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 the performance of the board, 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. However, 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, and series of meaningful learnings to emerge. Practical guidance to help boards focus on what actually matters (company performance) is urgently needed, especially 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 (often 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.
Thoughts on corporate purpose, strategy and governance; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.