The storied fall from grace of Wells Fargo continues to produce fodder for both informed discussion and speculation. And rightly so. Much can be learned from this case, of a once-proud bank that started believing its own press, and then breaching ethical and legal boundaries. To maintain a fictitious facade undermines the confidence that many private citizens place in banks.
The first, and most important learning is that when trust is eroded—regardless of whether through illegal and immoral actions or more simply ineptitude—consequences typically follow. In Wells Fargo's case they have, well mostly. The bank's share price and reputation have both taken a hit: mistrust being a heavy burden.
Now, the results of an independent investigation into the fake accounts scandal have been published. The report is comprehensive (it is nearly 100 pages long). The stated goal of the investigation was to identify the root causes of "sales practice failures", so that "these issues can never be repeated and to rebuild the trust customers place in the bank". So, what was discovered?
Expectedly, operational failings were uncovered. The report lays much of the blame on the shoulders of the then chief executive, Mr Stumpf. This is appropriate because the chief executive is the person who is normally responsible for operational performance, in accordance with both approved strategy and policy. Changes to personnel and practice have been made.
What is perhaps surprising however, is what is not reported. The board does not appear to have looked in the mirror. Yes, the roles of chairman and chief executive have been separated and allocated to two different people—but what of the board's engagement in effective oversight of management? The board of directors knew of the sales practice failures as early as 2014. Remedial actions were (supposedly) taken in 2015, and management reported these were working. But who checked?
That the board knew about the problem and remedial actions were supposedly taken is clear. What is far less clear is whether the board satisfied itself that the actions had in fact been taken and/or that the desired effects had been achieved. Sadly this is not uncommon. That the board trusted management, and blindly so it would seem, does not excuse the board from the consequences of the scandal that followed.
The board-commissioned independent review has shone the light brightly on management. Problems have been identified and actions taken. This is good. Now, one significant step remains: the board should have a good long look in the mirror.
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.
Corporate governance—the concept and the practice—has been the subject of much debate over the past two or three decades, especially as researchers, shareholders and the public have sought to make sense of the extent and meaning of the term and the appropriate role of the board.
A cacophony of ideas and understandings have now pervaded our academies and directors' institutes (including that the scope of corporate governance extends well beyond the boardroom to include the whole of the organisation). As a concequence, the appropriate role of the board is not clear. Is it one of oversight and control, or is the pursuit of performance more important? The answer to this question is dependent on one other: What exactly is corporate governance? Many directors have become confused about these questions and, as a result, the appropriate role and contribution of the board.
Thankfully, a straightforward answer is at hand.
The term 'corporate governance' was coined just 56 years ago by Richard Eells, an academic. He used the term to describe "the structure and functioning of the corporate polity" (the board of directors). Sir Adrian Cadbury added that corporate governance is "the means by which companies are directed and controlled". In other words, corporate governance is an overarching term to encapsulate what boards (should) do as corporate goals are pursued. Corporate governance frameworks (such as those proposed by Tricker and Garratt) provide the underlying detail: they describe how the board should steer and guide the company it is responsible for governing.
Directors expecting to make effective contributions in 2017 and beyond would be well-advised to consider this what–how distinction very carefully: a common (and agreed) understanding is crucial if the board is to work harmoniously and decision-making is to be effective.
The 13th edition of the Corporate Governance Workshop convened by the European Institute of Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM) was hosted by SDA Bocconi in Milano, Italy. Approximately 50 leading thinkers and researchers from over 20 countries gathered to explore emerging trends in the fields of board practice and corporate governance. Nearly 50 presentations were accepted onto the two-day programme. Highlights from three of the papers presented on the first day are summarised here (highlights from the second day are posted in a separate summary):
In sum, the day revealed a mix of interesting insights and concerns. In particular, one long-held concern (that many researchers continue to conduct research based on the analysis of publicly-available quantitative data) was upheld. Why researchers continue to investigate boards and corporate governance from a distance (outside the boardroom) is a mystery to me. If we are to truly understand what boards do, how decisions are made and influence is exerted by boards from and beyond the boardroom, then researchers need to adopt the recommendations of others: that direct observations are crucial to the gaining of reliable insights.
You must give newly appointed Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer Tim Sloan credit. No sooner had disgraced former CEO John Stumpf left the building, Sloan delivered a speech to all employees to apologise for the scandal that had beset the company. That Sloan delivered an apology is a good first step on the path towards redemption (the company boasts a long and proud history), even though "we're sorry for the pain" appears to be an apology for the angst employees faced rather than the fake accounts action itself.
Two things are especially notable in this case:
That Stumpf's (and now Sloan's) boss has both remained silent and appointed from within is very telling.
(Note to the Wells Fargo board: If you want to talk further, in total confidence, here are my contacts details.)
South Africa's flag carrier, South African Airways, has hit turbulence. Severe turbulence. The airline, which is in financial trouble as a result, most probably, of some poor decisions in the past, has been negotiating a debt refinancing package. However, the package reportedly contains some unusual characteristics (read: extremely high fees). Now, a staff member has blown the whistle; the board has been called out; and, the matter is being investigated.
Even a cursory inspection suggests that something is amiss, and badly so. Problems that seem to stem from poor decision-making at the top of the organisation appear to be endemic. Whether the underlying driver is greed, hubris, corruption, ineptitude or something else remains to be seen. Regardless, South African Airways is in trouble. The board appears to be missing in action and the 'corruption' word has been mentioned making situation very messy, to say the least.
Sadly, SAA is not an isolated case. Recently, Sir Philip Green fell from grace; and, it was not that long ago that FIFA, Toshiba and Volkswagen suffered 'setbacks'. It's little wonder that hard working people have any time for boards of directors. The sources of governance failure are well-storied. However, the natural response—hard law—has done little to improve things (because people who want to generally find their way around things that inhibit them). Different measures are required, perhaps starting with culture, values and purpose. Board appointment processes also need to change. Unless and until 'bad eggs' are exorcised from boardrooms and held to account, the actions of a few will, no doubt, continue to make life hard for the rest of the director community.
It had to happen. Someone just asked one of 'those' questions. Should boards of directors communicate with shareholders? Great question Lex Suvanto! You can read his blog post here. Amongst his comments, Suvanto makes two quite startling observations:
Many directors are passionately against the idea of engaging directly with shareholders.
Directors also correctly point out that the board should not say anything out of step with management anyway, so they question the value of this effort, especially given limited available time that directors can devote.
These observations, and others in the article raise important supplementary questions about how boards conceive their role and the mindset of directors—including these:
Ultimately, appropriate responses to these questions are straightforward if boards understand the statutory framework and directors have a clear understanding of both why boards exist and what boards (should) do (i.e., corporate governance).
Directors are appointed by shareholders to ensure the effective operation of the company, in accordance with shareholder wishes (whatever they might be). If the senior-most decision-maker in the company is the board, is it not reasonable to expect the board to both understand what the shareholders want from their investment and subsequently provide an account to those that put them there? I think so. Suvanto's article contains some helpful suggestions to get started. I'm available if you want to chat further.
News emerged today that many FTSE 250 company boards had made no contingency plans for a possible #Brexit decision. As Alice Korngold notes in her article, this highlights serious deficiencies in relation to risk management, board process and board composition. Korngold is right to challenge boards on this exposure. But does Korngold go far enough? Most of the concerns expressed are framed in the context of a traditional understanding of boards and corporate governance: monitoring the executive and managing various risks.
Directors carry important duties, to the company and shareholders. In addition to acting in the company's best interests, directors have an important responsibility to deliver value to shareholders (in whatever form might be agreed). This means that monitoring the executive and managing risks is insufficient. More is required. Boards also need to make important decisions to set the company on a path towards a desired future state.
An increasing percentage of directors say they are involved in strategy (read the surveys), suggesting boards do take their responsibilities seriously. However, observations of boards in session (i.e., board meetings) suggests that a gap exists between claimed and actual behaviour. Korngold's commentary adds to those concerns. That some boards are not performing the 'basics' of monitoring performance and managing risk adequately—let alone driving future performance—is problematic. What confidence can shareholders have that boards are considering strategic options and determining an appropriate strategy to achieve the company's purpose? The bluff and bravado that has permeated the discourse needs to be replaced with an authentic commitment to drive business performance. Is this too much to ask?
Looking to the future, if the result of the British plebiscite does little more than motivate boards to take the future performance of the company more seriously, then it will have been a worthwhile exercise. Until then, Barton and Wiseman's observations are likely to remain—sadly—resoundingly accurate.
One of the biggest shake-ups to confront the Western World (since the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall anyway) occurred in the United Kingdom last week. The result of a much anticipated plebiscite was a decision by the British people to leave the EU. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the flow of information became a cacophony as politicians, scaremongers and other 'experts' promoted various positions, in an effort to influence to voting public.
Finally, the day arrived and the people voted. Soon, the results were published. The people had spoken. Some cheered while others mourned. Curiously, some reacted by rueing their decision, wondering whether they had voted wisely. Really? With a straightforward question to answer and a plethora of information to hand, how could anyone make the 'wrong' choice (unless they didn't vote, of course)? Is this reaction an outpouring of buyer's remorse on a national scale, or is something else going on—an indication that some did not take the decision seriously or that a dose of hubris clouded the better judgement of some voters perhaps?
The British plebiscite highlights a behavioural weakness that besets many people. From an early age, we spend our lives learning as much as we can, aspiring to become experts in whatever field interests us. Most of us want to excel; to realise our potential. In our haste to make decisions and get ahead, we tend to embrace new ideas and disregard 'old' ones. If we can secure an advantage, we'll take it—thank you very much. But when it comes to big decisions, we may not be as smart as we think we are. Decisions that are based on politically-motivated or emotion-filled pleas, or knee-jerk responses seldom deliver the 'best' outcome.
Often, the best decisions are those made after we have paused and looked back, for guidance about how best to move forward. Whether we are cast as leaders or followers, we could do far worse than to seek out people like Bill and Augusto, sit with them and, having asked them a question, listen intently to what they have to say. Our challenge, having sat and listened, is to act on the wisdom passed to us.
News has emerged from Volkswagen this week that the board has proposed that shareholders formally approve the work of the company's top management team. Wow, I'm amazed. Isn't that the board's job?
The board exists as a decision-making proxy for absent shareholders and, in so doing, the board should provide oversight of management including of its work. Regular board meetings and other board–management interactions provide the appropriate forum for this reporting, verification and monitoring to occur. In contrast, annual meetings provide a forum for the board and management to provide an account of the resultant company performance to the shareholders.
That the Volkswagen board of directors is recommending that the work of management is approved by the shareholders creates the impression that the board is not doing its job of overseeing management adequately. While this could be an obfuscation (following the trouble the board and management found itself in over the emissions scandal), if the board is attempting to shift responsibility (for oversight of management away from the board) it needs to be called out. The shareholders then need to determine whether the current board is delivering value or simply defending a position—it's own.
Thoughts on corporate purpose, strategy and governance; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.