Bob Tricker just did it again.
Long the doyen of corporate governance (Sir Adrian Cadbury used the term "father of corporate governance"), Tricker has just posted this article, a stinging critique of several emergent ideas that, through repetitive use, have permeated thinking and are becoming accepted as conventional wisdom. Risk, culture and diversity are singled out as populist memes. Yet robust evidence to support the notion that any of these memes are directly contributory to effective governance—let alone company performance—in any predictable manner is yet to emerge. Tricker's timing is, once again, exemplary.
Thankfully, Tricker offers far more than a straightforward critique. He reminds readers that the purpose of the board of directors is to govern:
The governance of a company includes overseeing the formulation of its strategy and policy making, supervision of executive performance, and ensuring corporate accountability.
The purpose of a profit-oriented company is also made clear (a point famously made by Friedman):
To create wealth, by providing employment, offering opportunities to suppliers, satisfying customers , and meeting shareholders' expectations.
In calling out this matter, Tricker has hit the nail on the head—the effect of which is to place those motivated by the promulgation of unfounded memes in a rather awkward position. I am with Tricker; our understanding of corporate governance needs to be reset. Rather than pursue new memes (a perfectly adequate definition was established over fifty years ago), boards need to discover how to practice corporate governance effectively. Tricker (Corporate governance: Principles, policies and practices), Garratt (The fish rots from the head) and a few others provide excellent guidance as to how this might be achieved.
(Disclosure: The two books named in this article are the ones that I refer to most often when working with boards. I commend them to you.)
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.
Just over twelve months ago (6 January 2016 to be exact), I wrote this muse, a reflection on both the state of corporate governance and the usage of the term. At that time, confusion over the use of the term 'corporate governance' was common, and the profession of director was shadowed somewhat by several high profile failures and missteps. The blog post seemed to hit a nerve, triggering tens of thousands of page views and searches within Musings; many hundreds of comments, questions, debates and challenges (including some from people who took personal offence that the questions were even asked); and, speaking requests from around the world. That many people were asking whether corporate governance had hit troubled waters and were searching for answers to improve board effectiveness was reassuring.
That was twelve months ago. How much progress has been made since?
At the macro level, seismic geo-political decisions; the rise of populism and the diversity agenda; and, risks of many types, especially terrorism and cyber-risk have altered the landscape. Also, new governance codes and regulations have been introduced to provide boundaries and guidance to boards. Yet amongst the changing landscape something has remained remarkably constant: the list of corporate failures or significant missteps emanating, seemingly, from the boardroom continues to grow unabated. Wynyard Group and Wells Fargo are two recent additions; there are many others.
Sadly, companies and their boards continue to fail despite good practice recommendations in the form of governance codes and (supposedly) increasing levels of awareness of what constitutes good practice. This is a serious problem: it suggests that, despite the best efforts of many, progress has been limited. Clearly, ideas and recommendations are not in short supply, but what of their efficacy—do they address root causes or only the symptoms? And what of the behaviours and motivations of directors themselves, and the board's commitment to value creation (cf. value protection or, worse still, reputation protection)?
That the business landscape is and will continue to be both complex and ever-changing is axiomatic. If progress is to be made, shareholders need to see tangible results (a reasonable expectation, don't you think?), for which the board is responsible. If the board is to provide effective steerage and guidance, it needs to be discerning, pursuing good governance practices over spurious recommendations that address symptoms or populist ideals. How might this be achieved?
An important priority for boards embarking on this journey towards effectiveness and good governance is to reach agreement on terminology, culture, the purpose of the company and the board's role in achieving the agreed purpose. If agreement can be reached, at least then the board will have a solid foundation upon which to assess options, make strategic decisions and, ultimately, pursue performance.
After initially standing strong, sustained lobbying and public commentary seems to have had an affect on British Prime Minister, Theresa May. News has emerged that the PM has backed down on an earlier pledge to introduce 'employee directors'. This is an interesting development. The Institute of Directors and unions (understandably) were supportive of the proposal. However, many business leaders expressed wonderment.
Corporate governance has entered troubled waters, without question. But to suggest or even believe that structural changes might lead to better outcomes, without considering the function of boards holistically is short-sighted, at best—regardless of what any enquiry might determine. But let us not pre-empt the process now underway. The political process owes as much, to its constituency and, more generally, to the British economy. What do you think?
In 1970, Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock was published. It quickly became a bestseller. Toffler died recently, triggering a series of articles and reflections (including this one published in the New York Times) about his life and 'the book'. Toffler had an amazing ability to look well ahead of almost all of us, to think critically, and to make some sense of it all. Consider these observations by Manjoo in his reflection:
Alvin Toffler ... warned that the accelerating pace of technological change would soon make us all sick.
Yet in rereading Mr. Toffler’s book, as I did last week, it seems clear that his diagnosis has largely panned out, with local and global crises arising daily from our collective inability to deal with ever-faster change.
That societies are racing with great speed to embrace new ideas and innovations, yet without the ability to cope with the consequences of high rates of change, might be one of the great problems of our age. Perhaps those in influential positions in society have a responsibility to shift their gaze, from their own ambitions towards altruistic ideas that serve the greater good? This is by no means a call to embrace utopian principles nor uniformity because we are all different. Much pragmatism is needed if society is to continue to endure.
Leaders—of all types but especially business leaders, company directors, politicians and academics—could do well by (re)reading Future Shock. We need to talk about stuff, because we all have much to learn.
Recently, I had the privilege of addressing several groups of directors and executives in Brisbane, Australia on the topic of emerging governance trends. Over 200 directors of family and privately-held companies attended breakfast and dinner events hosted by TCB Solutions, Hanrick Curran and AMPLiFi Governance. The talks and the panel discussion that followed provided a candid summary of some of the challenges boards face and offered suggestions to guide boards intent on achieving high performance and good returns to shareholders.
The dinner event was recorded. Clips of my talk (in two parts) and the panel discussion (in three parts) that followed are now available:
If you have a question or a comment arising from these clips, or want to discuss the possibility of me speaking at an event or sharing ideas directly with your board, please get in touch. I'd be delighted to hear from you.
The matter of diversity in corporate boardrooms has been the topic of much debate in recent years. Some people have claimed that the die is cast: that the presence of women (or some other group) in the boardroom leads to increased business performance. Others are less convinced. I have contributed to the debate on a few occasions, both as a panelist and in print. You can read some of my comments here and here, or use the search box to find other articles on diversity.
While the debate goes on in the trenches, some commentators have begun to stand back, to offer a more holistic perspective. Jeff Jacoby, for example, has just written this article, published in the The Boston Globe. His balanced summary highlights various aspects of the debate. Two sentences stand out:
"The evidence that more female board members means higher corporate profits is murky at best."
"Either way, what no study has managed to nail down is causation."
With these comments and others in the article, Jacoby has put his finger on the core of the issue. Board effectiveness (especially any relationship between board attributes and subsequent firm performance) is a complex issue. No one structure, composition or set of behaviours fits all situations (much less all companies).
Looking ahead, the challenge is two-fold. First, everyone who is interested and capable of making an effective contribution in the boardroom needs to be encouraged to offer themselves as a serious director candidate. Shareholders (or their nomination committees) need to work hard to find and appoint the best candidates—regardless of any physical attribute or notional diversity variable. The ability to govern well in the team environment must be the compelling basis of assessment. Second, the rhetoric needs to continue to mature, beyond the blunt instrument of observable characteristics to focus the subtleties of what actually matters—the capabilities of directors (individually and collectively) and the quality of boardroom interaction and debate as boards consider options; make strategic decisions; and, pursue performance goals in the context of the agreed purpose of the company.
Is the diversity discourse that has pervaded board and shareholder discussions in recent years showing signs of maturing? It seems to be. Thankfully, most correspondents have moved past blunt claims—including that the presence of <diversity variable> leads directly (i.e., causative) to increased firm performance. While researchers have demonstrated that the presence of women on boards, for example, has been associated with more civil language and higher levels of engagement and critical thought, direct links to firm performance remain elusive. The reality is far more subtle: many underlying factors affect performance—some occurring inside the boardroom and some outside.
While progress is being made, concerns over the motivations of 'diversity' proponents remain. Is the goal to achieve increased board effectiveness (however that might be measured), or is a political or social agenda being played out? The challenge of selecting the 'best' company directors is far too important to be left in the hands of those with political or social agendas. I know several white male directors (all of known are highly qualified and eminently suitable as company directors) who have been told they do not meet notional diversity criteria.
How should directors be selected? One option might be to base your decision on guidance provided by Warren Buffett (see Berkshire Hathaway's 2006 Annual Report):
In selecting a new director, we were guided by our long-standing criteria, which are that board members be owner-oriented, business-savvy, interested and truly independent. I say “truly” because many directors who are now deemed independent by various authorities and observers are far from that, relying heavily as they do on directors’ fees to maintain their standard of living.
Charlie and I believe our four criteria are essential if directors are to do their job – which, by law, is to faithfully represent owners. Yet these criteria are usually ignored. Instead, consultants and CEOs seeking board candidates will often say, “We’re looking for a woman,” or “a Hispanic,” or “someone from abroad,” or what have you. It sometimes sounds as if the mission is to stock Noah’s ark. Over the years I’ve been queried many times about potential directors and have yet to hear anyone ask, “Does he think like an intelligent owner?”
Enough said, don't you think?
I'm looking forward to looking forward with some great Australian leaders in Brisbane, QLD on Thu 19 May.
I'll be talking about emerging trends including the board's role in value creation; the importance of setting a clear purpose for the business; board involvement in strategy; how to drive performance through the chief executive, in reality; and, telling a few stories along the way. Look forward to seeing you there!
Two events have been scheduled on Thu 19 May: breakfast and dinner. The breakfast event is almost booked out. However, some seats at the dinner event are still available. If you want to hear about emerging trends in governance and board practice, and their application in a family business context, click here to read more information and to register.
One of the great joys of being an independent advisor is the opportunity to spend time with people from a wide range of backgrounds; business and social experiences; walks of life; and, in my case, countries and cultures. The depth and breadth of humanity never ceases to amaze me. Paradoxically, a common thread runs amongst the diversity: people who are keen to improve organisational effectiveness and make a difference spend lots of time asking questions, lots of questions.
When questions asked from the floor after a public talk; as part of a formal advisory engagement; or, during a professional development workshop, a confidential discussion with a director or an informal chat, something mysterious happens. Both parties learn! That's because no one has all the answers. Often the person asking the question has the answer (but may not realise it) or part of the answer at least (and it needs to be integrated with some information from elsewhere). This is how we learn.
If you would like to pose a question, about any aspect of corporate governance, strategic management or a related topic, please use the comment link here or, if you prefer, send an email. I'd be delighted to respond. Let's learn together.
Thoughts on corporate purpose, strategy and governance; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.