' common amongst leaders especially so-caleld alpha males and queen bees. Rather than stridently asserting preferences and blindly applying models (which are often wrong because they are simplifications of reality), Martin recommended that leaders reframe their statements as follows. "I'm modelling the world, but my model is incomplete. What can you add?" Great leaders pursue multiple models, combining and building to make something better (note, a better solution not a compromise). According to Martin, this always leads to better outcomes.
Several speakers addressed the question of whether growth is actually an imperative. No speaker spoke against growth or its optionality. Rather than almost assumed the answer is 'yes', and moved quickly to consider how growth might be achieved. Anil Gupta, for example, noted that China is responsible for 27 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and India 6.6 per cent. He opined that if India is to grow out of poverty then growth must be coloured—green—to avoid killing the very people it seeks to lift out of poverty. The recommended route is to industrialise, but to do so with smart technology to avoid the avoid the environmental mistakes (and their negative consequences) experienced by China and others.
Martin Reeves, Boston Consulting Group, added that while growth is necessary, it is beomcing increasingly elusive. As a consequence, companies operating in developed nations need to change their focus. Rather than growth at any cost, companies need to discover and pursue the right type of growth. Invoking Aristotle, Reeves observed that companies that embrace both economic and social goals (oikonomic companies) do better in the long term. Specific recommendations (boards and directors, take note) include:
Allyson Stewart-Allen, International Marketing Partners, and Julia Hobshawn, Editorial Intelligence, sounded a warning, arguing that the unfettered pursuit of connectedness—networking in pursuit prosperity, health and whatever else—has a dark side: info-besity. An over-reliance on social media networks have the unwanted effect of starving people of what actually matters: deep socail connections. People are human beings, not human doings, and social connections matter much more than activity masquerading as social connectedness. Pointedly, sustainable relationships and business sustainability is dependent on people, and their interaction and curiosity not social media. I found myself thinking, "Isn't this obvious?". Maybe so, but a quick glance around the room suggested maybe not: almost everyone within eyesight has their eyes down, using a smart device as the speakers continued.
Joseph Ogutu, Safaricon, and Haiyang Wang, China–India Institute, provided insights from a developing nation perspective. Whereas many Westerners perceive social disparity to be limited in developing nations, the reality is somewhat different. Disparity between people groups in developing nations is actually higher than in developed nations. Further, many African nations have de-industrialised since gaining independence. The speakers made strong calls for developing nations to embrace manufacturing as a means of achieving the economic growth needed to lift millions out of abject poverty. While many entrepreneurs and investors stand ready to fund initiatives, local communities need to pursue partnerships, lest they suffer new forms of dependency.
Steve Blank, entrepreneur, and Bill Fischer, IMD, observed that the pressures faced by chief executives in the twenty-first century are different from those in the twentieth century. Then, if CEOs met the expectations of their boards (however expressed) and responded to competitive pressures, then they were reasonably safe in their role. But things have become more complex since the turn of the century. Two additional forces have emerged, namely, activist investors (read: corporate raiders) and disruption. If CEOs are to respond well to this new reality, they need to become comfortable with ambiguity and chaos. Helpfully, Blank and Fischer offered four additional suggestions to enhance leadership effectiveness in the twenty-first century:
Rita Gunther McGrath, Columbia Business School, introduced the forum to a tool to help leaders and investors undertsnad the future growth prospects of any given company. The 'ImaginationPremium' is, simply, a ratio of a company's market capitalisation and value from operations. If the imagination premium is high (but not too high to become hype—Tesla), the sustainable growth is likely. Conversely, low ratios suggest growth is unlikely. The extreme case of a ratio less than 1 suggests shrinkage.
On strategy, innovation and disruption. Several speakers outlined cases to demonstrate that a coherent, longer-term strategy is actually more, not less, important in times of change and disruption. They noted that well-formed strategy, not detailed plans (often, incorrectly, called strategic plans), helps lift the gaze of both leaders and staff above immediate technologies and disruptions, to focus on purpose, the customer and longer-term goals.
General observations. Standing back a little, the investment to attend was well-spent. To be amidst giants, and chat with some of them (all were accessible and none pretentious) was a privilege and an honour—I learnt a lot. The only disappointment from my perspective concerned the speaking roster. While about 20–25 per cent of the speakers were world-class (both content and delivery), a similar percentage were disappointing. The lesser speakers either repeated what others had said, or their presentations were thinly-veiled sales pitches. Upwards of ten attendees, including some speakers, voiced similar concerns in private. My hope for future editions is that the organisers review speaker candidates more closely, to ensure a consistently high standard. Stepping beyond that, the general calibre of the forum (organisation, content, delivery) was very high. My intention is to return to Vienna in November 2018, for the the 10th edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum. Hopefully, I'll be able to share the platform, offering some insights relevant to the theme.
Unlike previous editions of the EIASM corporate governance workshop that I've attended, the 2017 keynote session was delivered by three luminaries, not one. W. Lee Howell, Bob Garratt and Tom Donaldson—men of considerable gravitas in their respective fields—led the keynote session together. Each spoke separately, and a panel discussion followed.
Lee Howell opened the session with a telling quote: "Being right too soon is socially irresponsible" (Heinlein). This quote, a reference to impetuous decision-making on the basis of seemingly-strong (and sometimes quite weak) evidence, notes a common weakness amongst strong leaders, more so in complex environments. Though not named explicitly, Howell's opening comments carried strong implications for those advocating diversity in boardrooms and other structural 'remedies'.
Howell followed by describing the efforts of the World Economic Forum (the Davos meeting in particular) to improve decision-making quality in the face of rapid change, technological advancements, globalisation and high levels of cultural and social complexity. He said that WEF is intentionally pursuing four priorities to achieve the desired outcome—these being
Howell's comments set the scene. Though provocative in the minds of some, the assertion that business is not independent from government and civil society was generally accepted across the largely academic audience. The implications for boards are not insignificant.
Bob Garratt spoke next. He opened with a strong critique—that corporate governance as we have known it is dead. Though aimed more so at the practitioner, regulator and director institute communities, this opening gambit had the effect of capturing the attention of everyone in the room. The implication, of course, is that if the understanding of corporate governance is somehow wrong, then much current research may actually be futile—a point that Garratt and I have discussed and are in strong agreement.
Whereas corporate governance was conceived as a term to describe the effective work of the board of directors as it seeks to drive business performance, Garratt noted the demise of the term, to now one closely associated with the task of compliance and the associated activity box-ticking (though this is generally denied by directors when they are interviewed). In an oblique reference to his new book, Garratt asserted that the rot must be stopped. Continuing, he noted four international trends that boards need to respond to if the value creation mandate that they can and should be pursuing is to be realised—specifically,
The third speaker was Tom Donaldson. He mounted a challenge to boards and directors, arguing that they need to embrace 'second order values thinking' as a means of moving beyond short-termism, hubris and self-centred decision-making. The critical difference between first order and second order values is that first order values tend to be non-intrinsic, whereas second order values are intrinsic. Interestingly, most management theorists think in terms of first order values.
Donaldson closed with a strong challenge. Noting that boards of directors are uniquely positioned to act on the basis of intrinsic values, openly and without double-speak, Donaldson called on boards to embrace an inclusivity, meaning to act beyond pure and unadulterated self-interest. A strong call, one Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg would both have endorsed.
Together, these three speakers' comments had the effect of shining much-needed light on the ills of normative board practices (read: corporate governance). Helpfully though, the speakers did not stop their criticism of board practice. They suggested possible solutions, and supported them with strong arguments. Directors and directors' institutes could do far worse than to investigate these ideas and test their relevance and applicability.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.