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.
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.
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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.